X the Unknown

Rating: 6 out of 10.

A primordial radioactive mud creature threatens the Scottish countryside in Hammer’s taut and atmospheric 1956 Quatermass knockoff. As a film it is a footnote, but notable for gathering the Hammer Horror roster. 6/10

X the Unknown. 1956, UK. Directed by Leslie Norman. Written by Jimmy Sangster. Starring: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern, Anthony Newley, Jameson Clark, William Lucas. Produced by James Carreras & Anthony Hinds.

On a routine exersice in the Scottish highlands, British soldier accidentally stumble upon a strange and fatal phenomenon. The ground cracks open, one man dies and another is severely injured from what is unmistakably a large dose of radiation. The military call in the impetuous American nuclear scientist, Professor Bernard Quaterma … no, sorry; Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger). However, Royston can find no trace of radiation on the spot. Befuddled, Royston and his team, including young scientists Peter Elliot (William Lucas) and inspector Mac McGill (Leo McKern) start investigating. Meanwhile, a young boy is chased through the forest, and ultimately killed, by something, and that same something seems to also have broken into Dr. Royston’s private lab and stolen a jar of radioactive cobolt. Only, when the team find the missing cobolt, it has been completely drained of all radioactivity.

Royston opines that we are dealing with some primordial life form from the depths of the Earth, which feeds on radioactivity, and has now broken through to the surface. The thing, whatever form it takes, seems to be working itseld towards the nuclear test sight where Royston works, ploughing straight through the small town in its vicinity. Soon we see it: a black, writhing, mass of ooze, which tears down fences and climbs walls. Nothing can stop it, as it is impervious to guns, explosives and anything else the army can throw at it. Luckily Dr. Royston has just finished work mon a miniature model of a machine that can de-radiate (hopefully) any radioactive material. But with only hours to spare, will they have time to move all the radioactive material away from the site? And will the scientists and military be able to replicate a working large-scale de-radiation machine before it is too late?

Dr. Royston (Dean Jagger) standing at the fissure.

This black-and-white British thriller from 1956 is generally known as Hammer Films’ first, and unofficial, Quatermass sequel. Broadcast during the summer of 1953, BBC’s science fiction/horror TV show The Quatermass Experiment (review) was a landmark event in television history. Hammer Films, one of many quota quickie movie companies that adapted BBC’s TV and radio plays, secured the rights to the story and in 1955 the studio’s feature film The Quatermass Xperiment (review) proved an almost as big a hit for Hammer, and also performed well in the US, where it was released as The Creeping Unknown.

Anthony Newley.

Work at Hammer immediately began on a sequel. However, Nigel Kneale, the creator of the original TV series, threw a spanner in the works. Kneale hated the first movie, it’s focus on the horror elements and gruesome effects, and especially the casting of American Brian Donlevy as the titular professor. So for Hammer’s sequel, he forbade the studio from using the Professor Quatermass character. However, this was only a minor setback, as Hammer made sure that the audience knew that this was basically another Quatermass movie in all but name. Jimmy Sangster, a production manager at Hammer, was assigned to write the script, despite having only written the script for one short film previously. He pointed out that he was no writer, but according to an interview, Hammer’s reply was “Well, you come up with a couple of ideas and if we like it, we’ll pay you. If we don’t like it, we won’t pay you. You’re being paid as a production manager, so you can’t complain.” As director Hammer slated Joseph Losey, one of the most talented blacklisted American directors to emigrate to the UK. However, the star of the movie, right-wing American actor Dean Jagger refused to work with “a commie”, so Losey was replaced at the last minute by workhorse Leslie Norman.

The black goo taking over the nuclear testing facility.

X the Unknown was Norman’s only science fiction or horror film, and he was not happy directing such a movie, according to cameraman Len Harris, who is quoted in Bill Warren’s book Keep Watching the Skies!: “I didn’t like [Leslie Norman], and I don’t think anyone did, really. He was one of the few people who wasn’t liked at Hammer… He was a good technical director, but he couldn’t direct people very well. Dean Jagger simply wouldn’t be directed by him. He didn’t think much of the film, either. We all thought it would be a hit, but he had no use for it.”

William Lucas and Dean Jagger.

The budget for the movie was the equivalent of $60,000, half of which was provided by RKO, which was slated to distribute the movie in the US (the distribution deal eventually fell through, and it was distributed by Warner Bros. instead). This was an era in which many Hollywood studios padded out their programs with cheap products from the UK which were used to fill the bottom half of double bills. In dollar amounts, making movies in England was simply cheaper than making them in the US, and the British so-called quota quickie companies specialised in making cheap programmers in order for movie theatres to reach their government-mandated quota of domestic programming. But in order for these films to have any marquee value in the US, American distributors often demanded they have an American star, the salary of which the US distributors often provided. In the case of X the Unknown this was Dean Jagger, a well-known supporting star and winner of the 1950 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Ian MacNaughton and Anthony Newley as the movie’s comic relief.

The film’s low budget is reflected in the end result. Mattes are used extensively instead of three-dimensional sets and many of the interior shots feel cramped and bare. However, extensive location shooting outdoors cleverly bypasses budgetal restrictions, and the tight spaces also help in enhancing the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere. Leslie Norman’s direction is tight and economical and he uses the darkness of the many nighttime shots to his advantage. To Norman’s credit, he doesn’t use day-for-night shots, so often utilised in low-budget movies. The script and direction wisely keep the titular menace unseen for most of the film, adding to its mystery and danger in the minds of the audience (as the age-old adage goes: what you can’t see is almost invariably more scary than what you can see). At one point Norman uses a POV shot of the “monster” chasing one of the boys in the woods, assuring the audience that this is a menace with purpose and agency.

The goop climbing over a fence.

According to Bill Warren, Jimmy Sangster’s original script described the monster as being “made up of millions of writhing worm-like segments”, capable of slipping through small cracks and forming up again on the other side of a mesh fence. This ability is described in the film, but never shown on screen. Even if the movie had had a significantly larger budget, the effects described in the original script would have been extremely challenging to achieve with the technology of the day. After all the buildup, the revelation of the monster is a bit of a disappointment, as it turns out to be what some commenters have described as “a heap of mud”, although my first thoughts go to slow-moving lava. If one stops to think about it, the immediate danger here isn’t all that great as the blob comes rolling toward the small town of the setting, as most townspeople could easily escape at a leisurely walking pace. Still, Norman is able to drum up a couple of good dramatic scenes of people seeking refuge in a church, as the radioactive monster bears down on them. And, of course, it isn’t the immediate danger that is the focus of the final showdown, but the fact that if the monster reaches the nuclear test site, it is going to grow exponentially.

The Monster!

I actually haven’t found any information on how the effect was made, or what material was used for the “blob”. According to Bill Warren, it was created by Jack Curtis and Les Bowie, “using several different techniques”. For what it is, the effect is not bad at all, and it is enhanced by some very good miniature photography and clever composite shots. The special effects are very good for a $60,000 movie and there are a couple of gruesome moments, securing Hammer it’s X rating by British censors. Best remembered is a scene of a lab technician’s face bubbling and melting into goo, one of the goriest scenes seen in any 50’s movie.

Jack Curtis was credited for special effects, even though his day job at Hammer seems to have been chief electrician. However, the lion’s share of the effects were probably created by the uncredited Vic Margutti and Les Bowie, the latter of who later went on to win both a BAFTA and an Oscar for his work on Superman (1978).

Leo McKern and Dean Jagger.

Dean Jagger gives a standout performance as Dr. Royston, inhabiting the eccentric, headstrong, but ultimately kind-hearted scientist who always seems to thing one step ahead of everyone else. The rest of the cast is not bad either, with Leo McKern doing a great job as Inspector McGill, and William Lucas giving a dramatic portrayal of the heroic private who is lowered into the fissure to investigate (a scene, by the way, which is brilliantly replicated in Alien). Marianne Brauns also shines (see top image) in a small but dramatic role as a lab assistant whose boyfriend is melted by the radioactive goo. The rest of the cast, I suspect, suffers from director Leslie Norman’s less than fiery enthusiasm for the movie, acting in a typical British “jolly good, carry on” manner, which doesn’t necessarily hurt the film, but doesn’t do it any favours, either.

Marianne Brauns.

Jimmy Sangster went on to write a few of Hammer’s greatest horror movies, and the horror elements also work well in this film, at least until the mud monster turns up. The science fiction elements are a bit shaky, but no more so than in the dozens of low-budget Hollywood movies churned out in the same period. But they do stand in rather sharp contrast to Richard Landau’s and Val Guest’s superb writing for the first movie. However, all in all, X the Unknown does a capable job of approaching the nuclear anxiety of the era, portraying well the paranoia and unease prevailing in the 50’s. While one can criticize Sangster’s gung-ho handling of nuclear science, it is also, in a way, indicative of the discussion of the period, one in which the public was still fairly uneducated in the science, and atomic power was not only linked with both great fears and hopes, but also had immense symbolical value. It is interesting to note that as opposed to many Hollywood films that presented scientists as the obsessed geniuses who would rather kill a million people than abandon a dangerous experiment, X the Unknown presents Dr. Royston as a humanist, trying to find a way to defuse a nuclear bomb rather than create an even more powerful bomb.

A gruesome image of a melting lab technician, which guaranteed the movie its desired X-rating.

The US trade press gave the film mild reviews. The Exhibitor wrote that it had “enough suspense to attract and hold interest, despite a yarn that takes its time in telling”, and noted that it would do well on a lower bill with “okay performances and good direction and production”. Harrison’s Reports said that X the Unknown “offers little that is novel in either theme or in its treatment”. The paper also stated that the revelation of the menace was something of a disappointment. However, it stated the direction and acting was adequate “for the unabashed hokum it offers”, and noted it would hold its own on a lower bill. Variety gave the film a positive review, calling it a “highly imaginative and fanciful meller”, “made with creditable slickness”. Critic Myro. wrote that it was “completely absorbing” though “totally unbelievable” with a “tense, almost horrific atmosphere”.

William Lucas being lowered into the fissure.

Later critics have generally held the film in some regard, while noting that it doesn’t quite meet the high standard of The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 (1957). In his classic SF Encyclopedia Phil Hardy calles X the Unkown “a superior example of the sober, realist tradition of British Science Fiction”. Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide gives the film a 2.5/4 star rating.

The film has a 6.1/10 rating on IMDb, based on 3 000 audience votes, and a 5.8/10 rating, or 67% Fresh, at critic aggregate Rotten Tomatoes. AllMovie gives it 3/5 stars, and Craig Butler writes: “While it is not a classic of the genre, it’s a very well-made and quite entertaining little flick”. Time Out says: “Trash to people who don’t like sci-fi or horror movies, but in a lot of ways it communicates the atmosphere of Britain in the late ’50s more effectively than the most earnest social document.” And TV Guide calls it “smartly directed and inventive”.

Kenneth Cope and Peter Hammond.

Modern online critics seem to have a soft spot for this economical SF thriller, while all agreeing that it is not as good as Hammer’s Quatermass films. Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant calls X the Unknown “an efficient if somewhat subdued monster thriller” with a “formulaic script”. He notes that “Sangster has made all the characters basically calm and unflappable”, and that “this helps create an hysteria-free mood, but some of the supporting players come off as colorless”. Bea Soila at Flickers in Time writes: “I liked this one a lot. It is impressive how creepy something can be without much in the way of special effects, a monster, or blood.” Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster calls the film “a superbly professional job”. Richard Scheib at Moria gives the movie 3/5 stars, writing: “Leslie Norman turns in a well worthwhile film that comes with a stark black-and-white urgency. […] The Blob tends to be remembered with a certain cheesiness value, whereas there is nothing schlocky or amusing about X the Unknown – Leslie Norman’s stark, sober direction defies you not to take the show seriously.” At BFI ScreenOnline, John Oliver writes: “The film is […] more assured in its handling of its horror than its science fiction elements. […] the film is at its most effective in those moments that draw on the more conventional generic elements of horror cinema. […] And, above all, it’s jolly good fun.”

At the gates of hell?

Hammer Films was founded in 1934 by William Hinds, but quickly went into bankruptcy. However, Hinds continued film distribution under the moniker Exclusive, together with Enrique Carreras. The two were soon joined by their sons, James Carreras and Anthony Hinds. After WWII, James and Anthony resurrected Hammer as the film producing arm of Exclusive, and in 1949 registered Hammer Film Productions as a company.

While Britain had been one of the early innovators of cinema, the country’s movie industry quickly fell behind the top movie producing countries like France, Italy and Denmark, followed by the US, Germany and Austria in the 20’s. In the early 20’s, less than five percent of all films shown in British movie theatres were domestically produced, and what was being made left much to be desired in terms of production values. Britain lacked a trained and experienced workforce behind the camera and what studios existed were mostly ill equipped. That’s why, in 1927, the government put in place a quota system, requiring a certain percentage of films shown in movie theatres to be British. This, in turn, led to the rise of the so-called “quota quickie” companies — movie companies that specialised in producing films fast and cheap in order to satisfy the quota. It was for this purpose that James Carreras and Anthony Hinds resurrected Hammer Films in 1946.

Anthony Hinds and Michael Carreras.

During its first years, Hammer adapted many BBC radio plays and focused mainly on crime dramas and detective stories, as well as the odd luridly titled melodrama. However, horror films were simply not made in Britain, and Hammer was no exception to this rule. Science fiction, on the other hand, did have some precedent in English cinema, and with the international SF boom of the 50’s, it started creeping back into UK radio, TV and film. Hammer also made some stabs at the genre. In 1949 Hammer made three movies based on the hugely popular radio show about special agent Dick Barton, of which two, Dick Barton at Bay (review) and Dick Barton Strikes Back (review) can be classified as spy-fi. Four Sided Triangle (1952, review), directed by a young editor by the name of Terence Fisher, was a literary adaptation about two friends ending up cloning the woman they are both in love with. Spaceways (1953, review) was, despite its name, a rather Earth-bound spy melodrama about the sabotage of Britain’s first space flight. But in 1955 the fate of Hammer was about to take a new turn.

Jimmy Sangster with actress Susan Strasberg on the set of “Taste of Fear” (1961).

By 1955, Hammer had relocated their production to what would become known Bray Studios, by the Thames, where many of their classic horror films would be made. In 1951 James Carreras’ son Michael joined Hammer as producer, and it was at his behest that the studio started including science fiction. By 1955, the company was largely run by Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds. Hinds, in particular, was stricken with BBC’s 1953 TV series The Quatermass Experiment, and managed to secure the movies rights from BBC, despite protests from its creator Nigel Kneale. Hinds, Carreras and the screenwriters deliberately pursued the much-dreaded X certificate, playing up the horrific aspects of the story. Released in 1955, The Quatermass Xperiment exceeded all expectations, becoming a hit both domestically and internationally. X the Unknown was produced in order to hit the theatre just before the second season of the TV series, Quatermass II, started airing. Hammer had domne their homework, and audience research showed than more than to the SF contect, audiences were drawn to the horror element of the two movies. Thus, in 1956, by the time Quatermass 2 went into production, when Hinds and Carreras received a script by two American screenwriters based on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, thy were interested. And the rest is history.

Jimmy Sangster as director on the set of “The Lust For a Vampire” (1971).

In comparison to the Quatermass films, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and their other legendary horror movies, X the Unknown remains a footnote in Hammer’s filmoghraphy. However, it is significant as the film in which some of the core personnel of Hammer’s horror franchise started to coalesque. Many key names are still missing, but X the Unknown for the first time brings together a large number of the artists who would go on to create the Hammer Horror cycle. First and foremost, this was Jimmy Sangster’s first script. Sangster would later re-write the script for The Curse of Frankenstein and went on to write or co-write the bulk of the studio’s early horror hits. Other key personnel included editor James Needs, make-up artist Philip Leakey, special effects creator Les Bowie, composer James Bernard, musical director John Hollingsworth, wardrobe designer Molly Arbuthnot, sound mixer Jock May, and not least supporting actor Michael Ripper, who would become Hammer’s most prolific actor, often turning up in small roles as butlers, coach drivers, ghouls and others. The film also features, as one of the boys chased by the monster, Frazer Hines, who would later turn up as one of the most beloved “companions” of Doctor Who, Jamie McCrimmon (1966-1985).

Janne Wass

X the Unknown. 1956, UK. Directed by Leslie Norman. Written by Jimmy Sangster. Starring: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern, Anthony Newley, Jameson Clark, William Lucas, Peter Hammond, Marianne Brauns, Ian MacNaughton, Michael Ripper, Frazer Hines. Music: James Bernard. Cinematography: Gerald Gibbs. Editing: James Needs. Art direction: Edward Marshall. Makeup artist: Philip Leakey. Sound editor: Alfred Cox. Special effects: Jack Curtis, Les Bowie, Vic Margutti. Wardrobe: Molly Arbuthnot. Produced by James Carreras & Anthony Hinds for Hammer Films.

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