HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.
Story and screenplay by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Leslie Norman (and an uncredited Joseph Losey)
Dean Jagger: Dr. Adam Royston
Leo McKern: Inspector "Mac" McGill
Michael Ripper: Sergeant Harry Grimsdyke
Edward Chapman: John Elliott
This is a movie that exists in its final form because Nigel Kneale didn't trust Hammer with his best-known fictional creation. It was going to be a second film about Bernard Quatermass, the science hero that I've written about twice on the Checkpoint already. But Kneale, Quatermass' creator, wasn't interested in a quickly produced sequel to the film The Quatermass Xperiment coming out and possibly treating his character poorly. Having seen The Return of Count Yorga, a one-year-later quickie sequel to Count Yorga, Vampire, for this very HubrisWeen I have to say I'm entirely on Kneale's side in the dispute. So what was Hammer Studios to do?
Well, they had an idea for a really cool monster and an existing plot outline. They just scrubbed Quatermass from the story and added in an American hero (which would help sell the movie in the States). It's a neat transitional film from Hammer; one of the last black and white films before they started making their Dracula and Frankenstein movies in bright bloody color, as well as one set in the present day instead of making it a period piece like most of the famous Hammer flicks. It's also a flick that's about England's place in the world after the British Empire was just a memory, and about the rise of nuclear weapons as a threat to stability and to human life itself (remember, the English were bombed for eight months as part of the Second World War, causing untold destruction, suffering and death with conventional explosives). One can imagine that thoughts of city-wrecking bombs from the sky were more a returning nightmare for them than a fresh one like it was for United Statesians like me and most of my readers.
In 1956, the Soviet Union already had atomic weapons, and bombers from Vladivostok could get to London faster than they could reach Washington, D. C. The civilian atomic program existed in England, with the first commercial reactor in the country generating its first kilowatts a mere three months before this movie was released. This will be the second "atomic monster" movie I've seen from Hammer Studios and in both cases there isn't a giant scorpion to be found. The first English nuclear paranoia film I watched had innocent children as the atomic creatures and the British government as the background villains. This one is similar to the next year's The Monolith Monsters, in that the creature isn't something that can be reasoned or communicated with; however, instead of needing to make contact with the alien meteorites in the American film, mere proximity to the monster can be fatal in the British one. Radiation can be lethal at a greater distance than chemicals, after all. And while I'm certain the English government said the nuclear power plant was completely safe, there's a certain distrust of official pronouncements in that country's national character. It probably had something to do with the idea that the Great War would be over by Christmas 1914 instead of going on for another four years of barbaric slaughter. Oh, well. Live and learn (except for the 887,000 Britons who could no longer do the latter after they ceased doing the former).
The film starts off with soldiers on an exercise in Scotland in the scenic location only a low-budget English movie could provide: they're in a muddy gravel quarry in the winter. A lone corporal with a Geiger counter goes looking for a buried slug of some radioactive material, presumably to get used to the care and feeding of radiation-detecting equipment. I hope that's a mildly irradiated piece of metal he found, because otherwise the higher-ranked he handed it off to are going to have a rotten time of it in the very near future. One of the younger soldiers says he hasn't had a chance to carry out the training exercise yet and the officer tells the sergeant to bury the metal slug somewhere close so everyone isn't out in the cold all day while the kid tries to find it. Sounds reasonable to me. (Also, the officer points out that in a real "someone go out there with a Geiger counter and track down the radioactive thingy" situation, the protocol is to find the chunk of material, mark it, and get the hell away from it unless one is in a full-body protective suit. Those Brits are so sensible.)
The final soldier to go on the search for the test material wanders all over Hell's creation looking for it, and goes so far off course that his lieutenant (?) goes out into the slushy mud to see what's going on. Turns out the kid's found a really good signal, but nowhere near where it's supposed to be. While the lieutenant and a major go looking for the test slug (because it's Army property and also because it's not polite to leave even mildly radioactive things out in a field. While everyone's attention is on that search, the kid standing by the spot that had the inappropriately high radiation reading notices the puddle on the ground in front of him, which should have a thin scum of ice on top, is boiling. A small fissure opens in the ground near the unfortunate soldier, followed by an explosion of fire and cloud of probably lethally radioactive smoke.
The scene shifts to the "Atomic Energy Establishment" in Lochmouth, Scotland. A voice on the PA lets Dr. Adam Royston (our Quatermass substitute) know that the facility director needs to see him with a quickness, interrupting some kind of experiment to determine the energy output of radioactive cobalt (I think). In his own lab, Royston sets up an array to work on something that the film doesn't particularly explain but which involves a hugely elaborate Erector set, a desk radio that starts playing an electrical tone rather than classical music when the radioactive metal goes near it, and tiny wobbling radar dishes. Royston learns that he's got to go talk to the head man at the research facility and resigns himself to a walk to the main building since the man who told him he's got a meeting going on came on a bicycle built for one.
The MFIC of the research station, John Elliott, tells Royston that he doesn't get to pick and choose what science he's going to do; instead, he'll follow orders and carry out the experiments that have been selected for him. It's the atomic energy research version of the "Your methods are too risky" / "My methods get results" cop movie scene, but in a polite and sedate British manner. Eliott also tells Dr. Royston not to have the facility administrators working on science any more; their job is logistics and typing, not monitoring proton decay. As a punitive measure, Royston's the one who gets volunteered to go out into the freezing muddy filth at that military test site and try to figure out what happened when the ground cracked upon and fire exploded out of it.
When Dr. Royston gets to the mystery spot, there's no radiation to be found at all (which he chalks up to untrained doughboys trying to work a Geiger counter), but the two men injured by the blast are showing burns on their skin and symptoms of radiation poisoning. Royston (in a weird, halting cadence that suggests to me that Dean Jagger hadn't learned his lines and there wasn't money for a second take) says he'll have the research station send him some equipment so he can try to determine what happened. That takes time, though, and the major is talking to some irritated civilians who would like to know what's going on in their little postage stamp of native soil--and since he isn't particularly scientifically literate and nobody's figured out what's going on at this point, there's only so much he can tell them.
It's something of a relief when the sergeant tells Major Cartwright that Dr. Royston wants to talk to him--that's when the major is able to tell the civilians that they're on War Department property and under his authority, so when he tells them to stay put they can like it or lump it, and lumping it involves being escorted to the property line by Sergeant Grimsdyke. Dr. Royston doesn't have a lot he can tell the major about the crack in the ground--it looks to be forty or fifty feet long, perhaps three feet wide, and when Royston tosses a rock into it neither he nor the military officer hears it hit the bottom of the chasm. The decision is made to go back to the lab to fetch equipment with a longer scanning range than the stuff that was brought out this time, and also to rope off the pit so nobody falls into it by accident.
In the car ride back to the research station, Royston and his assistant talk about the fissure and try to figure out just how deep it might actually be, and also ponder what kind of seismic activity would have been going on in Scotland (which does have mountains and such in it, but it's hardly the kind of place you'd imagine having earthquakes, blasts of radioactive steam and bottomless crevasses opening up in the middle of nowhere). And it also comes up that earthquakes aren't radioactive, so it may not be that both events had a single cause. I would be remiss in my duties as a B movie reviewer if I didn't mention that the rear projection in the car's back window jumps all over the place like a cricket and that first-time viewers who notice this are gonna miss the ominous Science Talk completely.
In a nifty transition, the car drives by a pair of wee Scottish tykes who are planning to sneak to a spot that's supposed to be haunted so they can look for the local rural legend (one of whom is played by a very young Frazer Hines, who would portray a Highlander companion of the second Doctor for 117 episodes, a series record). Willie, the one who swore to check out the haunted spot, creeps through the mist and darkness in the woods towards a ruined castle tower, but sees something coming for him and flees as a POV shot (which can't get into the woods after him through the trees, so he's safe) moves towards him accompanied by an electrical crackling and buzzing noise. He beats feet and the other kid runs back to town along with him in a state of abject terror.
Back in town, Willie the young explorer is in the hospital with severe radiation burns; Dr. Royston confirms what happened to a doctor in private and then stomps all over that man's desire not to tell the kid's parents anything distressing. Ian, the kid who didn't get burned, gets a quick meeting with Royston after church the next day. Royston needs to find out what happened to Willie and asks politely and persistently where the pair of boys were the night before. Then it's time for Royston to visit the ruined tower himself, wearing no protective gear of any kind but toting a Geiger counter. He doesn't even turn the thing on till he's inside the structure (which is being used as the site for a still brewing the Highlands equivalent of moonshine). The bootlegger turns out to be hacking sick, which might be the result of sleeping in an unheated stone chamber in the winter, or it might be the result of exposure to the radioactive slug Royston was using in those Erector set experiments back at his personal lab.
But how the heck did a chunk of irradiated metal get from a locked and lead-lined box in a lab building over to a medieval fortress / booze production center? Well, part of the explanation is determined when Royston goes back to his lab and sees that it's been broken into, with scorch marks and mud covering several surfaces. It's the same mud that Royston found at the tower, but what it's doing in either place, let alone both, is currently a mystery. While we're toting up mysteries, Royston has another one to consider--the cylinder of radioactive tritium is supposed to be hazardous to human life for twenty-eight years, but the sample he has is completely inert. And the lab was locked when Royston got back to it, so whatever broke into his lab and consumed the radiation from his tritium sample did so without damaging the door (or even opening it). Ahhh, the impossible that is happening anyway. I love getting to see it all month long in HubrisWeen.
Over in the facility director's office, he's having a chat with Inspector McGill, of the UK branch of the Atomic Energy Commission--as one can imagine, any crimes that take place at a facility that has radioactive materials are crimes where the local constable calls in someone who has more clout and experience. The director declares that the scene of the crime is a private facility instead of being connected to the research station he oversees and tries to blow McGill off (who tells him to eat shit in the most polite and understated manner possible). Which leads to an interview with Dr. Royston at a cafeteria as the scientist works his way through a distressing-looking meal. The inspector admits that he doesn't have any idea what happened to young Willie (who succumbs to his injuries--that's right, Little Willie won't go home), but that he's willing to entertain any possibilities that present themselves. He's a cop, not a scientist, but he knows that effects have causes, and he'd sure like to bring a few of each category together and see what's been 1) fatally burning people with radiation and 2) eating radioactive materials around the region.
The human cost of whatever's going on is demonstrated by Willie's grieving parents, who leave his hospital room just as Royston and McGill arrive. Willie's dad gives Dr. Royston a piece of his mind as well as articulating the creeping paranoia about the nuclear era (though his dialogue gets buried under the syrupy strings on the film's score, undercutting what could have been a quite effective scene). Just as McGill and Royston walk down the hall discussing science's culpability in Willie's death, a totally shady-looking guy sneaks out of the hospital's X-ray room and places a phone call where he confirms something will be done in two minutes.
Well, I was expecting industrial espionage or a Soviet agent, but it turns out the shady-looking technician was scheduling a quickie with one of the nurses on staff. The doctor's apparently quite the lady-killer, with the nurse telling him she's heard good stuff about his safety-booth assignations with the other women on the hospital's staff. But before things can progress past a Fifties Kiss, the equipment in the X-ray room turns on by itself and that crackling and buzzing sound shows up, along with a POV shot that stalks the doctor and kills him while the nurse looks on and screams (as you do). The radiation damage is so profound that the doctor's entire fucking head melts (!) in a brief shot, which is all the more shocking for its quick impact. The radium safe in the X-ray room has been scorched and melted, just like the lead box in Royston's lab. and that weird mud is in evidence as well (just like at the tower and Royston's workshop).
The nurse has gone insane under the pressure of what she's seen, which is pretty standard for this sort of film (but means she won't be able to tell anyone what she saw), and Royston stacks up another impossibility to go along with all the other ones that have been happening--nobody saw anyone suspicious in the hospital before or after the attack, and it looks like the only way into the radiation room is an air-conditioning grille cemented to the wall. It wasn't melted through like the safe, and it's still fastened securely where it's supposed to be, but that's the only method of ingress that Royston's found. Inspector McGill says there's no way something big enough to kill the doctor and burn through the radiation safe could have fit through the tiny holes in the A/C grille, but Royston has an intuitive leap and figures out that whatever they're looking for, it's got a liquid body rather than a solid one. Which is just as impossible as all the other things that have been going on--but now the impossibilities seem to be connected rather than discrete. So there's just one massive Thing That Cannot Happen with several different manifestations rather than half a dozen completely different impossible events going on at the same time.
Dr. Royston, now realizing that the fissure in the earth is probably the home of whatever it is that's been killing people and hunting down radiation sources, says he's glad the major never stationed soldiers there like he originally requested. Which turns out to have happened, and their midnight tea break is interrupted by an odd noise and a weird glow off in the distance. Both men are too creeped out to check the glow out when it's in evidence, but when Private Haggis (yes, really) checks things out after the glow recedes he screams in terror and leaves behind a mud-covered Thompson machine gun. Corporal Webb is no luckier when he goes to see what happened to Haggis, so when Royston and company arrive at the site there's just two more deaths to add to the tally but no more information.
Back at the research center, Dr. Royston gives a pretty awesome Science Gibberish explanation of what he thinks is happening--some sort of life form that could best be described as an intelligent glob of minerals has found a channel to the Earth's surface, which it hadn't been on for hundreds of millions of years, and is now feeding off of what it finds in its new environment. There's something about increased gravity every fifty years and earthquakes in places that shouldn't experience them and the life form being "pure energy" instead of a mobile glob of the Earth's mantle. Whichever ones made it to the surface in previous gravity cycles died of starvation, but now there are radioactive things on the surface that the creatures can eat. I wasn't hugely impressed with Dean Jagger up until this point, but he does a fantastic job as the academic spitting out terms that don't make any sense in order to explain the previous forty minutes of narrative. What it boils down to is this: The movie's monster is a ton or so of mobile, radioactive, potentially sentient mud.
The project head thinks Dr. Royston is either spinning a yarn or possibly suffering from a brain tumor; Inspector McGill and Major Cartwright think there might be something to his idea (and Royston's the protagonist, so he's gonna be right). He walks out of the meeting after the forces of law, order and military force say that they think Royston's possibly right and the remaining men hatch a plan to try and figure out exactly what they're dealing with. Which means sending some poor schmuck down into the fissure to see if they can find the monster.
Instead of the Major having to order one of the soldiers down into the crevasse, Royston's assistant Peter volunteers to get a little field work in, even though it's suicidally dangerous. A seat-on-a-rope and hand-cranked winch are set up and he gets lowered down into the chasm with a Geiger counter to see what he can find out. Partway through the descent Peter finds the skeleton of one of the liquefied soldiers that were guarding the fissure (in a rather well-handled reveal), and tells the soldiers to keep sending him down even after that particular memento mori lets him know the risks of what he's doing. And, of course, mere seconds after he sees the skeletal remains of the soldier his Geiger counter goes absolutely nuts, auditorily burying the needle as the unseen formless creature surges up the chasm at him. Peter's pretty slow on the uptake as to what the noise means but then yells in panic for the winch operators to pull him up; he narrowly escapes with his life, and after Royston bundles him in a car to be driven away to the official debriefing Major Cartwright says the military orders are to kill or contain whatever it is that's down in the chasm. Killing the creature is assumed to be done after hosing the top of a bottomless chasm with a flamethrower and dropping a couple demolition sharges in, while containment will be accomplished by pouring a concrete patch over the top of fissure and calling it a day.
Yeah, I don't think it's going to work either.
Inspector McGill returns to Royston's workshop as the scientist is doing some soldering and fixing the damage from the mud creature's visit; quite sensibly, Dr. Royston asks what good two feet of concrete are going to do against something that has shoved its way through a mile of solid stone. The AEC man thinks that a couple grenades and flamethrowers probably killed the thing, but I'd like to point out that nearly everyone that has gotten within ten feet of the monster has died of radiation poisoning--the soldiers at the fissure didn't even get a mild suntan. It might not have been anywhere near them when they dropped the bombs down and figured that'd do it. After a demonstration of his Erector set experiment, Royston says the lethally radioactive metal in the sample jar is just a piece of mud that emits radiation, and sensibly asks how one could possibly kill mud. McGill (and the audience, I'm sure) doesn't have an answer for that.
Dr. Royston's about to lose one of the few people willing to listen to his wild-ass theories when the inspector is recalled to London to present a report on the shenanigans and goings-on around the research station. McGill believes--as does Royston--that the mud creature is going to go around or through that concrete patch and attack again, and there's nothing anyone knows to do about it yet. Although there might be a way--for years, Dr. Royston's been trying to work out a way to make radioactive materials inert without the corresponding atomic blast that usually results from the process (I'm not sure how much sense that makes, but roll with it). If his process actually works, and can be used on the mud monster, they can make it inert--hopefully before anyone else dies from exposure to it. If it doesn't work, there won't be a place on Earth that's safe from attacks from that creature until every last piece of radioactive material has been consumed and it dies of starvation or flees back underground for whatever it normally eats in the heat and pressure of the Earth's mantle.
Also, considering Dean Jagger's age and that the movie takes place in 1956, I think there's something quite noble going on with Dr. Adam Royston. If he's got a doctoral degree in nuclear physics, he'd have to be one of the first people to do so. I think Royston's probably someone who worked on the Manhattan Project in some capacity back in the Forties and who is trying to figure out if there's a way to take all those chunks of radioactive metal in all the missiles and bombs in the USSR and United States and turn them into paperweights. I'm not aware of any other movies from this time period that feature a scientist trying to make nuclear war impossible--usually the military-industrial complex types in these movies are worried about the Soviets winding up more advanced than our side or trying to build a weapon to defeat a technologically superior foe. In X The Unknown, there's an American nuclear physicist trying to put himself and hundreds of other atomic scientists out of a job.
Two plot points collide right after Dr. Royston explains what he's trying to do in his little workshed; first, it's time to take the radioactive cobalt out of the atomic pile at the main research station. Second, the mud monster oozes through and around that concrete patch like it wasn't even there. (See? No way did a flamethrower and a concrete patch actually kill a monster without organs.) Well, once it bubbles out of the ground--and the first look at the oozing, bubbling tide of mud is pretty impressive, especially for the year it was made and Hammer's budgetary restrictions--it's going to go looking for a snack. While McGill calls to unsuccessfully petition his superiors for another day in the field to wrap things up, another cop at the station takes a call about a fatal road accident where the bodies in the car are melted. Which he thinks is idiocy from the officer on the scene and McGill knows as the sign that something terrible is about to happen.
When Inspector McGill gets to the accident scene he's able to confirm that it looks like the mud monster was there and then needs to find a telephone so he can call the research station and let them know the creature is oozing towards them at that very moment (the beat cop on the scene doesn't have any way of getting in touch with anyone, and the nearest public telephone is miles away, which is the kind of plot detail that makes sense in 1956 and perhaps wouldn't fly sixty years later). At the research station, Dr. Royston is getting chewed out by the director for pulling the cobalt out of the atomic pile without permission when McGill calls in and says four more people are dead and the mud monster is on the loose. That's more important than putting a cobalt test behind schedule, of course, so it's time for a "plot where the monster has been before on a map" scene--and I love those--which means Royston gets to draw a line on a map with a grease pencil that goes right across the Lochmouth research station. Pants, meet shit.
McGill hightails it back to the research station just as Dr. Royston is trying to come up with a plan to get the cobalt far enough away from the mud monster that it won't be able to sense it (and kill anyone in its path while trying to reach the cobalt so it can eat it). The director comes within an ace of telling the American crackpot he was right to shut down the atomic pile before running off to work on logistics for their last-ditch plan. It boils down to "put the cobalt on the back of a transport truck and drive like hell", which could just mean that the creature will go after it and kill dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people while pursuing the cobalt--after all, nobody knows how far away the mud monster can still smell the stuff. For that matter, if the truck drives past another food source for the monster it might just divert itself towards an unprepared victim and kill more people that way. It is not a good plan, is what I'm saying. The plan is bad and Dr. Royston should feel bad for having come up with it.
The point is moot, though, because the creature's already at the research station's entrance shack, making short work of the guard at the gate. The mortally injured guard manages to set off the station's fire alarm before he melts and there's general panic as everyone tries to escape the creature (and the score overpowers the dialogue again; bad job, DVD mixers!)
The mud blob rolls down the road towards the station (and then over it), going for the cobalt in its case. At least nobody's near it to get killed while the monster feeds, but I literally have no idea what Dr. Royston says to do for the inevitable last-ditch plan to defeat the creature because the string sections drown out his voice completely and I don't have subtitles on the disc I'm using for this. So a helicopter and a cop car are pressed into service to do...whatever it is...while the villagers near Lochmouth evacuate their homes and hide inside the church to stay out of the path of the monster as it oozes back to its home.
The mud creature turns out to have some kind of pain-avoidance reflex, and turns away from some almost passably animated downed power lines to roll down the main street of Lochmouth (the physical effect of the mud monster is much better than the animated one and the model work for the power lines). The sheer radiation in the air makes it impossible for the men in the helicopter to inform anyone else of the monster's change in itinerary--there's nothing but static on either end when they try to communicate. And back at the church there's a little toddler girl wandering around as the creature breaks through a stone wall; her proximity to it means she should be a melted popsicle by the time the priest runs up to grab her, and he shouldn't live through the rescue attempt at that range either. But the BBFC probably wasn't going to approve a script with a melting child in it back in 1956, so she lives and the priest lives after saving her.
The mud monster eats the cobalt and grows larger, which fits into Dr. Royston's operating theories about the creature. He also theorizes that every time it feeds on a nuclear power source it will be able to sense its food at greater distances, so killing it at the fissure when it goes back home to digest its cobalt extra value meal is of paramount importance.
So back to Dr. Royston's private workshop it is, while he screws around with the Erector set radar dishes and manages to remove the radioactivity from a sample slug without blowing anything up. Well, almost without blowing anything up. There's no time to come up with a better plan so Dr. Royston goes off to the fissure with some radioactive bait for the monster to try and use two synchronized spinning radar dish things to solve X The Unknown so it equals zero.
At the fissure site, there's gawkers that have to be taken out of the way and a Jeep with some radioactive stuff in the back to serve as an enticement to the monster. The hope is to get it to haul its bulk up to the surface and then subject it to the spinning-radar-dish treatment so it'll die before it realizes that it's under attack. If something goes wrong with the process, the two tons of radioactive mud will explode just like the speck of test material did, and everybody in the area (and probably the town, and possibly down in Edinburgh) is going to die. Because it's a monster movie, the Jeep carrying the radioactive bait won't start until Peter's behind the wheel--a named character can make the machine work where a no-mark day player can't, of course.
Eventually the monster makes its appearance (Peter moves the Jeep suicidally close to the fissure to attract it, since it just ate a big meal and might not have room for dessert), the spinning radar dishes go into action and the mud monster goes up in what fellow HubrisWeen participant Dr. Freex described once as "a fiery, smoky foof". Thankfully, a big foof isn't explosive enough to kill everyone there at the fissure and a test with the Geiger counters that everyone in the movie carries around like a fashion accessory gets postponed as there's a second foof from the crevasse that shouldn't have happened. I think Dr. Royston killed the monster as it was budding to create an offspring, so his plan worked better than even he knew. And so the world is saved by American knowhow and Scottish obedience.
This one's a real treat--I'm a total sucker for "work together to kill the monster with Science!" plots, and even though it's not a real Quatermass movie enough of the template shows through to hit all the buttons I want it to hit. There really wasn't much of an English flavour to this one thanks to the lead being a Yank, but thankfully all the various supporting players are stiff-upper-lip and English to give the viewer a sense of where it's taking place (in fact, the two soldiers guarding the fissure at night are killed right before a tea break). This was Jimmy Sangster's first screenplay for Hammer Studios, and he would go on to write more than a dozen of the studio's smash hits before jumping ship to likely make a whole lot more money working for American television. At the same time that X the Unknown was the end of one era for Hammer (present-day stories in black and white) the filmmaker who wrote it was about to launch the studio into its hugely profitable and successful next phase.
Not too bad for a movie where the villain is a big pile of wet dirt.
"Okay, there's got to be a Geiger counter on this thing SOMEWHERE. I'll let you know if I find the mud monster."