Film

Don't Open That Door! #9: 'X the Unknown' (1956)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: we face the rampaging primordial ooze of X the Unknown.


Director: Leslie Norman
Cast: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, William Lucas, John Harvey
UK theatrical: 5 November 1956

Alternative titles: 30 Seconds Under Edinburgh; Blob Save the Queen

POSITIVES:

Pre-horror Hammer Films release features terrific performances from understated British cast

Reasonably effective special effects

Innovative monster

Crisp pace and momentum with—really?—no pointless romance!

Relatively effective use of child actors

NEGATIVES:

The ending is a weensy bit anticlimactic, although there is a nice "WTF" moment

SYNOPSIS: When a platoon of British soldiers discovers a subterranean source of radiation somewhere in a desolate Scottish moor--hey, what the hell is a moor, anyway? I can never remember—it's different from a down, right? What about a glen? Man, this British landscape stuff just kills me. It's not a loch, though, I know that much. Lochs are watery, I'm pretty sure--anyway, things get ugly fast. But not nearly as ugly as the soldier who discovers the thing, and the guy who tries to save him, both of whom come out of the experience suffering varying degrees of burns and, um, death.

Major Cartwright, who spends most of his time channeling John Cleese from Monty Python, turns for assistance to nearby physicist and local American-guy-who-knows-about-all-this-nuclear stuff, Dr Royston, who responds to the mystery by looking worried. Then a couple of the local wee laddies have a run-in with the whatever-it-is, which doesn't turn out too good for anybody, and the doc looks even more worried. He doesn't look any happier when the parents of one of the boys accuse him of being, basically, Satan. But he doesn't argue back, either. Hey, maybe we should be worried.

Things go from bad to worse as the cretinous creature, who appears to be, essentially, ambulatory radioactive mud from the center of the Earth—hey! It could happen!—continues its oozing, slow-moving rampage. And by "bad to worse," we mean "causing people to melt." Since it's gobbling radioactive material every chance it gets, Royston figures it'll make tracks (so to speak) for the nuke plant, which is run by grouchy John Elliot and his dapper son, Peter. Happily, Royston has a plan. Unhappily, the plan has been in the works for a while, and its trial run results in what scientists refer to as "a big-ass explosion that wrecked everything in the lab."

At this point, the doc's not the only one looking worried. Implementing the plan involves Peter luring the creature with a Jeep-load of radiation. And the thing about that damp Scottish climate? It plays havoc with auto transmissions.

Best line of dialogue: "How do you kill mud?"

What gets rendered extra-crispy: A soldier; a kid (wow—you'd never see that in an American movie); another couple of soldiers; some people in a car (by report); a guard; a critter who lack defined borders.

What gets saved: Her Majesty. And also, unfortunately, Her Majesty's progeny.

Moral of the story: Radiation doesn't kill people. People with radiation kill people.

Party game: Play "Sludge." Players have to create the least visually appealing, but most delicious, dinner entrée. Taste-test each of the dishes during the movie and award prizes to the winner. Alternatively, play "Sweet Sludge," in which players make the most delicious but most awful-looking dessert.

Did you know? Some Scottish people (and a few others) eat haggis, which is a blend of sheep guts mixed with barley, stuffed into an intestine and deep fried. I know, it sounds like another horror movie, but as a lad myself in the (ahem) 1980s, I consumed and enjoyed a fair amount of it. Hey, deep-frying improves just about everything.

This reminds me of…The Blob, of course, which it predates by a couple of years, and also 1955's The Qatermass Xperiment, mostly because it's another great Hammer Films production that relies on a shadowy, night-heavy look and a wandering monster who takes semi-liquid form (at least by the end). Even the slight anticlimax is reminiscent of the earlier film.

Somehow their careers survived: Dean Jagger (Royston) began his career in 1929's silent film The Woman From Hell, with Mary Astor; his work in 12 O'Clock High (1949) earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Much TV and film followed from the 1950s through the '80s. Edward Chapman (John Elliot) also enjoyed a 40-year career that began with 1930's Murder! and ended with The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970). William Lucas (Peter Elliot) worked primarily as a TV actor, with his most notable role probably as the star of The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972-74); he also appeared in a few episodes of the 1984 edition of Doctor Who. John Harvey (Major Cartwright) would appear in several episodes of the 1966-67 Doctor Who, among much else.

BOTTOM LINE: A class act all the way, from its tense opening scene to its quirky resolution. Recommended.

NEXT WEEK: The Manster (1959)

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