Saturday, February 26, 2011

Retro Trash: X The Unknown

Guess who randomly stumbled across a little piece of film history?  Me- that's who.  The 1958 film The Blob is a classic film that has been imitated and remade a couple of times.  It also made a star out of some guy named Steve McQueen.  However, did you know that someone created a very similar idea two years earlier?  That's today's film: 1956's X: The Unknown.  This fifty-plus year-old film was made by Hammer Studios, a group more famous for their horror films than their science-fiction work.  The film's premise is both simple, yet complicated.  An 'unknown' creature escapes from the ground in Scotland and starts killing people, as well as sucking radiation out of the areas it goes to.  What is it?  You'll have to wait for the ridiculous explanation to come later.  Get out your vague treasure map as we seek out...
The film begins in Scotland and, boy, are those accents accurate.  I watch enough BBC America to get the voices, but I'm just warning you now that your experience may differ.  The Army is doing tests where they train soldiers to use Geiger counters by way of burying small objects in the ground with a little radiation.  Gee, why are all of our boys getting tumors in their feet twenty years later?  The last guy to do the test discovers a serious stockpile and, moments later, an earthquake hits.  The resulting shake creates a fissure in the ground in the shape of an 'X.'  That must be where Captain Cou'ch buried his gold!  A local scientist (Dean Jagger) is called in to investigate, but only after we get some extemporaneous back-story.  Yes, this is a 1950's science-fiction film, where every character has to have some sort of background to be told.  His testing takes a while and, during that time, strange stuff starts to happen.  A sample of the mud is stolen from his lab, but the safety glass- where he does radioactive tests behind- was broken from the inside out!  Could this all have something to do with a kid who gets sick in the woods?
No, not really.  This little distraction does lead him to a guy who has the radioactive canister in his house- which is no longer emitting radiation.  That's a short shelf life!  In the Hospital, the guy meets up with his Boss and a Reporter from Atomic Energy Commission sent in from London.  Yes, we now have regional accents, normal British accents and regional British accents.  While they get yelled at by the parents of the kid, a doctor goes off into the Radioactive Testing Room- do all Hospitals have those?- to make whoopie.  Unfortunately, a '50s-style POV monster shows up and attacks him, causing his face to melt.  Yes, face-melting in 1956- graphic!  Jagger draws some inferences from the death, including the lack of radiation in the equipment and the burn marks around the grates.  This leads to a scene where he explains his theory about the events.  Are you ready for one of the most seriously-delivered, yet goofiest explanations for a movie monster ever?  His theory is that life evolved on the surface of the Earth and in its core.  Supposedly, the Earth is hit by a small tremor every fifty years, which he attributes to the life-form coming up.  The last time, however, it died from exposure and returned to the core.  Now it's back as sentient mud and eats radiation for food.  Shockingly, everyone pretty much just accepts this based on, well, nothing.
Given that he's the main character, Jagger turns out to be right here.  As a side note, I'd love to see a movie deliver a theory like that and have the person end up being completely and utterly wrong- just once!  Back at the fissure, two guards are killed by the POV monster.  That's what you get for having regionally-inaccurate weaponry (thanks, IMDB nerds)!  The monster comes back up for one final snack: the cobalt in the lab that Jagger and his comrades work in.  We finally get to see the killer mud in its full form and the Blob comparisons really start to seem to make sense.  The film gives up a couple of fake-out moments, including a kid pulled inside just in time and two soldiers who almost drive into it.  Thank God- something almost happened!  The monster takes the cobalt in a pretty-decent effect and heads back to it's lair.  They have to stop it now, since the next trip it will take out of the 'X' will be to a city full of people.  Thankfully, Jagger has an experimental invention for de-radiating objects that can be turned into a large device within hours.  On the first use, the canister explodes.  Doubt racks the people as they must decide whether to risk the creature exploding or not.  In the End, they use it and the thing goes aflame.  A random explosion goes off, however, making Jagger wonder as the End Credits roll.
X marks the spot!  The plot of this movie is pretty formulaic, but it does try to make up for it.  The silly explanation for the monster and the lack of actual proof for this theory aside, the movie is pretty basic.  A lot of this just doesn't stand out all that much.  Mind you, I'm a fan of 1950's Science-Fiction movies, so I'm not really complaining all that much.  I just wished that the movie could have done a little more to stand out.  It's interesting to watch the film from an historical standpoint, however, due to the comparisons between it and The Blob.  Did we in America get inspiration?  Given that The Blob gets it's own celebration every year and this movie remains pretty obscure, I feel the need to ask.  That's not to say that I'm insulting The Blob either- it's a classic.  Even the sequel- Beware!  The Blob- and the remake have their moments.  One of the most famous horror films from the Silent Era- Nosferatu- is an unlicensed Dracula film, even to the point where the original print was meant to be destroyed thanks to a lawsuit.  If any of you Blob fans read this, let me know what you think.  Regardless of that, the movie is pretty stock, but definitely picks up in the End.  All you fans of 1950's Science-Fiction should check this out if you haven't already.  It's a classic, even as basic as it is.
Up next, I cover a film by a comedian who's totally Serious.  Will this film be relatively-good or an atom bomb?  Stay tuned...

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