X...the Unknown (1956)
"It rises from 2000 miles below the earth to melt everything in its path!"
A bizarre spate of horrific burns in a Scottish village prompt scientists to think that it's the work of a radioactive creature which has risen up from the Earth's core and broken through the crust.
When The Quatermass Xperiment proved to be such a commercial success, a follow up was inevitable and Hammer set about trying to make this happen. However, it's writer, Nigel Kneale, wouldn't let them use the character of Professor Quatermass due to what he felt had been a weak big screen adaptation of his landmark BBC serial. Not being put off by his decision, Hammer went ahead and got script writer Jimmy Sangster to bash out this Quatermass-style science fiction film anyway and just changed the main character's name. X...the Unknown follows the Quatermass blueprint almost to a tee, so much so that anyone who had missed the title credits at the start could easily mistake this for another outing with Professor Quatermass. Sandwiched between The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, X...the Unknown has a feeling of deja vu already and of being formulaic, which is a pity as it's a pretty solid sci-fi horror.
Like the Quatermass films, the plot is generally believable even when dealing with radioactive monsters, especially in comparison with the dafter sci-fi movies they were churning out in America around the same period, and this makes it all the more interesting to watch. Sangster, who would go on to pen some of Hammer's most famous horror films, makes his Hammer debut here and although the plot isn't as tight as it could have been without Kneale's involvement, Sangster makes the best he can of literally being saddled with the unenviable task of recapturing the essence of what made The Quatermass Xperiment as successful as it was. X...the Unknown has a good mood and, with it being set mostly at night, there is a distinct sense of ‘what is really lurking out there?’ especially since we don't see the radioactive creature until well over an hour into the running time. There's a real attempt to make this more disturbing and horrific than anything Hammer had done before it as we see a man get dissolved in grisly detail. It would look revolting even in today's film market but for 1957, this is really X-rated stuff.
One aspect of the film which it manages to nail perfectly is the monster, which was always the Achilles' heel of this type of old schlocker. X...the Unknown pre-dates The Blob by a few years and but the glowing, jelly-like monster looks more realistic and definitely scarier because it's been filmed in black and white. There are some dodgy-looking scenes involving miniatures but the monster is used sparingly and is effective enough when it's used. The less-is-more approach works wonders here, particularly as more questions are raised throughout the film than are actually answered. Even the vague title doesn't lend us much clue as to what this thing is. Composer James Bernard is back to give us another creepy score to add to the mood of the film and it's amazing just how much atmosphere and mood is built through Bernard's use of sound. He's an unsung hero of the Hammer days, even if some of his scores share striking similarities.
Dean Jagger makes for a convincing scientist in the same mould as Professor Quatermass, just not as brash or arrogant. However, I liked those traits about Quatermass being the pompous scientist and the cold way in which he would treat his colleagues with contempt, almost use them for his own gain. You knew he could make tough decisions for the benefit of his work and that is not the case with Dean Jagger's Dr Royston. He's a solid replacement but just not memorable in the role and his unemotional, rather bland performance can be viewed as workmanlike rather than anything else. Though that's largely down to the script as his co-stars Leo McKern and Edward Chapman also suffer the same fate - their characters are stoic and despite coming face-to-face with a radioactive monster, no one really seems to lose their mind as if this is something they do every day.
On a casting side note, X...the Unknown sees the Hammer debut of Michael Ripper. Of the studio's most famous figures, Ripper would be a mainstay of the Hammer films for over twenty-five years, usually in minor roles such as innkeepers or gravediggers. But he had an unmistakable voice which added a touch of continuity and familiarity to each new horror outing.
X...the Unknown is still a good science fiction film from Hammer, proving that when they did sci-fi well, they did it excellently. Those people, like myself, looking for a regular fix of a Quatermass-style film can be rest assured this is as close as you'll get to the real thing. There is just something a little more unsettling and threatening about these old black and white sci-fi horrors which never fully seem to wrap themselves up when the credits roll. And the quintessential British flavour allows them to stand head and shoulders above their American counterparts.
Director(s): Leslie Norman
Writer(s): Jimmy Sangster (story)
Actor(s): Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern, Anthony Newley, Jameson Clark, William Lucas, Peter Hammond
Duration: 81 mins