Hammer Sci-Fi: X the Unknown (1956)

Written by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Leslie Norman
Starring Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern, Anthony Newley
US Release May, 1957
RT 81 min.
Home Video Anchor Bay
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)


Warning: review contains plot spoilers; ending of movie revealed.

Released in the United States less than a year after The Quatermass Xperiment, I’m compelled to compare X the Unknown with its predecessor, even though the two movies are really quite different.  The former is probably better known and is a good resource for examples of how the latter is inferior.  Where the “Xperiment” was fast-paced and exciting, sometimes at the expense of logical explanation, “X” is slow-moving and talky, never quite effective at building the suspense for a credible threat.

Filmed with “cooperation from the war office,” as a mid-opening credits intertitle tells us, X the Unknown is made with the military precision it suggests.  Instead of a quick, thrilling opening such as the one offered by The Quatermass Xperiment, soldiers on a training exercise meticulously search a pit with Geiger counters, discovering “very good” readings where there shouldn’t be any.  Several minutes later, water bubbles, the ground splits, and a thunderous explosion comes from inside the fissure.

The soldiers nearby are badly burned and the one closest to the blast site, Sapper Lansing (Kenneth Cope) is killed.  Although there’s no radioactivity at the site subsequent to the incident, it’s time to call in Professor Quatermass, I mean Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger).  Roysten isn’t as big a personality as Quatermass, although he seems impatient at times when expressing his uncertainty about what’s happening.  “Peter, I’m not getting at anything.  I just don’t know.”

Peter Elliott (William Lucas) is Roysten’s go-to guy and the son of his boss, John Elliott (Edward Chapman).  Later, he’ll take daring action to both investigate the fissure and save the world, but for now he’s torn between the intentions of his two elders.  Roysten shares his theories with Peter, while John discourages his son from getting into danger.  The dynamic is subtle and I’ve probably made more of it in this paragraph than the movie does in its entire 81-minute running time.

When two boys play in a nearby marsh and one is exposed to a terrifying off-camera sight that results in deadly first degree radiation burns, the investigation of something that crawled out of the fissure kicks into high gear.  Inspector “Mac” McGill (Leo McKern) arrives from the Atomic Energy Commission and acts as the audience’s proxy for receiving information when Peter is off being a hero.  Roysten and company come to the conclusion that the threat is an entity feeding on radioactivity.

Although we don’t see this entity for a good, long time, its victims appear horrified as the camera slowly zooms in on their faces from its point of view.  The resulting carnage is quite graphic (and the special effects are quite good), featuring melting faces and shriveled hands.  Roysten states the obvious when arriving at one location to find only a torn hat, “Looks like we’re too late.”  Since this unknown “thing” inexplicably appears and disappears, they believe it can take any shape it wants to.

At this point, Roysten suggests a meeting because he’s “developed an idea about what we’re dealing with.”  I won’t share the details here; instead, I’ll summarize to say the more it feeds, the more it will grow.  Met with skepticism (John calls it “absolute rubbish”), Roysten answers with his regular defensive impatience, “I’m not trying to tell you anything, I’m just putting forward a theory.”  There’s talk of destroying it, but Royston asks, “How are you going to do that?”

The military’s answer is to attack the fissure with flamethrowers and explosives, then cover it with concrete.  They’re proud of this simple solution and indicate that Roysten’s “type” requires a plan to be complicated in order for it to work.  It’s not necessarily complicated, but Roysten does ask, “How do you kill mud?”  Yes, we finally learn the monster is intelligent, radioactive mud… a black and white ancestor of The Blob, which will ooze from a meteor 15 months later in the United States.

Once this is revealed and “X” squeezes out of a crack in the fissure’s concrete, it’s not really as silly as it sounds.  There are some interesting optical effects, a few that I’m guessing involve miniatures.  If the creature itself isn’t scary, the results of its attacks are: more melting bodies and charred, smoking cars.  When it approaches the Lochmouth Atomic Energy Laboratory for “the biggest meal of its life,” the team believes it can lure it back to the fissure using cobalt from the facility.

On the way, it travels through town, causing residents to take refuge inside a church… except for the toddler who someone forgets outside and who almost has a close encounter with “X” in a cemetery.  With everything they need at the fissure (?), Roysten gets to put his giant anti-radiation scanners to use.  The scenes leading to the finale drag longer than they did in The Quatermass Experiment, yet more seems to be happening.  Perhaps that’s due to the direction by Leslie Norman.

With a script by Jimmy Sangster, X the Unknown attempts more humor in the dialogue than The Quatermass Xperiment.  I say “attempts,” because it’s rarely ever funny.  However, probably not meant to be, the final lines are unintentionally hilarious.  Following an additional explosion, someone asks, “What was that?”  Roysten replies, “I don’t know.  It shouldn’t have happened.”  Oh, well, he’s comforted anyway with these words, “It’s gone.  You should be very happy.”

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