The Bad Movie Report

X the Unknown

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We've all got a movie like this hiding in our childhood; we remember a scene or two out of it, and that is really all we carry with us into adulthood. I remember two scenes from X the Unknown, and they are scenes that scared the living daylights out of the 9 year-old Freex. Upon finally obtaining a copy of this movie after a lengthy search, I find that these two scenes - and we'll get to them soon enough - still stir up a tingle, although they now seem rather quaint, over forty years after the fact.

We start in a muddy field somewhere in Scotland, as British soldiers run through a training exercise with Geiger counters. The sergeant (Hammer regular Michael Ripper) buries an isotope, and each soldier tries to find it, using the counter, in the shortest possible time. All goes well, until the last soldier goes off in the wrongest direction possible; he's found a powerful radiation reading in a section of the field where there should be none.

As his superiors argue about what to do in this situation, there is a small earthquake and a fissure opens in the field. The wayward soldier, and one of his fellows sent to retrieve him, are both burned terribly by radiation - and then the radiation disappears.

Cut to a nearby atomic research lab, where the administrator, Elliot (Edward Chapman) is on the warpath. Not only has his star scientist and troublemaker left his normal duties to work on his own project, but left Elliot's son, Peter (William Lucas) in charge. Peter, you see, wants to be a scientist, but Elliot wants his son to be a bean counter, just like Daddy. The troublemaker in question, Royston (Dean Jagger), is in his private workshop, working with an Erector set device that pulls a dangerous isotope out of its lead box and suspends it between two radar dishes. Alas, whatever he is doing is not working, and Royston's disgust shows. His mood does not improve when a messenger arrives and tells him Elliot wants to see him.

After the required dressing-down, Elliot sends Royston to the field to help the Army with its investigation. Though the radiation, once severe enough to burn the impression of a soldier's gun into his back, is now completely missing, Royston sets up sensors along the fissure. All he discovers, however, is that the crack is apparently bottomless. He advises the Major in charge to rope off the fissure and set a couple of guards, and then everybody goes home for the night.

Well, not everybody. Two young boys are out in the woods late at night, having dared each other He's either found porn on the Internet or X the check on the old hermit who lives in a nearby abandoned tower. The braver of the boys sneaks toward the tower, but sees something slithering toward him; in terror, the boy runs all the way back to town, the other boy in hot pursuit.

The next day, Royston arrives at the local hospital to examine the boy, who is suffering from severe radiation poisoning. Investigating at the tower, Royston finds not only the hermit and his still, but the isotope container from Royston's own workshop. The fact that it has wound up in the hermit's junk collection is astounding enough to Royston - let alone the fact that the isotope should have killed the hermit in the time he's possessed it.

Peter surveys the damage while Royston rolls a big fattie.Royston goes to his workshop, only to find it a shambles - someone or something has wrecked the lab to get at the isotope - though whatever it was left the door locked and windows intact. The only clue left behind was a slimy substance covering everything. Royston tells the ever-attentive Peter that he found the stuff covering his purloined container, too.

The UK equivalent of the Atomic Energy Commission sends one of their inspectors, McGill (Leo McKern) at Elliot's request. Rather to the administrator's consternation, however, McGill and Royston hit it off rather well. As the two men arrive at the hospital to examine the boy, they find they are too late - the lad has succumbed to the radiation. The boy's father confronts Royston, telling him his son's death is the fault of all scientists..."setting off bombs you can't control!" (the mandatory Amity Beach scene). As they leave, the hospital's See what happens when you don't floss?radiologist has a rendezvous in his lab with a pretty young nurse...but they are interrupted when his equipment indicates there's radiation in a room where there should be none. Leaving the nurse in the lead-lined safety room, he goes out to investigate, then the radiation from the intruder causes him to melt before the nurse's horrified eyes.

Royston and McGill come back to find a huge hole burned into the radiation lab's radium vault - and, of course, the radium gone. The air duct leading into the room has a slimy black substance on it. And the nurse is no help, having gone not-so-quietly insane. Royston reveals his theory to McGill, Peter and a skeptical Elliot: the Earth began as a mass of molten matter, cooling down over a period of millions of years to a life-supporting state. Man evolved into a dominant life form in only a hundred thousand years - isn't it possible that some of that original, primordial matter, might have developed some form of life over the million of years it's been in existence?

Yes, our villain is a metric ton or so of sentient, radioactive mud, and it makes short work of the Hello?  Is there anyone up there?  HELLO??!!guards posted at the fissure. Peter, being our young, reckless character, volunteers to go down the fissure in a sling to verify Royston's theory. After Peter finds the skeletal remains of one of the guards on a ledge, his Geiger counter begins to go crazy. Peter looks down and begins to shriek, "Pull me up! PULL ME UP!!!" This is one of the scenes that got burned into my mind as a child. Don't worry, Peter gets hoisted back up, safe and sound. The Army was only waiting for proof that something was actually down there, and they proceed to swing into action, directing flamethrowers and bombs down into the fissure, finally sealing the earthen crack with cement. Royston is skeptical of the efficacy of this exercise; frankly, so are we.

McGill comes to Royston's rebuilt workshop to say goodbye - his superiors feel that the menace Royston & McGill practice their Abbott & Costello routine for Atomic Scientist's Amateur Nightis over, and have recalled him to London. Royston explains to him (and finally to us) the purpose of his experiment with the isotope and the dishes: he is seeking a method to stabilize radioactive materials, to draw out their destructive energy in a passive way. In short, he's trying to find a way to make nuclear bombs inoperative (a nice bit of irony, considering the earlier Amity beach scene). Meantime, a crack develops in the cement covering the fissure, and a black substance oozes out...

McGill's exit is forestalled by a police report of a car wreck with the occupants not merely killed, "I say, fellows... there's some manner of radioactive blob beastie out here."but melted. Royston hurriedly shuts down the lab's atomic pile and tries to evacuate the cobalt to a safer location, but the mud has gotten bigger and faster, and makes a tasty snack of the fuel. The mud returns to its fissure, and the Army sets up a giant version of Royston's experiment on the beastie's doorstep. After luring it out with an isotope mounted on a Jeep, the dishes zap it with the frequencies that Royston discovered in the nick of time, causing the blob to glow and pulsate dramatically, finally disappearing in a fiery, smoky foof. The end.

After the success of the first Quatermass movie, The Quatermass Xperiment (known stateside as The Creeping Unknown) Hammer wanted to rush out a sequel, but were stopped by author Nigel Kneale denying any unauthorized use of his character. So Hammer produced a Quatermass-esque movie instead, featuring the first script by then-production manager Jimmy Sangster.

In X the Unknown, we see a lot of the tropes that Sangster will employ again, later in his career, when he has a tighter grip on dialogue and character: the two boys out on a dare, in particular, is a classic Sangster plot device. As X returns from it's feasting on the cobalt core, it is detoured from its return to the fissure by fallen high-voltage wires, causing it to travel through a village; the villagers have been evacuated to the local church, but as the doors swing shut, the camera pans down to reveal that a little girl, perhaps only two years old, has remained outside. Practically the same moment exists in the Sangster-scripted The Crawling Eye. This is the second scene that has remained filed in my brain all these years, and I think it was this one that actually caused me to leave the room. Had I stuck around, I would have seen the priest snatch the little girl away from the path of X - but then, I probably would have wondered why they didn't melt, so it's just as well. That little point excepted, the script is still nicely polished for a first attempt.

The cast is the usual assemblage of dependable Brit talent, with Dean Jagger in apparently as a hook for American audiences. The Oscar-winning Jagger puts in an interesting, if sometimes detached performance; as ever, it's the little things that make a role like this. Royston uses a cane although he seems to have no difficulty in walking, and although every man in the cast wears a snap-brim hat (except the youthful Peter), Royston always dons a stocking cap when he goes outside - the character is more concerned with comfort than appearance.

Depending on your upbringing, you will either be more familiar with Leo McKern as the archeologist who knows way too much about the Antichrist in The Omen or the only Number 2 to get more than one turn at bat in The Prisoner TV series (after publishing that sentence, Brandi Weed pointed out that another Number 2 appeared twice - Colin Gordon - and that most people would probably recognize McKern as Rumpole of the Bailey. Right both times, and thank you, Brandi). A fine character actor, McKern isn't given much of a chance to strut his stuff here, but does a good, solid turn - frankly, I would have preferred to see him in the role of Royston.

And you know how I am always rooting for the Comic Relief to wind up on the wrong end of the Stop the blob, I want to get off!monster? In X the Unknown it happens- the two guards left on the fissure have regaled us through the picture with their comedy stylings (and they might actually be funny, but their accents are a bit impenetrable to these Yank ears. Another viewing is called for) and they run into the blob with predictable results. Musical theater and Eastender fans will want to note that one of the ill-fated soldiers is a young Anthony Newley, and I should mention that the gloriously-named Scots guard. Cpl. Haggis, is Ian MacNaughton, later a producer and director for Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Once again, Hammer is dealing with a next-to-nothing budget, and for the most part, does it well - one of the advantages of having your production manager write the script. The beastie is not seen until the final third of the picture, and then the blob effects are done extremely well (two years before the Steve McQueen Blob, no less). There are a couple of scene with miniatures that show dime-store origins, but they are mercifully brief.

I have mentioned before that I am a big fan of Nigel Kneale in general and his Quatermass filmsThe cat pooped on the miniatures again... in particular - thoughtful, logical mixtures of science-fiction and horror that are all too rare. Even imitators of the form, like X the Unknown and Prince of Darkness exude an intelligence in a genre that too often substitutes flash and thunder for brains; they do not particularly challenge your intelligence, but they at least assume that you have some.

Thus these movies are my friends; and I am theirs.


Even fake Quatermass is pretty darn good.

- January 24, 1999