Friday, 29 April 2011

Review: X the Unknown

X the Unknown (1956)

Riding high on the success of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Hammer Films realised that it had struck gold in science fiction horror and were keen to keep the momentum going. So, they approached novice screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and asked him to bang out a script along the lines of Quatermass.  The recult was the first in a sub-genre of Quatermassesque stories that would later find a cosy home on Doctor Who during the John Pertwee years.

X the Unknown opens with a group of National Service soldiers in a Scottish quarry reluctantly carrying out a boring exercise in how to use a Geiger counter to locate radioactive material.  Suddenly, the ground explodes and a fissure burst open; killing one man and badly burning another.  In short order, the Army calls in Dr Adam Royston (Dean Jagger) from the local atomic research centre, who concludes that there was something radioactive behind the explosion.  His suspicions become terrifying reality as he and Atomic Ministry investigator Inspector McGill (Leo McKern) follow a trail of radioactive corpses running in an ever shortening line between the fissure and the Centre reactor.  Something alive has come out of the Earth that feeds of radioactivity and is hunting for the largest food source in the vicinity.  If it reaches the reactor, it will leave the local countryside an atomic wasteland.

X the Unknown is very much a film of the early atomic age.  However, unlike other sci fi films where radiation is just the starting off point that creates a more conventional monster, the fear of radiation is front and centre here as people suffer from mysterious radiation burns. Small incidents that grow in frequency and destructiveness and the local people increasing blame Dr Royston and the other scientists for what is  happening.  The father of one child victim lays into our hero for being a scientist and you can't really blame him.  At times, the film does descend into gratuitous ghastliness, such as when a lecherous radiologist at the hospital gets between "X" and the radioactive cobalt vault, but most of the time director Leslie Norman relies more heavily on a mounting sense of dread as the unseen monster grows in size and power. 

Dean Jagger gives a solid performance as Dr Royston.  In his hands, he portrays Royston as an eccentric boffin with a taste for cobbling laboratory equipment out of Meccano sets, yet conducts himself with an interesting air of authority and compassion.  Leo McKern makes the most out of his role of what is essentially Dr Watson/Inspector Lestrade to Jagger's Sherlock Holmes and William Lucas carries up the rear as Peter Elliott, the Centre admin bod who secretly longs to be a scientist and ends up getting all the dirty jobs like getting lowered into the fissure on a line.  Character conflict is low key with the arguments between Royston and the authorities feeling more like professional disagreements rather than reason versus stupidity and there are nice moments such as when the local vicar as a small moment of personal heroism as he defends his flock against "X".  Everyone, even the comic relief, play their roles with dead seriousness, which adds to the verisimilitude.

The monster turns out to be not a cunning killer, but rather a blind, unthinking thing that is even more harrowing because its mindlessness makes it utterly relentless and our heroes can no more outwit it than they can a flood.  Though the ending seems a bit abrupt, it comes after a climax of suitable suspense as they use a plug of atomic fuel to lure "X" to its doom. 

It's said that the director hated the project and that this resulted in considerable friction on the set–so much so that Norman never worked with Hammer again, but at least this one collaboration produced a neat little gem of a thriller.

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