X: The Unknown (1956)

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“I don’t know what it is, but it should never have happened.”

The earth cracks open during a military training exercise in Scotland, and for most of the movie we don’t see what deadly thing crawls out of that bottomless fissure. The subterranean creature emits a staticky buzz, disrupts radio, telephone lines and communication equipment, inflicts deadly radioactive burns on anyone who gets close enough to see it, and any poor soul who gets closer than that is fried and melted. Eventually the thing is revealed as a massive, dark, slimy, seemingly indestructible mound of pure energy with uncanny abilities.

Atomic scientist Dean Jagger thinks he knows what sort of creature they’re dealing with. Based on curious thefts of radioactive material from his lab and from a hospital therapy machine, he theorizes that a regular cycle of global cooling has once again compressed organisms living thousand of miles below our feet. Starved of energy, these life forms develop enough intelligence to come to the surface and find sources of power to feed on. Luckily, Jagger’s latest project is an atomic energy neutralizer that might just come in handy if it can be scaled up to the size of this terrorizing mountain of sentient mud.

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That’s the story and as crazy as it sounds, X: The Unknown makes it a fun, dark science fiction suspenser with much to recommend it. One way it gets your interest and suspends your belief is by showing you civil and serious characters. They’re quick to accept Jagger’s explanation (like anyone could think of a better one) and follow his advice. They’re not dunderheads who waste time bickering, or need a whole movie and a pile of bodies to be persuaded that some strange creature does indeed exist. There’s only one skeptic, Jagger’s boss, and even he comes around quickly, and the men argue over methods, tools and fine-tuning, not about Jagger’s sanity. A related plus is having good actors play it seriously; they somehow make a tapioca creature just as real a thing as atomic science and environmental dangers. Supporting actors include Michael Ripper and Peter Hammond, plus Anthony Newley and Ian MacNaughton as placid soldiers guarding the fissure, far more concerned about waiting so long and being so hungry.

Jagger makes a comforting and trustworthy lead, smart, quick, curious and calm. The father of a boy burned by the creature calls Jagger a murderer, one of those fake doctors who don’t keep people safe but play with forces they can’t control. Jagger is visibly hurt and says, “it’s not true, we try to create, not destroy.” And scientists are the good guys here. Jagger’s young associate (William Lucas) steps in to  dangle bait over the creature’s lair when a soldier gets too scared to do it, and along with Leo McKern as a government inspector, the intellectuals do dirty work and risk their lives as much as the military. Even these experts admit they don’t know something and they make mistakes, like incorrectly predicting the blob’s route, but they improvise and keep working on solutions. They’d better, since the Defense department’s approach of bombing then paving the monster over is certain to fail.

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Each time you see the monster kill, you get more gory detail, but other events have their share of thrills as well. There’s a good bit where Lucas is lowered into the cavernous fissure. For starters, he’s dropped quite a way due to a fumble by the winch operators, and when he gets to a level with skeletons and goo and the buzzing of the creature, the suspense is wound up as much as the frantic cranking of the line as Lucas screams to lift him out faster. Another good scene has everyone in town hiding in the church, while one adorable little girl waddles out into the graveyard and directly into the path of the oncoming blob. When a jeep is backed up to the fissure, it gets stuck in the mud and tires spin for a few nail-biting moments as the glowing blob rises up behind. A lab tech and nurse get romantic in the radiation treatment room when the creature creeps in, and the nurse loses her mind watching the tech’s fingers balloon and bubble and his face fall off.

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The monster is pretty basic but very well presented and groundbreaking, considering it predates The Blob (1958). It’s “something from a nightmare,” an icky mess that can crush lead, survive firebombing, squeeze through ventilation grilles and push through feet of concrete. When a phone line or radio is acting up, you know it’s near, and that device is well used when the blob becomes so powerful it knocks out all communication and strands our cast without outside help. For a simple, low-budget special effect, the slimy puddle is scary, spilling down streets or oozing over buildings, burning people in their cars and leaving only uniforms and guns behind as it consumes soldiers.

This Hammer picture had its share of problems in production. It was meant as a sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) but Nigel Kneale wouldn’t approve the use of his creation and character. Still, it bears an unmistakable resemblance, with an American actor playing the lead scientist and much of the action taking place in theory, labs and facilities. Dean Jagger wouldn’t work with original director Joseph Losey, who conveniently contracted pneumonia and had to be released from the project. Leslie Norman took over directing, but apparently friction between him and cast and Hammer limited his work there in the future. He later directed TV’s The Saint and The Avengers. This movie is also notable for being Jimmy Sangster’s first one as writer, a first step on his way to establishing Hammer’s reputation as horror central (I recently reviewed his great thrillers Paranoiac and Hysteria). Considering all these complications and risks, it’s impressive that a mostly routine sci fi thriller came out this enjoyable, entertaining and atmospheric.

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17 thoughts on “X: The Unknown (1956)”

  1. It’s good you got to see this, and even better that you seem to have enjoyed it too. It’s Quatermass in all but name really and sits well with the other Q movies in my opinion.
    The key is that it’s all, as you note, played absolutely straight and any goofiness that could arise from the blob-like threat is thus eliminated.

    1. sorry for the delay replying! Yes I only discovered the Quatermass films last year and I agree while this has a more contained story, it does fit in well. Jagger’s character is very different in personality, much more mild. I love horror where most of it is suggested (because of budget or style) and this one wrings the most out of an unseen monster until late in the movie and then doesn’t disappoint, even just using a blob. Fun stuff.

      1. hello! nice to see you in these parts. I always find something to enjoy in this era and especially like looking more into the Hammer movies, which I know the “big” ones but still need to see so many more.

  2. Another fine entry from the early days of Hammer and as both you and Colin point out it’s very much the unofficial entry in the Quatermaas story. Then there’s Dean Jagger who adds credibility to pretty much any role he undertook.

  3. Thing is with Quatermass, and Nigel Kneale’s scripting, is that the official Q films had some sort of mythical/scifi subtext – alien/demonic possession, all the way up to horned aliens seeding Mankind’s origin. X The Unknown, while excellent, is only about itself, and Jagger’s character far from the bullying, driven Q. Btw, this film’s title is a zetz to the British rating board, which would routinely give horror films an X rating. Quatermass Xperiment is another example.

    1. Very fine review Kristina,and a very neat choice I
      might add.
      I too read that the very right wing Jagger refused to work
      with Losey. From a personal point of view I would rather Losey
      directed the film with say,Forrest Tucker.
      Another interesting point is that Nigel Kneale never liked
      Brian Donlevy’s casting,who he found too bombastic.
      The third Quatermass film SHOULD have starred Peter Cushing,
      a huge missed opportunity for Hammer.
      When Hammer and Losey finally made a full length feature
      together the result was THE DAMNED,one of the best and most
      underrated Hammer films ever.
      A troubled production,to be sure but a film well worth checking out.

      1. Kneale didn’t want ANY American as Q, but Donlevy made a great change from the traditional cliched scientist. Even looks comfortable wielding a machine gun in the second one.

      2. Thanks John, bit of a tangent but reading up on the X rating, apparently the YELLOW BALLOON which you mentioned here before was one of those?

        THE DAMNED is in my collection, and now moved closer to the tv 🙂 thanks for that. Tucker was great in ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN which I loved as a kid, and will be rewatching soon, so I can see that casting working. Just watched Quatermass trilogy last year, my first time so that’s why I’ve been curious to get to this one as well, love getting deeper into the Hammer films since all I ever cared about when I was younger were their monster/gothic horror ones. They made so many good movies. In another comment I said that it’s strange Norman never did another horror since he gave this one plenty of old style gloom vs the more documentary style.

        1. Yep! THE YELLOW BALLOON was,I think
          the second UK film to be granted an X certificate
          (over 16’s only)
          The (Laura unfriendly 🙂 ) “child in peril”
          theme which include very tense scenes of young
          Andrew Ray being chased through a derelict
          underground station,and the fact that he is given
          shelter by a prostitute were too strong for the censor
          at that time.
          It is however a great Brit flick which I hope that you
          get around to seeing.
          Looking forward to hearing your take on
          THE DAMNED.
          Oliver Reed plays “King” the leader of a biker gang.
          That’s all you really need to know 🙂

          1. It sounds interesting! Love Oliver Reed so you’re right that’s a big draw right there. I also look forward to reading up a but more on Hammer, British film, etc. So much more to learn. 🙂 and see

      3. Yes, Hammer Films – The Bray Studio Years by Wayne Kinsey points out that it’s believed the claim Losey became ill while scouting locations was used an excuse to cover any embarrassment over his replacement to placate both Jagger and US associates at the time of the blacklist.

    2. I saw the Quatermass films for the first time last year and really enjoyed them, loved the look and implications of the third one especially re Man’s origin. This one is more contained and you’re right about the totally different main characters. Interesting that Norman never before or after made a horror picture because I thought this was a fine job, has the feeling of 30s-40s horrors, lots of atmosphere. Thanks!

  4. Actually Bill,I thought Donlevy was fine in the role.
    Val Guest told an amusing tale that in the second film
    when they engaged the wind machine Donlevy’s
    toupee went flying off into the stratosphere!

    1. Agree that Donlevy’s fine, if occaisionally looking a bit embarrassed. The toupee incident was probably why Jagger wore that knit cap. Wonder if the Brits got an inferiority complex what with all these Americans always coming to their rescue. There are latter-day Quatermass homages, like Prince of Darkness – script credited to “Martin Quatermass”, and Lifeforce, a very Q-like film made by insane people.

    2. A lot of people seem to gripe about Donlevy as Quatermass but I’m another who likes his bullish take on the character. It may not be how Kneale envisaged him but I don’t attach much importance to that – for me, it works fine on the screen.

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