DVD Review: X the Unknown

When I was watching the first episode of Nigel Kneale’s second Quatermass series for the BBC, I had the feeling I’d seen something like it before although the rest of the story didn’t progress the way I thought it would. What I remembered involved an indestructible blob monster coming up out of the ground.

This was the movie I was thinking of. It does look like a sequel to Hammer’s version of The Quatermass Experiment–but it’s not. It’s more a sort of Quatermass wannabe. Hammer originally intended it to be another tale in the continuing adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass until Kneale objected to their unauthorized use of his character. The studio went ahead with their story idea, but with certain names and other details changed.

Up in the rocky Scottish Highlands, a group of soldiers is conducting an exercise using a Geiger counter to scan for and locate a harmlessly small amount of radioactive material buried out on the heath. The sergeant (Michael Ripper, not playing the same sergeant he was in Quatermass and the Pit) is about to call it a day, when a young man named Lansing chirps up that he hasn’t had a turn. The other soldiers moan and groan, but the sergeant goes out to rebury the little canister so Lansing can find it.

Soldiers search for radioactive material... and find more than they expected.

Lansing takes awhile and the company’s lieutenant goes out to join him to see what the problem is. The Geiger counter is picking up a very strong signal, much higher levels of radiation than the canister contents would emit.

The ground beneath their feet begins to tremble and a long crack opens up in the earth. The rest of the men retreat to safety, but when the crack widens into great fissure, poor Lansing and one other man are caught in the blast that shoots up out of it.

After this opening scene, we go to meet our film’s hero–an American scientist working in the U.K. (Dean Jagger). He’s Quatermass-like, or at least similar to the Hammer-movie-version of Quatermass, but his name is Adam Royston and his interests aren’t focused on sending rockets into space. When we see him, he’s in a small workshop away from the atomic energy station where he officially works, conducting his own private research.

It isn’t clear at first what’s he’s doing. There’s a small container of radioactive material inside a lead box; he has a mechanical arm pick it up out of the box and carry it back and forth between two rotating shields. This obscures the music from the radio on a nearby shelf with bursts of static, or else the sound becomes clear again, depending on where the little container is relative to the shields. The purpose of this experiment won’t be explained until later.

Since Dr. Royston is an expert in nuclear science, the military invites him to examine the “radiation reaction” from the rift that’s opened up in the ground. He doesn’t want to go, since he has his own work to pursue, but his boss at the atomic energy station, John Elliott, insists.

Mr. Elliott’s son Peter tags along. The elder Elliott wants his son to work with him in management and not get his hands dirty with experiments with cobalt isotopes, but as we’ll see, Peter is keen for all kinds of hands-on experience.

Lansing is dead by the time Dr. Royston arrives at the site where the military exercises were being conducted; his body shows some serious burns. The other soldier caught in the blast also has a shaped burn mark where the handle of the small shovel attached to his pack was pressed against his back. This man is taken to hospital (never to be seen again).

However, there’s currently no sign of radiation emitting from the crevasse. Dr. Royston, Peter, and the major in charge of the site go to have a look at it. One of the men tosses a pebble in, and then they wait as it falls and falls but they never hear any sound of it hitting the bottom.

As Royston leaves the site with his young friend and colleague, Peter questions the term “bottomless.” Would the doctor use it?

“Did I?” Royston asks back. “How unscientific of me.” Actually he didn’t; it was the major who used that word. Royston only said “the operative range of our equipment is limited.”

I didn’t see them test the depth with anything but that pebble, but it’s getting late. The major leaves two men on guard at the rift and everyone else goes home or back to the base.

After the military and scientists have left the area, two little boys emerge from the underbrush along the road. You’d think they’d be interested in the mysterious and exciting goings-on they’ve been watching from their hiding place, but their reasons for being there have nothing to do with the rift or the explosion. They were only waiting for the grown-ups to go away so that the one boy, Willie, could fulfill a dare made by the other: to run up to the ruins of an old castle tower on the hilltop, a place reputed to be haunted, and see if “Old Thomas” sleeps there.

Frightened boy in the woodsThe boy runs through the dark woods toward the tower, but whatever he encounters just below the tower hill isn’t a ghost.

We don’t see what he sees, only hear some muted electric-sounding zaps, but it plainly horrifies him. Willie turns to flee in the opposite direction, not even stopping when he reaches the other boy, who is waiting down by the road.

The next morning, the boy’s worried parents bring him to the hospital after they tried to get up for school and saw the burns on his face and arms. First-degree radiation burns, the doctors call them, but no one seems to know what to do to help him. Dr. Royston is brought in again.

Willie’s parents can’t say how he came to be burned, or even where he was the night before apart from being out late with a friend.

Royston finds and questions the other little boy, whose name is Ian. Ian refuses to talk at first, since he and Willie have sworn a sacred oath about what they were up to, but Royston eventually convinces him that the truth will help to save Willie’s life.

Once he learns about the old tower, Royston visits it. There, he finds Old Thomas, drunk asleep with an overflowing still. Among the collection of jars and bottles on the shelf is one of his own little containers, stolen from his workshop. It should contain radioactive material and be highly dangerous, but it isn’t.

When Royston returns to his workshop, he finds the place trashed. Something has melted down the lead box in which he keeps his little containers, and the radioactive material in them is now inert sludge. He’s been working with an unstable element, the half-life of which should take 28 years to decay, not overnight. The atomic energy, he tells Peter, has been “sapped” from it. There’s also a sooty residue all over, but the doors and windows were locked. So how did the intruder get in and out again?

In response to these strange thefts, the government sends an agent from the Atomic Energy Commission up from London to investigate. His name is Inspector McGill.

Royston and McGillIt’s Leo McKern, but the funny thing is that he doesn’t sound like Leo McKern. There’s no reason for him to be dubbed when the rest of the cast isn’t, so I can only assume that he didn’t develop the robust and rumbling, jovial voice that one immediately recognizes as his until later on in his career.

Royston and McGill become friends. The doctor is soon calling him Mac.

McGill has also been up to the tower and had a chat with Old Thomas. The sick little boy never went near the container on the shelf and couldn’t have been exposed to the material in it. He must have encountered something else that was radioactive. McGill wants to interview Willie, but movies in the 1950s weren’t shy about killing off children; by the time the two men get to the hospital, Willie has died.

Willie’s parents blame Royston–not because he failed to save their child, but because he’s a nuclear scientist. “You meddle with things that kill,” Willie’s father tells Royston. “Letting off bombs you can’t control. You’re a murderer.”

Royston isn’t responsible for the boy’s death in any way, but he still takes these words to heart.

Well, enough of the tragic deaths of children. There hasn’t been any sex in this movie yet, so it’s time for some, involving people we’ve never seen before.

Medical kissing The control room of the hospital’s radiation therapy unit is the trysting place for one of the doctors and whichever nurse he can coax to join him there. The nurse who meets him this time has heard stories about him and has been impatiently waiting for her invitation. At last, this is her chance at him.

But the two are about to pay the terrible price that necking couples always have to pay in horror movies. Their kissing is interrupted when the radium therapy machine starts up. The doctor goes out to the treatment room to investigate. His new girlfriend watches through the window as he screams at whatever he discovers in there (we still don’t get to see it), one of his fingers swells up, and his face begins to melt away…

When the hospital staff discovers what’s left of his body a short while later, the nurse is in no mental condition to tell them what happened. “She can’t even tell us her own name.”

Dr. Royston and McGill examine the room. Again, the lead-lined cell around the radium has been dissolved, the radium is inert sludge, and that residue is all over the place. Royston says that whatever happened here, happened in a matter of seconds.

The doctor also gives his attention to a metal grate on one wall. Does he think that something very small did this? No, says Royston, something regardless of size got in and out of the room by flowing around the bars of the grate. “How small is 10,000 gallons of oil?”

Remember the soldiers that the major left on guard duty at the crevasse? They are still there. They go by the nicknames of Spider and Haggis (Small roles, but Spider is played by Anthony Newley and Haggis is Ian McNaughton, who would later work for the BBC and direct Monty Python’s Flying Circus). When the two hear strange sounds and see a glow down inside the crevasse, they argue about who should investigate. “You go and have a look.”

After some back-and-forth, Haggis does venture toward the fissure, and dies in classic red-shirt fashion. “Look! Come here quick! Auuggh!

Not that Spider fares any better. He shoots at the unseen creature as it heads for him, but what good are bullets against a sludge monster? “Aiee!

The major, Royston, and McGill arrive too late. All they find at the site are a soldier’s cap and gun, but neither man living nor dead.

It’s here that Royston outlines his idea about what’s going on. He starts with some basic “schoolboy” geology: millions of years ago, the Earth was a molten blob in space, but as the surface cooled it formed a crust which has grown thicker over the eons and the planet’s molten core grows smaller. Then he goes off the rails and postulates that, as evolution has progressed on the Earth’s surface and developed beings as intelligent as humans, so creatures of equal or greater intelligence have been evolving underneath. They’ve had more time than us to develop. Okay. Every 50 years, there’s a shift in the gravitational pull on the Earth that results in earthquakes and tremors, and fissures like the one they’ve have here open up.

What if these creatures come up from the depths of the Earth to look around for food? As beings of energy, they would seek energy to sustain themselves; radioactive materials would be just the thing. Until now, they didn’t find much on the surface and died, but now that humans have entered the atomic age, there’s plenty of radioactive stuff around even in a remote place like the Scottish Highlands.

Royston admits this is “mostly theory.”

“Rubbish!” says the elder Elliott, but the others take it seriously. And, this being the kind of movie that it is, you know Royston is absolutely right.

After Mr. Elliott leaves, they form a plan. Royston wants someone to go inside the fissure. Peter volunteers. Good thing his father doesn’t know about this.

Peter is lowered into the crevasse The next thing you know, the major has some of his men working a winch to lower the young scientist down into the hole. After a momentary slackness sends him plummeting down into the cavernous darkness, he finds the body of one of the missing soldiers, partially dissolved like that of the Casanova doctor.

The Geiger counter he brought with him starts to click so rapidly that it almost buzzes. And he hears something moving far below…

Peter shouts and it’s a race to pull him back to the surface before the thing comes up after him, then everybody sensibly moves away from the opening of the fissure. The creature does not emerge to get them.

The major’s solution is to concrete the fissure shut after blasting down into it with a flamethrower and tossing in some explosives. He calls this the “easy way out,” adding that scientists like Royston always have to look for complicated solutions to problems.

Royston doesn’t believe that the major’s measures will do any good. As he explains to McGill, a few yards of concrete would be nothing to a creature that’s pushed its way up through miles of rock.

So how do they kill it? McGill wants to know.

Can they? Royston responds. As far as they know, this thing is a kind of intelligent radioactive sludge. “How do you kill mud?”

Then he shows McGill the experiment he’s been working on, the one that we saw at the beginning of the film. Royston has indeed felt the heavy responsibility of scientists “letting off bombs [they] can’t control” long before Willie’s father spoke those words to him. What he’s trying to do is develop a way to suppress the nuclear chain reaction that creates an explosion and neutralize the atomic bomb. Could his work also be used to neutralize the sludge monster?

Sure enough, after everyone’s gone and the creature gets hungry again, the concrete seal bursts open and Sludgy comes flowing up. This is our first look at the monster, and to me it most resembles gooey hot fudge with chopped nuts. But maybe I’m just hungry too.

McGill is the first to realize that the monster is on the prowl again. On his way to Glasgow to catch a flight back to London, he hears about a family found “melted” in their car on the road. He views the bodies, then hunts for the nearest phone to alert Royston; there’s some difficulty with interference on the phone lines as the radiation emitted from the creature increases.

Royston looks at a map of the area and observes that the creature travels in straight lines from the fissure to the nearest source of food. It passed by the old tower on the way to his workshop, for example. The spot on the road where the unfortunate family encountered it is along its path to the atomic energy station.

Melting hand

“It’s headed for the biggest meal of its life,” he declares before heading for the station to warn the Elliotts. As part of their earlier plans, Peter was already working on removing the cobalt isotope from the station’s core to get it out of the creature’s reach.

In spite of Mr. Elliott’s objections, since he still doesn’t believe in Royston’s theories, the cobalt is loaded onto a huge lead and concrete box on the back of a truck. Before it can drive away, Sludgy approaches the station’s front gate. The gate guard begins to melt, but he manages to hit the alarm button before he falls over and dies.

From the roof of one of the buildings, our heroes can see Sludgy flowing up the road toward them, looking like a large oil slick.

Sludgy The creature comes flowing over the top of the building, forcing the men to abandon the cobalt truck and flee for their own lives.

At this point, you might be thinking that this movie is rather like The Blob–but this was made in 1956, and Steve McQueen wouldn’t battle the Blob until 1958.

After feeding on the cobalt, the monster gets bigger and more powerful. As it heads for home, it takes a different path; the army tracks it with jeeps and helicopters. Instead of crossing mostly unoccupied countryside, it passes through a village.

The villagers all take shelter in the local church. The movie throws in a little bit of suspense as a toddler is left behind outside and, just as Sludgy passes by, the vicar rushes out to rescue the child at the last minute.

Vicar rescues a little girlThis scene bothers me because the little girl is standing no more than two or three feet away from the monster when it knocks down the stone wall between them. She’s still right there when the vicar runs up and picks her up. They’re both much closer to it than the soldiers were at the beginning, or the boy Willie was, or the guard at the gate had been just a few minutes earlier.

The brave clergyman has saved the child from actually being touched by the sludge, but its radioactivity should cause them both to break out in bad burns and die shortly even if they don’t immediately melt. How can they survive?

The church itself is just across the road, only a few yards away from Sludgy’s path. How safe are the people in there really? We never hear any more about the village, so it’s impossible to say what happens to them.

After the monster has gone back to the fissure, Royston calculates that its next, nearest target will be the experimental nuclear power plant on the other side of Edinburgh–and they can’t expect the creature to go around the city to reach it.

The doctor continues to work on his experiment to neutralize nuclear material. It’s not ready to be put into practical use yet–the little container blows up–but he has no choice at this point. The army puts a couple of enormous versions of the shields on top of trucks and places them on either side of the fissure. Now they just need someone to back a jeep up to the opening and try to lure the creature out with a tasty tidbit of radioactive material (with a bit of lead shielding to protect the driver).

Peter backs up over the fissure One of the soldiers is assigned to this dangerous job at first, but when he falls ill, Peter volunteers again and jumps into the jeep.

He backs it up right over the opening, as close as he can–closer than his friends who are off at a safe distance would like. When the creature starts to make its way up toward the surface and Peter tries to drive away, the engine stalls.

Dr. Royston shouts for him to get out of the jeep and run, but Peter remains seated until he can get the thing started. Can he get clear in time? Will this giant-sized version of the doctor’s experiment be a success?

The ending is strangely ambiguous. Sludgy is possibly neutralized, but like the little containers it blows up before anybody can check it with a Geiger counter.

A second explosion follows from the depths of the crevasse. What was that?

“I don’t know,” says Royston, “but it shouldn’t have happened.”


Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.