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X the Unknown (1956)

Courtesy of Hammer Film Productions ltd

Main image of X the Unknown (1956)
35mm, black and white, 77 mins
DirectorLeslie Norman
Production CompanyHammer Films
Executive ProducerMichael Carreras
ProducerAnthony Hinds
ScreenplayJimmy Sangster
CinematographyGerald Gibbs
MusicJames Bernard

Cast: Dean Jagger (Dr Adam Royston); Edward Chapman (John Elliott); Leo Mckern (Mcgill); Anthony Newley (Corporal 'Spider' Webb); Jameson Clark (Jack Harding); William Lucas (Peter Elliott); Peter Hammond (Lieutenant Bannerman)

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A group of scientists and army officials are faced with a destructive mass which has escaped from the earth's centre and is terrorising a region in Scotland.

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X the Unknown adheres closely to the template established by Hammer's earlier production, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, d. Val Guest), mixing science fiction and horror in a monster-on-the-loose scenario with an independent-minded scientist as the central figure. Hammer even revisited the promotional strategy of exploiting the film's 'X' certificate within the main title in the hope of repeating the earlier film's success.

The film is, however, more assured in its handling of its horror than its science fiction elements. Royston's means for the disintegration of atomic structures, for example, remains a vague scientific concept at best, and the scene in which he proffers a lengthy hypothesis on the cause of recent events stretches to breaking point our belief in him as a sagacious and credible scientist, coming far too early in the narrative (before the creature has even been seen) to be convincing as a rational supposition.

Where X the Unknown does impress as science fiction is in its deviation from the typical depiction of the scientist found in other 1950s films of the genre. Royston may be berated by a dead boy's father for being a 'murderer' and for "letting off bombs you can't control" (thus expressing a widespread post-war perception of the scientist), but he is actually shown working on a method to incapacitate atomic weapons. And not only does he save the local community from the creature (the existence of which is pointedly a natural phenomenon rather than the unwelcome by-product of any scientific experimentation), but in doing so he demonstrates that his work has the potential to benefit humankind as a whole, by rendering atomic weapons redundant.

However, the film is at its most effective in those moments that draw on the more conventional generic elements of horror cinema. Such scenes as the boy's lone foray into the woods, Peter Elliott's perilous venture into the fissure and the death of the hospital radiologist (with gruesome effects that are strong for the period) retain a chilling frisson, aided by a characteristically menacing score from James Bernard.

While not as commercially successful as The Quatermass Xperiment, X the Unknown was nevertheless significant, not only in the steering of Hammer itself towards Gothic horror, but for cementing within British cinema a trend for science fiction/horror hybrids. And, above all, it's jolly good fun.

John Oliver

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Video Clips
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)
Carreras, Michael (1927-1994)
Hinds, Anthony (1922-2013)
MacNaughton, Ian (1925-2002)
McKern, Leo (1920-2002)
Norman, Leslie (1911-1993)
Hammer Horror
Science Fiction