Two years before The Blob, a British science-fiction film from Hammer Films posited a similar type of monster: a formless, semi-sentient mass that absorbs energy to survive, always searching for further nourishment to help it grow. Now, I’ve always felt that the Blob was the coolest, ultimate monster because it simply exists — it has no consciousness or soul, no physical weakness to exploit, and it cannot be destroyed. The “X” in X the Unknown shares some of those traits, although instead of zipping around space, X lives inside the molten core of the Earth. And instead of absorbing people like the Blob does to increase its mass, X simply burns them to death with its inherent radiation. Evidently it only feeds on energy sources that, like itself, involve radiation. X is described by atomic scientist Dr. Royston (Dean Jagger) as “radioactive mud,” which seems fairly accurate but does not do justice to the horrific nature of the subterranean beastie. In fact, the film’s biggest weakness is that it isn’t as sensational as a typical American version would have been. British sci-fi is usually underplayed in terms of sensationalism, and that is certainly the case here, despite the cataclysm depicted in its poster art. Even so, however, there are plenty of chills, cool effects (a few of them rather nasty!), some scientific gobbledy-gook to explain the danger and how that danger is to be vanquished, and some impressive suspense. Nor does Leslie Norman’s film shy away from describing the consequences to anyone who comes in contact with X and its lethal radiation.
The scenario (by Hammer vet Jimmy Sangster) suggests that the emergence of such a creature (or, perhaps more accurately, an event) occurs every fifty years or so, when enough gravity is exerted upon the Earth by the Moon to unbalance the core. At that juncture, the possibility exists, according to Dr. Royston, that the unknown event (X) gathers enough force to break through the Earth’s crust and roam free. As long as it can find energy, it will remain on the planet’s surface; failing that, it will retreat back into the core, where the energy exists to sustain it.
Of course, Royston’s theory relies on the development of atomic power to attract X and keep it from retreating back from where it came. It is precisely because atomic facilities are nearby that X becomes a threat to humanity; atomic science is also mankind’s best hope for destroying X. That dichotomy is at the center of classical science-fiction; the science in question not only brings about the evil, but offers the only manner to dispose of it. This became a primary lesson of the sci-fi films of the 1950s, especially after Them! first linked the effects of atomic radiation to accelerated growth rates in nature in 1954. After producers realized that they could believably blame giant grasshoppers or gila monsters on atomic or nuclear power, the genre exploded with possibility. And as these films were made and released barely a decade after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts in Japan, many questions still swirled around the effects of radiation on the natural world and the fate of humanity.
Theorizing a monster attracted to such dangerous radiation, and then using it to injure or kill people, is an ingenious dramatic creation. Likewise, giving the monster no personality or conscience but instead revealing it to be a horrible force of nature is also ingenious. It grants the thing a neutral but relentless nature that is quite unnerving. The police and scientists investigating reports of people being badly burned and atomic material disappearing from secure locations have no idea what is happening because the situation is unprecedented and seemingly disregards the laws of what is known. And that is the real power of X — or of any satisfactory movie mystery — that its basis remains unknown. For a long time, all anyone knows is that a mysterious force is burning people in the dark Scottish highlands.
The one person who puts everything together is Dr. Adam Royston. When Jimmy Sangster first wrote the script, Royston was supposed to be Dr. Bernard Quatermass. But Nigel Kneale, who had created the Quatermass character years earlier and who was unhappy with the casting of American actor Brian Donlevy as the British scientist in the feature film The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) did not allow his character to be used in a sequel that he did not write (Kneale did supply the story and script for a second Quatermass feature, Enemy from Space, in 1957, with Donlevy once again starring as the British scientist). Thus, X the Unknown is the Quatermass adventure that isn’t, a film that, despite Kneale’s objections, fits quite nicely in between the two “official” Quatermass titles.
I find Dean Jagger’s portrayal of Royston much better than Brian Donlevy’s brash portraiture of Quatermass. I like how Royston admits he doesn’t know why things are occurring at several points; all he can do is hypothesize. Royston, unlike his boss at the atomic works, John Elliott (Edward Chapman) has the ability to allow his imagination to run free and adapt to new ideas. Elliott would not admit the possibility that X could exist until he saw it with his own eyes, and even then he would still doubt because his understanding of science would not permit such a thing to exist. But Royston believes what the evidence presents, and his calm understanding of the forces involved may be enough to stop the rampage.
Jagger is ably supported by the stuffy Chapman and especially by pragmatic Leo McKern as Inspector McGill, an investigator who instinctively grasps that Royston is closer to the truth than Elliott. McKern lends the story needed gravitas, just as he would five years later in the underrated The Day the Earth Caught Fire. McGill helps find the facts, asking the right questions and prodding the scientists to actively pursue the truth, wherever it may lead.
The end result is a film that slowly, gradually, moves from covering a routine military training exercise to chronicling a suspenseful showdown between human science and a powerful force of nature. Like its contemporaries both in England and here in the States, it saves its views of the monster to late in the drama, and those views may not seem particularly impressive to modern audiences. Yet the film is well directed by Leslie Norman, effectively mixing horrific moments and little bits of comedy into its drama, progressively accelerating the pace and amplifying the suspense. It contains a number of shots of flesh melting off of the skeletons of X’s victims, which must have been quite shocking at the time. And the whole thing ends with a bang, back at the place where the story begins.
X the Unknown isn’t a great movie but it is a highly creative, imaginative and effective science-fiction story brought to vivid life by people who obviously wanted to make it work. And while I still favor The Blob for several reasons, I really enjoy this little movie too, and I like it more than either of the Donlevy Quatermass adventures that surround it. ☆ ☆ ☆. September 2012.