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X the Unknown, 1956.

From the video case: British Commandos on maneuvers near a muddy marsh become ill with mysterious symptoms and horrific burns. Dr. Royston (Dean Jagger), an atomic scientist from a nearby research station suspects lethal radiation but is mystified by the cause. At a nearby hospital, the phenomenon reappears and engulfs more innocent people including a hospital orderly whose skin has melted away from his body.

Dr. Royston speculates that the unknown force is on a quest to absorb radiation and expands in size and range as it claims more and more victims. As time runs short, he becomes desperate to trap the force before its power overcomes mankind. (1956, b&w)

Mark says: Hammer Film Productions had such success with their first Quatermass movie, The Quatermass Xperiment (USA title: The Creeping Unknown) that they were eager to produce a sequel. However, the author/creator of the Quatermass character, Nigel Kneale, denied Hammer any unauthorized use of his creation.

Instead, Hammer employed first-time screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster (who would later become a regular Hammer scriptwriter) to pen a movie in the Quatermass tradition, without actually using Professor Quatermass’s name. The result was X the Unknown, with Dean Jagger (Revolt of the Zombies) playing the role of the Quatermass equivalent, Dr. Royston.

What I enjoy so much about X the Unknown is how the preposterous concept of intelligent, radioactive mud coming from the Earth’s core to feed on radioactive materials on the surface is treated so seriously. Dr. Royston’s character is so believable (and likable) that we hardly flinch when he postulates his ridiculous theory. In fact, when his superior, John Elliott (Edward Chapman) suggests that Dr. Royston’s ideas are hogwash, we scoff at his unbelief. Of course Professor Quatermass’s, er, I mean, Dr. Royston’s theory is correct! Any fool can see that. And once we believe in Dr. Royston and his theory, the rest of the film is easy to swallow.

X the Unknown is full of great naturalistic performances. Of special note is Dean Jagger in the lead role, and Leo McKern (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, The Omen) in the role of Inspector McGill. The friendship that develops between the two men is absolutely convincing.

As noted above, Edward Chapman plays John Elliott, Dr. Royston’s unsympathetic superior. To give the plot more flavor, William Lucas plays Elliott’s son, Peter. Though the elder Elliott wants his son to move into administrative work, Peter is more interested in becoming a scientist like Dr. Royston. As you can imagine, this adds to the tension between Elliott and the great scientist. As an added treat, one of my favorite Hammer regulars, Michael Ripper (The Curse of the Werewolf, The Plague of the Zombies) plays Sgt. Harry.

The monster itself is similar to the creature in 1958’s The Blob. It is a formless mass that can slip underneath doors, and through grates. The difference being, the radioactive mud in X the Unknown kills its victims through radiation burns (apparently, you only need to be in close proximity of the sludge to die from its burns) while the Blob actually absorbs its prey.

While the radioactive creature (wisely not shown for a good portion of the film) is not impressive, there are other effects that will hold your interest. For example, when a person comes in contact with the radioactive mud, sometimes his face will just melt off (courtesy of make-up artist Philip Leakey). The technique is shockingly effective.

X the Unknown also features some eerie settings. My favorite is a scene set in the woods as two boys, on a dare, approach a tower to find out, once and for all, if “Old Tom” (Norman Macowan; Horror Hotel) really sleeps there at night (see image above). As a boy who sometimes wandered through the woods at night with my little brother, I can attest to the authenticity of the sequence’s spookiness. By the way, Frazer Hines, who plays Ian Osborn (the boy who lives) later went on to play Jamie McCrimmon in the Doctor Who series.

The film is not completely flawless, but the errors are minor (once we accept the concept of intelligent, radioactive mud, we’re ready to believe just about anything.) One thing that does disturb me about X the Unknown, though, is its somewhat ambiguous ending. After we are told that the mud has been successfully neutralized, there is an explosion, and Dr. Royston comments, “That shouldn’t have happened,” but there is no more explanation. To me, this is the equivalent of tagging a question mark to the words “The End” at the finale of The Blob. It seems like a campy stunt for an otherwise impressive sci-fi effort.

X the Unknown is directed by Leslie Norman.

Scene to watch for: The hospital’s radiologist gets his face melted off as Nurse Zena (Marianne Brauns) watches on in horror.

Line to listen for: “It’s a particle of mud. But by virtue of its atomic structure it emits radiation. That’s all it is. Just mud. How do you kill mud?”

Bonus: For an in-depth synopsis of the film, including stills and sound files, click here.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

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2 Comments

  1. Very good Hammer sci-fi stuff.

  2. I agree. It’s nice to see Hammer pull off such excellent work without relying on Cushing or Lee.


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