“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.
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.
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.
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.