Sandwiched between two Quatermass movies, X: The Unknown is the second film of an unofficial, sci-fi trilogy that shifted the attention of Hammer Films away from B-list thrillers and into the realms of horror, science fiction and fantasy that would be instrumental for putting the studio firmly on the map. Released just one year before Hammer cracked the code and retooled new adventures for classic horror critters emblazoned with sumptuous colour, X: The Unknown was a very British reply to all the 50’s sci-fi movies that were coming thick and fast out of drive-ins seemingly at the rate of one a week.
But while watching it now is an exercise in stern-faced exposition, there’s a few things that the movie manages to do just as well as its American cousins and even a few things it manages to beat them to the punch. The Blob, I’m looking at you…
In the Lockmouth region of Scotland, a bunch of soldiers are practicing using Geiger counters to find a small amount of radiation located in a pit in the middle of the moors. However, their exercise is brought to a short sharp stop when the ground explodes to reveal a large crack in the ground that expels enough radiation to kill one soldier and badly burn another.
In fairly short order, Dr. Royston is called in from the nearby Atomic Energy Laboratory (that’s handy) alongside “Mac” Mcgill, who takes care of security at the UK Atomic Energy Commision and soon they start racking up some disturbing stats. The crevice that so violently erupted seems to have no bottom and soon more reports of fatal doses of radiation poisoning arise after a couple of children succumb to a similar fate of the soldiers. However, its after a suspiciously horny doctor comes down with a severe case case of melting after a run in with a mystery entity in the radiation lab at the local hospital that Royston stars roping the unbelievable facts together into one outrageous truth.
He spitballs the idea that whatever is going round causing such melty carnage is a creature that existed in the time of prehistory when the entire earth resembled a global game of the floor is lava and who most likely had gotten trapped in the crust as the Earth cooled. Emerging from its resting place, it would need to consume radiation like a stoner absorbs tacos to survive and so this sloppy mound of irradiated mulch has been sliming it’s way across the countryside, casually melting passers-by in order to gorge itself silly. However, its next target is the mother-lode and everyone involved has to band together and think up a scientific solution before this gargantuan, killer, cowpat rolls over Inverness like a squelchy angel of death. But will the cure prove to be just as risky a letting this amorphous, prehistoric bastard run free?
While X: The Unknown hardly stands out from the other, numerous other 50’s efforts that obsessed themselves with radioactive monsters and numerous anxieties concerning the Cold War (it’s also been strongly hinted that X and the Quatermass films contain threads about Britain’s status as a world power diminishing over time), it’s still a relevant and charmingly controlled bout of british sci-fi that favors stern, rational discussion over alien smiting heroics.
All the classic hallmarks are there to be enjoyed: a mostly unseen, inhuman foe, middle-aged heroes tinkering in labs, thankless reams of scientific exposition that borders on patronising and even a woman giving a melodramatic scream that fills the entire screen; but while the box ticking continues at a measured pace, X: The Unknown manages to add a few extra wrinkles to well trodden tropes that give more of an edge than you’d think.
The movie it most resembles is, obviously, The Blob, a movie that also features a gooey antagonist that hauls itself across an unwitting town until its finally outwitted by a solution straight out of rudimentary science class. However, while The Blob is the superior movie (colour photography, a teen vs. adults subplot featuring Steve McQueen and that super-funky theme song give it quite the head-start), X: The Unknown actually predates it by couple of years and even has an harsher, sterner edge that makes the sentient, radioactive muck a far creepier opponent.
Not only does an encounter with the thing cause a small child to die of radiation poisoning, but the subsequent rage and grief unloaded on Royston by a distraught parent noticably predicts the behavior of Mrs Kittner from Jaws. Elsewhere, the creature’s rude interrupting the dallience of some sexed-up hospital staff like a boneless cock blocker (itself a precursor to similar scene in movies Halloween II and Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter) sees the surprisingly graphic melting of a doctor’s face as he makes like an ice cream dropped on a sun baked pavement.
It’s these weirdly modern touches that make X: The Unknown a fairly intriguing watch as it switches up cinematic rules that technically hadn’t even been established yet. While a child dies, the film includes a drunken hobo character who lives despite his miserable existence and the fact that he’s only there to provide a plot advancing macguffin – a direct contradiction to what eventually occurs in The Blob where the kids live and the tramp dies.
The performances are of the usual, stagey variety normally found during the period and genre also I was stunned to find out that McGill is played by Rumpole Of The Baily himself, Leo McKern, who must have spend his whole life looking middle-aged, doughy and crumpled. But that’s a staple of the genre too – the adults calmly and sensibly figuring out the problems while the younger members of the cast take wild risks like the guy who ties to lure the creature out of its hole with radioactive bait and gets his jeep stuck, for example.
Still, despite all but disappearing not only in the rush of 50’s sci-fi cinema, but in the subsequent flood of Hammer productions that were about to come down the pipe, X: The Unknown still stands as a slightly above average and noticable science fiction creeper that breaks as many rules as it follows.
Yes, X: The Unknown could also be called X: The Overfamilar, but there’s still some surprises to be found in its undulating, glowing mass.