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


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


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)


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.