X The Unknown

X The Unknown (1956)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman
Extras: World Of Hammer Documentary, Theatrical Trailer

British Hammer Studios had made a name for themselves mostly in the horror domain through their reincarnations of the classic monsters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and many others. However, often overlooked, the Hammer Studios also created a good number of atmospheric science fiction movies that often blended science fiction with horror to create unsettling visions of the future. One of these films is the 1956 movie "X The Unknown." It was the first movie written by Jimmy Sangster, who would soon become one of the busiest writers in Hammer’s stable and create the scripts for classic Hammer films such as "Dracula", "Dracula Prince Of Darkness", "The Mummy", "The Curse Of Frankenstein", and many more. "X The Unknown" nicely blends the common fear of radiation at the time with horrific elements, very much like Jack Arnolds’ films did in the US around the same time.

During a drill of the British Army where soldiers are taught how to locate radioactive material, suddenly readings on the Geiger counter go completely off the scale. The Earth begins to shake and a fissure appears on the ground, reaching into the unfathomable depths of Earth itself. Two soldiers are burned to death during the incident but no one knows exactly what happened. Soon more bodies appear and scientists harbor the fear that something from the depths of our planet has come to the surface. A creature unknown to man, a creature the appears and disappears in the bottomless crack in the Earth, a creature that absorbs radioactivity, burning every living being close by. Helpless the military and scientists watch as more incidents happen until finally they are able to recognize a pattern within the creature’s movement. The creature seems to live off the energy of radioactive material, growing in size and power.

"X The Unknown" is an atmospheric doomsday science fiction movie that relocates the events into the gloomy and swampy countryside of England rather than the desert as its many American counterparts used to do. As a result it has a very different feel that sets it distinctly apart.
The film is well acted and even the production design appears of much higher quality than the actual budget would suggest. Even the special effects shots of the blob from the core of the Earth are well integrated and work convincingly for the most part.
While the amateurish scientist laboratory, technology and lingo involved may seem a little cheesy at times, the story itself is so solid that the viewer hardly ever notices the restraints and limitations of the actual movie. It captivates viewers – especially through its delicate involvement of a number of civilians outside the actual story – and keeps most of the mystery intact for much of the film.

Anchor Bay Entertainment has prepared a beautiful new transfer for this classic black and white Hammer movie. Presented in its original <$PS,fullframe> format, the picture quality on this DVD is meticulous and makes the film all the more enjoyable. The source print is in astoundingly good condition, without distracting defects. Hardly any speckle or scratch is visible during the film’s presentation and the picture is always stable without showing serious signs of registration problems. The transfer itself exhibits a great contrast, creating solid deep black consistently throughout the film. Without losing any detail in the shadows, the transfer also creates balanced highlights, allowing the picture to use a wide gradient of grays to restore the movie’s picture. No edge-enhancement is evident in the picture, making this a beautiful presentation of the movie that belies its actual age. Running at a very high average bitrate as well, the DVD is free of compression artifacts and not a hint of <$pixelation,pixelation> is visible anywhere in the film. This is what DVD is all about, especially when it comes to older movies, and not other medium can maintain the quality of such films better than DVD.

This release features a monaural audio track in <$DD,Dolby Digital> that is presented as a 2-channel mix, and it is only here that the movie’s age becomes noticeable. Although well presented on this DVD, the audio sounds thin and shows a very limited dynamic range. Slight suggestions of sibilance are noticeable on occasion and the frequency response of the track is naturally limited without a bass extension. The DVD is hardly to blame for this however, as it only restores the original as faithful as possible, and in that succeeds masterfully. Without noise or distortion, "X The Unknown" is featuring a soundtrack that helps greatly to create the atmosphere of unknown terror on the screen – in 50s terms that is, of course.

"X The Unknown" also contains the movie’s theatrical trailer and an episode of "World Of Hammer" called "Sci-Fi." It is a 25-minute featurette that goes through Hammer’s history of science fiction movies, from the first genre attempts to the final releases like "Quatermass And The Pit." It is narrated by the late Oliver Reed and nicely covers the highlights of the Hammer Studios’ work in the genre with great footage and appetizing scenes from a large number of the movies.

One thing is absolutely clear after seeing "X The Unknown" on this DVD. Never has the film looked any better and I presume even during its theatrical run the prints in circulation have most definitely shown more defects and marks than the flawless one we get to witness on this release. With its perfect contrast balancing, the great and clean transfer and the faithful reproduction of the audio track, "X The Unknown" is a fan no fan of the Hammer Films can afford to miss. The story of the Blob from the inside of the Earth may be a little far fetched and worn out by now, but no one does it like Hammer. With a lot of atmosphere, great photography and a solid cast, the film has earned its place in the market and in the heart of fans of early science fiction films, and Anchor Bay Entertainment’s meticulous release on this DVD finally gives the movie the kind of home video presentation it long deserved.