X the Unknown: Low Key Hammer Sci Fi

I first watched the black & white X the Unknown (1956) in my early teens.  This is the period when I sought out every science fiction and monster movie I could find.  I stumbled across this one on a lazy Saturday afternoon.  The movie was (forgive the irony) a complete unknown to me.

My ignorance probably contributed to my enjoyment of it.  This is the type of movie where one needs to see as little of the monster as possible.  Instead, the horrific effects it has on the growing number of victims helps build the tension.  The creature itself is essentially a glowing, radioactive blob.  Unlike The Blob, you don’t see it for most of the movie.  Even when it does appear, it isn’t kept on the screen long.  I imagine much of this is due to budgetary restraints, but much of it must have been deliberate.

My best stash–ruined!

Although it’s ostensibly science fiction, the movie falls solidly in the horror category.  Like many movies of the fifties, it involves radiation.  Radiation was the go-to McGuffin to explain at least 90% of the monsters roaming the celluloid of the time.  Wanted a giant monster?  Just add radiation.  It’s a trope that lasted at least through the seventies, but its heyday was the fifties.

The basic story is that a bottomless crack opens up in the ground near Glasgow, Scotland.  This happens (coincidentally?) during a British Army exercise using a Geiger Counter to locate radioactive materials.  The radiation goes off the scale and there’s an explosion that opens the crack, injuring several  from radiation burns.

The plucky atomic scientist protagonist, Dr. Royston (Dean Jagger) is called in to investigate, along with Mr. “Mac” McGill (Leo McKern–who I will always remember as the priest from Ladyhawke) who is an investigator from the UK Atomic Energy Commission.  The tension builds that night when a couple of local kids encounter the creature (although the audience never sees it) in a desolate part of the woods.  Then, Dr. Royston’s lab is ransacked and all radioactive material is rendered inert. 

You may notice some slight swelling . . .

(Note: the movie was intended to be a sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment, but Hammer couldn’t get Nigel Kneale’s permission to use the character.)

You get a slow, steady build of tension as the creature goes after every local source of radioactivity and burns everyone in its way to a crisp.  A nice, creepy scene occurs in the local hospital when it goes after a radiation lab and melts a hapless doctor to a puddle of flesh. 

Dr. Royston does the standard trope of the genre and gives everyone a “crazy theory” about radioactive creatures beneath the earth.  Which naturally–everyone is skeptical about.  Then there’s the obligatory scene of someone descending into the crack in the ground to investigate.

This is perfectly safe, right guys? Guys?

When the audience finally gets a look at the creature, it’s a little anticlimactic.  The special effects aren’t bad, per se, but I suppose you can only make a blob of living radioactive mud look so threatening.  A greater special effects budget might have helped, although maybe the limited budget actually helped.  I’m undecided.  I do know the effects did what was required of them and no more.  The actors and writers really carry the heavy lifting in the movie.

You’ve got some real drainage problems with your roof.

I don’t want to give away all the details, since it’s well worth watching.  If you’ve every seen a fifties monster movie, there won’t be a lot of surprises, but it works well and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

The whole film is available on YouTube.  Enjoy.