The movie industry is always quick to exploit and explore the fears and concerns of the general public. Today, from Hollywood at least, this means lots of films that deal with the subject of terrorism or – to a lesser degree – the effects of global warming. It understandably makes those of us in the west feel safer to see terrorists expunged before they are able to wreak mass havoc within the confines of a two hour story. Most of us are able to suspend disbelief long enough for it to seem slightly plausible that the welfare of an entire city or country depends solely on the actions of a John McLane or a Casey Ryback, because deep down we want it to all be OK by the time the credits roll; we know how things will turn out by the end of these formulaic action flicks, and perhaps continue to go and watch them in great numbers due to the reassurance we subconsciously feel, as a result, when things do go to plan. In that sense sitting in a warm, dark, quiet cinema is the nearest we’ll ever get to the safety of the womb (and as such it’s all the more shocking when grim, real world events invade that “public privacy”, as with the 2012 Aurora shootings during a screening of The Dark Night Rises). Superhero films also feed on this desire to be reassured, their roots in comics that did exactly the same; can the popularity of Marvel, DC and co today be put down to a renewed audience desire to feel safe?
One of cinema’s most interesting periods with regard to the output of writers and studios reflecting public concern in an artistic fashion has to be the 1950s, where worries about the spread of communism, the escalation of the Cold War, the events at the end of World War II and the birth of the atomic age all fed into a series of creature features and sci-fi movies that dealt, some more obviously than others, with real life issues in a fantastical way.
You could argue that Robert Wise’s classic The Day The Earth Stood Still was the first – or certainly the first to get a big audience and a dose of acclaim. But as the decade went on there were many more: Gojira (aka Godzilla), Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The War Of The Worlds, The Thing From Another Planet; the list is long, and there were also plenty of B-movies of varying quality. Some, like Them!, were played straight, whereas others like Attack Of The 50ft Woman or The Blob were camp affairs. Many have become cult classics over time, some due to their obvious qualities and others due to their obvious lack of finesse.
The Blob, interestingly, has more than a passing resemblance to X: The Unknown, a lesser-known film made by the UK’s Hammer Film Productions Company in its early days, before it started concentrating on thrillers and monster movies. The studio had already scored a hit with The Quatermass Xperiment, a film version of a popular BBC TV series, and decided to make a follow up, but the writer of the original, Nigel Kneale, refused permission for the use of his character Bernard Quatermass in the second film. Thus X: The Unknown stands on its own, with entirely different characters, but similar concerns.
Dean Jagger stars as Dr Adam Royston, an American scientist working in Scotland at an atomic energy research facility, who must investigate after soldiers on a drill nearby find an unusual source of underground radioactivity, which eventually breaks through to the surface and dishes out horrific radioactivity burns to two men. This “thing” isn’t seen on camera until much later, but it also kills a doctor, a car full of people and a young local boy who come into contact with it by accident, and seems to travel in straight lines, hunting out radioactive sources as food so that it can grow in size.
Eventually the thing itself appears, a giant radioactive blob that, due to its consistency, can pass through air vents, metal grills and under doors as it moves around, terrorizing rural Scottish folk. It is up to Royston, along with his colleague John Elliott (Edward Chapman) and Atomic Energy Commission expert Inspector McGill (Leo McKern) to stop the blob and save the day before it passes through and wipes out any densely-populated areas.
There’s something innocent about films of this age that often catch you unaware and make you smile. Where nowadays we are used to seeing global megacities like New York, London and Tokyo smashed or blown to pieces by giant robots or aliens, in X: The Unknown the authorities are panicking about the prospect of the radioactive blob heading straight for the small-to-medium-sized Highlands city of Inverness.
At just 76 minutes long, there’s not really enough time for X: The Unknown to concern itself with anything other than the threat of the blob, so to speak. Characters aren’t really developed much, if at all, and they simply hare around from scene to scene politely but firmly discussing what their best course of action may be. But that’s actually fine here; as a result of its narrow focus the film packs in a fair few thrills, most notably in the grim way the blob kills those who get too close to it. We see some horrific burns, but the special effect department really comes into its own when it shows melting flesh. This only happens a couple of times, but it means there’s one great scene where a doctor melts away on screen while a horrified nurse looks on. The camera cuts from a close up of her hand to show his swollen, burnt fingers at first, before cutting back to a close up of the nurse’s face as she screams. With our attention drawn to the face, when the camera cuts back to the doctor that’s exactly where the eyes go, to be greeted with flesh that’s melting to the bone. It’s a great big man fondue! Hammer got better and better at this kind of thing over the years, but for the 1950s this really is quite gruesome.
Jagger is good in the starring role. As an Oscar winner just a few years beforehand for Twelve O’Clock High that’s hardly surprising, but then there aren’t many American actors who would take a risk and work on a low-budget British sci-fi / horror yet still give it their all. He also has a few good lines to work with, as does McKern, and both characters have an easy confidence as a result, which works well.
It was originally to be directed by Joseph Losey (working under the name Joseph Walton), an American director who relocated to the UK after finding himself on the Hollywood blacklist. Although Losey did complete some footage, Jagger refused to work with someone he thought was a Communist Party sympathiser*, and Losey was replaced early on by Leslie Norman, although the official reason given for Losey’s departure was “illness”. It was also suggested that Losey simply didn’t want to make the film, and that was the reason he left the project. Indeed Norman’s commitment wasn’t particularly great by the sound of things, and according to writer Jimmy Sangster the cast found him difficult to work with, as did the studio. Despite good reviews, Hammer didn’t employ him again. Ironically it was Losey that put the cast together and chose Jagger in the first place.
That’s a shame, as he handles this material in a straight, unspectacular fashion, which actually lends a degree of authority to the subject matter, even if deep down we’re all aware it’s all a load of nonsense. As directors and studios go, they could have been an excellent long-term pairing, but alas it wasn’t to be.
The scenes are often lit dramatically, and much of it is shot at night, which adds to the tension. The cast are deadly serious too, and I much prefer this to the camp, knowing sci-fi that followed later in the decade, when everyone seems to be in on the joke and happy to let acting standards slip as a result. Perhaps this kind of film quickly became old hat.
X: The Unknown is no lost classic, but at least it takes its science as seriously as it takes its fiction. It might not be quite up there with some of the more iconic 50s creature features and post-war flights of fancy, but it’s also better than a lot of more celebrated films of the era, and – despite a few wobbly blob effects and limp explosions throughout – it has stood the test of time well.
Directed by: Leslie Norman, Joseph Losey
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Starring: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern
Running Time: 76 Minutes