X, The Unknown (1956)
Following up on the success of 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment, Hammer Films, cast Oscar winner Dean Jagger in a very Quatermass like role as a scientist looking to put an end to a Blob like creature that has surfaced from beneath the Earth’s crust in order to feed on radiation and atomic energy.
Aside from the ever popular character actor, Michael Ripper, most of the names involved with this superior sci-fi entry that Hammer fans will recognize are to be found behind the camera. They include James Bernard for his musical score, Phil Leaky supplying the F/X, Anthony Hinds producing and Jimmy Sangster doing triple duty. He’s credited for the story, the screenplay and as a production manager. Let’s not forget Michael Carreras either who is listed as the Executive Producer.
Running a tight eighty minutes and filmed in black and white the story begins with a training session for soldiers on how to read a Geiger counter in the field. Sgt. Ripper has strategically placed a radioactive canister in a large pit that is being utilized by the military. It’s during these maneuvers that the ground cracks open releasing a heavy volley of fire and steam. The end result is that some of the soldiers suffer radioactive burns and death.
Meanwhile back at the lab, Jagger, is himself involved in experiments involving Cobalt and radioactivity. As an expert in the field he’s called in to investigate the fissure that has opened up and examine the soldiers that were on scene. The crack that has opened up in the Earth’s crust appears to be bottomless and is deemed to be off limits and placed under guard. That won’t bode well for the two soldiers on night duty who will fall prey to something in the night.
What we have is a Blob like substance two whole years before “Steven” McQueen battled a Blob he can call his very own for director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. For this Hammer outing, Jagger, is being guided by director Leslie Norman. For his next project Norman would direct the excellent 1958 military film, Dunkirk.
Jagger has no idea what’s he up against. Just a few theories at this point as to what he and a government agent called in to the case are up against. That’s not just any agent either. It’s Leo McKern aka Horace Rumpole aka A man named Bugenhagan. This proved to be Jagger’s only film for Hammer while McKern would be enlisted for one more go around. The 1959 war time thriller, Yesterday’s Enemy.
Jagger believes that a shape shifting species has come forth from the Earth’s core that feeds on radiation and based on recent disasters he appears to be correct. Which brings us to a scene that got me thinking. A good looking nurse, a handsome doctor. A late night shift at the hospital so how about some casual sex. All of which is interrupted by X when it seeps into the X-Ray room where our amorous couple are getting overheated.
A scene like that became so common in the slasher era of sexually motivated teens getting slaughtered while engaging in pre-marital sex. But I’m not so sure it was all that common in 1956. Here I go running at the mouth again. Or in this case my keyboard. End result, the Doc gets fried and the nurse cuts loose with a classic Scream Queen …. scream.
All the while Jagger, McKern and young assistant, William Lucas, are working on solving the riddle, James Bernard’s score heightens the tension as he would continue to do for Hammer in their golden era of Gothic Horrors. If you’ve seen the well known McQueen thriller then you know how that Blob was handled. It’s a bit different this time out but Jagger and his scientific mind are sure to come up with a remedy to this threat upon mankind.
I for one liked this film the first time I saw it when it turned on on VHS tape thanks to the Hammer line released by Anchor Bay years ago and I still enjoy it after repeated viewings. It’s far from flashy but it’s direct and the thrills are solid for a mid fifties sci-fi flick with some startling F/X from Leaky. Then there’s Dean Jagger. A consummate pro on screen. One of those great character actors who could play the gentle scientist as he does here, the loving father figure, the retired General of White Christmas, the coward in a western town or just an arrogant wealthy S.O.B. Yes he could play most any role and scored that Oscar for his role opposite Gregory Peck in 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High.
One thing that is noticeably absent here is a female lead. A female with a heaving bosom I’d venture to say since this is a Hammer film. The film works perfectly well without one but I half expected the plot to appease someone in the front office with a romance shoe horned into the story for Jagger’s assistant, Lucas. Surprisingly the top billed female role is that nurse that scored about two minutes of scream time.
If you’re a fan of the Quatermaas films then this is a logical choice to follow up with. According to some trivia I’ve read on this film, it was proposed as a sequel to The Quatermaas Xperiment but the character’s creator Nigel Kneale vetoed the idea as he had not written this story. Of course Hammer would do a follow up to Quatermaas in 1957 in what is likely the first movie sequel to use the Roman Numeral II in it’s title long before it became the norm once the 70′ and 80’s hit.
East to recommend to both Hammer fans and sci-fi buffs, X The Unknown, shouldn’t be too hard to locate on VHS, DVD or more recently blu ray. No I don’t have an original film poster to show off but at at trade show last year I did score the original release set of lobby cards that fit quite nicely with my ever growing collection of all things Hammer.