Old films, never seen before, but containing familiar shades, faces from some other films or television shows. Dim recollection, sometimes breeding dull irritation, like an itch- I’ve seen this face before, what was it, when was it? Sometimes, a sudden flash of insight- Eureka!
Dean Jagger- an unlikely lead, really, for any film, which is only doubly refreshing, surely, but his appearance in Hammer’s X: The Unknown troubled me for most of the picture; only late on did I place him as the Army major general in White Christmas, shot just a few years earlier. More a successful character actor than an actual movie star (although I later discovered to my surprise that he’d actually won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1949 for Twelve O’Clock High) I recognised him mostly from his late career appearing in many tv shows in the 1960s and 1970s in guest star roles – Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, Bonanza, Columbo, Kung Fu– as they eventually appeared on UK networks during my childhood.
X: The Unknown, meanwhile, was an early Hammer fantasy, released in 1956, and it proves to be a surprisingly effective sci-fi horror. It has a very modern feel, which shouldn’t be a surprise, really, because most of the appeal of Hammers subsequent, bigger successes -the 1957 Curse of Frankenstein and particularly its 1958 Dracula– was that they treated the subjects with very modern sensibilities, indeed so ‘modern’ that they largely hold up very well today. X: The Unknown is really no exception, and even though in details it may have dated somewhat, on the whole it feels very modern indeed. It dates from the Cold War era when the world was acutely afraid of the Atomic Bomb and all things radioactive (a common staple for 1950’s sci-fi b-movies). Set in the Scottish Highlands near a British Army base, some routine training drills uncover a blob-like creature that has risen out of the Earths crust and feeds on radiation, terrorising locals and growing larger, ultimately threatening the city of Inverness. Its really quite dark and while most of the horror is suggested, leaving stuff to audience imagination proves a major benefit, and indeed the glimpses of graphic horror when revealed prove both something of a surprise and very effective indeed with some gruesome make-up effects. The death count proves something of a shocker, too.
The cast is pretty damn fine, considering Hammer’s limitations, really raising the film. Jagger, playing atomic scientist Dr Adam Royston (a rewritten Prof Bernard Quatermass from when the film was originally an intended sequel to the 1955 Hammer hit The Quatermass Xperiment) is an unlikely hero -middle-aged, bald, and minus any love interest- which proves very welcome, oddly enough (leads these days are much younger and muscle-bound and successful with the ladies). Alongside Jagger we have Leo McKern (most famous here in the UK for his long-running Rumpole of the Bailey television series) who is really fine indeed, and Edward Chapman (Norman Wisdom’s frequent comic foil Mr Grimsdale), a routine appearance of Hammer regular Michael Ripper, and even an early role for Frazer Hines (Dr Who, Emmerdale).
I found the film thoroughly entertaining and another reminder of why Hammer had such success over the years. Its a really well-crafted film, with a taut script, great performances and fine production qualities, and proves quite original, too, predating the similar (albeit more more popular) The Blob by a few years and taking itself much more seriously. Its a great horror-thriller and really impressive, and I’d love to see Indicator give it the treatment it deserves on a Blu-ray release someday.
X: The Unknown is currently streaming on Amazon Prime