Far in the north of Scotland, soldiers on a routine Geiger counter training exercise are shocked when the ground suddenly opens up underneath their feet and explodes, killing one young soldier and leaving another covered in radiation burns. Researchers at a nearby atomic energy research center arrive to investigate, and discover that, most peculiarly, there is no trace of radiation left at the scene. Slowly the authorities, represented by atomic researcher Dr. Royston (Dean Jagger, Revolt of the Zombies), his boss John Elliot (Edward Chapman, Night and the City), inspector McGill (Leo McKern, Help!) and Major Cartwright (John Harvey, Kiss of the Vampire), realize that there is a new, previously unheard of threat roaming about and killing the locals-a huge mass of highly radioactive mud that seeks out and feeds upon radiation. Each time it feeds it gets bigger and the range it roams to find radiation increases. Luckily for the authorities, each time it feeds it returns to the point it left the Earth. Can Dr. Royston’s experimental atomic energy dispersing device destroy the menace, or is London next?
If the plot summary for X: The Unknown sounds overly familiar, there’s a good reason: it conforms to nearly every giant monster film made in the 1950s. In a backwater a monster appears, initially killing only a few people in attacks that look like accidents or murders. Various representatives of the military, police, and science fields slowly realize what’s going on and must work together to find a way to stop the creature. Outside of the novelty of an English setting, there is the monster itself: an ever hungry, ever-growing blob, one which predates its more famous cousin by two years. The origin of the creature, essentially a never before seen species that feeds on radioactive energy is also different than the later (and more typical) monsters that result from experiments or aliens from outer space.
X: The Unknown also benefits from being an early Hammer production designed to cash in on the success of their film adaptations of the Quatermass television serials. While not as thought-provoking or well put together as those films, X is class all the way. The pacing is good, there are some nice spooky sequences (the scene where the two boys dare each other to move towards the supposedly haunted tower, for example) that could fit just as well in one of writer Jimmy Sangster’s (Blood of the Vampire) later Gothic horror films. There is also plenty of “Men of Science in action!” The cast is professional, and Dean Jagger is great as a truly unique (and easily one of the most anti-social without being “mad”) scientists to appear in 1950s monster films. There are some great effects of people being burned and melted by the radiation, though the occasional miniature effects remind viewers that Toho’s effects were actually excellent for their era, if much derided since.
X: The Unknown is a solid and entertaining example of a bygone age of monster movies, and well worth a look for fans of the sub-genre.