Saturday, 5 March 2011

X: The Unknown (1956)

X: The Unknown was one of a series of excellent science fiction films made by Hammer Films in the mid-50s. It was notable for being the first of many Hammer films to be scripted by Jimmy Sangster.

Sangster’s plot is outlandish but undeniably clever and original. An unexplained source of radiation appears not far from a nuclear research facility in Scotland. It’s discovered by a squad of soldiers undergoing training in dealing with radiation threats, but this is one radiation threat they’re quite unable to deal with. Especially when a huge fissure opens up in the ground, a fissure that seems to be almost unimaginably deep.

Dr Royston from the experimental nuclear facility comes up with a possible explanation, but can he convince anyone that such a bizarre explanation may in fact be the truth? Could they really be dealing with creatures of pure energy from within the molten core of the Earth itself?

Director Leslie Norman develops an impressive sense of menace, helped considerably by the decision to delay the onscreen appearance of the monster until very late in the film. The special effects at the end are a bit iffy but the makeup effects are good and there are some genuinely quite horrific scenes. I’m surprised some of these scenes got past the notoriously strict British censors.

There’s lots of delightful technobabble but the real highlight is Dr Royston’s personal laboratory, with ingenious scientific apparatus made from Meccano! You have to love a film where Meccano saves the world!

As with their early 50 outings in the film noir genre Hammer imported fading American stars for their science fiction movies to give them an extra transatlantic appeal. And as with their film noirs they chose remarkable wisely. In this case Dean Jagger gives a sympathetic and sensitive performance as the dedicated and humane Dr Royston.

Jagger sets great support from the legendary Leo McKern who plays an Atomic Energy Commission security expert despatched to investigate the strange happenings in Scotland. And you know this is a real Hammer film, because Michael Ripper’s in it, having a great time as a crusty sergeant.

Look out for musical comedy and pop star Anthony Newley in a minor role.

Like all of Hammer’s movies from the early to mid-50s X: The Unknown is a well-crafted, intelligent and highly entertaining movie. It takes its subject matter seriously and it gets away with doing so.

It was released on DVD by Anchor Bay paired with another fine Hammer sci-fi film from this era, Four-Sided Triangle. The picture quality on both movies is superb with nice crisp images and good black-and-white contrast, plus you get a couple of episodes of the World of Hammer TV documentary series. All of which makes this one an absolute must-buy.

1 comment:

venoms5 said...

This was another one I saw on a Saturday morning back in the 80s when TV showed the good stuff. I got the DVD and still haven't cracked it open, lol.