X the Unknown (1956)

A solid X-rated sci-fi/horror picture from Hammer Studios with a good script and acting. DD-Video R2 DVD.

The Film

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hammer Films had carved out a niché producing low budget B-pictures based on popular radio serials. When the BBC first broadcast The Quatermass Experiment (1953-TV serial), Hammer quickly grabbed the rights and shot their first X rated horror themed picture, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). The film was very popular, and Hammer quickly went to produce a sequel. Again an X-rated horror/sci-fi picture with a similar theme, only a rights issue stopped them using the Quatermass character.

Somewhere in Scotland, an army unit on maneuvers is exposed to deadly radiation after a flaming chasm opens up in moorland. Later a young boy suffers radiation burns after encountering something moving in a forest and an atomic scientist finds that some radioactive material has gone missing from his lab. Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger) from the atomic energy institute sets out to find out what causing all the problems and discovers a deadly and dangerous creature, unknown to science...

X the Unknown was the first feature length film written by Jimmy Sangster, who would later go on to write many of the big gothic horror films. The story typical of your monster B-movie - a weird creature comes from somewhere, kills a few people, a scientist tries to stop it. Fortunately, Sangster avoids most of the B-movie clichés such as the teens who see the monster but no-one believes, or the head scientist having a sexy young daughter who flirts with the police man. Instead, the film is rather effective, with a variety of interesting characters, some very tense scenes and even a relatively plausible explanation for the monster. The climax is strong, although the very ending seems rather rushed.

The film had a rather confused production, originally it was being directed by American Joseph Losey who had been forced out of the States by the anti-communist witch-hunts of the early 1950s. However, when American leading man Dean Jagger arrived, he refused to work with Losey and so Leslie Norman was brought in who was relatively uninterested in the project and who many of the crew found awkward to work with. Fortunately, this turmoil doesn't show on screen and the picture's direction is solid and simple, in the style of Val Guest or Terence Fisher. The special effects are impressive, including some very gory melting faces with some good model work and matte paintings. The monster itself is not seen until late on in the film and does look unavoidably cheesy. James Bernard provides a typically string-based orchestral score that builds the tension well.

Before Hammer's big British stars become marquee names, they were often sent a big name actor by the American distributors to help promote the film and sell it overseas. Dean Jagger was more accustomed to Westerns or war films, but actually fits in quite well here as the relatively mild-mannered scientist. The rest of the cast are decent enough, with Hammer regular Michael Ripper popping up as an army sergeant.

Ultimately, X the Unknown is a decent little B-picture with some very tense scenes and good characters - enjoyable but not life changing. Decent acting and special effects combined with strong direction set this film above the average for the genre. Recommended to fans of B sci-fi pictures, and of interest to Hammer fans.

In Brief

Anyone famous in it? Dean Jagger - American character actor, starred in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Firecreek (1968)
Directed by anyone interesting? Little known British director Leslie Norman.
Is it scary?There several good, tense scenes.
Any violence/gore? Several off-camera deaths, with some rather graphic melting people.
Any sex? None.
Who is it for?
Fans of B-picture sci-fi/horror films should enjoy this solid entry.
Good Soundtrack?A strong, mood enhancing soundtrack from Hammer regular James Bernard.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.33:1 fullscreen. Black and White.
The print is strong, with good detail and a little print damage. Quite grainy.
Audio English language mono. Mostly fine.
Subtitles None.
Run-timeFeature: 1hr 16m 34s (PAL)
Extras The disc includes:
  • Audio Commentary with James Sangster and Hammer Film historian Marcus Hearn - an interesting track with little dead air, and some good set stories and general Hammer discussion.
  • On camera interview with James Sangster - a broad overview of his Hammer career.  (20m 36s)
  • Original cinema trailer with a ludicrous oversell, lots of print damage and packed with spoilers. (1m 41s)
  • World of Hammer Episode - 'Sci-fi' - a rather dull series from the 1980s that is little more than a Hammer clip show and full of spoilers. (24m 33s)
  • A detailed 24 page booklet about the film and its background.
AvailabilityAvailable as a single-disc release or in the Hammer Horror: The Early Classics boxset. Both include the booklet. Was also available in a dual-pack with The Abominable Snowman.
Region Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL
Other regions? Anchor Bay US DVD and E-M-S German R2 DVD (title XX Unbekannt), neither includes audio commentary or interview. 
Cuts? None known.



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 20th July 2006.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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