Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Microreview [film] : The Great British Sci-Fi Xperiment : X The Unknown (1956)

Delving into post-war cautionary sci-fi films is like sorting pebbles on a beach. There are too many, and many are too similar. And there is seaweed everywhere. Well, not the last bit. So instead of picking a particular method of analysis, I hereby begin, in no particular order of importance or date - or sanity - an occasional series on some of the more unusual, less-celebrated movies of that time. I have exact and complex reasons for each film choice in the series which I could try and explain to you all but it would be like teaching algebra to a one year old fish. 
Oh, okay, not really. 
I am going to watch every weird old British sci-fi film that crops up on the BBC, Film 4 and any other UK channel from now until the end of the year. I call it The Great British Sci-Fi Generator Xperiment!

And so we start with the wonderfully-monikered 'X - The Unknown' (1956, Hammer Films).

The Meat Pie :
No, this is not some obscure prequel to X:Men. Or Vin Diesel's XXX. As much as we all wish. This is in fact a delightful sci-fi horror from the revered Hammer Films company, made at the now-closed Bray Studios, west of London. It actually mainly looks like it was made in a muddy field at night, and this is one of many things I love about it.

Another thing is the superb lead actor, Dean Jagger, an American known best to me as the inept sheriff in Bad Day at Black Rock, but he also won an Oscar for 12 O'Clock High and played Elvis's dad in King Creole, apparently. Now, I use 'superb' in a rather loose sense. Jagger is here one of those actors who seem like they are in a slightly different film to everyone else, and seem also to be slightly annoyed to be there. I found out after watching it that he allegedly demanded the original director, Joseph Losey, be fired as he was on the Hollywood blacklist, but Jagger also hated the replacement, Leslie Norman (a bully by all accounts), and ignored most direction from him. This is detectable in his eagerness to walk out of shot a lot and to stroke his bald patch irritably. A lot.

He also seems almost suicidally unconcerned by smoking in his nuclear lab -

This lady, however, is clearly very concerned by something.

Just to be clear, that is screaming, not yawning. She has just seen the doctor she was about to snog (in a closed-mouth '50s style) melt after encountering an off-camera monster, which remains off-camera for most of the film as it creeps really, really slowly up on people, who scream then die. The reason it is off-camera so long is of course to increase tension and wonder in the viewer, and nothing at all to do with budget constraints on making a mound of molten mud move menacingly...

There it is, finally visible. The radioactive mud. That kills. Slowly. Beautiful, isn't it...

Don't laugh. It's deadly. Look - 

Anyway, pictures are a thousand words and all that but if I showed much more you wouldn't have to watch the damn thing. Which you will of course do immediately... Anyway, here more words...

The film begins with soldiers on a training exercise (in the aforementioned muddy field in 'Scotland') coming into contact with some strange force from the depths. Soon enough military scientist Jagger is on the case and, in between letting us go off to see other extras getting blasted and melted in amusing ways, he slowly figures out an ancient creature of pure energy is running amok in search of radiation, tempted out of subterranean hiding by the nascent nuclear age.

And there is the 'cautionary' part of the sci-fi. Jagger's character, Dr Adam Royston, is a maverick, straying from the lab to work in his shed on a device to deactivate radioactive devices. The police chief who quickly appears up from London, played by a young Leo McKern (later to be in The Prisoner and other gems of British telly), is impressed and excited by the implications if such a device. It's not said whether that's because it could stop the nuclear threat to all, or because it could help them beat the 'Ruskies'. I like to think it's the former reason. Of course, this device comes to play an important role in more immediate proceedings, but I don't want to spoil the ending...

Shot lovingly in black and white (or black and silver, more accurately), and with editing and a score that keep the pace and tension, the film evokes a small Scottish community with a few nicely-accented supporting players and the odd foggy wood. As much as I joked about the mud monster effects, in many ways X is a smartly made and seriously-minded film. It takes a small budget and works that weakness into a strength, keeping things on a small scale, staying in rooms and the same few exterior locations, and uses decent actors to bring home the drama rather than helicopter shots and pricey effects work. It is clear it is as concerned by the inaction of bureaucracy and the violence of the military as it is by the threat from below, and the lasting impression is of intelligence and compassion winning the day. Even if lots of stuff blows up too.

The flaws are many, but it is perhaps unfair to judge the past on today's standards. The dialogue is stagey at times, the acting often awkward, the gender politics appalling, the slow and naive decisions of the heroes frustrating and the attempts to scare us laughable. But I can imagine at the time it raised a few hairs on the back of the neck. It was originally a follow-up to Hammer's successful The Quartermass Xperiment (sic) but the writer of the Quartermass serial on which the film was based refused them the rights to his character, hence the Doctor Royston creation. The fact that its troubled gestation resulted in such a solid work is impressive, and, despite an odd false ending that isn't sure if it's a cliffhanger or not, worth searching out.

The Math :

Baseline Assessment : 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for no annoying romantic subplot with swelling strings; +1 for the weird and unlikeable lead; +1 for the effective use of a small budget

Penalties : -1 for the death scenes being funny rather than scary; -1 for the odd ending; -1 for the lack of Vin Diesel *

Nerd Coefficient : 7/10
A mostly enjoyable experience
 * I tried to find a photo of Vin Diesel crying, or even looking dejected. And there aren't any. Really. The man only scowls or grins. That is how he rolls. Seriously. Google Image search 'Vin Diesel crying' and he just laughs at you. Or flexes. There is one of Toby Maguire crying in there for some reason. Don't understand that. Although he cries in everything.