X: The Unknown (1956/1957) ***
The impact of The Creeping Unknown’s success on the studio that produced it was nothing less than seismic. What had begun as a moderately risky bid to turn a modest profit in a genre that had traditionally been tacitly (and occasionally explicitly) proscribed to the British film industry, using crossover appeal with a popular TV miniseries and a marketable American star as hedges against censor-board disapproval, had shockingly turned into the biggest hit of 1955 for Hammer Film Productions, and some manner of cashing in was clearly in order. No fewer than ten movies from Hammer’s 1956 production schedule were summarily junked, and the studio’s creative talent was put to work at once in an effort to duplicate the Quatermass film’s unexpectedly profitable mix of science fiction and horror. X: The Unknown was the first fruit of this deliberate labor of reinvention, which would not really hit its stride until 1957. On the whole, it is rather less impressive than its inspiration, but in one important respect, it hints more strongly at the studio’s future direction than either The Creeping Unknown or its sequel, Enemy from Space. Although X: The Unknown is still nominally a science fiction film, it tries much harder to be scary during its first and second acts than anything Hammer would make prior to the wholesale shift into gothic horror at the turn of the 1960’s.
Casual viewers will be tempted to dismiss X: The Unknown as a rip-off of The Blob, but the surprising fact is that this relatively obscure movie came first. It also goes looking for its monster in the opposite direction, bringing it forth not from outer space, but from the equally unexplored environment of the Earth’s deep interior. There are two sets of experiments going on under government auspices in the vicinity of Glasgow. One is a military exercise under the command of Major Cartwright (John Harvey, of They Came from Beyond Space and Rollerball), intended to train soldiers to locate and collect radioactive debris and bomb fragments in order to mitigate the lingering destructive effects of a nuclear war. The other is a project overseen by Dr. John Elliott (Edward Chapman, from Things to Come and The Man Who Haunted Himself), exploring the possibility of enriching radioactive cobalt for use as a cheaper alternative to uranium- and plutonium-based nuclear fuels. The latter undertaking employs not only Dr. Elliott’s son, Peter (William Lucas, from Shadow of the Cat and Island of the Burning Doomed), but also a visiting American physicist by the name of Adam Royston (Dean Jagger, of So Sad About Gloria and Revolt of the Zombies). Royston, I should point out, has a few private research sidelines as well, most notably a scheme to artificially speed up radioactive decay in order to render substances like uranium (or Dr. Elliot’s cobalt-60) inert and harmless— without speeding it up so much as to cause an atomic explosion! It’s never directly stated, but there are strong hints that Royston is trying to put the Manhattan Project’s genie back into the bottle, eliminating the threat of nuclear war with a device that, if built on a large enough scale, could “turn off” atomic weapons in the air above their targets.
For the moment, however, our attention rightly belongs to Cartwright’s soldiers, who are busy running around an empty field with their Geiger counters, hunting up pre-buried bits of radioactive material. One of these men picks up a signal that he assumes means a godawful big one, but according to Cartwright’s chart, nothing was buried anywhere near the source of that signal. Suddenly, an earth tremor hits Cartwright’s field, focused exactly on the source of the mysterious radiation signature, and a seemingly bottomless fissure opens explosively on the spot. It’s only to be expected that the soldier who found the aberrant signal would be blown to bits, but the severe radiation burns that afflict the men too far away from ground zero to be killed by the blast are a different and more worrisome proposition. Cartwright sends at once for Dr. Royston, and withdraws the bulk of his men to what he assumes is a safe distance after fencing off the crack in the earth.
As it happens, there is no safe distance. Something is alive— or functionally equivalent to alive, anyway— down in that fissure, and over the next several days, it makes nightly forays to the surface in search of food. Food in this case means radioactive material, for radioactivity is the thing from the pit’s lifeforce, and although it therefore has no interest in humans per se, it’s impossible for anyone to get within ten feet or so of it without receiving a lethal dose of ionizing radiation. And of course, since one doesn’t normally leave radioactive shit lying around unguarded, that means people tend to get killed every time the creature heads out for a midnight snack. However, the authorities (broadly construed here to include Royston and the Elliots, as well as the police and military) do not at first connect the sudden outbreak of deaths by radiation burns with the rash of seemingly impossible thefts of cobalt-60, radium, and so forth from Royston’s lab, the local hospital’s radiology department, and wherever. The government does naturally flip out over the possible national-security ramifications of said thefts, though, and soon a military intelligence cop named McGill (Leo McKern, from The Day the Earth Caught Fire and The Omen) arrives on the scene looking to solve the latter mystery. To everyone’s surprise (not least his own), McGill finds himself becoming Royston’s staunchest ally when the scientist realizes that all the least explicable details of the recent inexplicable events would make perfect sense if Cartwright’s fissure had released some unheard of lifeform from the Earth’s interior, a creature which Royston speculates is a kind of semi-sentient mineral slush that both emits ionizing radiation in deadly quantities and requires energy intake in the form of similar radiation to survive. Everybody else— especially the senior Dr. Elliot— thinks Royston is full of shit, but they’ll all stop scoffing when a few thousand tons of animate, radioactive mud come slithering out of the fissure to lay waste to the town that stands between it and the nuclear reactor at Elliot’s lab. Now it happens that Royston’s anti-atom bomb device seems to offer exactly the prescription for dealing with this unprecedented menace, but there’s just one problem with that conclusion. Royston hasn’t been able to make his machine work yet…
Unlike The Creeping Unknown, which sublimates so much of its era’s anxiety via the conceit that the only man in Britain who can adequately deal with the otherworldly threat is the same half-crazy genius who inadvertently set it loose in the first place, X: The Unknown is little more than a competent 50’s monster-rampage flick. It is hampered by some unusually desperate pseudoscience, which somehow manages to sound even less credible than it normally would for being spelled out by Dean Jagger’s otherwise thoroughly reasonable and down-to-earth Dr. Royston. Also, the second half of the film, when the focus shifts from convincing people of the muck-monster’s existence to tracking it down and destroying it, feels rather deflated in comparison to the taut and suspenseful earlier sections. The creature being so obviously impervious to harm by any ordinary means, there is no temptation to sic the army on it, and monster-romp fans are denied most of the shit-gets-smashed fix for which they come to movies like this one. Instead, X: The Unknown withdraws to the lab, turning talky just when the seasoned fan of these films will be expecting it to take off. On the other hand, that very defiance of expectations is to some extent an asset, as is the extremely unconventional nature of the monster itself. Although, again, The Blob is the most obvious point of comparison, it might be better to think of this movie instead as a reworking of The Magnetic Monster for viewers who felt cheated when the “monster” there turned out to be purely metaphorical. Jimmy Sangster’s script (his first for a feature) goes out of its way to emphasize that the subterranean slime is not a living thing in any sense familiar to us carbon-based types, and the strategy ultimately adopted to fight it bears much resemblance to Jeffrey Stewart’s plan to turn the exponentially growing serranium sample’s energy-absorbing properties against itself in the aforementioned American sci-fi thriller. The muck monster poses a much more direct and visceral threat than a piece of metal with weird electromagnetic characteristics, however, and X: The Unknown, while less intellectually stimulating than The Magnetic Monster, is considerably more satisfying to watch. There are also some terrific dime-budget miniature effects courtesy of Jack Curtis, Les Bowie, and Vic Margutti (even if disappointingly little of the running time is spent on them), and a couple of melting heads that would never have made it past the British Board of Film Censors if X: The Unknown had been shot on the Pathecolor stock that Hammer would increasingly favor after 1957. X: The Unknown’s best feature, though, is probably director Leslie Norman’s rejection of the purely functional pseudo-documentary style that was the preferred way of handling monster movies in those days. Instead, Norman opted for a more atmospheric, almost Val Lewton-like technique whenever a scene would support it— most notably in the sequence that has two little boys trespassing on a dare in the environs of a ruined medieval watchtower, and running afoul of the creature on its way home to the fissure. It’s a little odd that Norman would acquit himself so admirably in this department, for he had never made a horror movie before, nor would he ever make one again. But likely or not, the watchtower bit in particular is one of the best scare set-pieces of the 1950’s, in the same league as Dr. Holden’s pursuit through the woods by the half-seen Baal in Curse of the Demon.