Hammer’s copycat Quatermass picture stands apart from similar ‘mystery sci-fi monster’ thrillers by virtue of its serious tone and realistic presentation. Talk about a sober semi-docu style: there are no major female roles and the leading character is a mass of radioactive mud. (Is there an election year joke in that?) Hammer found a new writer in Jimmy Sangster, imported the Yankee name actor Dean Jagger, tried to hire the expatriate director Joseph Losey. Former child actor Anthony Newley has a small part, but he doesn’t get to sing X’s theme song: “Who can I turn to, when nobody needs me, because the flesh is melting from my skull?”
X The Unknown
1956 / B&W / 1:75 widescreen / 80 81? min. / X…the Unknown / Street Date February 18, 2020
Starring: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern, Anthony Newley, William Lucas, Michael Ripper.
Cinematography: Gerald Gibbs
Film Editor: Philip Leakey
Makeup: James Needs
Original Music: James Bernard
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Produced by Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds
Directed by Leslie Norman
Val Guest said his game plan to make Hammer’s breakout sci-fi hit The Quatermass Xperiment feel real was to emulate a documentary look. He was likely following the lead of the Boulting Bros. tense thriller Seven Days to Noon, from five years before. No Hammer fan needs to be told that the company desired an instant Quatermass-like followup picture. The young production assistant Jimmy Sangster got the nod to write the story; Hammer even asked Quatermass scribe Nigel Kneale for permission to use the character name. The resulting X The Unknown is a Quatermass picture in style and mood, but not officially.
Joseph Losey had prepared the film — the excellent casting is said to be his doing — but he was shown the door when star Dean Jagger refused to work with a blacklisted director. Along with his fellows Jules Dassin and John Berry, Losey was a target of State Department reprisals. All three directors would try to make pictures in Europe, only to be fired when their Italian and French producers came under fire from Hollywood commie hunters. Losey did direct a thirty-minute short subject for Hammer called A Man on the Beach (also written by Jimmy Sangster), using his real name instead of one of his blacklist substitutes ‘Joseph Walton’ and ‘Victor Hanbury.’ Olive Films graced us with Losey’s problem-ridden Italian thriller Stranger on the Prowl starring Paul Muni, but I’ve heard nothing about resurrecting Losey’s little-known Hammer short.
Frankly, we got the better of the deal, when Losey returned to Hammer five years later to direct the superlative (These Are) the Damned.
1956 was definitely a boom time for the boys at Bray. Their first Technicolor gothic horror was in the works, the success of which would kick them into the big leagues. Instead of a partnership with the low-end producer Robert Lippert, the company was soon able to leverage co-production deals with every Hollywood studio.
Jimmy Sangster’s shapeless ‘mud monster’ for X The Unknown proved almost as influential as Nigel Kneale’s mutating Astronaut in Xperiment — who also ended up as a disgusting near-shapeless monster. In the next three years, similar protoplasm monsters would ooze from the popular cinema worldwide: America (The Blob), Japan (The H-Man) and Italy (Caltiki, il mostro immortale). In both sci-fi and gothic horror, Hammer productions set the pace. In the beginning, their marketing sense was unbeatable. The title X The Unknown had been chosen to again capitalize on the the English censors’ Adults only rating, Certificate X.
Sangster’s story is tailored to Hammer’s budgetary limitations — spectacular scenes are kept to a bare minimum. At a Scottish atom research establishment, Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger of Twelve O’Clock High) is conducting unauthorized experiments with radio waves; he believes he’s found a way to neutralize radioactivity. A muddy Y-shaped gash erupts in a nearby quarry used by the army for training, and a young soldier (Kenneth Cope of These Are the Damned) is burned to death by an unseen radiation source. Inspector McGill (Leo McKern of The Day the Earth Caught Fire) joins Royston in the search for the mystery killer, which soon adds a young boy, two more soldiers and a philandering hospital intern to its tally of victims. From the evidence available to him, Royston proposes a preposterous-sounding theory that nevertheless proves to be dead-on accurate: a primordial life-form has risen from within the Earth to feed on radiation. Lying dormant for eons, it has been attracted to the surface by the new sources of sustenance created by man’s nuclear energy activities. After assaulting Royston’s reactor and consuming its fuel rods, the wave of deadly radioactive mud flows back to the crack on the test range. As the army’s weapons are useless against the shapeless thing, only Royston’s radio theories have a chance of stopping it.
X The Unknown shapes up as an efficient, subdued monster thriller. Jimmy Sangster’s formulaic script refines the ingredients for a mystery monster threat: a rural setting and potential victims that include an adorable child, a colorful old coot, and illicit lovers. In The Quatermass Xperiment a dishonest hospital orderly had helped turn loose a terrible monster. In this show, an opportunistic technician is using the radiation room for a romantic quickie, a la Chayefsky’s The Hospital. Did Hammer have something against The National Health?
The beginnings of the Hammer horror stock company is present in the person of the capable Michael Ripper. We presume that Joseph Losey’s theatrical connections nabbed the services of the prestigious Edward Chapman (Things to Come), and perhaps Anthony Newley for his brief role. The great Leo McKern is here; Losey would soon gift him a plum role in his anti- capital punishment drama Time Without Pity. Compared to U.S. sci-fi thrillers like The Magnetic Monster the mood is refreshingly hysteria-free. As directed by Leslie Norman, Sangster’s characters remain professionally calm and unflappable; even the usually brash McKern is here a creampuff. The downside is that some of the supporting players, like William Lucas’s Peter Elliott, come off as colorless.
The bald and glamour-challenged Dean Jagger has a screen persona that speaks integrity, which can’t really be said for Hammer’s first Quatermass, Brian Donlevy. Jagger had won a Supporting Oscar for Twelve O’Clock High. He holds the center of this undemanding film with effortless ease. Confronted with this stack of conflicting clues, Gene Barry and Richard Carlson would respond by rambling off crackpot technobabble. Jagger’s Dr. Royston simply snaps that he doesn’t know what’s going on, and that’s that. When pressed, Royston eventually does offer a whopper of a theory in a speech that begins with the Matinee– worthy chestnut ‘When the Earth was forming eons ago…’ Edward Chapman’s impatient bureaucrat even speaks up to urge Royston to ‘cut to the chase.’
So sober is the situation, we don’t notice that Royston’s speech could easily play as comedy. What if X The Unknown is really a dream being experienced by Dan Jefferson, the deranged superpatriot that Dean Jagger played in Leo McCarey’s bizarre My Son John? Like Joseph Losey, Dan’s dangerous Commie son (Robert Walker) has been forced to leave the country, and Dan dreams that he’s followed him to England to put an end to his reign of terror. The setup makes poetic sense: for a McCarthy-loving American of the 1950s, the terms ‘Shifty Red Traitor’ and ‘radioactive living slime’ would be interchangeable.
Radioactivity quickly became a buzzword in American science fiction, often grossly misrepresented, and repeatedly evoked to motivate any number of ‘fifties monsters. X The Unknown is unusual in that its subject is radiation, and little else. Unlike the American movies that soft-pedaled the side effects of the growing nuclear industry (GOG), Sangster exaggerates the dangers of radiation burns. Real victims of horrible early-era nuclear accidents did indeed bloat and rupture internally — the effect of exposure to intense radiation has been described as being microwaved, but with an extreme sunburn effect that fries tissue right down to the bone. The luckless victims of X swell like sponges and melt like popsicles in a blast furnace.
When finally depicted the living slime makes quite an impact, galloping across a field and pushing through stone walls. We only get three or four brief looks at it in action, and only one shot fails to convince, when it tangles with some power lines achieved with cartoon animation. The other shots use mattes and a couple of very convincing rear-projection setups. The slime is almost as understated as the film’s acting, and all the more menacing for being so banal: the mass of deadly ook offers less personality than the gelatinous Blob, the candy-colored H-Man or the visceral tub ‘o guts that calls itself Caltiki. At one point Sangster has a priest snatch a toddler from out of the monster’s path, a gag he later repurposed for a jeopardy highlight in his feature adaptation of the TV play The Trollenberg Terror, aka The Crawling Eye.
The only setting in X that seems inadequate is Royston’s personal lab. It’s supposed to be makeshift, but a piece of Plexiglas just doesn’t serve as a radiation shield, and his radiation- suppressing ‘radar’ scanners look like something a child might build with an Erector Set. When Royston uses a little mechanical crane to retrieve an isotope from a lead box, he looks like a kid at Coney Island, trying to grapple a stuffed animal out of an arcade game.
There are almost no women in Sangster’s slim story, an oversight that gives credence to Peter Hutchings’ cultural-critical analysis of X The Unknown. Hutchings scores some good observations about weak English heroes and dominating female monsters in Hammer’s gothic output, but his contrasting of The Quatermass Xperiment and X the Unknown would seem a joke for symbol-happy semiologists. For Hutchings, Xperiment’s phallic rocket, sticking up out of a foggy farmyard, is complimented by X’s vaginal gash in the Earth, a Terran womb that unleashes the ultimate ‘Earth Mother’ monster. That observation does evoke a certain logic, but it can’t help but remind us of the gleefully combative outer space creatures in Francis Coppola’s patchwork Battle Beyond the Sun. The wise-acre tyro director intentionally shaped the Martian monsters like male and female sex organs, a revelation that makes their featured presence on Battle‘s poster look all the more bizarre.
Or perhaps Coppola’s in-joke proves the validity of Hutchings’ interpretation, and this prudish, repressed reviewer prefers his science fiction monsters impotent and barren. At one point the Scottish Army attempts to suppress the obscene X by inserting explosives into its ‘crack’ and sealing it with cement. Even a lazy extrapolation of the Hutchings thought process would imply that the stodgy military, still operating in sexual denial, is trying to fit Mother Nature with a concrete chastity belt!
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of X The Unknown does its best to keep pace with the extravagant extras seen on Hammer Blu-rays coming out of the U.K.. The source for this scan appears to be the same as that used for Anchor Bay’s DVD from way back in the summer of 2000. It carries a fuzzy, still-framed Warners’ logo, which sits there for a full 17 seconds before dissolving to the starring credit card. Perhaps the U.K. original carried separate text cards crediting Hammer, Exclusive, and the distributor?
Could the English original have been a minute or so longer, as listed in some records? The (U.S.) version we see here is 79 and 34 seconds, and we certainly see no glaring splice breaks that might indicate where something was removed. If anything, the shots of melting victims seem more complete than what we saw on TV as kids. For the record the BFCC lists a running time of 79 minutes, 31 seconds.
The body of the show looks very, very good, with a sharp and textured rendering of Gerald Gibbs’ B&W cinematography, from the icy mud of the quarry to the chilly forest where that unfortunate kid encounters ‘X’ in the dark of the night. Makeup fabricator Phillip Leakey’s graphic cutaways to melting victims deliver a dose of shock & gore that was rather strong for ’56. I should ask slightly older friends that may have seen it, if kids in the audience screamed at the sight of a gate guard dissolving right down to his skull.
James Bernard scores ‘X’ with the same nervous string compositions heard in the two Quatermass pictures, an excellent choice. Actually, the Quatermass scores use strings + percussion, while X is strings-only. Bernard’s violin section shifts into a more sympathetic register for the scenes with the child victim in the hospital, a mood not attempted in the official Quatermass entries, with their breakneck thriller pacing.
Ted Newsom contributed to audio commentaries for Anchor Bay’s old Hammer sci-fi DVDs, and he’s back with a new talk track for this edition. Ted has plenty of facts to dispense, the straight dope for newbies and some inside info for the better informed. His casual remarks also offer a full dose of Newsom opinions, such as slighting Joseph Losey with the aside that his remake of ‘M’ was just an ‘okay’ job. We get a primer on the blacklist years. Ted doubts that Dean Jagger could possibly demand to have a director fired, when a denunciation by almost anyone might have had that result. Zsa Zsa Gabor is said to have prevented a director (John Berry?) from being hired for a French movie. Hollywood commie hunters and even U.S. Ambassador Claire Booth Luce pressured European producers to cut business ties with the exiled directors. Losey’s case is fairly well established:
“At the final hour, Losey backed out, complaining of ill health, though (Jimmy) Sangster intimates that the American star of the piece, Dean Jagger, declined to work with someone tainted, as was Losey, by the blacklist.”
With the observation that plenty of established movie ‘history’ has indeed proved to be apocryphal, Ted tells us that RKO producer Sol Lesser or actor Edward Chapman might have had something to do with Losey’s firing too. The glib and affable commentary delivery does take some odd turns. After sympathizing with Michael Ripper for having to suffer a condescending director, we think, how good for Ted to stick up for the actors. Then he dismisses the actor playing opposite Anthony Newley by basically saying, ‘what’s his name, who cares?’ When describing Newley’s great talent, Ted sings a measure of a Newley song… it’s that kind of anything goes commentary.
A newcomer to disc added-value extras is Richard Klemensen, the long-time expert who publishes the specialized Hammerphile magazine Little Shoppe of Horrors. Klemensen’s piece is a 20-minute overview of writer Jimmy Sangster, who he knew personally. Illustrated with an abundant selection of stills, the featurette is equal parts information and nostalgic memories. Surprisingly, Sangster’s work as a novelist is not mentioned. This is supposed to the first of 7 or 8 Klemensen pieces for future Scream Factory discs.
An original U.K. Trailer is a third extra — and it carries an RKO credit. Distribution for the film in different territories was apparently split between RKO and Warners, and a poster bearing the RKO logo appears in the Klemensen featurette.
Written with aid from Gary Teetzel.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
X The Unknown
Movie: Good +
Supplements: Featurette-docu on Jimmy Sangster with Richard Klemensen, produced by Constantine Nasr; ‘World of Hammer’ episode ‘Sci Fi,’ Original UK trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 13, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Joe Dante on X!: