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Thursday 1 March 2012

Burl reviews X the Unknown! (1956)

A mighty crack opens in the ground and suddenly it’s Burl standing there, arms akimbo! Ha ha, that’s right, it’s me, here to review an early Hammer picture, a sort of proto-Quatermass sci-fi horror number with some shocking effects!
Do you know, I think this is the earliest picture I’ve ever seen with the magic phrase “Special Makeup Effects” in the credits! There were variations in earlier movies of course, but I can’t recall that particular arrangement of the words, which would later become so popular, previous to this! The credit, by the way, goes to Phil Leakey, who was Hammer’s version of Jack Pierce, designing all-new makeups for their appropriated roster of Gothic horror stars, whose various looks were under copyright at Universal!
The picture takes place in Scotland, where British army fellows are conducting their nuclear detection exercises! The next thing they know, a fissure opens in the ground and their Geiger counters go plumb nuts! What could it be? A faulty mechanism? A minor geological event? A radioactive mud-blob creature from the very bowels of the earth? It’s the latter, and science must rally to save the day!
As local Scots are zapped by the creature – here is where the Special Makeup Effects kick in, with gruesome skin-melting scenes and various oozing sores – an American scientist, Dean Jagger, starts putting the pieces of the puzzle together! His ruminations and inductions are strongly reminiscent of Robert Hutton’s incredible leaps of logic in The Vulture! But like Hutton’s they are also correct, and as it happens he’s been working on a project that applies perfectly to just this outlandish situation!
I mentioned that this was a Quatermass-like picture, and indeed it reminds me so strongly of the Quatermass movies that for years I assumed it was one of them; but there’s a crucial difference: X the Unknown is sorely lacking in the audacious metaphysics and the conceptual mind-bogglers with which Nigel Kneale generously larded his movies! But that doesn’t mean it’s bad! Ha ha, it’s pretty enjoyable, and Dean Jagger, though something about his performance suggests a little off-screen experimentation with the local ferments, does an excellent job as the scientist hero!
And that’s maybe my favourite thing about the picture! The scientists are indeed the heroes, and the army helps them out without grousing too much about it! The threat, oddball as it is, is a naturally occurring monster and not a lab creation gone awry! Another quick note: for anyone who’s seen both movies, didn’t the two constantly complaining lance corporals who came to a sticky end remind you of the pair of soldiers played by Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze in Roger Corman’s It Conquered The World? Ha ha, they sure did me!
Anyway, this was an enjoyable movie with good trick effects and a few spooky sequences, and, on the debit side, quite a lot of chatter and some silliness! Ha ha, how do you kill mud, anyway? I give X the Unknown two and a half spinning jeep wheels!

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