Cast & Crew
On a Scottish moor, soldiers learning to use the Geiger counter discover unexplainable radioactivity in the vicinity. Pvt. Lancing reports that he has seen liquid bubbling out of the ground, but suddenly, before the phenomenon can be checked out, a great explosion occurs, which kills Lancing and injures another soldier. The area is quarantined and an American, Dr. Adam Royston, who is the chief atomic scientist at a Scottish research laboratory at Lochmouth, is called in to advise. By the time Adam arrives, the radioactivity has mysteriously vanished and he is left to ponder a bottomless fissure that has formed on the moor. That night, Willie Harding and Ian Osborn, two mischievous boys acting out a dare, walk through the woods toward an ancient "haunted" tower ruin, where a hermit, Old Tom, resides. Willie is approached by a frightening creature and, later in the night, must be hospitalized for first degree radiation burns, from which he eventually dies without regaining consciousness. The next day, Adam checks out the tower and finds a sample container from his personal workshop. The container, which once held radioactive trinium, is now empty, and when Adam questions Tom about it, he has no idea about how it got there. After returning to work, Adam finds that his laboratory is in disarray and a large amount of trinium he has been working with is missing. Upon receiving the report of the stolen trinium container, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Commission sends "Mac" McGill from their Internal Security Division to investigate. The director of the research facility, John Elliot, is unhappy that Mac has come and at first tries to block his investigation, but Mac soon forms an easy alliance with Adam. Mac is supportive when Willie's father accuses Adam and his fellow scientists of "letting off bombs you can't control." Adam, sorry for the man's grief, tells Mac that "we only try to create, not destroy." Oblivious to recent events, a nurse and an intern enter the hospital's X-ray or "radiation" room for a tryst. Their lovemaking is interrupted when something seeps in through the vents and attacks the intern, who melts away from radiation burns, leaving the nurse injured and mentally unstable. Seeing the aftermath, Adam suggests to his colleagues that the creature can take different shapes to conform to its environment, like oil. After learning that two more soldiers were killed while guarding the moor, Adam and Mac investigate. Later, Adam theorizes that intelligent life that requires radiation to exist has developed under the earth's crust, and over time its living space has been compressed. To survive, Adam suggests, the life-form surfaces, but only in the last few years, due to the development of nuclear power, has there been enough radiation above ground to sustain its life. Extrapolating his theory, Adam further suggests that the creature will grow and become more dangerous as it consumes more energy and that the research facility, which houses a cobalt bomb, will soon attract it. Elliot calls Adam's theory "rubbish," but Maj. Cartwright, who is the army liaison, Mac, and Elliot's son Peter take Adam seriously. When Adam determines that the fissure will have to be investigated, Peter, who, against Elliot's wishes, wants to be a researcher rather than an administrator, volunteers to be lowered into it. On his way down, he passes a human corpse, then abruptly signals to be raised and barely misses being attacked by the creature from down below. The major is ordered to have his men concrete over the fissure, but both Mac and Adam, who refers to the creature as "this X, this unknown quantity," believe that the creature will break through and attack again. Later, their fears are confirmed when the creature is reported to have "melted" four people in a car and Adam, by looking at a map, determines that it is moving on a straight course toward the research facility. Although Adam attempts to move the cobalt bomb, the oozing, radioactive, mud-like creature soon attacks the guard at the front gate, forcing Adam to order an evacuation. To give the creature a clear path for its return, the inhabitants of the area take shelter in a chapel, while Adam and Peter work furiously to devise a way to destabilize the creature. Although their laboratory experiment is only partially successful, the urgency of the situation compels Adam to try it out in real life. From helicopters, soldiers see that the creature has changed course, but static in the atmosphere, due to the creature's radioactivity, prevents them from reporting to the ground. Adam, Elliot, Mac and Peter return to the fissure, assisted by soldiers. Peter lures the creature forward with a jeep filled with radioactive bait. The jeep's tires stick in the mud, but Peter breaks free and lures the creature into an area rigged with special electronic equipment devised by Adam. When Adam orders the switch turned on, an explosion occurs and afterward the creature seems to have been destroyed. A second, unexpected explosion occurs, which mystifies Adam, but Mac and Elliot agree that Adam's plan has worked.
X the Unknown - X The Unknown
In many ways a precursor to The Blob (1958) and Caltiki the Undying Monster (1959), X the Unknown (1956) is a much more thought-provoking and serious attempt to demonstrate the consequences of science run amok than your standard monster-on-the-rampage chiller. The film, directed by Leslie Norman, was actually inspired by the success of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, aka The Creeping Unknown), which was released the previous year and was a box office hit for Hammer Studios. Hammer executive Tony Hinds entrusted fledgling writer Jimmy Sangster with the screenplay for X the Unknown - it was his first feature script - and the result was another hit for Hammer, despite the fact that it earned an 'X Certificate,' restricting it to adult audiences. This was due to some of the more disturbing and explicit special effects, especially in the scene where a hospital intern, interrupted during a sexual tryst, is devoured by the creature, reducing his face and hands to bubbling flesh, then bone. The Quatermass Xperiment, which had also been slapped with an 'X Certificate,' had featured similar scenes as well but the controversy only helped boost the box office receipts of both movies when they were distributed in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.
According to some sources, Joseph Walton, a pseudonym for blacklisted director Joseph Losey, was initially hired to helm X the Unknown but left the production after a week due to illness. Losey, of course, would go on to cover similar thematic ground in his 1963 psychological sci-fi drama, These Are the Damned (aka The Damned). As a replacement for Losey, Leslie Norman (Dunkirk, 1958) proved to be an exacting craftsman but was highly unpopular with the cast and crew. Len Harris, one of the film's camera operators later said, "He [Norman] was one of the few people that wasn't liked at Hammer, and you'll notice that, despite the film's quality, he never did another for us. He was a good technical director, but he couldn't direct people very well. Dean Jagger simply wouldn't be directed by him! Leslie was always complaining and could be very harsh. He didn't think much of the film, either.....The thing we disliked the most was his using abusive language through a loud hailer for all to hear. That simply wasn't done at Hammer!" To give you some idea of Norman's alienating behavior, consider this anecdote from supporting actor Michael Ripper: "When I introduced myself to Leslie Norman, he told me that he would have hired Victor Maddern in my role if he had been casting the film!"
Some of the exterior shots of the moors and the surrounding countryside in X the Unknown were filmed in Buckinghamshire in South East England. The striking black and white cinematography of Gerald Gibbs (Station Six-Sahara, 1962) perfectly conveys the paranoid, fearful mood of the film through the desolate moors and the often sterile interior settings, which are further enhanced by James Bernard's ominous score and the disturbing sound effects. Some of X the Unknown's most effective scenes are shot from the creature's point-of-view such as one where it stalks a terrified little boy in the woods and the suspenseful climax where it advances toward a chapel full of villagers. The film also provides a lively supporting role for Anthony Newley, who was married to Joan Collins at the time, and on the rise as a young actor in the British film industry.
Reviews for X the Unknown were much more positive than most sci-fi genre efforts screened by mainstream movie critics, who usually dismissed them as junk. In England, Films and Filming called it "A welcomed change from interplanetary yarns," The Daily Telegraph proclaimed it "good, grisly fun," and The Kinematograph Weekly pegged it as "gripping science fiction." It was also well received in the U.S., where it was distributed by Warner Bros. after an earlier deal with RKO never materialized. Variety noted that it was "a highly imaginative and fanciful meller....There's little letup in the action, and suspense angles are kept constantly to the forefront." A more contemporary review of X the Unknown in the TimeOut Film Guide by David Pirie puts the film in the appropriate context: "1956 - the year of the Suez crisis, a sharp increase in the crime rate, and uneasy preparation for WWIII - spawned a series of gloomy thrillers (both in Britain and in America) in which the weight of the military is mobilised against various alien organisms from the bowels of the earth or outer space...in a lot of ways it [X the Unknown] communicates the atmosphere of Britain in the late '50s more effectively than the most earnest social document."
Hammer Studios would go on to release other well-regarded sci-fi efforts such as Enemy from Space (1957, aka Quatermass 2) and These Are the Damned but their bread and butter were horror films which dominated their production schedule for the next two decades such as their Frankenstein, Dracula and Mummy franchises. As for Leslie Norman, he would go on to direct episodes of the cult TV series, The Avengers, and to dabble in the sci-fi genre one more time with The Lost Continent (1968), a deliriously entertaining fantasy adventure in a which a ship is blown off course in a storm and ends up stranded on an island populated by giant crustaceans and descendants of Spanish conquistadors!
Producer: Anthony Hinds
Director: Leslie Norman
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster (screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Gerald Gibbs
Art Direction: Ted Marshall (uncredited)
Music: James Bernard
Film Editing: James Needs
Cast: Dean Jagger (Dr. Adam Royston), Edward Chapman (John Elliott), Leo McKern (Insp. McGill), Anthony Newley (LCpl. 'Spider' Webb), Jameson Clark (Jack Harding), William Lucas (Peter Elliott), Peter Hammond (Lt. Bannerman), Marianne Brauns (Zena, the Nurse), Ian MacNaughton (Haggis), Michael Ripper (Sgt. Harry Grimsdyke).
by Jeff Stafford
Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio (McFarland)
X the Unknown - X The Unknown
TCM Remembers - Leo McKern
TCM REMEMBERS LEO MCKERN, 1920-2002
The recent death of Leo McKern, 82, marked the passing of one of Britain's finest and most respected character actors. He was suffering from ill health in recent years and was moved to a nursing home a few weeks before his death on July 23 2002 in Bath, England. An actor of commanding presence with a deep-throated voice, the portly, bulbous-nosed McKern had a long, distinguished career spanning more than half a century, earning numerous plaudits along the way in all major mediums: theatre, film and television.
Born Reginald McKern on March 16, 1920 in Sydney, Australia; he served with the Australian Army during World War II and worked in regional theatre in his native Sydney before immigrating to England in 1946. It was a slow start, but after a three-year apprenticeship of painting scenery, stage-managing and acting, McKern eventually joined the celebrated Old Vic theatrical company in 1949 and proved one of the more versatile actors in the troupe tackling diverse roles in comedy, the classics and serious contemporary parts.
His film debut came in Murder in the Cathedral (1952) but it took a few years before he made his mark in cinema. Some of his best film work included roles as Peter Sellers' comic henchman in the classic satire The Mouse That Roared (1959); a bungling train robber in the charming Disney film The Horse Without a Head (1963); a nefarious professor who kills off his colleagues for amusement in the brilliant black comedy A Jolly Bad Fellow (1964); Clang, a cartoonish villain in the Beatles' pop film Help! (1965); Cromwell, the persecutor of Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1966) and as Thomas Ryan in the David Lean drama, Ryan's Daughter (1970).
Yet despite all the accolades McKern earned in theatre and films, it was television where he foundinternational fame as the wily, irascible barrister Horace P. Rumpole in John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey in 1975. Infusing the character with beguiling skill and energy, McKern made the acerbic, wine swilling, Tennyson-quoting Rumpole a much loved figure that was adored by critics, audiences and even its creator Mortimer. Perhaps Mortimer offered the most fitting tribute when he once referred to McKern - "His acting exists where I always hope my writing will be: about two feet above the ground, a little larger than life, but always taking off from reality." Enough said.
By Michael T. Toole
KATY JURADO, 1924 - 2002
Katy Jurado, an Oscar nominee and major actress in Westerns, died July 5th at the age of 78. She was born in Guadalajara, Mexico on January 16th 1924 as Maria Cristina Estella Marcela Jurado Garcia, daughter of a cattle rancher and an opera singer. Jurado started to appear in Mexican films in 1943. After 15 films in her native country, director Budd Boetticher saw Jurado attending a bullfight (Jurado wrote about the subject for Mexican newspapers) and cast her in his Bullfighter and the Lady (1952), her Hollywood debut. For much of her career Jurado alternated between the two film industries. In the US, she was memorable for the sensual energy she brought to roles in High Noon (1952), One-Eyed Jacks (1961) which was directed by Marlon Brando, Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and John Huston's Under the Volcano (1984). She was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for Broken Lance (1954). Jurado's Mexican films were in a broader range of genres and included Luis Bunuel's El Bruto (1952), Ismael Rodriguez's We the Poor and Miguel Littin's The Widow Montiel (1979). She won three Ariel Awards (Mexican equivalent to the Oscars) and one special award. She was married to Ernest Borgnine from the end of 1959 to summer 1963. One of her final films was The Hi-Lo Country (1998), a contemporary Western directed by Stephen Frears and co-starring Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup and Penelope Cruz.
by Lang Thompson
DOLORES GRAY, 1924 - 2002
Broadway and nightclub star Dolores Gray died June 26th at the age of 78. Her movie career was brief but consisted of high-profile MGM musicals which guaranteed her a place in film history. Gray was born in Chicago on June 7th, 1924 (and where, according to a common story, she was accidentally shot by a gangster as a child and had a bullet in her lung her entire life). As a teenager she began singing in California until Rudy Vallee featured her on his radio show. Gray moved to Broadway in 1944 and then to the London stage in 1947, solidifying her reputation as a singer/actress while constantly giving the gossip columnists plenty to write about. She had two small singing roles in Lady for a Night (1941) and Mr. Skeffington (1944) but didn't really light up the big screen until It's Always Fair Weather (1955) even though Gray reportedly didn't much care for the role. Her rendition of "Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks," which has her gunning down a slew of male dancers on-stage and kicking them through trap doors, is a genuine showstopper. Three more unforgettable musical roles quickly followed: Kismet (1955), The Opposite Sex (1956, which Gray turned down Funny Face to do) and Designing Women (1957). That was it for Gray's film career. She kept busy with TV appearances (mostly singing though she did one 1988 episode of the cult show Dr. Who) and a busy recording and nightclub schedule. In 1987, she appeared in a British production of Follies at Stephen Sondheim's request.
by Lang Thompson
TCM Remembers - Leo McKern
You know this Royston chap. Brilliant, of course, I'm sure. But the trouble with these scientific types is they can't see the easy way out of anything. It's got to be complicated if it's going to work.- Major Cartwright
How do you explain it, sir? All this extraordinary damage just to steal an old sample container?- Peter Elliott
What happened, sir? I don't understand.- Peter Elliott
Peter, I'm afraid I don't either. Yesterday the material in that container was giving a danger-point radiation reading. Now, as you just saw, it's nothing.- Dr. Adam Royston
But that's impossible! Isn't it?- Peter Elliott
Yesterday I would have said yes, but this fact is inescapable: The energy trapped in that trinium has been sucked right out of it. And furthermore, that window was barred and these doors were locked all night. So whoever it was came in here must be most ... unusual.- Dr. Adam Royston
Now, Mac, how would you go about killing that?- Dr. Adam Royston
What is it?- Inspector McGill
It's a particle of mud. But by virtue of its atomic structure it emits radiation. That's all it is. Just mud. How do you kill mud?- Dr. Adam Royston
The movie began under the direction of Joseph Losey, exiled to England because of the Hollywood blacklist. He shot for a few days, and his footage must be in the movie, but when Dean Jagger arrived, he refused to work with a director he thought of as a Communist sympathizer, and Losey was replaced by Leslie Norman.
A written acknowledgment of the cooperation received from Great Britain's War Office appears during the opening credits. At the end of the film, the creature seems to be destroyed by the explosion devised by "Dr. Adam Royston," and his colleagues afterward claim that the plan "worked." However, a second explosion occurs, which Adam did not expect, ending the story on a somewhat inconclusive note. Although copyright records list the running time as 86 minutes, contemporary reviews reported that the film ran 78 to 80 minutes.
The "X" in the title, which was also used in a previous Hammer production, The Quatermass Xperiment (released in the United States in 1956 as The Creeping Unknown, see entry above) denoted that the film had been rated for "adults only" in Great Britain. Some of the scenes were particularly disturbing for the time. An example that was mentioned in a contemporary review, and in several modern sources, described one scene as one of the most shocking in horror films of that era: the gruesome death of the hospital intern, whose face and hands bubble and dissolve to bone. According to one source, the effect was achieved by placing heating elements into a wax replica of the actor's face.
Although the film was distributed in the United States by Warner Bros., a October 4, 1956 Daily Variety news item reported that RKO had earlier acquired the project, which was made in England as a joint venture between Exclusive Film Productions, the releasing company for Hammer Films, and Sol Lesser, who had produced many Tarzan films for RKO. Modern sources reported that portions of the film were shot on location in Buckinghamshire. According to a modern source, Joseph Walton directed the film during the first week of shooting and was replaced by Leslie Norman after he became ill. Only Norman is credited onscreen. A modern source stated that Jack Curtis and Les Bowie created the monster. Although some modern sources list Leo McKern's character name as "Inspector McGill," in the film he introduces himself as "Mr. McGill" and makes a point of claiming that he is not officially an inspector.
Modern sources add the following actors to the cast: Robert Bruce, Brown Derby, Stella Kemball, Anthony Sagar, Max Brimmell, Stevenson Lang, John Stirling, Shaw Taylor, Brian Peck and Edward Judd. Although an Hollywood Reporter production chart included William Russell in the cast, his appearance in the final film is unlikely.