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.



The Blob: (1958) A Glorious Cheese

When I was a young little nipper, I first saw The Blob on late night television.  I sought out each and every monster and science fiction movie I had ever read about.  Unfortunately, this was before the VHS and then DVD boom.  Finding movies to watch consisted of me combing through late night television schedules and crossing my fingers.

Along comes The Blob.  I had read its description in my geek literature (mainly Famous Monsters of Filmland) but hadn’t seen it.  So I spot it being played on a late, late movie and girded my loins to stay up late enough to watch it.

I expect this is an animate version of the muck on the floor of theaters.

Watching this movie as an adult and it’s pretty cheesy.  As a kid, it kinda scared me.  I didn’t see the bad acting, dubious cinematography or corny dialogue.  I just saw a blob monster that dissolved you like acid.  Which, if you think about it, is pretty horrible.  This movie didn’t go into graphic detail like the 1988 Blob remake (which I also enjoy,) but it suggested enough for my youthful, warped mind.

Basic plot is simple enough.  Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) spot a meteor crash to earth.  Our plucky protagonists drive off to find the meteor.  Unfortunately an old man hobo-type has discovered it already and the

No way this goes wrong.

Blob inside it has attached to his arm.

What follows is a classic “nobody believes us” story where the teenage protagonists try to convince the authorities that there’s something wrong.  The authorities, naturally, thing they’re just a bunch of punk kids causing trouble.  It ties into a lot of the teen rebellion style movies coming out in the fifties and sixties.  There’s a lot of ‘hip’ forgettable dialogue and marginal acting, but I don’t go into a movie like this expecting Ben Hur.

A note about Steve McQueen.  This was Steve’s first starring role, so I can forgive the miscast.  Sure, I like Steve, but he’s supposed to be a teenager in this movie when he was

The doctor will see you n–OH GOD!

in his late twenties.  He doesn’t look much like a teenager.  Still, I forgive a lot and hey, it’s friggin’ Steve McQueen!

People also might recognize Aneta Corsaut from her later role as Helen Crump from The Andy Griffith Show.   I believe only Steve and her ever had any roles of prominence after this film.

The special effects in the movie are decent.  They’re nothing Oscar-caliber, but they do the job well enough on their meager budget.  They mostly consist of matte shots and miniature sets involving a blob of silicone colored with red dye.  A few brief bits of animation and set paintings and the occasional forced perspective.

Does Obamacare cover this?

The Blob’s weakness (and there always is one) is cold and it’s defeated by the use of CO2 fire extinguishers that freeze it solid.  The final shot is the creature being dropped in the Arctic.

Anyway, this film is far from perfect.  Often scenes appear to be lit using a penlight.  There are long, dragging bits of “cool teen” dialogue that do little to move the plot forward.  Everyone except Steve and Aneta apparently read about acting in a book once.  No, it has warts.

Still, the concept is creepy enough and the setting is campy enough that it’s hard to hate this movie.  The goofy title song Beware of the Blob (composed by Burt Bacharach and Mack David) became a top forty hit in 1958.  For your listening pleasure:

There was a sequel to The Blob called Son of the Blob or Beware! the Blob which I haven’t seen.  Larry Hagman directed it.  The tagline was “The Film J.R. Shot!”