Leslie Norman, Joseph Losey, 1956
Starring: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman
Soldiers located a mysterious source of radioactivity in the Scottish highlands, which leads to a deadly explosion. Some of the men are killed, while others are suffering from radiation burns, and a strange pit in the Earth begins to open. Dr. Royston, an investigator with the Atomic Energy Laboratory, is called in to investigate with the help of Mr. McGill, a security consultant. When a local boy and a hospital intern are killed after suffering from radiation burns, Royston and McGill surmise that a radioactive creature has emerged from the Earth’s core and is stalking the area, desperate for food.
An unofficial sequel to Hammer’s horror/sci-fi breakout film, The Quatermass Xperiment, this tamer entry also received an X-rating — probably thanks to some grisly scenes of burning flesh — and the studio wisely capitalized on that with the film’s title. But make no mistake, this is the same blend of sci-fi and horror that would character the Quatermass trilogy and the studio’s final sci-fi film, The Damned (minus the latter’s weird teddy boy subplot). When Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale wouldn’t allow Hammer free reign to use his beloved character, they basically just made a similar film to The Quatermass Xperiment but replaced the miscast Brian Donlevy with wholesome-looking American actor Dean Jagger of White Christmas and Vanishing Point fame.
Jagger’s not particularly heroic hero, Dr. Royston, is thankfully not as abrasive as Donlevy’s unfortunate portrayal of Quatermass, but he really does lack personality. If X the Unknown is inferior to The Quatermass Xperiment, it is in two points: the absence of a truly compelling protagonist and antagonist. The film perhaps unwisely avoids the kind of hysteria and panic that would make Quatermass and the Pit such a triumph and the characters are all entirely too calm and civil. While there is some solid acting from Jagger and his primary costar, Leo McKern (who I have loved from the moment I saw Ladyhawke as a child), the two characters simply get along too well. There is not enough tension or anxiety between the central characters and don’t even get me started on the monster. (But do keep an eye out for an early appearance from the beloved Michael Ripper, soon to be a Hammer regular).
X the Unknown also lacks The Quatermass Xperiment’s use of a compelling villain in the form of actor Richard Wordsworth, whose gradually transforming astronaut is a creature of both sympathy and terror. Despite the fact that it’s moody and atmospheric, the movie is so low budget that the monster barely appears and then only as a radioactive, vaguely shiny blob. This is a strange precursor to films like the superior The Blob (1958), Japanese atomic horror film The H-Man (1958), and Caltiki, the Immoral Monster (1959) from giallo forerunner Ricardo Freda.
The monster is not exactly alien life, but competing life on earth that has come from deep within the planet’s core. The film’s scariest moments actually involve man encountering nature — such as when the boys go into the woods at night and when a soldier descends into a seemingly bottomless fissure in the earth — and while I love this early folk horror premise, it falls flat because of the “monster.” More than anything, it reminds me of the blancmange at Wimbledon skit from Monty Python and the Flying Circus. And speaking of Monty Python, one of their directors, Ian MacNaughton, actually appears here as a Scottish soldier named — drumroll — Corporal Haggis. I thought I was imagining things, but IMDB confirms that that’s actually the character’s name.
This first feature script from the studio’s most popular writer, Jimmy Sangster, also plays fast and loose with science — radiation in this case — and Royston figures out a way to kill the monster with radio waves, which apparently neutralize the radiation that keeps it alive, but cause a spectacular explosion that miraculously harms no humans in the process. The great Joseph Losey — then blacklisted from Hollywood and working in England — began directing the film, but was replaced by Leslie Norman due to an illness. Luckily Losey would return to Hammer for The Damned, while Norman was apparently so widely disliked on set that even though he helmed a competent film, well-received film, he never made another movie with Hammer.
X the Unknown is an enjoyable, if dated effort, though I think I can only recommend it to fans of ‘50s horror. Though it loses momentum and focus in the second half, it’s plenty entertaining and takes itself quite seriously with some help from moody cinematography and composer James Bernard, who essentially reprised his score from The Quatermass Xperiment with equally chilling results. Check it out on DVD, but don’t expect it to be quite as magical as the Quatermass trilogy.