Following on from Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment, the company continued their desire for rating incorporated titles with 1956’s X The Unknown. It may perhaps hold the most unimaginative of Hammer’s titles but the film itself has some surprisingly good moments.
The story follows an extremely similar route to its predecessor but certain tweaks allow more paranoia to build specifically around the radiation that clearly obsessed 1950s science fiction. While training soldiers to use a Geiger counter in seeking out radioactive material, a solider finds a strong source where there shouldn’t be one. This unleashes an unknown force from the ground that appears to be alive and remarkably similar to the blobby creature found in both the Quatermass films.
Though effective in its building of suspense and in some of its reasonably gruesome effects shots, X The Unknown has a severe case of plagiarism and sits comfortably in the shadow of Val Guest’s two films in similar vein. The scientists combating the creature haven’t the detail or spark to be as entertaining as Brian Donlevy’s Professor Quatermass and at times it does seem like the cast of Last of the Summer Wine have been drafted in to fight the menace alas minus the tin bath.
This is summed up best in Edward Chapman or “Mr Grimsdale!” as he’s better known, who is given the worst characterisation perhaps in the whole of Hammer; changing his mind at an astonishingly fast pace to fit the runtime of the film. This shouldn’t just be laid at the doors of the cast though. Jimmy Sangster would go on to write wonders for Hammer but here it’s sci-fi by numbers with not a thought to the characters on screen bar some rather clichéd Scottish soldiers.
The monster of film however is its saving grace and though there are many blob related films around, there’s something distinguished about this radioactive munching blob that seems quite exciting. It breaks down walls in attempts to get at people (and even children, the fiend). It shocks them and burns them with radiation. It even sounds menacing with crackles and murmurings following its movements back to the crack in the ground where it lives.
The solution to our dear blob is also a rather clever veil for the disarming of nuclear weapons. Even though the film deals with the army, and direct action against the enemy (Bob the blob), there’s a wonderful irony played out here, where the solution to the problem is a device made to create world peace and disarm nuclear weapons for good.
Anyone expecting a glorious Quatermass part 2 should merely move on to the actual Quatermass 2. However, with some hideously realised effects, a great monster and some, perhaps unintended, humour, X The Unknown can be forgiven for its many downfalls and be seen simply as a piece of 1950s nostalgia. Silly, enjoyable fun but also an important sign of the times both for then and for the future of Hammer.