X the Unknown (1956)

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Since it’s Halloween today, I guess I should throw in an extra review appropriate to the occasion. The best I can come up with is X the Unknown, the second Hammer horror film, which was aired recently on BBC2.

x-the-unknownHammer’s first outing in the genre was the big screen adaptation of the hit BBC TV series The Quatermass Xperiment, and the best thing that can be said about X the Unknown is that it confirmed Hammer on the path to creating horror greats such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. It’s not a great film in itself, however: very much a quick rip-off copy of Quatermass, X the Unknown follows the same basic story template and has most of the same character archetypes, but doesn’t have a fraction of Nigel Kneale’s intellectual heft behind it. Instead it ends up becoming the silliest sort of cod-pseudoscience pulp effort imaginable, which to make matters worse is embarrassingly explained at length in the stodgy dialogue.

The film is a riff on the dangers of what was then still deeply mysterious and threatening nuclear energy. The early scenes which build atmosphere as a variety of characters get exposed to potent bursts of radiation from which they are hideously and fatally scarred are the most effective in the 75 minute running time, which is helped by some nicely shadow-laden monochrome cinematography. The source of the danger is a deep fissure that has opened up without warning in the middle of an army training ground in Scotland. It discourages a lump of sentient, mobile sludge (shades of contemporary US cult classic The Blob) that lives by consuming radioactive material from nearby hospitals and power plants. Fortunately local boffin Dr Adam Royston (a colourless turn from American star Dean Jagger, whose fee amounted to half the film’s entire budget) has coincidentally been working in his garden shed on the very thing that might be able to stop the sludge in its tracks. Which is lucky.

It’s all chronic and hopelessly unbelievable nonsense to modern audiences, although the limited FX sequences of the sludge are certainly commendable for their time. Good actors like Leo McKern get absolutely nothing to do in story terms and may as well not even have turned up, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for future stars in small roles: Anthony Newley gives a nicely naturalistic performance as an enlisted soldier on guard duty; Michael Ripper makes the first of what would be many Hammer appearances, here as the efficient sergeant in charge of the troops; Edwin Richfield (whom I recall best as Captain Hart in Doctor Who’s “The Sea Devils”) is ‘Soldier Burned on Back’, and there’s an adorable early pre-teen turn from later Doctor Who and Emmerdale star Fraser Hines as a child eyewitness.

Amazingly the film was given the highest possible horror rating at the time, an ‘X’ certificate. These days it’s a tame PG and the BBC is happy to show it on Saturday mornings at 8.30am, a slot firmly reserved for young kids which demonstrates that it has none of the lasting scare power of Quatermass or the rest of Hammer’s filmic output. By far the best and most impactful aspect of the whole thing is the music by James Bernard, which again firmly follows the fast-paced high-pitched screeching strings template laid down in the Quatermass film. It doesn’t help that the film is in poor condition, and the only DVD version of it has a poor interlaced transfer to add to the speckles, scratches, jumps and burns.

As a follow-up to The Quatermass Xperiment and for its role in the development of Hammer, X the Unknown is certainly worth a watch and earns its place in British cinematic history. But to expect the movie to have otherwise fared well after 60 years is clearly asking far too much.

Rating: ★ ★

X the Unknown is available in the UK on a bare-bones DVD released in 2011.

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