X the Unknown, for the uninitiated, is a science fiction film from Hammer Films, released in 1956. Starring Dean Jagger as an atomic scientist, the film is concerned with a blob-like threat that thrives off nuclear energy. Scripted by Jimmy Sangster, and directed by Leslie Norman (following the sudden departure of Joseph Losey after filming had commenced).
Originally Hammer / Exclusive Films had conceived the project as a direct sequel to their smash success The Quatermass Xperiment, itself based on a popular BBC serial by Nigel Kneale. Once Kneale got wind of the plan, he refused permission, and Hammer proceeded to develop the project with a thinly-disguised alternative lead character instead of the continued adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass (well, until Kneale scripted an adaptation of Quatermass II for them).
The film was originally a co-production between Exclusive Films and Sol Lesser’s RKO in the US, with RKO lined up to distribute in North America, until their fortune faltered and the film was picked up instead by Warner Bros.
Over the years, X the Unknown has been repeated on television fairly regularly, and has been released on laserdisc, DVD and finally restored in HD for Blu-Ray, with several releases around the world including Shock Entertainment in Australia and Scream Factory in the US. The print you’ll see in HD is sourced from an original Warner Bros US release, and is more than serviceable. But overlooked to date on every release is the fact that this differs significantly from the original UK release by Exclusive Films in one crucial sequence – the opening.
In the print you’re more than likely familiar with, X the Unknown opens with captions played out over a scene of an empty quarry, backed to a rousing, menacing James Bernard score. Once the credits end, the music cuts and the shot moves to take into frame a soldier with a Geiger counter, scanning the mud. Its quite an effective jump and moves us into a sense of eerie emptiness and a work in progress.
Here’s the sequence as it plays out on screen:
Back in 2011 Icon Films released a series of Hammer titles to DVD. Following a warehouse fire, the masters to the previous range of DVDs in the UK produced by DD Home Entertainment were lost. And so, Icon resorted to whatever masters they could get their hands on – mostly much older. The fans, noticing the drop in picture quality and restoration between the DD releases (which appear to have used the same source material as the Anchor Bay discs in the US and Anolis releases in Germany) and the new Icon discs, were outraged and disappointed. Perhaps understandably.
However, unnoticed by just about everyone, the copy of X the Unknown wasn’t a sub-standard version of the WB print, but an old SD video taken from an original UK Exclusive Films print. The quality featured a notable drop, but I was excited, for surely in the UK, this film ought to be sourced from a country-of-origin master?
The Icon disc included BBFC X cert card, the Exclusive name, and a slight text variation in the credits themselves. Curiously, while the US print bears a copyright line for Sol Lesser, the Exclusive print omits a copyright line entirely.
The significant change, is something quite different.
In the US prints, the music starts as soon as the Warner Bros logo appears and continues throughout the credits sequence. In the UK Exclusive print however, after an initial sting as the film’s title appears onscreen, the music suddenly drops away. And instead we are left with the sequence playing out over a wild track. You can hear the sounds of the quarry, some birds. Its still, its eerie. And it puts us right into the zone of discomfort even before we see the soldiers on their exercise.
X the Unknown is a film that plays with very little non-diegetic music overall. It allows those uneasy silences and stillness to play out, emphasising the remote nature of the Scottish landscape where events unfold. The decision to cut the music right from the start is very much part of the mise-en-scene of the picture.
Here’s the sequence from the Exclusive print for comparison:
Surprisingly, as far as I can tell, the rest of the sound cues throughout the film are exactly the same between the two prints. It is possible that there are visual cues that differ, but watching the two prints back to back this week, I couldn’t spot them.
What is clear, however, is that the Exclusive print is darker overall. This is probably the result of a soft transfer onto SD video at some point in the 1980s from an old, tired, release print of the film – possibly even a 16mm print rather than a 35mm. However, while at times, it is a little too much like peering through mud, I do think there’s an argument to be made for darkening any future restoration. The night sequences in the Exclusive print, do appear to take place at night – the shadows loom large like a film noir. With the current HD Warner print the night sequences are a little over-lit. Similarly, the special effects shots seem a little more convincing in the dark – when we can’t see the join.
X the Unknown deserves a proper restoration, alongside its spiritual brothers The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II. And taken from original UK elements where possible. (Paging the BFI!)
The BFI archives hold an original 35mm negative, along with multiple positive prints and a digital master (although I’m not clear if that digital master is taken from Exclusive or Warner Bros source material). Therefore it would seem hypothetically possible for a remaster built around the original UK/Exclusive elements should be possible.
As an addendum : Curiously in the early hours of Sunday 13 October 2013 the BBC screened X the Unknown in a unique hybrid. The broadcast included the Exclusive Films title at the front, but from that point on used the existing WB print source for the rest of the film. Completists may have thought they’d been treated to a clean original UK print, but sadly not.
I prepared a comparison of the opening and closing captions of the Exclusive and Warner Bros prints later that day and sent the notes to my former line manager at Hammer (I’d by this point stopped working for the company), Nic Ransome, who had been overseeing a major restoration project for Blu-Ray, in case it was of use. At that point, X the Unknown wasn’t lined up for an HD restoration however. Those comparisons are below for reference. The one clear difference is on the production team credit card. The final “A Hammer Film” card comes from the close of the film and is not part of the opening sequence.