X the Unknown (1956)
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Joseph Losey and Leslie Norman
Starring Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, and Leo McKern
Two years before The Blob creeped and leaped and glid and slid across the screen, Hammer Films surfaced their own crawling mass of goop in X the Unknown. After the success of The Quatermass Xperiment, they wanted another Quatermass movie. Creator Nigel Kneale was not ready to allow the Alan Quatermass to be used for a story he hadn’t written, so the good doctor got renamed to Adam Royston and production went forward.
That wasn’t the only change required. Original director, Joseph Losey, had been banished from Hollywood as a result of McCarthy’s Red Witchhunt. Purportedly, star Dean Jagger refused to work with him. Whether that’s the truth or Losey simply backed out, Leslie Norman was brought in to replace him. Considering all of these changes, the movie turned out amazingly well.
Here’s the premise, which is about on par for the standards of mid-century science fiction: The first life forms on the Earth were beings of energy. They also fed on energy, so as the surface cooled they moved deeper inside the planet. Every 50 years, as the Earth experiences greater gravitational stresses (?), a few of these creatures manage to crack the surface and escape. They didn’t used to stay long, as there wasn’t anything for them to eat, but now all of the radioactive materials on the surface are allowing one to stay… and to grow!
Like most movie science, it’s not very convincing. The solution that Dr. Royston arrives at is even less so. All of that is just excuses for things to happen on the screen, and what happens on the screen is pretty cool. The energy creature is essentially a mass of radioactive mud. This allows it to go anywhere it needs to, and it means we’re treated to a lot of shots of it oozing across the ground and over walls and such. These range from “okay” to fantastic, with the average being toward the high end.
Other great effects include the melting flesh of its victims. That’s right, “melting flesh”. Used sparingly, perhaps to avoid censoring, the effect is not so much convincing as it is startling. Prior to melting, the skin would expand as though roasting. Another effect that’s not terrific, it’s nonetheless disturbing. Where later movies would halt the story to revel in the decay of the body, this one emphasizes the horror by showing the sheer grit of victims struggling to live long enough to help other people. You want them to succeed, and you feel their agony and determination. It’s a chilling and effective approach that surpasses the ability of effects alone to achieve.
The rest of the movie plays like a combination police/army/scientist procedural. What makes it stand out is that, while everyone is pursuing their own agendas and mandates, everyone works together effectively when it comes to preventing catastrophe. As much as I love the pessimism of films like The Crazies (1973), which imply that every attempt to solve a problem worsens it, there’s something uplifting and satisfying about seeing people set aside their differences to accomplish the impossible.