Monday, October 29, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: X is for X! The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)

When Dr. Sam Brandt can’t find anything ophthalmologically wrong with his friend and colleague, Dr. James Xavier, he’s curious as to why someone with perfect 20-20 vision wanted another check-up so soon after his last appointment only a few months prior -- unless it has something to do with his patient’s experiments in ocular capacity. Seems Dr. Xavier (Milland) has made it his life's work to increase the power and range of the human eye, which currently, Xavier bemoans, only reacts to about 10% of the electromagnetic spectrum. But now he’s had a clinical breakthrough in a chemical treatment to remedy these shortcomings.

Thus far, Xavier has only tested his Chemical X formula on his lab animals but feels the time has come for the next step and test the treatment on a human subject. For this honor, Xavier has volunteered himself. And his reasoning on this aren’t so much altruistic but egotistical, essentially making sure he’s the first one to see what no other person on Earth has ever seen before. This would explain his obsession on the condition of his eyes; to make sure they’re in perfect working order before he starts altering them. And after getting the full pitch on what he might see, despite Xavier’s confidence, Brandt (Stone) preaches caution while moving forward, saying only the gods can see everything. But his friend only smiles, saying he’s about to catch up.

With a clean bill of health on his eyes, Xavier returns to his lab at the hospital, where he also has privileges as a surgeon. And that’s one of the main goals of these experiments; hoping it will open a whole new window into medical diagnostics and surgery. I mean, imagine if an oncologist or a cardiologist no longer needed X-rays but could use their own eyes as a portable cat-scan? Xavier has already imagined this, and is sure he can make it a reality. But this will require time and money and sweat in the lab, and to accomplish this Xavier must constantly jump through hoops for Dr. Diane Fairfax (Vlis), who is the chief financial liaison for the foundation bankrolling all the medical research at the hospital. And seems they’re a little concerned about all the money Xavier has spent thus far with nary a report on any progress. With that, Xavier says a report won’t be necessary and offers a practical demonstration instead.

Now, this demonstration involves a fairly elaborate set-up. The gist of it is Xavier has a cute little monkey who has been conditioned to flip the switch on a corresponding colored light bulb to match the color of paper he shows the primate; white, red, and blue. And once he demonstrates this to Fairfax, Xavier then doses the monkey’s eyes with Chemical X, places the stacked colored pieces of paper in front of his test subject and then waits. Soon enough, the monkey lights up the white bulb, then the red, and finally the blue. With the added X-enhancement, the monkey was able to see through the layers and perceive all four colors at once to Fairfax’s utter astonishment. However, while apparently successful, the test subject suddenly keels over. A necropsy shows the animal died of heart failure due to a massive full system shock. But Xavier does not see this as any kind of red flag. No. He believes the primate merely lacked the mental capacity to properly process what it was perceiving and feels the more advanced human brain can handle it -- whatever “it” may be.

And so, after much heated debate, Xavier finally manages to bully both Brandt and Fairfax into assisting him with the initial trial: one single drop of Chemical-X into each eye of the patient. Then, after a brief period of adjustment while the drug takes full effect, Xavier can suddenly read a closed manuscript and spot a missing button hidden by Brandt’s tie. With this success, Xavier presses on and tries two drops in each eye. This time, however, he promptly passes out as his brain and nervous system cannot cope with the sudden massive influx of sensory data. And Xavier remains unconscious for two whole days. Meantime, while he recovers, Fairfax and Brandt must present his findings to the foundation’s board in Xavier’s absence, who are not all that impressed, feeling the whole test might’ve been a hoax. And seeing no real practicality for seeing through walls or people’s clothes, aside from a lewd thrill, the board votes to cut funding and shut down Xavier’s lab immediately.

When a recovered Xavier gets the bad news, he’s understandably upset. Doubly so when his efforts to convince the hospital to further fund him also ends in failure. Undaunted he vows to continue with his experiments until his supply of Chemical X is exhausted. Meantime, Xavier discovers the effect of the drug may be cumulative as he could still clearly see while his eyes were bandaged over during his recovery, and now he can suddenly see through people’s clothes without taking another dose. 

This leads to a fairly hilarious scene when Fairfax, who's obviously fallen for him, cons the socially awkward Xavier into attending a cocktail party / shindig at a colleague’s house with her. And as the others tear up the rug, Xavier bemusedly moves through the dancing crowd, ogling all the pretty naked women to his enhanced eyes. (Naked in a 1963 cinematic sense, mind you.) Fairfax asks him to dance and sniffs out what he’s doing when he compliments her on a birthmark near her left breast, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “Eyes up here, asshole."

Anyhoo, Xavier has bigger and better plans for his new powers -- for lack of a better word, like peering inside a young patient’s body and discovering she’s been misdiagnosed by the chief surgeon, Dr. Willard Benson (Hoyt), who will operate in the morning -- a misdiagnosis that will most likely kill the patient on the operating table. But Benson will not listen to Xavier’s second opinion, forcing his fellow surgeon to take drastic action, where he incapacitates Benson, slicing his hand open with a scalpel, and takes over the operation. But even though his diagnosis proves right and the patient is saved and expected to make a full recovery, Benson cannot let Xavier’s rash action go unaccounted for and plans to bring charges of malpractice and won’t stop until his medical license is revoked.

And if all of that wasn’t bad enough, the side-effects of the drug, including intense migraine pain, and a sense of foreboding over what won’t quite come into focus yet, have an agitated Xavier on edge and on the verge of a mental breakdown. And as Fairfax and Brandt try to talk some sense into him, and to stop dosing himself, Xavier angrily lashes out and accidentally knocks Brandt through a plate glass window when he tried to sedate him, who then plummets several stories to his grisly death. And while this was an accident, after the incident during the surgery, where he already attacked one doctor, with everyone else already thinking he’s gone crazy, Fairfax fears no one will believe them. And so, she encourages Xavier to run because she doesn’t need any special eye-drops to see what will happen if he gets caught, arrested, charged with murder, and sent to the gas chamber...

In the summer of 1962, American International Pictures, despite the recent success of their burgeoning Poe cycle, were still feeling the financial pinch from their near bankruptcy in the late 1950s. And so, strapped for cash, The Haunted Palace (1963) was put on hiatus, freeing up director Roger Corman, who was ready to shake the cobwebs of these Gothic melodramas out of his system for a bit, to head to Europe with a small crew to chase around the touring Grand Prix and film it for The Young Racers (1963), which was based on a script by Bob Campbell concerning bullfighters that Corman took some white-out to.

Upon his return to California, Corman took a meeting with Jim Nicholson, co-founder of AIP. Turns out they still didn’t have enough money for the next Poe picture yet but did have enough for a smaller feature. And always the idea man, Nicholson once more had a saleable exploitation title in search of a picture -- X! The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963). Over the next few days, they kicked around ideas for a plot, which included versions of a jazz musician having a bad trip after a tainted drug reaction and a lowlife who gains his powers by accident, who then uses his new found skills to commit crimes. But those all felt like dead ends to Corman, plot wise, who then finally came up with a more reasonable solution:

Thinking the concept hewed best if it wasn’t an accident at all but the end result of an experiment by some research scientist, these visual enhancements would keep increasing in strength until the climax, where the protagonist would go through a mystical experience when his eyes pierce the center of the universe and he essentially looks upon God. Will his mind be able to take it? Or, like Icarus, would this action cause his doom? Audiences would have to buy a ticket to find out.

Turning this notion of a religious parable over to Ray Russell and Robert Dillon, they turned it into a shooting script. But when it came time to film it, the director started getting cold feet and nearly pulled the plug, feeling the script didn’t have the bite he’d expected and the production just didn’t have the budget to pull off the “X-effect” properly.

Since the beginning of his career in cheap genre films, Corman always counted on the suspension of disbelief from his audience, who were drawn in by the lurid titles and fantastic poster art; and these audiences would go along with the picture that went with them, even though they seldom lived up to the hype, if they could detect a genuine effort to give them what they paid for no matter how threadbare and shoddy the product turned out to be.

And so, while Spectarama only consisted of some solarized negatives, a few optical in camera tricks, some tastefully filmed nudity, and a dozen articulated skeletons, which all worked well enough, Corman would rely heavily on the human elements of the story to tell his tale. And the majority of the budget went to star, Ray Milland, who is rock solid and adds a lot of gravitas as the tormented James Xavier, whose reaction to what he sees is what really gives the film any weight. This is not some mad scientist, but someone willing to take the next step for the betterment of mankind. Only it turns out mankind wasn’t quite ready for this next step yet as Xavier, now a fugitive, who left everything behind except his supply of Chemical X, is hiding out in plain sight at the sideshow of some seedy seaside carnival.

See, Xavier has taken on the guise of Mentallo and has billed himself as a psychic, using his powers to read the contents of pocketed wallets and personal belongings to wow his audience and keep the tickets selling until he can raise enough money to continue his experiments -- not to enhance the effects of Chemical-X, but to find an antidote, as Xavier must now wear lead-lined goggles to dampen his sense-overload lest he go mad. The irony of this is not lost on Xavier. He had wanted to see the light, and now all he wants is a few relieving moments of darkness.

Meantime, his partner, a carny huckster named Crane (Rickles), unable to figure out how the elaborate ruse is pulled off so accurately -- and believe me, this guy knows all of them, is beginning to suspect Mr. Mentallo possesses some sort of bona fide supernatural power. And when there’s a terrible accident at the carnival, Crane watches as Xavier breaks character and tends to the severely wounded woman and “sees” she has fractured ribs and a shattered leg.

With that, Crane hatches a plan to really start raking in the dough, setting up his partner in a rundown basement apartment somewhere in the city, where he starts a whisper campaign saying the tenant is a psychic healer, who can diagnose what ails you for a fee disguised as a free will donation. But this successful scam comes to a crashing halt with the arrival of Dr. Fairfax, who is once more practicing medicine after being fired by the board of trustees after the incident with Dr. Brandt. And she was curious to meet the miracle man who diagnosed several of her patients with startling accuracy, and had a hunch it might be Xavier. Turns out Crane had also found out Xavier’s true identity and warns he will rat him out to the cops if he bails on their fleecing operation. But Xavier calls his bluff and leaves with Fairfax anyway. And as they flee the scene, he catches her up on how far the Chemical X treatments have taken him by revealing he sees a “a city unborn, flesh dissolved in an acid of light, a city of the dead” as people appear to him as nothing more than skeletons now.

And the only way to stop this is if the two can develop the elusive antidote, and for that they will still need money. On that front, Xavier hits upon an idea -- and idea so simple he curses himself for not exploiting it sooner. And that’s why he and Fairfax wind up in Las Vegas, where Xavier uses his power to find a slot machine ready to pay out. And then uses these winnings as his stake at a blackjack table, where his ability to see what cards are coming next soon has $20,000 worth of chips piled up next to him. This incredible streak also draws the attention of the pit-boss, who feels Xavier is cheating but can find no proof. And while Fairfax thinks they should cash out and leave while the getting is good, Xavier foolishly refuses to leave and keeps on playing until he’s basically cut-off. And when the pit-boss won’t let them leave the casino, sure they’ve been swindled somehow, with the police on the way, Xavier panics, tosses his winnings into the air, which causes a riot and allows him to escape during the confusion.

But in the resulting scrum, Xavier loses track of both Fairfax and his special goggles. And after a merry chase his altered perception is so overwhelming he loses control of the car and totals it in a ditch. And as he blindly wanders around the desert, Xavier is soon drawn toward a commotion that turns out to be a raucous revival meeting held in a tent, which he stumbles into just as the other rabid parishioners head to the front to admit their sins and gets caught up in the rush to be saved. All the while, his eyes are piercing the final veil and seeing things not meant to be seen. When he confesses this to the assembly, the preacher quotes the bible, Matthew, Chapter Five, Verse 29, sayeth the Lord, “If your eye offends thee, pluck it out.” And as the Pentecostal crowd joins in on the fiery chant of “pluck it out” the maddened Xavier does just that.

In Danse Macabre, his non-fiction treatise on the horror genre in print, radio, film, and comics, and how they influenced contemporary fears and social anxieties, author Stephen King wrote, "I am no apologist for bad filmmaking, but once you've spent twenty years or so going to horror movies, searching for diamonds in the dreck of the B-pics ... you begin to seek the patterns and appreciate them when you find them, you begin to get a taste for really shitty movies." I think we can all relate to that a little bit, can’t we, Boils and Ghouls? Anyhoo, in the same invaluable tome, King started a rumor about X! The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, swearing the version he saw ended with Xavier plucking his eyes out and, as the frame freezes on the glaring red holes where his eyes used to be, Xavier screams, “I can still see!"

Now, the film at one point did have a five-minute prologue showcasing the five human senses, which is included on the MGM Midnite Movie DVD as a special feature. This really added nothing except running time, comes off as a really boring grade school educational short, and was subsequently cut from all further releases after its initial theatrical run. And while the alternate ending rumor has persisted going on 40 years now, according to Corman, this final declaration never happened -- though it sure sounded like a wonderful idea and might’ve salvaged the film for him.

In hindsight, Corman states he felt X! The Man with the X-Ray Eyes was a good film that could’ve been great; and it’s failures, he added, can be blamed on the FX failing to deliver the goods. You also get the sense he would’ve rather stuck with the musician on drugs angle but felt he wouldn’t be able to get that past the censors in 1963 the way he did for The Trip (1967) four years later. For what is Xavier’s experiment, really, if not a bad acid trip? This was the era of MK-Ultra, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters after all. And Xavier was trying to alter his perceptions, and earlier in the film Brandt warned Chemical X might not be affecting his eyes at all but changing his brain chemistry and causing nothing but hallucinations and day terrors. And why does he keep dosing when he knows it's driving him insane. Is what he seeing real, or is it just his narcotic-induced perception of what is true? Was Corman trying to sneak something past the censors here? Maybe. Maybe not.

For as Xavier continues dosing on X, he definitely starts seeing people as "living, breathing dissections" and buildings as skeletons of steel "dissolved in the acid of light." So, yes, his vision has truly been altered -- as if those Magic X-Ray Specs you saw advertised in comics as a kid actually worked. And in Dillon and Russell’s script, they take things even further than that as a lot of their dialogue explaining what Xavier is seeing was left unfilmed or on the editing room floor, which toned down these visions considerably due to those budget constraints and no idea how to pull them off technically.

As an example, when we reach the climax, and Xavier is confessing to the preacher, the script elaborates on the Lovecraftian horrors he’s seeing, "There are great darknesses, as far off as time itself. And they are coming, coming to destroy all our world. Larger than the stars -- than galaxies of stars, they're coming!" Sounds pretty cool to me. And ambitious. Too ambitious, turns out. And that’s too bad. Still, the film managed to win the Silver Spaceship for Best Picture at the first International Festival of Science Fiction Film in Trieste, Italy, beating out some stiff competition from all over the world, including the Soviet produced Amphibian Man (1962).

And I think that’s one of the reasons Corman is always promising a remake of X! The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, especially in this digital-effects age, to finally fulfill the script’s lofty ambitions. All well and good, sure, but he’s also got to find someone who'll don those painful contact lenses and replace Milland, a self-proclaimed fan of science fiction, who, when looking back on his career, always singled out Don Birnam in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) and Dr. Xavier as his two favorite roles. We’ll also give a shout-out to Don Rickles, a regular in AIP’s Beach Party franchise (1963-1966), who really pulls off the lecherous carny, who never met a dollar he couldn’t bilk out of some rube.

And finally, I wanna talk about that bloody eyeball which appears during the opening credits and winds up floating in a bubbling beaker with its trailing nerve ganglia like some obscene fish. Is that supposed to be one of Xavier’s plucked out eyeballs? That someone has saved for further study? Has it become sentient? Meaning this whole tale is told as a flashback of some sentient eyeball floating around in a Chemical X solution? Has anyone else noticed this? Has anyone else pondered this? Or do I really need to lay-off the Electric Kool-Aid, too -- if you know what I mean, and I think you do...

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 24 reviews down with only two more to go! Up Next: A disappearing act more sinister!

X! The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) Alta Vista Productions :: American International / EP: James H. Nicholson, Samuel Z. Arkoff / P: Roger Corman / D: Roger Corman / W: Robert Dillon, Ray Russell / C: Floyd Crosby / E: Anthony Carras / M: Les Baxter / S: Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Don Rickles, Harold J. Stone


Unknown said...

I saw this at the drive-in with my older sister in the mid-sixties and the ending is pretty disturbing. I often think of this movie when I play blackjack. Also, glad you gave a shout-out to the exo-specs in the back of 60s comics. I loved how they always showed the wearer ogling a buxom young lass in a sweater. Could have bought a pair, and some pepper-gum to fool my friends.

W.B. Kelso said...

The only things I ever bought out of a comic book was a set of those Revolutionary War playsets, which was really, really, really, tiny -- they never mention that in the ads, and the footlocker full of soldiers which weren't like the Marx army men at all but cheap and flat and they sucked and I don't think I was ever more disappointed in my life when they arrived.

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