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X the Unknown

"...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 that came in here must be most... unusual..."

I saw this movie many years back on TV, and remember liking it, but not much else about it. I recently purchased the Blu-Ray, sat down and watched it again, which inspired me to write this review.

The movie focuses on a quarry to start, but expands early on to the local town and nearby nuclear facility. When an army training exercise finds something unusual in that quarry, things go downhill from there. It does seem obvious to our modern eyes that things are going to go badly at the quarry almost immediately, but it still manages to build tension early on, which was a nice touch. This isn’t the rather typical horror movie trope of 'stupid people playing with things they shouldn't,' but it does set up the catalyst for 'X' very early on, which will be quickly apparent to seasoned watchers of the genre.

As usual for movies of this time, it moves slowly, but the tension keeps building. What is entering locked places unseen and can melt through thick metal enclosures while completely draining all radioactivity from isotopes and other such materials? How are people dying of radiation exposure when none is nearby? What did that explosion at the quarry and the deep chasm that it opened rouse from beneath the Earth? And once they discover what 'X' is, how will they stop it?

A large chunk of the movie is focused on closeups of people seeing 'X' and being terrified of what they can see, even if we do not. Many of them are killed off camera while a few linger on after their encounter in a couple cases, but we do see a few special effects for what it does to people at key moments, and these scenes are quite gruesome, which is impressive for the technology of the time. We don’t actually get to see our monster for some time, but I feel that was a good choice as it builds suspense and a feeling of mystery, things I feel make horror movies much more engrossing and gratifying to watch.

"It's horrifying! It's spoiled jam, and it's angry!"
Once we do know what they’re up against, things do move faster and a feeling of urgency is evident, although I’d never call this an action movie. The body count is actually fairly low, but most of those lost we spend some time with, so we know who they are and feel at least a small connection to them, which makes the losses hurt despite their low number. A few close calls and failed attempts to stop the thing add that little extra air of fear and uncertainty that make these movies work.

While it is in many ways a typical 50s B&W sci fi/horror movie, with the slow build up and the disagreement of the military and scientists, although that conflict is more muted here than many other similar movies of the time, this one does lack the typical love interest sub-plot that most have, with no women as major characters, although several in minor roles, and the only romantic subplot not lasting very long thanks to our monster.

I've read some other reviews and critiques of the creature of the movie, and many don’t find the monster very scary. I can see why, but I also feel that it is more menacing than they give it credit for. One can argue that a simple blob of goo isn’t very impressive on its own, but an inexorable, faceless enemy that can kill without actually having to touch you, that can flow through even the tiniest of spaces, and will not stop until it has fed on whatever radiation it can find, is a terrifying prospect. And while the effect of the creature may not be that impressive, it does work, and it’s not a guy in a suit!

When you order 10 tons of jelly, one should also order a suitable jar, or this happens.

I found X the Unknown to be an enjoyable film, made even more so by my recognizing so many actors I’ve seen elsewhere over the years, but a few things do bring the movie down a bit for me. I’m fine with not seeing 'X' for a large part of the movie, but our main protagonist, Dr. Adam Royston (played by Dean Jagger), seems to assume much about it very early on before they have any idea about it even being a creature in the first place. How a growing blob of radioactive goo can traverse so far with only a couple unexpected encounters doesn't make a lot of sense. Finally, the ending is a bit sudden, and it has a secondary event that worries our cast, but nothing is done about it, the film just ends shortly afterward with no explanation. None of that makes it a bad film to be sure, and fans of this style of film will very likely enjoy it as I have, but these do make it a good movie as opposed to a great one. I do recommend it, especially if you like this type of movie in the first place.

-- This film stars a plethora of Doctor Who actors. John Harvey is Major Cartwright here and was Professor Brett in "The War Machines." Neil Wilson is uncredited here as Russell and is Sam Seeley in "The Spearhead from Space." Neil Hallett is Unwin here and plays Maylin Renis in "Timelash." William Lucas is Peter Elliot here and is Range in "Frontios." And last, but definitely not least, a very young Frazer Hines plays Ian Osborne here, and is of course the excellent Jamie McCrimmon from Troughton’s turn as the Doctor.

-- The fact that the movie starts in and features a quarry makes that Doctor Who connection more amusing, considering how often classic Who ends up in a quarry.

-- Michael Ripper plays sergeant Harry Grimsdyke. I mention this since Mr. Ripper (which looks weird to write out I admit), is a Hammer Films stalwart, starring in 35 of their films, and his total film career ran from 1936-1992. He is not well known despite his longevity in film, but I find he is excellent in his supporting roles and wanted to give him a shout out.

-- This was supposed to be another of the Quatermass movies, but Hammer wasn’t given permission to use the character, so they changed things up a bit. I need to watch those movies soon, as I hear good things about them.

Three radioactive blobs out of four.

Morella is a Gen Xer who likes strange things a bit too much.


  1. One of the creepiest movies I saw was a 1950s monster movie Them. It was atmospheric and had a mounting sense of danger. Right up until they showed the monster, at which point it all went away. 1950s effects were not great and the monster was not impressive. It did convince me that sometimes less is much, much more.

    1. I love Them! I plan on rewatching it before reviewing it here, as I got the Blu-Ray a couple years back and watched it then. The ants are not particularly convincing, but it's still a great film.


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