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.

 

 

Quatermass and the Pit

Quatermass and the Pit, or as it’s known in the U.S., Five Million Years to Earth, is a Hammer Film production of a BBC serial.  The phenomenon of Quatermass is a uniquely British craze.  It has had influences on science fiction for decades, but most Americans are completely ignorant about it.

The original Quatermass series on the BBC was tremendously popular in Britain in the 1950s.  It would not be unfair to compare their popularity during their period as something akin to Star Trek in the U.S.  Only three were produced: The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit.  Their influences echo, as both Stephen King and John Carpenter cite them as influences.  In fact, King’s book The Tommyknockers is nearly a remake of The Pit (or perhaps a ‘homage’.)

Hammer made the previous two serials into films, titled The Quatermass Xperiment (The Creeping Unknown in the U.S.) and Quatermass II (Enemy From Space in the U.S.)  The Pit is the first one in color and the first to use Andrew Keir as the main character.  The first two films are well, mediocre.  The scripts and acting are solid enough, but the production values are weak–especially with The Quatermass Xperiment.  They’re not much above the production values of the original, live serials.  They feel more like serials uncomfortably squashed into movies.  Pit, however, feels like a big screen movie, and in color to boot.

The film starts out with a discovery of humanoid fossils in a London Underground dig site at Hobb’s End.  Paleontologist Matthew Roney (James Donald) is brought into to supervise the site.  Roney discovers a buried metallic casing.  He believes  it to be an unexploded bomb from The Blitz.

Professor Quatermass is brought in, along with his new ‘compatriot’–Colonel Breen (Julian Glover.)  Quatermass loathes Breen, as the military forced the colonel into his rocketry program.  The two men investigate the supposed bomb, only to find it something else.  It appears to be an ancient spacecraft.

A workman tries to drill into it, only to have his strongest drill bounce off.  The vibration it creates causes a reaction which opens up a sealed area.  Within are the bodies of several giant, tripodal insects.  Roney and Quatermass examine the decaying bodies and decide they must have come from the Mars of five million years in the past. 

Meanwhile, the workman is struck by a kind of ‘psychic fit’ while working in the spacecraft.  He runs in fear, throwing objects around with telekinesis.  Through investigation, Quatermass finds all sorts of folklore and legends surrounding Hobb’s End.  The ship’s effects activate anytime the ship is disturbed in the ground.

Roney uses a device that can record dreams (just run with it) to try to record impressions from the ship.  His assistant, Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) has the strongest reaction to the ship and they record her dreams.  The images captured shows the Martians purging hives in a racial genocide.  They wipe out all that are ‘different’.  (This is probably the weakest part of the movie, as the special effects consist of grainy images of bugs on sticks.  It’s bad.   A bit more spending on visual effects here would have helped.)

Quatermass and Roney conclude that the Martians manipulated ancient apes to evolve into modern man.  They tried to have a ‘colony by proxy’ since they couldn’t survive on Earth.

When presented with this evidence, Breen and the government officials dismiss it.  Breen convinces them that it’s a Nazi propaganda weapon and there’s no danger.  The government allows the press in, over Quatermass’s strong objections.  A workman’s blunder accidentally gives the ship a huge burst of electricity.  It comes to life and begins manipulating all human minds in the vicinity.  A gigantic, glowing Martian face explodes out of the Pit visible over the city.  The Martian ship makes the Londoners it influences wipe out every life form that is different, including other humans.  They can do so with the psychic powers at their disposal, thanks to the ship.  The Martians want humanity to inherit all their behaviors, including the need to ‘purge the hive’ of all differences. 

Quatermass tries to kill Roney, but manages to overcome the Martian influence.  Roney is one of the few unaffected (hence ‘different’.)  The two men come up with a plan to ground the Martian image to the ground with iron, dissipating the energy.  Roney climbs a nearby crane, meaning to use it, but the energy causes the base of the crane to crack, sending it careening into the image.  Roney neutralizes the Martian ship, at the cost of his life.

The movie ends on a very quiet, introspective note, with none of the survivors speaking.  Nice, melancholy denouement.

Overall, the movie maintains a good level of tension and uneasiness, despite the odd and esoteric nature of the menace.  It’s another good example of the ‘less is more’ school of tension building.  The series and movies do a good job of merging science fiction and horror, without clubbing you over the head with either. Other series copy these themes in later years, including Doctor Who.  In fact, episodes such as Image of the Fendahl can’t be anything but direct descendants. (Although the creator of Quatermass, Nigel Kneale, had great distaste for Doctor Who, as he felt that the series was nothing short of a rip-off of his work.)

The themes of the movie are meant to reflect the growing racial tensions in the U.K. of the fifties, but they fail to resonate.  Perhaps it’s simply too far removed from the events surrounding the original series.

Check it out. 

Also, the entire run of the original BBC series is available online.

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Island of Terror: A Nifty Horror Movie

Island of Terror scared the shit out of me when I was a kid.  In fact, I only made it through a few scenes before running to the other side of the house and hiding.  I didn’t remember the name for years.  Only with the advent of the internet could I track it down and watch it all the way through.  Even that took a lot of keyword searches.

This doesn’t make it a great movie.  It’s decent because of some atmospheric tricks, pacing and passable acting.  Honestly, I’ll watch anything with Peter Cushing–the man turns in a solid performance in every movie.  If Peter appeared in an insurance infomercial, I’d watch it. 

Terence Fisher is a veteran director of Hammer horror movies.  He turns in a decent showing with this, even with its flaws. 

The basic plot is familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with science fiction movies of the 50s.  Scientific researchers on a remote island accidentally create monsters.  Said monsters run amok.  Heroic scientists come to the rescue.  The monsters are unstoppable, until the heroes discover that one weakness.  Monsters are defeated.  Roll credits.

A rather unpleasant and unusual form of demise helps to sell the beasts.  Bodies start turning up with no bones left.  So they look like Silly Putty in clothes.  Slow reveals also help to maintain the tension during the first half.  Nobody gets a decent look at the critters until the halfway point.  You merely see their handiwork and hear creepy sounds.  I’ve seen better movie monsters, but then again I’ve also seen worse.

Turns out these nasties are “silicates”.  They’re composed of silicon and chow down on humans for the calcium in the bones.  The special effects team did their best to make them look like single-celled animals with flagellum.  Unfortunately, they come across a bit more like tortoises with tentacle heads.  I suspect they did the best they could with a limited budget.

The silicates are slow, but unstoppable.  The island’s single boat isn’t available, trapping everyone.  (This is a bit contrived.  How many island communities only have one boat?)  Like amoebas, the silicates divide to reproduce, growing at a geometric pace.  The breakthrough occurs when a silicate is found deadpoisoned by snacking on an irradiated test dog.  Being a 50s formula, one can expect radiation as a staple.

The scientists dose up a bunch of cattle with strontium-90 and feed them to the silicates.  All of the island survivors hole up in the town hall, hoping the strontium will work.  The silicates close in, followed by much screaming and panicking.  Until the creatures succumb.

We have the obligatory denouement, where the heroes talk about the dangers of science.  Then we have a: “If it hadn’t been an island, we couldn’t have stopped them.”  As it turns out, scientists in Tokyo were cooperating and performing identical experiments.  The movie ends with a Japanese scientist entering a lab after hearing creepy sounds.  Screams follow.

The movie did leave me with one or two questions.  One is the idea that an island community only has one boat.  Another is how do cancer researches end up accidentally creating silicon monsters?  Seems a rather roundabout method of research.

Despite its flaws, it’s enjoyable enough.  Check it out.

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