How do you kill mud?
Following hot on the heels of Hammer Studios first sci-fi/horror hit, 1955's The Quatermass Xperiment AKA The Creeping Unknown, comes 1956's X The Unknown.
Facts of the Case
The British Army is conducting military maneuvers on a remote Scottish moor when a fissure suddenly erupts. Although everyone is unaware at the time, a creeping mass has emerged from the deepest levels of the Earth's crust. It is a shapeless, unfeeling creature that will kill everything and everyone in its path. But why has it come up from the depths and what does it want?
Unable to ascertain what is going on, an American atomic scientist, Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger), is called in to help investigate. Along with Inspector McGill (Leo McKern), Royston discovers that the thing is hunting out and absorbing radioactive material. With this discovery in hand Royston thinks he has devised a plan to contain and eliminate the creature. It is a dangerous and risky plan but one that must be tried, lest the entire world would eventually find itself succumbing to this creeping horror, which can only be known as X The Unknown.
Hammer Studios knew a winning formula when they saw one, so following the huge success of Quatermass, Hammer had X follow the structure of its predecessor closely. If anything, Jimmy Sangster's script, his first of many for the House of Hammer, was even darker in execution than was Quatermass. A definite cold war/atomic age paranoia hangs over the movie like a fog. It is this feeling that lends the movie a certain degree of authenticity, which director Leslie Norman utilizes to maximum effect. The flip side of this tone however, is that the film is quite chilly, showing little humor or warmth. There is virtually no one to root for or to care about.
One of the keys to effective drama is conflict, and with a threat that shows no emotion, it is in fact a black, lumbering mass, the call for a strong protagonist is especially important. As the lead Dean Jagger (Elmer Gantry, King Creole), is solid and somber but never shows the spark that would inspire the audience to follow him everywhere the movie needs to take us. Unlike Brian Donleavy in the first two Quatermass films, Jagger shows no fear of what he is facing and none of the moral gravitas to lead, quite literally, the troops to victory. It is a workmanlike job, nothing bad mind you, just nothing special.
The only performance that comes close to giving the film its much needed human element is the one turned in by Leo McKern (Ladyhawke, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Rumpole Of The Bailey and the best of the Number 2s in The Prisoner). In this early screen appearance as Royston's trusty Scotland Yard sidekick, McKern brings to the table many of the characteristics that are hallmarks of his work. In particular he shows a keen and vital intelligence that is tempered by a deep humanity. The movie picks up steam whenever he is onscreen and it's a pity he did not work for Hammer more often.
As for Sangster's screenplay, it should be given its due. Within the confines of having to use the first Quatermass film as a sort of template, Sangster attempts to try something a little different. The movie manages to tap into many of the cultural/social fears of the day and exploit them within a science fiction setting. If you listen to the actual words being spoken, there is a compelling movie waiting to be told. All of his hard work is, unfortunately, left behind because of unusually lackluster work from most of the cast.
One other interesting note is that the concept of a deadly, slow moving mass would indeed become a popular one a couple of years later when The Blob would take America by storm. There are definite similarities between the two films, with the latter American one having a vital performance from lead Steve McQueen at its center to drive it forward. X The Unknown is probably a better crafted movie but The Blob is, of course, the one that is fondly remembered.
For the time and in spite of the famously low Hammer budgets, the movie's production values are decent with a major asset coming from the pen of composer James Bernard. As always, Bernard was able to build mood and tension with a minimum of excess. Truly one of the unsung heroes of Hammer Studios, Bernard deserves a lot of credit for the successes within this movie.
On the disc side of things, Anchor Bay turns in a solid if unremarkable transfer. It is obvious right away that the source material used is not of the same level as the ones used for such recent releases as The Abominable Snowman and The Devil Rides Out. The overall image ranges from sharp to quite soft and at most points, everywhere in-between.
Presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and in glorious black and white, I found black levels to be the best thing about the picture. There was almost no pixel breakup or shimmer to notice, with everything being rather solid, if lacking in detail in some spots. Once more the age of the film is evident throughout the movie by the number of defects that are detectable. Some spots are better than others but imperfections such as scratches and nicks abound. Nothing reaches the level of the unwatchable, but it does flirt once or twice with being annoying.
Sound is of the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono variety and it fares somewhat better than the picture. While there is limited frequency inherent to the time frame of the recording, what is heard is quite effective. Background noise has been nicely cleaned up and there is no real background hiss to disturb the soundtrack. Dialogue and music coexist together on a level playing field, with one never drowning out the other.
With extras, the movie's original theatrical trailer is included and I have always found vintage advertising fun to watch. In this case that is certainly true.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
X The Unknown suffers from a definite feeling of "been there, done that." This was a method of storytelling that Hammer had just used the year before and would use again soon with the release of Quatermass 2. Perhaps there is something to the stigma of being in the middle. Whatever the case may be, Writer Jimmy Sangster and Director Leslie Norman did some things right and crafted a well made movie that was let down by some sub-par acting.
At 91 minutes, the movie felt long. This too can be laid at the feet of some poor performances. It's also easy to look at older genre films and make fun of the primitive special effects. Often when the movie is effective these telltale signs of age can be overlooked and forgiven. In the case of X The Unknown it just highlights another thing wrong with the movie.
For the problems with the video, well I am not going to knock Anchor Bay too hard for that. The picture, if taken on its own, is not that bad. It's just when looked at in context of their other excellent Hammer Collection releases, its flaws become more pronounced.
The thing I will get on my soapbox about is Anchor Bay's continued lack of support for either close captioning or subtitles. I cannot continue to stress enough the importance to a small but vocal section of the viewing public this feature is. Captioning should be as basic a part of a release as is the sound or the picture. To ignore the hearing impaired is short term thinking that I hope changes soon.
One more complaint, and this is a follow up to my complaint from the Frankenstein Created Woman disc. Anchor Bay is recycling the "World Of Hammer" episodes, in this case the segment given is called SCI-FI and it is the same one that recently appeared on Quatermass 2. I will almost never complain about extra stuff, but the least Anchor Bay could do is give us fresh material. Come on, guys!
Very much in the Saturday afternoon creature feature mode is Hammer's X The Unknown. While it does have some effective sequences, it also does contain some derivative storytelling as well as some less than ideal acting which holds it back from being a truly fun and creepy ride. Combine this with a below average transfer on the disc and repeated extras and you have got yourself a passable evening's rental.
For real sci-fi thrills, genre fans are best advised to check out Quatermass 2 and hope that The Quatermass Xperiment is coming down the pipeline soon.
X The Unknown is ordered back down to the center of the Earth. Anchor Bay is convicted of crimes against the hearing impaired and is ordered to six weeks of community service. This sentence can be shortened by the inclusion of close captioning in the next wave of Hammer Collection discs. That is all I have. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailer
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