X – The Unknown (1956)

When Hammer Films decided to break away from the dramas and comedies that were the staples of their first twenty years of ripping off Ealing Studios, they did so with “The Quatermass Xperiment”; a remake of the 1953 BBC Television series written by Nigel Kneale. The studio was over the moon when it got an X rating for all it’s terror and tension, ensuring that everyone would want to see it and that the press would hate it. Combined with ground-breaking special effects, the cultural excitement of the then-not-even-named “Space Race”, and the marketing genius of putting it in cinemas the same weekend as when the BBCs Quatermass 2 series started, it was an amazing financial success. Thus, Hammer immediately started work on a follow up film, with only the slight snag of Nigel Kneale telling them they couldn’t use any of his work or characters because Hammer had changed so much with the first one.

Enter, stage left, Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger), who, despite being an elderly, surly moustached American “Man of Science” with a habit of giving gruff orders and complaining that everyone around him was a silly head, was playing a totally different character. Being a “plays by his own rules” loner who works on nuclear material, rather than a “plays by his own rules” loner who works on rockets, he’s the perfect man for the MOD to call up and ask about the strange things happening in darkest Scotland. These include soldiers being swallowed up by the ground, plucky Scottish kids falling ill after being suspiciously close to the aforementioned homes, and everyone being coated in radiation.

Helping him fight through the bureaucratic nightmare of the army and police asking him what the hell is happening, Quatermass Royston gains an assistant in Marsh “Mac” McGill (Leo McKern in his first major cinematic role) from the Atomic Energy Commission. His main tasks is to ask Quatermass Royston questions that let him show off his genius, switching between threatening to pull out his Warrant Card Of Authority and just wanting to be treated like a regular chap, and being an intermediary between Quatermass Royston deducing exactly what is going on, and all the other characters that get in his way by existing.

Whilst there is an extensive additional cast, they pretty much all fail to have a personality beyond their job titles. Head Of The Nuclear Research Facility, Local Copper, Village Priest, and Scottish Child are all you need to know and all the script really cares about regards anything that isn’t Quatermass Royston. Everyone does a solid job of extra-ing, with a lot of talent bursting to break free, but they are mostly treated as either things to be terrified/victimised by whatever is causing all the radiation, or stupid people that slow down Quatermass Royston being so clever. And anyone looking for strong, independent female characters is bang out of luck, as the only woman with any agency is the nurse who decides to bang a doctor in the X-Ray room and that feels like she exists just to throw a bit of sex into the mix.

The only space this film has for characters is Quatermass Royston and The Creature and, even then, The Creature is the most well-defined and evolved of the two. The scenes featuring it are honestly scary, having a steady escalation from seeing people being spooked by it, then moving onto some monster eye-view sequences that are a contemporary The Evil Dead, and then ending with a full-blown full scale rampage across the land. Obviously, its origin is quite silly, but it’s the kind of nonsense that carries a weight of primal-fear which puts the movie halfway between sci-fi and horror.

The horror element is ramped up with several quite graphic scenes of what The Creature does to its victims, including a full camera shot of someone’s head going from perfectly fine to goo-on-the-floor, all in full-frame melty glory. There’s also a lot of stalking, screaming, and genuine spookiness to make some of the scenes pretty top notch. There’s also one part where a toddler decides to stand in the path of the oncoming demon slime, wrecking the Vicar’s moment of heroics by giggling when picked up and run to safety. (Try not to giggle too loudly, it’ll just upset the poor chap.)

As always, you have to make stylistic allowances for older films. It’s pointless comparing them to films of now and expecting them to match up on all levels. But for all the really great weird science, horror build-up, and creature feature rampage that this film does provide, it has some very obvious flaws. Outside of the good bits, it’s quite dull. There is no real tension, mostly because there are so few characters that aren’t caricatures. People don’t display any free-thinking or agency, mostly to highlight how clever Quatermass Royston is, and there just isn’t the heart or stakes there should be. It’s a Quatermass story with all the plot points but none of the understanding of why the original was fun to watch in the first place.

That a film where we see, in full frame and with no cuts, someone’s face get melted off can still give the overall sense of dullness is why it must end up in the Trash. For someone who knows the other two parts of the Hammer Trilogy, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957), it’s 81 minutes of remembering what made them so good and being annoyed at such a shonky Quatermass rip-off Royson is. For anyone who just wants a bit of retro adventure it’s an example of who so many of these films end up forgotten and unloved. It’s an example of an early mockbuster, riffing off the name and broad concepts, and a demonstration of why they don’t manage to work well beyond a quick cash grab at the time.

The Raggedyman

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