Monday, October 25, 2010

The Red Eye Report's 2010 October Horrorthon #25: "X the Unknown"

When there's somethin' strange under British soil, who you gonna call? Well, Quatermass is busy at the moment, so in X the Unknown, Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger) answers the call for Queen and country. An expert in all things atomic, Royston is called to investigate when soldiers on a training exercise experience an earthquake that leaves one dead and others covered in radiation burns. Similar incidents occur throughout the area, always around sources of radiation and leaving behind a melted corpse or two. Though he's as wary of accepting the absurd as his superiors, Royston deduces that a force suppressed over several millennia has once more made its way to the surface. Feeding on the radioactivity mankind has come to fear, it grows larger with every meal, leaving Royston scant time to devise a solution to stop it dead in its tracks.

After slogging through the pseudo-academic dud that Quatermass and the Pit turned out to be, I hoped that Hammer's X the Unknown would pick up its pace. For a while, what actually began life as a Quatermass adventure does pretty well for itself, by way of not saving all its thrills and chills for the end. X the Unknown is the title, and it's the unknown that drives this premise, as viewers are wondering what the deuce is going on from the word go. Director Leslie Norman teases and prods you in just the right ways, preserving the story's mystique while keeping you watching to see what happens next. The level of suspense is just as well-paced, starting with a few minor incidents before working its way up to the Incredible Melting Man (which, for a late '50s sci-fi picture, is a pretty gruesome image). The presence of a valid threat is always there, and you know it isn't going to wait til the last ten minutes to actually do anything.

Now I hate to keep bringing up Quatermass and the Pit, but whereas that film got unnecessarily verbose, X the Unknown can be alarmingly simplistic. If it had been a straight-shooter and gone for the typical B-movie yuks, it'd be another story, but it tries to get all cerebral on us to little effect. The flick attempts a conflict between Royston and his skeptical boss (Edward Chapman) that devolves into one of my least favorite movie cliches: the looming crisis that can't be solved because one character is being an obstinate prick. Oh, and remember that steady progression of suspense that was working so effectively? Well, that's ruined once X the Unknown decides to announce the main monster's identity with no fanfare, and while I dare not spoil it myself, let's say that it's hard to accept so many people running in fear of such a snicker-inducing foe. To top it all off, we end on a cryptic note that might have worked had we known where it came from or what the hell it even meant.

So again, a rendezvous with Hammer cinema lets me down, but vintage horror/sci-fi fans could have fun with X the Unknown. Dean Jagger gives a solid performance, the atmosphere can get durn creepy, and the little graphic content there is works like an unsettling charm. X the Unknown isn't the nadir of '50s science fiction, but that it puts on airs with so much rampant goofiness makes it hard to get into on either level.

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