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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

‘X The Unknown’ Was One of Hammer’s More Interesting Tales of Disquieting Science [Hammer Factory]

While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.

In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.

Welcome to the Hammer Factory. This month we dissect X the Unknown (1956).

The Context

In the wake of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Hammer’s interests centered on continuing the successful saga of Nigel Kneale’s formerly small-screen Professor Quatermass on the silver one. However, unhappy with how Hammer had adapted his popular televised serial, Kneale denied the company the rights to the character and ensured that the property would not continue under their creative care. While the situation would go on to rapidly evolve, seeing Hammer releasing Quatermass II (1957) as soon as one year later, it meant that Hammer’s in-development sequel would either have to evolve as well or wither on the vine.

Rather than abandoning the project, Hammer decided to repurpose it, substituting Professor Quatermass with yet another hardheaded, morally enigmatic doctor. They even slapped an “X” in the title, as with Quatermass, to call attention to its X-rated certificate. Penned by Hammer staple Jimmy Sangster in what was his first fully credited screenplay, the film was moved swiftly through production, bringing on proven Hammer director Joseph Losey and American star Dean Jagger. With Phil Leakey handling the makeup, Les Bowie providing miniature and effects work, a score by James Bernard and soon-to-be Hammer veteran Michael Ripper making his first appearance for the studio, X the Unknown (1956) was set to be a veritable who’s who of what would prove to become some of Hammer’s most capable creatives.

However, even the early days of Hammer’s output were not devoid of production strife. Very quickly on, director Joseph Losey stepped away citing the flu as the cause, despite the fact that inside sources reported actor Dean Jagger’s unwillingness to work with him. Losey had left the United States when the House of American Activities Committee labeled him a communist, blacklisting him in Hollywood. As Jagger’s presence in the film was as much a marketing reason for US distribution as it was a creative one, Leslie Norman was brought in to replace Losey, resulting in a somewhat incongruous disruption before the production had begun to be established.

The film was shot across multiple locations, at times localized in and around Hammer’s famous Bray Studios and others in the wilds of Scotland. Of course, the locales offered their own set of challenges. Selecting a large dirt quarry for a sizable chunk of the narrative seemed to be effective for budgetary reasons, but the practical struggles of shooting in the mud proved arduous – the crew actually lost a camera in the muck in the process, as though swallowed by the viscosity of the film’s titular threat.

Still, the expansive spaces, simplistic wide rooms fitted with electrical panels, glass paned areas housing radioactive experiments and startlingly grotesque effects work amount to a film that even in Hammer’s earlier days showcased the studio’s unique ability to foster enormous scope at an incredibly low cost. The film embodies the high-concept science fiction of The Quatermass Xperiment while infusing more of the horror elements they would become so famous for, setting the stage for more than a decade of Hammer’s finest films in the process.

Unafraid to push boundaries, creating a narrative where terrible things happen to innocent people and where no one is safe from the terrifyingly amorphous threat (not even children), X the Unknown is the kind of science fiction thriller that helped build the foundation that would go on to house Hammer’s most iconic monstrous breadwinners. Oft forgotten, having been released alongside the game-changing The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the film was a profitable outing for the studio that might’ve spawned a franchise of its own, had Kneale not so quickly relinquished the Quatermass rights and had the zeitgeist tides not so heavily favored gothic horror in lieu of heady science fiction. As it stands, X the Unknown is a potent artifact of distressing 50’s sci-fi that not only sits toward the top of its subgenre but at the forefront of some of Hammer’s finest early works.

The Film

“It’s a particle of mud. But by virtue of its atomic structure it emits radiation. That’s all it is. Just mud. How do you kill mud?”

Black, sticky muck shimmers behind the titles before morphing into the letter “X” of the film’s moniker followed by clear white letters spelling, “THE UNKNOWN”. Now backed by a vast expanse of wet mud, the titles continue until a gloved hand enters the frame, slowly taking radiation readings over a gray pool of standing water.

His boots crusted with sludge, the man makes his way further out, nervously taking his readings as his wet footsteps squelch further into the quarry. His readings spike and he bends down, unearthing a small object. He turns to a row of several dozen uniformed men, watching him from a distance atop a ridge. A man in command hits the timer and commends him for a job well done— the training exercise is complete. While what they’re seeking is harmless, the officer explains, were this the real thing, they would all be in grave danger. One last man is sent into the quarry to find a dummy object, but as the counter spikes and the puddles boil, this time what they find in the mire is anything but harmless.

So begins X the Unknown, a movie so infused with the DNA of the Quatermass franchise that it may as well be a part of it. Directed with clinical care by Leslie Norman and beautifully lensed and captured in gorgeous black and white by veteran cinematographer Gerald Gibbs, the production is a haunting, fast-paced trek into the murky clutches of the mysterious and undiscovered that forever seems to plague humanity’s all-too-narrow view of the world around them. Produced by Anthony Hinds and written by Jimmy Sangster, who would go on to write The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (1958), the film feels like a prestige Hammer picture of its time and indicative of many of the talents which would go on to define the studio’s legacy in the years that followed.

At only 80 minutes, X the Unknown moves with constant purpose. Within minutes of the soldier’s disconcerting discovery the ground begins to quake, the earth snapping apart and forming a Y-shaped fissure that stretches down into an inky black abyss. At the same time, the film introduces Dean Jagger’s Dr. Adam Royston, a scientist working for the Atomic Energy Establishment and one content to let hopeful administrators perform his day to day duties while he sneaks off to his lab to perform off-the-book experiments. A stand-in for Professor Quatermass, Royston is brilliant, unconventional and uninterested in authority and Dean Jagger’s performance reflects these sentiments with appropriate introspection.

Royston is pulled from his unauthorized experimentation, not too curiously involving isolated radio waves and their potential effect on radiation, to meet with his director John Elliott, played with righteous indignation by Edward Chapman. Further emphasizing Royston’s characterization, Elliott reprimands him for passing off his work and engaging in his own enterprises. More specifically, Elliott is flustered that Royston employed the director’s son Peter, played by William Lucas, thereby encouraging him to work in science as opposed to the more bureaucratic path his father so desires him to tread. Furthermore, Elliott assigns Royston to investigate the army’s run in with radiation, much to Royston’s boorish chagrin.

Within minutes, Dr. Adam Royston is a fully fleshed out character, a renegade brain amongst scientists sent to do a job that he sees as nothing but an inane distraction. It’s only when he arrives on scene, meeting up with Leo McKern’s more straight-and-narrow “Mac” McGill, his partner and complimentary foil in the film, that the doctor comes face to face with the deeply disconcerting problem he’s there to solve. The men who were near the fissure when it opened are terribly burned. Some are dying. Some are already dead. And, yet, no evidence of the radiation remains on sight. It’s as if there was never any radiation at all.

Like The Quatermass Xperiment before it, X the Unknown crafts a mystery rooted in science, intellect and the fantastic, painting at first in broad strokes and leaning on impressive sets, practical effects and brilliant scripting to engage the viewer long before the creature ever lets loose on screen. From the moment Royston lays eyes on the burns which pepper the soldiers’ backs, a disturbing realism pervades not only the look and feel of Phil Leakey’s impressive makeup but the character’s reactions to it as well. This carries through to the set pieces which follow, particularly those involving a young boy who meets an agonizing demise after an unfortunate encounter with the as yet unseen threat and a doctor whose fingers swell like ballooning sausages after a romantic encounter with a nurse and a far less enjoyable one with whatever it is that emerges from the fissure to feed.

The film is wise with its sparse use of the monstrous thing its characters are so afraid of, leaning more on shadow, physical reaction and distressing makeup to conjure fear in the viewer’s imagination as opposed to overt visualization. Of course, the film does deliver the creature in the final act, a viscous glop of primordial slop that itself is not all that frightening (undeniably reminiscent of The Blob (1958) which would come several years later), rather the representation of the earth and the natural world which humanity so underestimates and undervalues. Add to that the radioactive effect it has on living things and its ever growing hunger for that same radiation to further bolster its mass and raw power and what emerges is something far more formidable than it appears.

Despite the army’s best attempts to guard and contain it, the mass emerges and sets out to find and feast on radioactive material. Drawn to the Atomic Energy Laboratory for that reason, Royston’s intellect and experimentations are put to the test. This sequence serves to exhibit Hammer’s boundless ingenuity and how they were able to create so much with so little, in large part due to the talents of Les Bowie and Phil Leakey. Working with matte paintings, miniatures, composite shots combining separate elements together and physical effects, the viewer watches the mass grow and consume, nearly nabbing a small girl as she makes her way into a chapel to hide with the rest of the town and finally being lured back to the great muddy quarry from which it originally arose.

X the Unknown is as eerie as it is fascinating, exploring the terrors of that which lies beyond humanity’s scope of knowledge or understanding. Born in the shadow of The Quatermass Xperiment, Jimmy Sangster crafted a script worthy of the franchise it was originally intended to be a part of. Smart, pithy and consistently entertaining, with assured direction from Leslie Norman, beautiful photography from Gerald Gibbs and an effectively idiosyncratic turn from Dean Jagger in the title role, the film is one of Hammer’s best of its time and an important mile-marker on their road to becoming Britain’s most famous House of Horror.

In the end, Royston must put his theories to practical use— must broaden the scope of his small, personal experimentations to a wider scale in an effort to stop the creature before it becomes too powerful to halt. And after the sparks fly and the dust settles, the beast is no more, but a second explosion erupts from the fissure, one that Royston himself admits was never supposed to happen. Still, the army men at his side congratulate him, tell him to pay it no mind as he stares off into the distance and the film ends with triumphant music blaring.

But, much like Dr. Royston, one has to ponder all it is that one does not know. The consequences of which one cannot understand. Those factors that remain unknown. Elements which lack a name. Defy a label.

What one might refer to, in the presence of wisdom but the absence of knowledge, as X.

The Special Features

This release comes equipped with a new 2K scan of what Shout! calls a “fine grain film element” in its original 1:75:1 aspect ratio. Grain is indeed intact, maintaining a filmic look without sacrificing much clarity. The image is slightly darker than previously released versions, most notably the Australian Shock release paired with The Quatermass Xperiment, but this seems in line with the intended look of the film and lends to a more atmospheric experience.

The DTS-HD Master Mono track is fairly clean, with small disruptions and wavering dialogue here and there. Still, it preserves the score and sound effects well against easy to hear character speech and ultimately serves the experience. Given the film’s age and spotty preservation, this is a wonderful package and a must for any Hammer fan’s collection.

Audio Commentary, by Film Historian/Filmmaker Ted Newsom

(New: 2020, produced by Shout Factory)

Film historian Ted Newsom flies solo on this commentary track running through the history, production and themes at play in X the Unknown.

Beginning with a bit of Hammer’s contextual history at the time, Newsom discusses Hammer’s budget-conscious methods and their interest in pursuing the success they’d had with The Quatermass Xperiment. He talks about production troubles, the issue with the original director and the various reasons he might have been removed and spends a good amount of time delving into the elaborate miniatures and filmmaking techniques that went into bringing the film to life.

Newsom’s knowledge and passion for Hammer as well as the film being discussed is infectious and his anecdotes regarding the production and players in the film are essential for those wishing to know more about this all too unsung Hammer classic. Given that the disc lacks a making-of, this is easily the most important feature included and one of the reasons it is so worth purchasing.

The Men Who Made Hammer — Jimmy Sangster (17:21)

(New: 2020, produced by Shout Factory)

Richard Klemensen, editor and publisher of Little Shoppe of Horrors Magazine, returns to Shout’s special feature lineup to discuss the life and legacy of Hammer icon Jimmy Sangster.

Chronicling his life coming out of World War II, Klemensen describes how Sangster became friends and colleagues with Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds, and how those friendships carried him to a career in film. Despite not thinking of himself as a screenwriter, he went on to write X the Unknown at the behest of Hinds and Carreras, before writing The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula in the wake of its success. Klemensen walks the viewer through Sangster’s following decade and how he emerged as a fully fledged industry screenwriter, despite his fears of “quitting his day job”.

Having become friends with the man in his old age, Klemensen waxes poetically about Sangster’s final days and, indeed, his final goodbyes in a touching tribute to a modest man who is an icon and inspiration to so many.

The World of Hammer – Sci-Fi (24:33)

(1990, produced by Hammer Films)

A standard definition episode of Hammer’s anthology TV series as narrated by Oliver Reed focusing on science-fiction, what Reed calls, “the world of the unknown”. Showcasing films like The Damned (1962), Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass II, Quatermass and the Pit (1955), Spaceways (1953) and, of course, X The Unknown, the episode is, as always, a fun, breezy stroll through one of Hammer’s many storied halls.

Theatrical Trailer (1:49)

A child’s face appears, shaded in darkness, as he backs slowly away into the woods. The narrator announces, “he runs as though the devil himself is in pursuit… for he saw what no man has ever seen before.” An explosion rocks the screen and the title appears: X THE UNKNOWN. People shout and run. Scientists work tirelessly as the narrator informs, “experts try to find a way to exterminate X the unknown terror.” The characters are introduced, Dean Jagger at the forefront. A car gets stuck in the mud, its wheels spinning as words appear on screen: THIS IS THE RIM OF HELL. The opening title melts onto the screen:


Final Thoughts

Just before Hammer struck gold with Frankenstein and Dracula, they seemed to be a studio in search of a franchise. A built-in audience ensured financial success which, in turn, promised an enduring production slate. A legacy that could last, evolve and, most importantly, be sustained.

X the Unknown was an early attempt to step ever closer to that dream, although a stilted one. While the film was never able to see itself realized as a Quatermass entry, it was shepherded to the big screen with as much care and quality as if it had been. A testament to the creative prowess flowing through Hammer’s corridors at the time, it emerged as one of the finest and most affecting science fiction horror hybrids of its era, standing beside The Quatermass Xperiment and The Abominable Snowman (1957).

Scream Factory brings X the Unknown to Blu-ray disc for the first time in the US with a superb video transfer that captures the feeling, aesthetic and atmosphere of this unsung classic. While the special features are sparse, Ted Newsom’s commentary is worth the price alone, offering fantastic insight and invaluable historical context that helps to clarify and strengthen the film’s enduring legacy. All in all, the film is an important component of Hammer’s stable and one well worth adding to any genre fan’s collection.

The 1950’s leaned heavily into science-fiction as the atomic age loomed large on the world consciousness. There were a slew of films that dealt with everything from giant insects to monstrous invaders from outer space but often the best dealt with the absolute horrors of humanity’s shortcomings. Their insecurities. Their hubris. Their inability to acknowledge those things in their tight worldview which they did not understand but so desired to exert absolute control over. It’s in that space that the Quatermass movies tended to plant themselves, regardless of the threat they employed, and it’s there that X the Unknown so firmly landed. In the end, it seems it did not require the Quatermass title to wholly embody its spirit.

Drawing fear and anxiety by way of thought provoking dialogue, uncomfortable situations and a threat that arguably had just as much of a right to occupy the planet as any human being, the film emerged as not only one of Hammer’s better early efforts but one of the decade’s more interesting tales of disquieting science. Memorable for its performances, direction, sounds and stark, black and white sights, X the Unknown makes it clear to see why it was that Hammer was gaining such a reputation for horror and would soon go on to so define it.


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