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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

X-The Unknown

Hammer Films is more famous for its horror genre productions. X-The Unknown (XTU) showed that they could produce good B sci-fi as well. Some of the special effects underscore the producers' horror genre familiarity, though this is thankfully not overplayed. Overall, the plot is more of a sci-fi murder mystery and monster movie hybrid. Also evident is the long shadow of Professor Quatermass. Produced in the winter of 1956, (released in the USA in May 1957) the structure has an unmistakable Quatermass imprint. A bizarre creature menaces the country and a quirky (not-quite-proper) scientist is the only one who fully understands and can stop the monster.

Quick Plot Synopsis
British troops on training maneuvers in Scotland discover an odd radioactive area. A "bottomless" fissure opens up. Radiation kills one and burns another soldier. A Dr. Royston is called in from a nearby research reactor lab to investigate. He finds no radiation, but the soldiers' burns are clearly from radiation. Later, a boy encounters something frightening in the woods. He is hospitalized with radiation burns. Royston is called in again. The boy's friend tells of going to see an old stone tower. In that tower, Royston finds one of his lead isotope jars. His personal (ad hoc) lab had been broken into and the jar stolen, though the doors and windows were still secure. Next, the hospital is 'attacked' and an x-ray technician 'melted' by the thing. Royston theorizes about the thing as an underground energy-consuming creature seeking food. Clearly, the research reactor will be its next meal. They try to shut it down and ship out the radioactive elements, but the creature is upon them too quickly. It consumes the cobalt and grows. The only hope is Royston's not-yet-successful work on a radioactivity neutralizing "scanner". He tweaks it to working order and (in just hours) the military have two large trailer-housed versions at the fissure site. They lure the monster out with a vial of isotope on the back of a jeep. When it emerges, they switch on the big scanners. The blob glows and writhes, finally exploding. Britain is saved. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The Quatermass structure still works. XTU is a well paced thriller which wisely keeps the monster off camera until near the end. The black and white photography is actually rich and attractive on its own. Even though not as famous, XTU clearly has a killer blob monster a year before the American classic, The Blob, was released.

Cold War Angle
The radioactive mud monster stands as a sort of analogy of atomic power. The nuclear age anxiety is clear in the dead boy's diatribe against Royston and other nuclear scientists. "(You scientists,) setting off bombs you can't control...you're a murderer..." Somewhat ironically, Royston's personal research was for a way to neutralize bombs so they'd be ineffective,. thereby ending the nuclear threat to mankind.

National Service Issue? -- In one scene, a reporter makes a pointed inudendo in his question to Major Cartwright. "The only man who died was a National Service man?" What's all that about? It's a longer story than space permits. The short story is that Britain had a regular army, made up of volunteers and career soldiers. The needs of empire necessitated that a conscript army (National Service) be maintained, even after WWII. Conscript service was for a year or two. These citizen soldiers (draftees) were sometimes put into hazardous situations (Suez crisis, Korea, etc.) for which they weren't well trained. They were also paid less, housed less well, and used (by the regular "professional" army) for the grunt work. This was a simmering sore point for the British public. Hence the reporter's grumpy accusation. Was Lansing's death yet another example of National Service men being used as expendable drones?

Evolving Absurdity -- Even proponents of the theory of evolution must cringe at Royston's theory of the monster's origin. "Just as man evolved on the surface as an intelligent being, could not a molten energy being have evolved below the earth's crust?" Really. Evolution is just that easy  These beings consume energy, hence the monster's raiding for atomic isotopes. Note the naive optimism which presumes that life of some kind (any kind) can and will evolve if given a hundred thousand years. Royston's theory is not important for the story, fortunately. The monster exists and must be dealt with, even if the scientist has no real clue why it exists.

Beautiful Black and White -- Make note of the cinematography. Most of the outdoor shots are at night. Cinematographer Gerald Gibbs and director Leslie Norman use flood lights to create images rich in tone, yet almost surreally spartan. They focus the imagery on the essential foreground. The effect is similar to the night shots in Them! ('54).

Impersonal Monster -- Most monsters and aliens are personal. They often speak (usually English, handily enough). Those who don't speak usually have eyes and some intellect. Few sci-fi monsters are faceless and formless. A notable earlier example was the expanding isotope in Magnetic Monster ('53). The energy-eating mud monster of XTU will be followed by similarly faceless menaces in Monolith Monsters later in 1957 and The Blob in 1958. It's harder to make a faceless, speechless monster scary. A few writers and directors have tried.

Bottom line? XTU is a well crafted B sci-fi. The acting is reasonable and the pacing good. The special effects are spare so they don't hinder the story, (like Corman's monster carrot did in It Conquered the World '56). XTU isn't especially well known but worth watching.


Bob Drake said...

Just discovered your excellent blog! I've also just seen this film today, for the first time, and can say for anyone reading this that if you enjoy these 50's atomic sci-fi films this is a really fine one, and has some genuinely creepy moments too.

charlie013 said...

For the record, this movie was a UK release on November, 5 1956. It was released in the USA in May 1957. I know you probably list release dates in the USA, but that can get confusing when you're trying to find a particular movie on your site. I enjoy your site, and visit it frequently, thanks!

Nightowl said...

Hi Charlie, Yes, this site tries to use the USA release dates, which can be off by the original release by a year or more. Multiple release dates are bound to cause confusion

Glad you like the site.

Randall Landers said...

This is another one of my favorites. Less is often more, and it's certainly true in this case. A concise story, well acted, with reasonable VFX. Highly recommended.

John Drake said...

Howdy Film Fans,

First off, when my wife sees me watching this movie she always asks: "How many times have you seen that movie?"

It is a great movie with plenty of atmosphere.

The plot line is solid, in its own way.

The characters are realistic - especially Dr. Royston (played by Dean Jagger). When Peter is in the jeep and trying to get away from the creature the panic in his face is believable.

The scene in the cobalt room must have been a real shocker in its time.

Don't forget the scene when one soldier asks the other if he has worms - a little chuckle factor.

See you at the movies,