For the next entry into this months Genre Grandeur – Aliens, I once again bring you a review from Niall of RagingFluff. Niall, is a well know contributor to Genre Grandeur and has sent me numerous reviews that I will get out over the next week or so. If you don’t already follow Niall, I strongly urge you to do so.
If you are interested in submitting a review for this months Genre Grandeur – Aliens it’s not too late to send me your review. Just send me an email to email@example.com before the 25th of the month and I’ll post it for you.
Take it away Niall……
X: the Unknown (1956)
Like The Thing from Outer Space or Village of the Damned, X: the Unknown is a deadly serious science-fiction film from the 1950s, far removed from the camp excesses of Plan 9 From Outer Space or The Blob. It does actually concern a blob, come to think of it, but this is a blob for grown-ups.
Made in the UK by Hammer for Warner Bros., this is an American film made cheaply overseas. It doesn’t look that cheap, though, in spite of the fact that much of it is filmed in stark surroundings. Many of the scenes take place at night, but at no point does the film use shoddy day for night photography (unlike many Hammer productions). Indeed, it’s quite well-shot in crisp black and white, and it’s all stark shadows and visible breath against the night sky.
X: the Unknown is an alien film with a difference. There is an invading being, but it doesn’t come from outer space. It comes from the earth’s core; it’s a blob of energy that has been gradually crushed and threatened by millions of years of atmospheric pressure, squeezing it deeper and deeper underground while we blithely go about our lives on the surface. In fact, it’s arguable that humans are the aliens in this scenario.
The setting is rural Scotland near an army installation that trains soldiers in detecting radiation. During an exercise, the army detects a very strong reading from underground, and then a fissure opens in the earth, badly burning two soldiers. Other incidents follow, and it becomes clear that whatever is beneath the surface has a yen for radioactive energy, as it sets about absorbing whatever radiation lies about, melting people along the way. One of the film’s great strengths is that – until late in the story – you don’t actually see the creature. We only see its terrified victims from its point of view.
Have no fear, though, because the film has a hero-scientist in the form of Dean Jagger, who does work for the Army in radiation. Like all good scientists, he has a conscience; when a child is killed by the monster, the parents blame him because of the work he’s been conducting, and he feels guilty, because scientists “should create, not destroy.” It’s his peaceful conscience, no doubt, that motivates him to work on a side project of his own that neutralises atomic weapons. He theorises that the force is made of pure energy, and that energy needs to feed on more energy to survive. I’m not sure how scientifically sound that is, but the film believes in it.
In fact, the film has three heroes: Jagger, his handsome young assistant, William Lucas, and the chubby and stubborn Leo McKern, who is sent up from London to investigate, and who sides with Jagger against his superiors. As in much science-fiction, there is a standard scientists versus the military conflict.
It’s quite a sincere horror story, but it does have moments of levity. There’s a running gag involving two squaddies grumbling about the fact that they will miss dinner back at the base, and there’s a rather pert, quite sexy and very forward nurse (not English, obviously: she sounds Swedish) who hits on a doctor in the radiation lab. Alas, their tryst is interrupted by the monster.
X: the Unknown is a justifiable SF classic, and as with Village of the Damned, it’s a British-set film that should be seen by anyone interested in the development of science-fiction. It was to be directed by Joseph Losey (blacklisted in Hollywood and in exile in Britain). But Dean Jagger refused to work with him because he thought he was a Communist. Losey was replaced by Leslie Norman (father of renowned film critic Barry Norman).
Thanks again to Niall for this very fascinating review!