22 July 2011



1957/Director: Leslie Norman/ Writer: Jimmy Sangster

Cast: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern, Anthony Newley, Jameson Clark, William Lucas

I was really excited to finally find a copy of this film online. Along with the Blob it is a movie that left me afraid to step out of my bed at night for fear something be lurking and oozing under it, waiting for me. Originally slated to be a sequel to Hammer’s Quatermass Experiment (released as The Creeping Unknown in the States) film but when writer Nigel Kneale refused permission to use his Bernard Quatermass character another film was put together that very much resembles the earlier Quatermass productions. American actor and Oscar winner Dean Jagger heads the cast and was an attempt to draw in an American audience. The film was the first writing product for production manager Jimmy Sangster, who would later go on to write some of Hammer’s more memorable films as well as direct a handful. Direction on X was begun by American director Jospesh Losey (see my post on The Servant) who was essentially in exile in England after having been blacklisted as a communist sympathizer. Some of his scenes are supposed to be in the film even, but after a few days he was removed from the position for what was reported to be health reasons. Actually Dean Jagger refused to work for an alleged commie lover and so Leslie Norman took over the job.

The film opens in the bleak bogs of Scotland where a group of soldiers are conducting tests looking for hidden radioactive isotopes. The testing is soon interrupted when a fissure opens up and two soldiers suffer sever radiation burns. The matter is brought to Dr. Royston who has been working in his little hideaway on experiments involving radioactivity. When he inspects the fissure he concludes it very well could be bottomless and the area is sealed off. Later two boys are out on a dare and while creeping into the decrepit lodgings of a local hermit one of them encounters something and suffers lethal radiation burns. A canister of Royston’s radioactive experiment is found there, much to his consternation. There is a lot of talking and scientific explanations between the films genuinely creepy moments. Later a medical Lothario sneaks a very willing young nurse into what appears to be the x-ray room and one of the film’s best moments occurs when the flesh melts off his face after he encounters the thing. The nurse goes into one of the best horror film screams on record, so good the scene earned a place on my site’s banner. There is a lot more talking and explaining of theories but the films moves along well enough. The creature is not revealed until the last part of the film and it is not bad really. This is a couple years before the blob and the movie was obviously pinched in the budget department. But when your monster is a pile of radioactive mud you are not worried too much. The thing oozes around and over things in believable fashion and I suppose I wish we had seen more of the mass. The beast is done in of course by a quick scientific method that makes little sense but in all these old movies science is both the monster and savior.

The film is bleak and done in a pretty serious tone. Even the obligatory comic relief provided by two soldiers (one played by Anthony Newly) is nipped when they are consumed by the pile of slithering radioactive mud. It is a movie typical of the times in most ways and the evil was something in part man made and in part unknowable. The thing is basically unstoppable, but like the Blob there was a way to destroy it if you only thought hard enough and could hang on until the last fifteen minutes of the film. Hammer of course will always be remembered primarily for their lushly staged and designed horror films, but they did some other things as well and I think X the Unknown is one of their truly hidden gems. Hidden in a pile of radioactive sludge. A really good movie in my opinion and I think all regular readers of the Café would not be disappointed with it.

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