X The Unknown
You know, the first Hammer horror movies weren’t about Frankenstein and Dracula, where the dark shadows of Transylvania were brought to life in a leafy corner of Berkshire. No, they were black and white science-fiction horrors set in modern London and Scotland. And instead of sensible chaps dealing with blood thirsty creatures of myth and legend, they were sensible chaps dealing with unimaginable threats from another world. In fact one of these early ones, X The Unknown, plays more like a drive-in creature feature from the U.S. - only with a lot fewer teenagers partying to that rock n’ roll music and a lot more grumpy cockneys complaining about how cold it is.
It’s fun seeing Hammer take its first steps into horror, seeing them come across things that they like, and how charmingly unfamiliar they are with key elements of film-making like how important it is to have an exciting climax. They hadn’t quite figured out that while - sensible chap has plan, sensible chap gets together with other sensible chaps to make the plan work, the plan works, the end - may well be how every proper Englishman would expect the British army to deal with a monster from beneath the Earth, but that doesn’t make for a terribly satisfying ending. Particularly when the plan is such obvious balderdash. I mean, don’t get me wrong, where would horror movies be without balderdash plans? But those balderdash plans can’t actually work as they’re supposed to, otherwise you’ll leave the audience too much time to think ‘but this is balderdash, isn’t it?’ You have to reel them in, have the plan go wrong and then let the sensible chaps improvise and save the day. That way it’s not the plan that defeated the monster, but the people carrying it out, and we can all get behind that if we happen to like the people involved. But ‘Oh, we’re being threatened by a radioactive creature that can’t be destroyed? Actually I’ve been fiddling around with a whirring contraption that causes radioactive things to be destroyed. That should probably do the trick, don’t you think?’ is not good enough if all that happens is that the whirring contraption does exactly what it’s supposed to. Because, and here’s the part the Hammer lads hadn’t figured out yet - that would be NO FUN AT ALL! You can’t have the sensible chaps shake their head at the now ex-creature and look thoughtful - that just isn’t bloody good enough.
Cushing doesn’t wander up to Dracula’s coffin, open it up, drive a stake through his heart, the bloody end, does he? No, there’s a fight to the death, and a last minute bit of curtain-related improvisation that’s going to have the audience in no doubt that Dracula wasn’t defeated by ritual or rules, he was defeated by Van Helsing! Which, to their credit, they figured out pretty quickly after this one.
And there are things in this one that do work jolly well, and ended up sticking around Hammer horrors for quite some time after. There’s the belief that the best person to fix a problem is an old man with a faith in science flexible enough to adapt to far fetched facts as they present themselves. There’s no good pretending that things that can’t be explained by conventional wisdom should be ignored because they don’t fit, they should be embraced as truth if anyone’s ever going to get out of this mess. Course, everyone agrees with the head scientist’s probably-a-radioactive-monster-from-beneath-the-Earth theory quite quickly, but they do have one annoying bureaucrat complaining about ridiculous the whole thing is, which is a good start. Another thing they realise is the important of a good and gruesome special effect. There’s a bit where a doctor comes up against the monster and gets the flesh melted from his bones in a pretty impressively horrifying way for a 1950’s British movie. Urrgghh, and his fingers goes radioactively bulbous in a most pleasingly unpleasant way. And even the monster, which I’m sure a lot of spoiled buggers would snigger at now is a pretty good monster for a movie like this. They warn you up front, look it’s probably just a big blob of mud, so that when sure enough a big blob of mud comes crawling over the horizon you don’t think - that’s it? That’s the monster? A big blob of mud? You think - oooh, that’s a pretty neat and frightening looking big blob of mud. A very smart bit of film-making business there, and no mistake.
And they get good character actors in to anchor the hokum in something likeable and real, and in this one Leo McKern makes his one and only Hammer horror appearance. Given how good he is, it’s a damn shame he didn’t make more. He’s not blowing the doors off of modern cinema or anything, he’s only playing a glorified police inspector in a mac, pottering around soliciting exposition. But he’s very good at it, and very likeable too, and it’s a shame he didn’t get the chance to do it in one of those ridiculous German police hats in a later Hammer horror.
They did a pretty good job with this one, that’s for sure, and you can see why they decided horror was the way to go. They still had a lot to learn, but they were finding their feet and staking their claim as makers of fun little horror films populated by Englishmen trying to defeat forces of death and destruction in the most sensible way possible. They even have the equivalent of blokes down the pub in X The Unknown. Course, they’re actually grumpy soldiers complaining about being cold and hungry. But deep down you know they’re dreaming of sitting by a roaring fire in a quiet little pub, nursing a fresh drink. Speaking of which…