Sunday, 25 October 2015

Sci Fi On Film & The Year 1957

In 1957 an average car in the US would set you back by about $2,749 out of your average yearly wages of $4.550.00, but at least it had big fins and a more powerful engine giving it the feel and appearance of a rocket ship! You probably would have purchased your car using credit seeing that 2/3 of all new cars were bought on credit. Speaking of rocket ships, you might’ve heard the news on your car radio that the Soviet Union had launched the world’s first space satellite called Sputnik. If that was too much of a scary prospect, you might’ve turned the dial to listen to some Rock and Roll music from say, an artist like "Little Richard" followed by an ad for a popular toy like a Slinky or a Hula Hoop. Ah! You finally arrive home as you pull in to the driveway of your $12,220.00 new house…..

Sci Fi Films

Four sci-fi films from 1957 in particular stand out for me and have remained etched in my memory for almost 50 years. They are, 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Kronos and The Monolith Monsters. I first saw them in the early 60’s and they scared the heck out of me.

Back in 1957, there was probably enough going on in the world to scare the heck out of people despite a lot of optimism. Many of the sci- fi films at the time played upon the concerns and perceptions that people had. One major concern would’ve been about the possible use of atomic and hydrogen bombs and their likely consequences in terms of the dangers of radioactivity and the possible destruction of humanity.

Science fiction films for the year 1957:

20 Million Miles to Earth           
The 27th Day        
She Devil              
The Amazing Colossal Man                 
The Astounding She-Monster   
Attack of the Crab Monsters               
Beginning of the End                
The Cyclops         
The Deadly Mantis          
From Hell It Came 
The Giant Claw               
Half Human           
The Invisible Boy  
The Land Unknown         
Monster from Green       
The Mysterians
The Secret of Two Oceans
The Strange World of Planet X
The Unearthly       
The Unknown Terror

Most of the films from 1957 listed above will be featured in this blog. But first, let’s take a look at the events, forces and personalities from that year that shook the world back then and served to shape life in our own time in the second decade of the 21st Century….

1957: Major Events & People

Popular Culture:

Films & TV
  • The Ten Commandments
  • Around the World in Eighty Days

“Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley

  • “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.A World War II drama starring Alex Guinness, William Holden and Jack Hawkins. Winner of multiple Oscars.
  • The Three Faces of Eve
  • "Around the World in 80 Days" receives Academy Award for best picture 
  • "12 Angry Men," starring Henry Fonda
  • Last broadcast of "I Love Lucy" on CBS-TV
  • "American Bandstand," a teenage dance show hosted by Dick Clark makes its network debut on ABC-TV. 
  • "Wagon Train" premiers
  • "Perry Mason," starring Raymond Burr, premiers on CBS-TV
  • The television series "Leave It to Beaver" premiers on CBS and continues for 6 seasons
  • The movie "Peyton Place," starring Lana Turner had its world premiere in Camden, Maine
  • TV series “Sea Hunt” with Lloyd Bridges begins. (I watched this in the Melbourne suburb of Altona in 1962 or 1963 while living in a half-finished building with my parents. I found it fascinating.)
  • “Gunsmoke” is the top ranking network show on television for four seasons

Live Theatre & Musicals

  • The musical "West Side Story," by Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins opens on Broadway 

Popular books, plays & publications

  • “The Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss
  • “From Russia with Love” by Ian Fleming
  • “The Guns of Navarone” by Alistair MacLean
  • "Long Day's Journey into Night" by Eugene O'Neill wins the Pulitzer Prize for drama

Viking Press publishes "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac who typed out the manuscript in 20 days on a single roll of teletype paper

Popular music

The Banana Boat Song  - Harry Belafonte
Elvis Presley - All Shook Up
That'll Be the Day  - Buddy Holly and the Crickets
Elvis Presley - Loving You
Pat Boone - Love Letters In The Sand
Diamonds - Little Darlin'
Tab Hunter - Young Love
Jimmy Dorsey - So Rare
Pat Boone - Don't Forbid Me
Guy Mitchell  - Singing The Blues
Sonny James - Young Love
Elvis Presley - Too Much
Perry Como - Round And Round
Everly Brothers - Bye Bye Love
Debbie Reynolds    Tammy
Buddy Knox - Party Doll
Elvis Presley - Teddy Bear
Elvis Presley - Jailhouse Rock
Marty Robbins - A White Sport Coat (And A Pink Carnation)
Everly Brothers - Wake Up Little Susie
Sam Cooke - You Send Me
Chuck Berry - School Day
Paul Anka - Diana
Jimmie Rodgers - Honeycomb
Jerry Lee Lewis - Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On
Fats Domino - I'm Walkin'
Ricky Nelson - Be-bop Baby
Larry Williams - Short Fat Fanny
Jim Lowe - The Green Door
Billy Williams - I'm Gonna Sit Rlght Down And Write Myself A Letter
Fats Domino - Blueberry Hill
Fats Domino - Blue Monday
Elvis Presley - Love Me Tender
Steve Lawrence - Party Doll
Chuck Berry Rock and Roll Music
Little Richard - Jenny Jenny
Pat Boone - Bernardine
Little Richard - Keep a Knockin'
Chuck Willis - C.C. Rider
Gene Vincent - Lotta Lovin'
Fats Domino - Valley of Tears
Pat Boone - Remember You're Mine
Guy Mitchell - Rock-a-Billy
Larry Williams - Bony Maronie
Rusty Draper - Freight Train

Science & Technology

  • Ultrasound scanning pioneered in Scotland 
  • The first nuclear reactor plant opens for production of electricity in Pennsylvania US

The Soviet Union tests the H Bomb. 

Great Britain tests its first hydrogen bomb on the Christmas Island.

A 37-kiloton nuclear fission bomb, code-named Priscilla, is exploded in the Nevada desert at Frenchman Flat. The US has been manufacturing 10 nuclear bombs a day.

  • South Africa born gastroenterologist, Basil Hirschowitz, introduces the first prototype “fiberscope.” In 1954 he had already begun work using glass fibers to transmit light. Fiber has since been widely used in telecommunications and surgery. 
  • Borazan, a substance harder than diamonds is developed

One of the dreams of science fiction writers and film makers is realized with the start of “The Space Age” when the Soviet Union launches Sputnik (traveler), the first man-made space satellite. The satellite orbits the earth every 96 minutes at a maximum height of 584 miles. The event is timed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.

  • The Soviet Union launches Sputnik Two into orbit, with a dog on board named Laika, the first animal in space 
  • A process for concentrating visible light as opposed to microwaves of a maser is developed by Columbia University doctoral student, Gordon Gould. He is the first to coin the term, “ laser.” 
  • America's first attempt at putting a satellite into orbit fails as Vanguard TV3 only rises a few feet before crashing back down on to the launch pad and exploding. 
  • The US begins its “Corona” project, a secret attempt to put a reconnaissance satellite into orbit 
  • Fritz Wankel brings out his rotary engine 
  • AT&T introduces itsTouchtone phones. 
  • Seymour Cray co-founds Control Data Corp. where he builds the first computer to use radio transistors instead of vacuum tubes 
  • Oral polio vaccine is developed and tested in Congo, Africa 
  • Thalidomide is officially introduced to the market. It is later linked to severe birth defects 

International Affairs

  • Eisenhower Doctrine: Proposal by US President Eisenhower to offer military assistance to Middle Eastern countries to resist Communist aggression 
  • Suez Canal reopens
  • France sends troops to Algeria to crush the rebel movement 
  • Treaty of Rome is signed establishing the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community. The goal is to have people, goods, services and money moving unchecked throughout the Union and to create a common market for all products, especially coal and steel 
  • NATO warns the Soviet Union that any attack will be met with all available means, including nuclear weapons
  • The Distant Early Warning Line, a system of radar stations designed to detect Soviet bombers approaching North America, goes into operation.
  • The United States and Canada agree to create the North American Air Defense Command 
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency is established
  • B-52 bombers begin full-time flying alert in case of attack by USSR
  • Communist leaders meet in Moscow. Mao Zedong predicts that between a third and a half of the world’s population might be killed in a nuclear war and that most of the survivors would be living in the socialist block while “imperialism would be razed to the ground” 
  • Policy of "Pre-delegation authority" is established when Pres. Eisenhower gives authority to senior military commanders to retaliate with nuclear weapons if the president cannot be reached or is unable to respond to a nuclear attack against the US 

Social & Political Events, Movements & Reforms

  • Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to fight racial segregation by means of nonviolent protests 
  • The Georgia Senate approves Sen Leon Butts' bill barring blacks from playing baseball with whites
  • The US Supreme Court, in Butler v. Michigan, overturns a Michigan statute making it a misdemeanor to sell books containing obscene language that would tend to corrupt "the morals of youth"
  • Mao’s policy of “Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend is reversed due to criticism and some 300,000 intellectuals are jailed or sent to the countryside to perform manual labor
  • South African government approves race separation in universities
  • Pope Pius XII published his encyclical ” Invicti Athletae” 
  • The Tuskegee boycott begins as blacks boycott city stores

National Guard called out to prevent nine black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock. Pres. Eisenhower responds with Federal troops to enforce federal law for integration.

  • President Eisenhower signs into law the first civil rights bill to pass Congress since Reconstruction
  • NYC is the 1st city to legislate against racial or religious discrimination in the housing market with its Fair Housing Practices Law

The social and literary Beat Movement is born: 

The Beat Generation sport beards, bongo drums and sandals. They have their own style of attire, use “hip” vocabulary and experiment with Zen and pot. Major figures of the movement are novelist Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg. Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road" is the beatnik’s bible

  • A group of scientists and supporters from around the world gathered in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, to call attention to the risks of nuclear war

World Firsts

  • Walter "Fred" Morrison applies for a patent for a "flying toy" which we now know as the “Frisbee.” It is first produced by The Wham-O Company and is called the “Pluto Platter”
  • Three B-52's take off from Castle Air Force Base in California on the first nonstop, round-the-world flight by jet planes, which lasts 45 hours and 19 minutes
  • The Hamilton Watch Company is the first to introduce an electric watch 
  • The Ryan X-13 Vertijet becomes the first jet to take-off and land vertically. Take that Harrier!
  • The first experimental sodium nuclear reactor operates 
  • The first British hydrogen bomb was detonated on Christmas Island in South Pacific
  • “The Seawolf,” the first submarine powered by liquid metal cooled reactor, is completed 
  • “Grayback,” the first submarine designed to fire guided missiles, is launched.
  • Marine Maj. John Glenn sets a transcontinental speed record when he flies a jet from California to New York in 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8 seconds
  • Althea Gibson becomes the first black tennis player to win a Wimbledon singles title 
  • The U.S. surgeon general, Leroy E. Burney reports that there is a direct link between smoking and lung cancer. Whodda thunked it! 
  • Santa Susana in Los Angeles County begins receiving the nation’s first commercial electricity from a small, civilian-owned, nuclear reactor. After It is shut down in 1964, scientists will later report that the plant might be responsible hundreds of cancer cases 
  • The United States conducts its first underground nuclear test, code-named "Rainier," in the Nevada desert 
  • USSR launches the first intercontinental multistage ballistic missile 
  • The first balloon flight to exceed 100,000 feet takes off from Crosby, Minnesota
  • Market researcher, James Vicary claims that he has invented a new way to get people to buy things, whether they want them or not via a process called “subliminal advertising.” He will later admit that his results were fabricated. In 1898 a book The New Psychology by E.W. Scripture was published which laid out most of the principles of subliminal response

USSR launches the first intercontinental multistage ballistic missile while later the United States successfully test-fires the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time


  • Humphrey Bogart dies in Los Angeles of cancer of the esophagus 
  • Arturo Toscanini, Italian-US conductor dies in NYC
  • Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy drinks himself to death
  • John Simon Ritchie, later known as Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, is born in England
  • French author Albert Camus is awarded the Nobel Prize in literature

Jimmy Hoffa is elected president of the Teamsters Union 

  • Elvis Presley is given a draft notice to join US Army for National Service. He also purchases a mansion in Memphis, Tennessee and calls it Graceland and he makes another appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show


  • President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon are sworn in for their second terms of office
  • British PM Anthony Eden resigns in the wake of the Suez Crisis
  • Harold Macmillan becomes prime minister of Britain, following the resignation of Anthony Eden 
  • The Russian government announces that military hero Marshal Georgi Zhukov, has been relieved of his duties as Minister of Defense. Khrushchev accuses Zhukov of promoting his own "cult of personality" and sees him as a threat to his own popularity


Boxer Middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson loses, then wins and once again loses his title

Crime, Corruption & The Law

  • The FBI arrests Jimmy Hoffa on bribery charge
  • US Police and customs agents seize copies of “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg 
  • Mob underboss Frank Scalice is shot to death at a produce market in the Bronx, New York
  • Mob boss Albert Anastasia, the "Lord High Executioner" of "Murder Inc.," is shot to death in a barber shop inside the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York

Strange Stuff

Two US fighter planes are scrambled and ordered to shoot down an unidentified flying object over the English countryside.

Death & Disaster

  • More than 500 people are killed after Hurricane Audrey rampages through coastal Louisiana and Texas 
  • Windscale plutonium production reactor (Sellafield) fire north of Liverpool, England, spreads radioactive iodine and polonium through the countryside and into the Irish Sea. Livestock in the immediate area are destroyed, along with 500,000 gallons of milk. As many as 1,000, cancer deaths will be linked to the accident. PM Harold Macmillan orders the disaster to be hushed up 
  • Colorado Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant fire releases some plutonium in the smoke. The fire was kept secret until 1969 when another fire released more plutonium 
  • A flu pandemic begins in China and kills 1-4 million people. It causes some 70,000 deaths in the United States 
  • A nuclear waste container explodes at the Mayak plant in the southern Urals of the USSR releasing 20 million curies of deadly strontium and cesium and contaminating some 9,200 square miles 

Other Interesting People & Events

  • The Cavern Club ( the venue where the Beetles started) opens in Liverpool . Coincidentally, it is this very year that John Lennon meets Paul McCartney and invites him to join his Quarrymen. McCartney will soon introduce Lennon to George Harrison

And somewhat ambiguously….

In 1957, Vice-president Richard Nixon was stoned in Caracas 

(Take that any way you wish to!) 

Ah, 1957…What A Year!

©Chris Christopoulos 2015

Thursday, 15 October 2015

X: The Unknown (1956)

Imaginative, action-packed, thought-provoking, suspenseful & a lot of fun

Directed by Leslie Norman, Joseph Losey
Produced by Hinds
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Music by James Bernard
Cinematography: Gerald Gibbs
Edited by James Needs
Production Company: Hammer Film Productions
Distributed by Warner Bros (US)
Running time: 81 minutes
Budget: $60,000 (US)


Dean Jagger: Dr. Adam Royston
Edward Chapman: John Elliott
Leo McKern: Insp. 'Mac' McGill
Anthony Newley: LCpl. 'Spider' Webb
Jameson Clark: Jack Harding
William Lucas: Peter Elliott
Peter Hammond: Lt. Bannerman
Marianne Brauns: Zena, the Nurse
Ian MacNaughton: Haggis
Michael Ripper: Sgt. Harry Grimsdyke
John Harvey: Maj. Cartwright
Edwin Richfield: Soldier burned on back
Jane Aird: Vi Harding
Norman Macowan: Old Tom
Neil Hallett: Unwin

To end our look at classic sci-fi films for the year 1956, we have X the Unknown, a British science fiction horror film made by the Hammer Film Productions company. Over the years the British have made some fine sci-fi films and series and have done so using far less resources than their US counterparts. This film, together with The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957), form part of a trilogy of films that convey the prevailing Cold War anxieties of the time, as well as painting a picture of a modern Britain struggling to come to terms with its diminishing status as a world power. X the Unknown stands as a kind of audio-visual social document that conveys the atmosphere of Britain in the late '50s.


Spoilers follow….

Click Go The Geigers; Click, Click, Click…

To the accompaniment of James Bernard's ominous music score, the film opens with the credits and title over a bleak muddy field used as military training ground somewhere in Scotland. The rising crescendo of string instruments almost serve to jangle our nerves and set them on edge.

A soldier, corporal "Spider" Webb wields a Geiger counter and is searching for a buried target. Our expectations are set up as the element of potential danger and the nature of the possible threat are apparently indicated by the incessant clicking of the Geiger counter. It is soon obvious, however, that this is merely a military training exercise.

After Webb locates the cylinder and the soldiers are about to pack up for the day, Lancing declares, “Please sir, I haven’t had a turn yet!” A fateful decision on his part! In one of several aside scenes showing events from the point of view of minor characters, our local Rosencrantz and Guildenstern duo, Haggis and Webb, find plenty to complain about Lancing’s show of eagerness: “I’ll give ‘im ‘I haven’t had a go yet!’” As Lancing begins his search. Webb tries to guide him to the target, and observes in frustration, “he couldn’t find his nose on his stupid face.” The nifty cameral work effectively aids in this minor character view of events.

Lancing suddenly picks up a stronger radioactive source. Sgt. Grimsdyke states that “We’ve got a reading on the counter we shouldn’t have.” Lt. Bannerman orders Sgt. Grimsdyke to get hold of Major Cartright. Major Cartright soon pulls up in a Jeep and is taken to the location of the strong radioactive reading.

We are once again invited to see events from the minor characters’ perspective whereby the two soldiers believe “It’s a bloomin’ uranium mine” and consider the possibility of being able to “stake a claim.” Not a far-fetched proposition at the time when prospectors did try to make their fortune during the uranium mining boom just as people had done during previous gold rushes.

After Lancing marks the location with a stick, he notices the water starting to bubble just where he placed that stick. Suddenly the ground begins to open up and appears to almost swallow the seemingly transfixed Lancing. Amazing what consequences for an individual’s life can result from just one decision or choice made by that individual! Destiny? Fate? Accident? Circumstance? Coincidence? Luck? The whim of the Gods? God’s will? Shit happens? Only a fool will try to tell you for certain!

The Establishment

At the Lochmouth Atomic Energy Facility, the director's son, Peter Elliott is busily processing nuclear material (Cobalt) and is substituting for Dr. Royston who is performing experiments in his lab. The director, John Elliott enters the scene in search of Royston who has the audacity to fail to respond to repeated pages for him.

In the meantime, Dr. Adam Royston is conducting an experiment when suddenly static on this radio indicates that the chemical element he has been working on is highly radioactive.

As soon as Royston returns to the facility, the director points out to him that he is only to work on approved assigned tasks, and not his own projects: “I shall decide what you should do and shouldn’t.” He then sends Royston to check out the site of the radioactive discovery.

At the test site, the press have got wind of the story and are asking pertinent questions such as, “Do you think it is atomic?” and “How do you account for its absence now?” Royston inspects the injured soldiers and obtains some partial answers. His experience soon tells him what the nature of the injuries are: Radiation burns! Royston later informs the Major, "There's nothing more we can do out here. I suggest you leave a couple of men on guard."

As destiny, fate, accident, circumstance, coincidence, luck, the whim of the gods, God’s will, shit happens or whatever would have it, we know who will be chosen to stand guard! Our two selected erstwhile British soldiers reveal what is really important to them: “It’s alright for him; he’s had something to eat.”

Road To Wisdom

That night Royston and Peter drive back to the atomic facility and discuss the mysterious affair. Royston declares that it is important that they not be carried away by “nameless horrors creeping around in the night.” The reaction of the driver and his expression upon hearing this reveal the impact that such an event of apparent scientific curiosity can have on the minds and imaginations of those unfamiliar with the world of science and the occurrence of extraordinary natural phenomena.

When called on to explain what he thinks has been going on, Royston can only reply with, “I don’t know.” He says this several times throughout the film. Here we have an unusual protagonist hero who does not follow the rules, is a senior citizen, wields a walking stick and can only offer up “I don’t know” by way of explanation as to what has been taking place! Admitting that one does not know is in fact a first step on the path toward acquiring true wisdom and knowledge.

The first important bit of obvious and self-evident useful knowledge gained by Royston is that “forces don’t just split the earth and burn people with radiation.”

Go on; I dare you to!!

Two boys, Willie and Ian, venture out into the woods to play a game of dare involving one of them going to a tower in which resides "Old Tom." Willie Harding furtively makes his way through the brush and approaches the tower. In a most creepily effective scene, we see Willie via a stalking creature's point-of-view shot and are then presented with a close-up of Willie’s face as his eyes widen in horror. He then backs away terror-stricken and runs headlong past Ian.

The terrifying nature of the entity is so far conveyed solely by its impact, by Its association with other dangerous elements, by conjecture concerning its nature and by the reactions of those who come into contact with it. No need to confront the audience with its physical appearance just yet!

Pieces To A Puzzle

Willie has now wound up in hospital with severe burns. Royston is there with the doctor to examine the burns which it is suspected have been caused by radiation. Willie’s father, Jack Harding asks, “Burned? By what?” Royston replies, “That’s what we’re trying to find out.” Willie’s parents then tell Royston that he should talk to the boy, Ian.

Royston goes to the church to question Ian who is reluctant to talk about what happened: “I canny! I canny! I swore an oath!” Ian, however, finally divulges what happened and where.

Royston then drives out to the tower where “old reprobate” Tom is ensconced with his whiskey still. Royston notices a soot-like substance on the floor and a liquid from the still dripping through the ceiling. After waking Tom up, Royston spots a radioactive container on the shelf which contains Tritium (Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen) which has been taken from his workshop. Royston barks out at old Tom, “Stay away from it man! It may kill you!” The substance in the container however proves to be inert.

At Royston's lab it is obvious that a burglary has taken place with evidence of broken glass and damaged equipment. There is also the presence of the soot-like substance around the lab. Royston explains that the container holds tritium which is unstable and has a half-life of 28 years. However, it now gives no reading at all and is inert. It is as if the energy has been “sucked right out of it.”

Inspector McGill played by Leo McKern is part of Internal Security from the Atomic Energy Commission. He has come to investigate since a crime involving radiation has apparently been committed.

Director Elliot believes that this “crime” has nothing to do with the “establishment.” For “establishment” we could understand the word as signifying the atomic facility or we could view it in terms of The Establishment, that bastion of British tradition, authority and orthodoxy. In opposition to this, we have the maverick and unconventional Dr Royston who has the capacity to think outside of the box and who, according to McGill, understands “the basic facts of science.” It is Royston who McGill turns to for help with his investigation of the mysterious crime.

In a heart wrenching scene, poor Willie Harding who “never regained consciousness,” soon dies. His father, Jack Harding confronts Royston. He tells him, "You meddle with things that kill…. You're not safe, you're a murderer." This outburst hurts but is understandable. Royston firmly believes that scientists like him “only try to create. Not destroy.”

Not so Dr Royston. Even that true Renaissance man, Leonardo Da Vinci applied his talent to developing the art of warfare, not to mention how much scientific and technical ingenuity ever since has been devoted to coming up with ever increasingly efficient ways of wiping out human beings from the face of the earth. Then there are the destructive unintended consequences that are often the by-product of human scientific progress to consider…..

Lab Limbo: 'X'-Rated!

In one of the scenes whose explicit special effects served to earn X-The Unknown an 'X Certificate,' restricting it to adult audiences, lab technician, Harry Unwin engages in a bit of hanky-panky with nurse Zena. Suddenly the lab equipment starts on its own and Harry goes into the lab to investigate.

In another point of view shot we see a terrified Harry backing away up against the wall. Zena, in the next room, witnesses what is happening through the glass shielding.

We have a close shot of her terror-twisted face and hear her demented screams as she watches Harry being devoured by the creature, with the flesh on his face and hands melting like wax and being stripped away, leaving only bone.

The camera then zooms onto Harry’s hand, the fingers of which are shown to be swelling and blistering.

Royston and McGill later examine the lab. The radium storage vault is melted and covered in the soot-like substance as on previous occasions elsewhere. Royston concludes, "Obviously the radium was the target" and that the creature “can take up any shape it needs to.” McGill informs Royston that the Major has posted soldiers (yes, our two friends!) at the original location of the fissure.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead

Here we have two of the British military’s finest, Haggis and Webb, on guard at the fissure. Haggis hears something and spots a luminous glow out by the fissure. Our dynamic duo are right on top of things as can be judged from bits of their conversation:

“You better go and have a look.”
“Why me?”
“Why don’t you and me go to Glasgow at our next 48?”

Haggis eventually gathers together his cahonas and goes to have a look. He calls to his buddy Spider Webb then suddenly screams. Webb then takes off after Haggis but only manages to find his rifle covered with the sooty substance.

We next have yet another point of view shot through the eyes of the approaching menace through which we see Webb’s look of horror as he futilely fires his machine gun at the creature. Our last sight of Webb is of him screaming and falling down. Later a torn cap is retrieved and stands as pathetic testimony to the fact that our two fellows indeed may have had no control over their destinies; that it was all just written for them as part of the script and like all of us they just merely played out their parts!

Must be some kind of logical explanation?

At the atomic facility, Royston calls a meeting at which he puts forward his ideas concerning the creature which amount to “partly fact” but “mostly theory.” He suggests that the creature lives underground and is intelligent, inasmuch as certain forces in the center of the earth have managed to develop an entity with intelligence. Over time, energy has been gradually compressed by the earth’s crust. Every fifty years or so, a planetary alignment exerts a greater pull on the earth. The creature has had to come to the surface as the area in which it inhabits constricts. In order to live, it requires energy and only fifty years previously there was nothing on the surface for it to eat. Energy can only be fed with more energy which now it has in abundance!

As our experience of the universe increases, we may well be faced with the possibility that extra-terrestrial life forms, including intelligent and sentient forms of life, don’t necessarily have to be of the carbon based humanoid variety. There may very well be silicon-based, gaseous and even energy-based forms of life that will force us to reconsider all that we thought we know about what constitutes life. Right now, we just “don’t know.”

In answer to the question as to what to do about the creature, Royston with his characteristic honesty replies with, “I don’t know.” The director, on the other hand, with his equally characteristic arrogance brands Royston’s hypothesis as being "absolute rubbish."

The Decent 

"Peter, what did you see down there," 
That filled you with such terror? 
In dark and deadly depths of despair 
Saw you a thing of such horror, 
As “something out of a nightmare?”

The military have made the necessary preparations for a decent into the fissure. Peter volunteers to go down into the fissure. On the way down, he encounters a uniform and skeletal remains of one of the soldiers on a ledge.

As he continues his decent, his Geiger counter suddenly registers a radiation reading. In a panic, Peter quickly reacts and calls out, “Get me out of here quick! Faster! Faster!”

We can do this either the easy way, or the hard way…

After extracting Peter from the fissure, The Major informs Royston that his orders are to “kill whatever it is and concrete the area all over.” Here we have a conflict between the military mindset (“I think it’ll do the trick”) and Royston’s more considered scientific approach which is seen by the Major as being too “complicated.”

Back in his lab, Royston expresses his doubts to McGill. In relation to the nature of “this ‘X’ – this unknown quantity,” he asks, "How do you kill mud?" He then informs McGill who is leaving for London that he has been investigating the possibility of disintegrating atomic structure without the need for an explosion.

Come and get it !

At the fissure, the creature bursts out of its concrete tomb and is finally revealed and seems like a precursor to the creature in The Blob (1958)! Meanwhile, the atomic pile at the atomic facility is now inactive and the cobalt is being moved elsewhere. McGill calls his headquarters to request a delay in his return to London but the phone line is crackling and he has difficulty hearing his boss. We don’t need three guesses as to what’s causing this!

McGill then overhears a police report about, "people melting." He grabs the police report and rushes to the location. Once there, in a scene that shows how lucky we are in the 21st Century to have mobile phones in an emergency, McGill finally is able to call Royston at the facility and inform him that four people have been melted.

Royston, the Director, and Peter make use of a map of the area. Royston suggests that the creature can sense radiation and moves in a straight line. Making use of the map, Royston is able to determine that the creature is "on its way for the biggest meal of its life." - the Atomic Energy Establishment.

The creature makes its way to one of the guard posts and melts a guard before moving on to a building and absorbing the cobalt. A path is cleared for the creature when it returns to the fissure. Urgent action is needed that night for its next target will be a larger nuclear facility with the city of Inverness lying between the creature and the facility.

In Royston’s workshop another test is performed with a sample being bombarded with radio waves. Success seems likely as the Geiger counter reading eventually shows zero. Suddenly, the container starts to glow and then it explodes. Despite the possibility that it won't work, there is little choice but to undertake this experiment on a larger scale and try it on the creature at the fissure site where the required equipment is situated.

“Bring out the Geigers!”

Royston comes up with a plan to use a container of cobalt as radioactive "bait" on the back of a Jeep to entice the creature out of the fissure and have it situated between the radio scanners which need to be in sync.

The tension is ramped up when Peter takes over driving the Jeep from the ill driver. Against orders he reverses closer to the fissure to lure the creature out. All the while Royston is shouting to him, “Peter, don’t go any closer! Don’t be a fool!” How ironic seeing this comes from a maverick who plays by his own rules!

The creature does eventually emerge and pursues the Jeep until it is situated between the scanners. A high-pitched sound is heard as the creature begins to glow and expand. Suddenly it explodes and disappears. Royston calls for Geiger counters to obtain a reading. As they approach the fissure, an even larger explosion occurs.

At the end, Royston approaches the fissure, peers into it and makes a strange almost enigmatic comment in answer to a question about what happened: “I don’t know. It shouldn’t have happened.” Perhaps Royston’s answer is elaborated for the viewer by the film itself in its articulation of the fear of science perhaps being allowed to run amok with such drastic consequences for the world…..

Points Of Interest

X The Unknown was inspired by the success of The Quatermass Xperiment and was intended to be a sequel to that film, but writer Nigel Kneale refused permission for the character of Bernard Quatermass to be used.

The original director of the film was Joseph Losey but he was replaced by Leslie Norman from Ealing due to illness. Losey was an American director who had moved to the UK after being placed on the Hollywood blacklist.

It turns out that Leslie Norman was unpopular with the cast and crew due to his not being able to direct people very well despite his proficiency with the technical aspects of directing. He apparently, according to some, complained a lot, could be very harsh and employed abusive language. Still, this didn’t stop him putting together a very decent film of its type.

The location of Buckinghamshire in South East England was used in X the Unknown for some of the exterior shots of the moors and the surrounding countryside.

X The Unknown
is an excellent example of a film that works so well in black and white in which the high-contrast black and white photography serves to create a very creepy and moody atmosphere.

X the Unknown works well for many reasons apart from those outlined above. First, there is the film’s concept, and premise, which though a bit far-fetched, holds together quite well with its own logic. Second, the cast does quite a good job with roles that are not overplayed nor are the characters particularly stereotypical. Thirdly, a good story more than makes up for some rudimentary special effects. Finally, there’s the almost happy ending with a good tinge of ambiguity thrown in for good measure.

©Chris Christopoulos 2015