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

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