X: The Unknown (1956)

X: The Unknown (1956)

As this was the 1950s, all women reacted to things like this, apparently.
As this was the 1950s, all women reacted to things like this, apparently.

Twitter Plot Summary: A strange alien creature thing starts bumping people off in a very British, very Hammer manner.

Five Point Summary:

1. So radiation is a bad thing.
2. It even kills soldiers! Oh, the humanity!
3. That doctor and that nurse sneaking off – that’ll end badly.
4. Is that it? I can see why they didn’t show the creature earlier.
5. Ahh, resolution. Everyone can stop being afraid of mud now.

In terms of the template for a classic 1950s science fiction picture, X: The Unknown ticks all the expected boxes, albeit from a distinctly British perspective. This isn’t your typical B-Movie feature though, keeping the tone low-key and the evil menace unseen for as long as possible in a typically British slow burning manner. The monster in question eats radiation, a potent fear given its release just over a decade after the nuclear bombs dropping on Japan. The difference being that Japan created Godzilla, a massive, physical representation of the radioactive menace. The British equivalent? Some radioactive, sentient mud. As people begin to die with regularity, they do so from the first person perspective of the monster, its presence only indicated by the buzz of a Geiger counter – which is a bit odd given that the humans aren’t carrying geiger counters when their death occurs. It’s an inconsistency that’s easy to forgive though, otherwise there would be no other way to indicate the creature’s presence. Besides the look of abject fear on people’s faces, obviously.

Dean Jagger provides an American presence as Dr Adam Royston, a scientist knowledgeable about radiation and not afraid to discuss crackpot theories when the facts fit. He’s a solid presence and the only character given any definition. In fairness, there isn’t the need for any of the rest of the cast to have rounded personalities as they mostly exist to be bumped off one by one by the monster.

"My diagnosis? This window is broken."
“My diagnosis? This window is broken.”

There’s a brief appearance by Mr Grimsdale actor Edward Chapman which does temporarily threaten to tip things over into silliness, despite him doing nothing at all to warrant such thoughts. His work with Norman Wisdom lives long in the memory, but here he plays it straight and provides a valid counterargument to Royston’s theories. Whilst nothing comes from the counterargument, he does at least present the impression that an alternate approach may be considered – even if that will never be the case.

In the finest tradition of the Hammer studio the script isn’t afraid to go into darker territory, and some brief but gruesome effects add to the fun. Of course, on the other hand women are portrayed as fragile, delicate things that are unlikely to remember their own name after witnessing a man being melted by radiation, let alone make any noticeable contribution to the plot. This being the 1950s, gender equality was never on the cards, and the fact that almost everyone with dialogue – and specifically with opinions on how to proceed – are men, that says it all.

In many respects X: The Unknown is exactly what you might expect from a B-Movie of that era, but with a typical Hammer twist that leaves it just a step or two away from their usual horror output. It may lack named stars and doesn’t do anything unexpected in the science fiction genre, but it happens to be good fun regardless. It would have benefitted from having more of a Hammer flavour – sadly it’s not as if they can just add Christopher Lee just for the sake of it.

Score: 3.5/5


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