Sunday, October 29, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: X is for X ... The Unknown (1957)

In an abandoned gravel pit near Glasgow, Scotland, a group of soldiers are about to wrap up a training exercise involving taking turns with a Geiger Counter to find a small container emitting a detectable but harmless amount of radiation. At least this ersatz game of Marco-Oppenheimer was about to end until a Private Lansing (Cope) reminds his commander, Lt. Bannerman (Hammond), that he hasn’t had a go of it yet. And while his squad mates grumble over this delay, Lansing sets out to find the container hidden by Sgt. Grimsdyke (Ripper), only the Geiger Counter leads him in the opposite direction from which it was buried. And stranger still, after Bannerman confirms his readings, turns out the container Grimsdyke buried has inexplicably disappeared. Then suddenly, the muddy water at Lansing’s feet starts to boil before the ground starts to undulate and heave. And as the squad scrambles for cover, the earth cracks open in a fiery explosion.

This detonation opens a large Y-shaped fissure, which appears to be bottomless -- or it’s at least beyond the range of any scanning equipment. And Lansing, who was closest to the blast, died -- not due to any trauma-induced injuries but radiation poisoning; and the man who tried to rescue him also received severe radiation burns. And perhaps strangest of all, there is now no longer any traces of radioactivity in the area. Completely baffled, a Major Cartwright (Harvey) ropes off the crevice and sends for an expert from the Atomic Energy Laboratory near Lochmouth for a second opinion, who send the brilliant but slightly eccentric Dr. Adam Royston (Jagger) to investigate; but, in the end, he winds up just as stumped as everyone else from the evidence at the scene; and the only plan of action he can suggest is to keep everyone far away from the fissure.

This mystery then deepens further later that night when a local boy, on a dare from his best mate, heads to the ruins of an old castle near the pit to see if the town vagrant sleeps there. But he sees something quite horrific instead and flees, refusing to say what he saw. The following day Royston is called to the local hospital. Seems the boy is now sick and his physician, Dr. Kelly (Bruce), feels all of his symptoms point to radiation poisoning.

Royston concurs and manages to deduce where the boy was headed. He searches the derelict castle, finds the local bum’s still and spider-hole, and is startled to find a busted lead canister that once carried a deadly isotope among his treasures. Royston recognizes it because the thing came from his own private lab! Luckily, there is no trace of radiation left around it.

And so, Royston returns to his lab, which has been violently ransacked, and finds all radioactive materials stored there have disappeared. He is then questioned by an Inspector McGill (McKern), who runs security for the UK Atomic Energy Commission. Seems they’re concerned by the sudden disappearance of all that radioactive material, too. And while Royston believes the incident at the pit and the castle and his lab are all connected, the only way they will find out for sure who or what’s behind it is the boy.

Alas, the young man has succumbed to the radiation exposure. But as Royston gets an earful from the boy’s father, feeling his atomic experiments at the AEL are the root cause of his son’s death, down in the radiology lab of the hospital, an intern and a nurse are getting a little frisky in the dark -- until something breaks into the lab and flash-fries the man alive, leaving a smoking and charred corpse and a screaming nurse behind, whose mind is now broken beyond repair over what she just witnessed.

Investigating the scene of the crime, the evidence shows something melted through the thick protective casing and seemingly devoured all the hospital’s radioactive materials -- just like with Royston’s lab. And while Kelly and McGill can’t figure out how, whatever it was, got into the lab without being seen, well, the kooky Royston has developed a working hypothesis on that: he feels a certain form of life that dates back to when the Earth’s surface was largely molten became trapped under the crust as things cooled off. 

And now, perhaps drawn out by a magnetic shift of some sort, this life-form, this living radioactive blob of mud, that is mobile, can seep through doors and grates, and is emitting so much radiation it can melt or burn through almost anything, has now broken through to the surface in order to find the food it needs to survive in the form of radioactive materials. And to prove this theory, someone will have to descend into the fissure and find this deadly thing before it kills again...

Back in 1951, American movie producer Robert L. Lippert signed a four-year production and distribution contract with Great Britain’s Hammer Films, where Lippert agreed to help finance and distribute Hammer films in America and Hammer would distribute Lippert’s films in the UK. However, there was one catch: Lippert insisted he supply an American star for these Hammer films to give them more domestic appeal. This deal was significant for Hammer on many fronts, starting with their first co-production with Lippert, The Last Page (1951) -- released in the States as Man Bait (1952), when they hired Terence Fisher to direct it, who would play a pivotal role in Hammer’s big horror boom of the late 1950s with Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958). But this boom needed a spark to set it off, and Hammer officially lit the match with the release of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955).

Written as a teleplay by Nigel Kneale, The Quatermass Experiment had already been filmed as a six-part TV serial for the BBC, shot live, and broadcasted in 1953 to much critical acclaim and a wide and appreciative audience. And among its throng of viewers was Anthony Hinds, a producer for Hammer, who felt the tale of a returning astronaut infected by an alien fungus that slowly transforms him into a monster would make a keen movie. Since it began making films back in 1934, Hammer had already developed a pipeline of adaptations of BBC content -- mostly radio productions. Still, when Hammer contacted the BBC just two days after the final episode's broadcast, sending out feelers about acquiring the film rights for the teleplay, they initially balked. 

Seems Kneale also saw the potential of a feature adaptation of his work, and at his urging, the BBC shopped the film rights around to more prestigious producers, ranging from the Boulting Brothers, to Frank Launder, and Sidney Gilliat, but all turned it down, feeling any adaptation would receive an X-certificate from the British Board of Film Censors, meaning no one under the age of 17 would be admitted, which, at the time, would significantly cut into the potential box-office as it excluded the juvenile target audience of most science fiction programming. Hammer, on the other hand, had no such compunctions; in fact, they wound up deliberately pursuing an X-certificate for the feature, even incorporating it into the film’s title. Thus, The Quatermass Experiment became The Quatermass Xperiment.

The film was co-produced by Lippert and his Regal Films, which was a B-Unit front for 20th Century Fox. However, the film wound up being distributed domestically as The Creeping Unknown (1956) by United Artist due to Daryl F. Zanuck’s push to provide films in his new CinemaScope process to appease theater owners, who were none too happy about junking all those now worthless 3-D projectors and were now being asked to widen their screens. The film was directed by another Hammer mainstay, Val Guest, who co-wrote the adaptation with Richard Landau . And per Lippert’s demands, American actor Brian Donlevy took the role of Professor Quatermass, who, despite Nigel Kneale’s vocal displeasure with his casting, takes way too much grief over his performance in this.

Of course, Hammer and Lippert were hoping for a hit but no one could’ve imagined how big a hit The Quatermass Xperiment would turn out to be. And this success of mixing science fiction and horror on an adult level had an immediate impact on Hammer’s production schedule as nearly ten films were wiped from the slate so both money and resources could be spent trying to mimic that box-office success. 

And while Guest, Kneale and Donlevy would return in the sequel, Quatermass 2 (1956) a/k/a Enemy from Space (1957), the brass at Hammer were hoping for something a little more immediate and started slapping and dashing together X...The Unknown (1956) -- a film they originally intended as another Quatermass sequel, even going so far as to the pull the X gag in the title again, but Kneale, who disliked Donlevy that much, refused to sign off on his character being used by anyone else. And so, Hammer instructed one of their production managers turned novice screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, who would also play an indispensable role in Hammer’s pending horror boom, to change the lead character from Bernard Quatermass to Adam Royston.

Now, while both these characters are expatriate Americans scientists working in Britain, both tops in their field of expertise, that’s where the similarities between Quatermass and Royston essentially end. For while Quatermass is both loud and boisterous to the point of belligerence, Royston is very introverted and prone to getting lost inside his own head. In the Quatermass movies, Quatermass is the be all end all in that he usually got everyone into the mess so only he could get them out of it. And when confronted with scientific improbabilities, Quatermass and his ilk would start with the sci-jargon overload while Royston would freely admit he has no clue what’s happening -- or keeps it percolating on a slow-burn in his brain until he’s sure.

And the reason Royston is even at the AEL is in service to others, something the cinematic Quatermass would never acquiesce to, assisting Dr. John Elliott (Chapman) and his son, Peter (Lucas), on an experiment to enrich cobalt as a cheaper, more practical, and safer alternative to uranium and plutonium. But Royston spends most of his time isolated in his own private lab, where he’s currently experimenting on a process that will “speed up radioactive decay” and render these deadly substances inert. His end game for all of this? Neutering all atomic weapons by essentially turning them off while they’re still in the air. And considering that military exercise at the beginning of the film was to train soldiers to find and contain atomic bomb fragments shows the urgency and how vitally important Royston’s experiments are. Well, at least they were until his lab was destroyed. Now, he’s in a race against the clock to stop a radioactive monster prowling around the countryside just as soon as he figures out how to properly stop and kill a sentient pile of radioactive mud.

And while it sounds to me like he’s already halfway there on a possible solution, the creature strikes again, killing two sentries as it oozes back into the fissure after feeding at the hospital. (And one of those soldiers was played by Anthony Newley, which felt kind of like a cathartic payback after sitting through Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?) And that’s why the younger Elliot finds one of their missing bodies after he volunteers to be lowered into the fissure. And as he’s lowered a bit farther down, announced by an eerie glow, the crackling energy it admits, and the angry static from the Geiger Counter, Elliot sees the creature, though the audience still does not. Luckily, the man is hauled out of reach and to safety before he is contaminated or burned. And once he’s free of the harness, he relays what he saw, which confirms Royston’s hypothesis.

Royston also doesn’t think Major Cartwright’s military solution to the problem will be effective but can do nothing to stop it as the commander orders flamethrowers to coat the fissure with napalm before dropping several satchel charges into the breach, hoping the impact will kill the thing, before covering the whole thing over with cement. This, of course, works about as well as filling a gopher hole in with dirt. So, of course, the creature breaks through to the surface again -- only this time we finally get a look at this glowing, undulating, free-form mass of goop as it overruns a car and melts all four of the passengers.

It then makes a beeline for the AEL and their huge pile of cobalt, and all Royston, McGill or the Elliots can do is hopelessly watch as the blob melts several guards and consumes all the radioactive material before once again returning to the fissure. And here, we learn the more the thing consumes, the larger it gets, allowing it to knock over walls and power-lines as it moves between feedings, narrowly missing a chapel used as a refuge for frightened villagers, who had been evacuated from the creature’s projected path.

Knowing the creature will need to feed again, and giving the best educated guess where it will strike next, while the army does its best to clear the path of any potential victims, Royston gets back to work on his device that will neuter any radioactive material. And while he has some success neutralizing a small container of cobalt the process winds up causing it to explode -- but with no fallout. Figuring that’s close enough, or as close as he’s gonna get in the limited time frame, Royston scrambles to modify his machine into something big enough to handle the creature. 

And with Cartwright’s help, they manage to get it all set up at the pit before the creature emerges to feed. And using a jeep loaded up with cobalt as bait, after a few harrowing spins in the mud, the creature is lured between the machines and is bombarded with Royston’s mystery waves until it explodes!

And funnily enough, no one seems more surprised that this actually worked than Royston. But as they approach the fissure to get a reading on the radiation levels, there is another violent explosion -- a secondary explosion Royston can’t account for, meaning the monster might not be destroyed after all, or something worse is lurking just a few feet below as the end credits roll.

Originally, X...The Unknown was supposed to be directed by Joseph Walton, who, in actuality, was Joseph Walton Losey, currently in exile in England after being Blacklisted in Hollywood. Sadly, when star Dean Jagger got wind of this he refused to work with any “communist sympathizer”. And so, Losey was removed from the film and replaced with Leslie Norman. Whether this was right-wing nonsense from Jagger or a flailing attempt at career preservation is not known. Still, it does tend to taint an otherwise wonderfully grounded performance as the irascible Royston. Losey would eventually direct for Hammer, delivering the weirdly offbeat and haunting anti-nuke think piece, These Are the Damned (1962), which officially ended Hammer’s run of glorious black and white sci-fi output, eschewing them for some black and white Hitchcock knock-offs, though I’ve always felt they hewed closer to the five car contrivance pile-ups of William Castle.

At the time of production, Losey’s abrupt departure was publicly written off as due to an unexpected illness. And after digging into the history of the production, it seems Losey really didn’t want to do the picture anyway. And, turns out, neither did Norman as everyone, from cast to crew to the Hammer brass, found the director very off-putting and difficult to work with. Strangely enough, this internal conflict doesn’t really show up on screen as the film is rock solid and kinda creepy -- especially in the beginning, when we don’t really know what’s causing all the damage, where the film is a case study in building suspense and a creeping terror. 

Thus, X… The Unknown feels more like a horror film than science fiction, helped out by Norman’s forgoing the normal documentary and running clock style that defined the Quatermass movies and other monster rampage films of the 1950s, as he and cinematographer, Gerald Gibbs, shot it more like a Gothic thriller from the 1940s as a couple of set-ups and sequences are straight out of the Lewton-Tourneur school of low-budget frights. Thus, it really is too bad this was Norman’s only collaboration with Hammer and his only horror film.

And while there seemed to be a concentrated effort to ground things in a scientific reality, there’s still some wonky pseudoscience employed to patch up a few plot-holes. But making up for this are some terrific F/X courtesy of Jack Curtis, Les Bowie and Vic Margutti, including some nifty miniatures and the realization of the creature itself as a direct and visceral threat as it creeps and leaps and glides around. (The bit where it knocks the stone wall over realized through mattes and miniatures is some top notch stuff.) 

Not to mention a couple of outstanding *bleaurgh* moments when the monster attacks its hapless victims; like when the intern’s hand inflates and explodes as his blood and the water in his tissues are boiled and expands inside his skin; or better yet, the truly ghoulish and gruesome scenes of the monster melting its victims -- especially the guard at the AEL, which appears to be pulled off with melting wax and other bits of goo, which seems to presciently predict a similar demise of the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980).

Add it all up, as I said before, it really is too bad Hammer kind of gave up on their hardcore science fiction films once Curse of Frankenstein hit and hit big, ushering in their era of Gothic chills, blood red color, and tensile cleavage. And due to a dispute between RKO, who helped finance the film, and Warner Bros., who stepped in to pick up the film as RKO finally went bankrupt for good, the film’s release in the States was delayed for almost a year, which is how it wound up playing on a double-bill with Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, where it would help inspire other protoplasmic monsters ranging from The Blob (1958), to The H-Man (1958) to Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959). 

And frankly, I wouldn’t have said no to an immediate sequel to X... The Unknown, where Royston and his crew find out what other creepy-crawlies from the bowels of the earth caused that other explosion. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. And that’s too bad.

Other Points of Interest:

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X …The Unknown (1957) Hammer Films :: Warner Bros / EP: Michael Carreras / P: Anthony Hinds / AP: Mickey Delamar / D: Leslie Norman / W: Jimmy Sangster / C: Gerald Gibbs / E: James Needs / M: James Bernard / S: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern, Anthony Newley, Michael Ripper, Jameson Clark


David said...

A film that scared the hell out of me as a child. So love what we got from Hammer, but do wish we had more like this one. They proved they could easily do science fiction/horror. A shame they did not crank out a ton.

W.B. Kelso said...

I concur with a wish that Hammer had kept on keeping on with these B&W sci-fi flicks instead of chucking it for those fairly effective but not as good William Castle knock-offs of the 1960s.

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