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.



Zarkorr! The Invader: A Fun, Bad Kaiju Movie

zarkorr-01Back in 1996 when I was living in New Jersey, a friend and I spotted Zarkorr! The Invader in the local Blockbuster (You youngsters can look that up.)  To be honest, I got it just to piss my friend off since he couldn’t decide on what to rent.  We go back home and watch the thing.  Lo and behold and it turns out to be just as bad as expected, but surprisingly entertaining.  We’re given this gem through a sub-label of Full Moon Features: Monster Island Entertainment.

The plot goes thusly: an alien race decides to ‘test’ Earth by sending a giant monster (Zarkorr) against a champion of their choosing.  This champion is a New Jersey postal employee.  No, I’m not kidding.  The employee (Tommy) is contacted by an alien mental projection that looks like a ‘tiny mall tramp’.  zarkorr-02The aliens chose him because he’s literally the most average man on Earth.  Zarkorr (which has emerged from a mountain on the west coast) is traveling east towards Tommy–to kill him.  Tommy must figure out a way to kill it before it reaches him and kills him. 

Tommy panics and rushes to the local Jersey television station where he sees a ‘cryptozoologist’ (Stephanie) talking about it.  She thinks he’s a nut and he panics, grabs a gun from a security guard and takes her hostage.  Police arrive and it zarkorr-04looks as if Tommy’s going to jail or an asylum.  Fortunately for him, one of the two policeman (George) is a conspiracy nut and believes Tommy’s tall tale.  He helps him escape and Tommy eventually convinces Stephanie he’s not a lunatic.  The three of them spend the rest of the movie figuring out how a postal employee can defeat a 180 foot tall monster.

zarkorr-06Okay, this movie is bad.  One might have a decent Bar Mitzvah with the entire budget.  Maybe.  Zarkorr’s costume design is decent, but the special effects were probably generated with an Amiga.  Cherry bombs are likely the pyrotechnics, and acting varies from acceptable to abysmal. 

Despite all that, I enjoyed the hell out of Zarkorr.  Its strength lies in the humor and silliness of the plot and dialogue.  Zarkorr emphasizes its tongue in cheek nature to hide its meager production values.  Nobody tries to zarkorr-03convince you that you’re watching a serious movie.

Amidst the silliness and one-liners, there is actually a skeleton of a decent plot here.  My fondest wish for this movie is that someone might buy the rights to it and remake it with an actual budget.  With some TLC, it could be the kaiju version of Ghostbusters (1984.)

BONUS ROUND!  Zarkorr’s Theme Song: