August 29, 2013

The Talking Dead

Poster - Dead Men Walk (1943)
Now Playing: Dead Men Walk (1943)

Pros: George Zucco and George Zucco (playing dual roles); Some good theatrical moments
Cons: Too much talk and not enough walk; Beautiful Mary Carlisle and underrated Dwight Frye are wasted in typed roles; Younger male lead is as stiff as a day-old corpse

I haven't been feeling like my old self lately. I'm lethargic much of the time, I don't feel like eating much, and despite the fact that I live in one of the sunnier climes in the whole country, I have the pallor of a workaholic mortician. I also have trouble sleeping. As the cold rays of the moon stream through my window and the leaves rustle in the night breeze, I dream of large, black shapes hovering outside, tapping, then scratching at the screens, begging me to let them in. I wake up in a cold sweat, listening, scarcely daring to breathe. After what seems like hours, I slowly, carefully lay my head back down to try to catch a few more minutes of fitful sleep.

Just this morning I applied a bandaid to a couple of angry-red marks on my neck. (Okay, so I cut myself shaving-- have you seen how expensive razor blades are these days? I like to make sure mine are good and done before they go in the trash can!) No, my problem isn't vampires -- if only it were that simple! My problem is another type of bloodsucker, the Great Vampiric Marketer Americanus, a foul, relentless creature who will stop at nothing, pursuing its prey to the ends of the earth, to extract every last discretionary cent out its target's wallet and bank account.

Since embarking on my epic move to a new city, I've canceled some services and picked up others. Little did I know that there is an unwritten rule (no doubt soon to become a law) that once you sign up with DirecTV, you can't leave. I learned the rule the hard way after a solid week of two, sometimes three calls a day from agitated DirecTV customer reps demanding to know why I had dropped their service. My protests that I was not a DirecTV number, that I was a free man, capable of making his own decisions, fell on deaf ears. (For more on this fiasco, see my post on Fabulous, Fantastic TV Shows of the Fifties.) On the flip side, I picked up a different internet service in my new home city. Little did I know that there was an unwritten rule that you can't just sign up for internet-- you have to bundle it with a TV package (preferably with premium movie and sports channels) and digital phone service. Now I'm getting calls from the new service's reps wondering when I'm going to do my civic duty and bundle up.

Evil Elwyn's face at the window (George Zucco)
Is that a DirecTV salesman's face at
my window, or just a vampire's?
That, coupled with the fact that now even when I go into a drugstore to buy a pack of gum, I'm hounded about signing up for their club card, or debit card, or I'm commanded to fill out a survey… well, I think you can see that I am a haunted, hunted man. The dark, terrible images of customer representatives, phone marketers, and evilly-grinning cashiers fill my dreams and turn them into nightmares. I'm sure that it's only a matter of time before show up at my door for real, ringing the bell endlessly or scratching at my window panes, demanding to know if I'm going to go for that sweet bundle or that kicking' club card. The horror, the HORROR!

By contrast, Dr. Lloyd Clayton's problems in Dead Men Walk -- dealing with an identical twin, devil-worshiping brother who has come back from the dead as a vampire -- seem positively mundane. Still, Dead Men Walk is worth a look, if only because it offers a double dose of the incomparable B-movie villain George Zucco.

After a somewhat surreal introduction to "the dark-enshrouded regions of evil" by a disembodied head floating above the flames in a fireplace (more on that later), Dead Men begins appropriately enough with a funeral. When the pastor concludes the service by inviting the mourners to pay their last respects to the deceased in the open coffin, only one, Dr. Lloyd Clayton (George Zucco) stands up. He gazes solemnly down at… his own face in the form of identical twin brother Elwyn! His reverie is interrupted by an older woman (Fern Emmett) who has quietly entered the chapel. "How can you defile this sacred house with the body of that evil man, that servant of the devil!" she cries. As she's whisked away, the pastor apologizes to Lloyd: "Poor old Kate hasn't been quite right since the shocking death of her little grand-daughter last year."

At the family mausoleum, Lloyd discusses the deceased twin brother with his niece Gayle (Mary Carlisle) and her beau, young Dr. David Bentley (Nedrick Young): "He always seemed an alien soul, even in childhood. I think he hated me all his life. After he returned from India, Elwyn was like a man obsessed (sic) by a demon, nothing was sacred to him…" (Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to muck around in arcane Eastern religions and practices!)

Dwight Frye as Zolarr, Dead Men Walk (1943)
Dwight Frye plays yet another demented assistant.
Sadly, this would be one of his last films.
Later, Lloyd decides to purge his evil twin's legacy by burning his "blasphemous" books and papers in the fireplace. He's interrupted by Elwyn's creepy, hunchbacked (!) assistant Zolarr (Dwight Frye), who accuses the doctor of murdering his own brother. Lloyd doesn't deny it, stating, "I fought only to save my own life." Before storming out, Zolarr tells Clayton, "You'll pray for death long before you die!"

Cut to lovebirds Gayle and David, who've decided to get married. Clayton gives them his warm approval, but the lightheartedness doesn't last long. Zolarr is busy extricating his master Elwyn's coffin from the mausoleum, wheeling it to a deserted part of the cemetery. Elwyn slowly rises, classic style, from the satin-lined coffin. "I am not yet strong," he tells the open-mouthed Zolarr, "but I have been given the power to draw ever-lasting life from the veins of the living…" (Apparently Elwyn put all those books and papers to good use before his brother burned them.)

The living dead Elwyn wastes no time drawing blood from a local woman. In the light of day, Lloyd and the town sheriff (Hal Price) investigate the fatality. The doctor observes two puncture marks on her neck, and the fact that she appears to have bled to death. Old Kate, who seems to be everywhere, steals into the bedroom and announces that she knows how the woman died. She blames Lloyd's evil twin. "He's dead Kate, and his evil died with him," he assures her. "But it didn't die, it's growing stronger every day!" she protests. The sheriff runs her off, threatening to have her locked up.

That night, Lloyd is astonished to find out that Kate is right when Elwyn's spectre confronts him in his study. "Am I losing my mind? There was no sign of life in Elwyn's body when it was placed in the vault!" he says to himself, hardly believing what he's seeing. "You'll know that I'm no intangible figment of your imagination when you feel the weight of my hatred," responds the walking dead man. "Your life will be a torment. I'll strip you of everything you hold dear before I drag you down to a sordid death!" Elwyn walks over to the window, looking out at Gayle and David holding hands in the garden. "I'll take life from Gayle," he cackles, "slowly, you'll see her life ebb day by day… and you'll be powerless to save her!" Lloyd has had enough. He grabs a pistol from his desk and empties it into the smirking phantom. Elwyn laughs maniacally and then vanishes.

George Zucco as Lloyd and Elwyn Clayton
Split screen shot of evil Elwyn confronting his twin brother. "I'll strip you
of everything you hold dear before I drag you down to a sordid death!"
When Gayle and David hear the shots and rush into the study, the rattled doctor lamely tells them that he thought he saw a burglar. After Gayle goes to bed, David confronts Lloyd and asks him if he's telling the whole truth about the shots. Without going into to detail, Lloyd confesses that he's beginning to doubt his own sanity. David offers to take some of the pressure off the older doctor by taking over part of his practice.

Elwyn makes good on his promise to drain the life out of Gayle. That night, a shadow hovers over Gayle as she tosses and turns in fitful sleep. Talking to himself before he leans down to sink his teeth in her neck, Elwyn reveals his plan to turn her into one of the undead like himself, to be his servant for all time.

Perhaps because he still can't quite believe what happened in the study, Lloyd has taken no precautions to keep his niece safe. But in the cold light of day, the evidence is undeniable. Something is afflicting her, and she's growing steadily weaker. The symptoms suggest an acute case of anemia. And then there are the bite marks on her neck, and Gayle's reports of terrible dreams, in which a huge bat-like creature hovers over her bed. Duh! The doctors decide to give her a transfusion, with the concerned fiance donating the blood. As they're wrapping up the procedure in Gayle's room, Lloyd turns around to see his evil twin's face hovering at the second story window! Elwyn vanishes before David can see it.

In Lloyd's study, the older doctor tries to tell David that Elwyn is behind Gayle's mysterious illness, but the rational younger doctor is having none of it: "the dead have no power over the living," he huffs. Lloyd convinces the reluctant doctor to visit Elwyn's crypt to see the state of the body-- if there's no decomposition, it will be further proof of Elwyn's vampiric existence. They discover that the coffin and body are gone. Ever the rationalist, David guesses that medical students stole it, but Lloyd knows better. At this point David thinks that Lloyd is seriously off his rocker. He proposes marrying Gayle immediately and taking her away. Clayton says he'll think it over.

Dwight Frye as Zolarr and George Zucco as Elwyn
Elwyn and Zolarr plot further mischief by candlelight.
While he's thinking, a grim David tells the sheriff that he thinks Clayton is trying to kill Gayle. Clayton's talk of Elwyn, sorcery and vampires is way too much for the young man of science. In the meantime, while Lloyd dithers and David voices his suspicions, old Kate, who's just crazy enough to know exactly what's going on, takes the initiative to give Gayle a protective cross to wear around her neck. It prevents another assault by Elwyn, who enlists Zolarr to get the cross so he can continue his depredations.

When the nosy Kate discovers Elwyn's new resting place, Zolarr kills her for her troubles. A local tells the rest of the town that he's seen Dr. Clayton skulking around at night, and the "leading citizens" -- who look like a disorganized assemblage of Gabby Hayes impersonators -- start grumbling about taking the law into their own hands. David, who by now has met the real, undead Elwyn, tries to convince them that gentle Lloyd is not the culprit. The good doctor has a tall order on his hands: convince the townies that his evil twin is really responsible for the murders before they string him up, send Elwyn back to the dark pits from whence he came, and save his beautiful niece from a fate worse than death.

This low-budget, low-energy horror film from the lowly poverty row studio PRC seems like a celluloid Rip Van Winkle that fell asleep in 1933 and woke up ten years later. It plays out as an almost straight, shoestring retelling of Browning's 1931 Dracula, with Lloyd as Van Helsing, Elwyn as Dracula, Gayle as Mina, fiance David as Harker, and Zolarr standing in as a combination Renfield and Fritz from Universal's original Frankenstein (1931). It even takes a minute or two out of a very short 64 minute running time to have Elwyn explain to his mouth-breathing assistant all about how he must rest in his coffin during the day, how he will sustain his immortal life on the blood of the living, etc., as if moviegoers had never heard of vampires or the rules of their game. Considering that in 1943 Universal introduced the Son of Dracula and set up a meeting between Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, and that RKO released three of Val Lewton's frighteningly good B horrors (I Walked with a Zombie, The Seventh Victim and The Leopard Man), Dead Men Walk seems all the more quaint and anachronistic.

Mary Carlisle as Gayle Clayton
Gayle (Mary Carlisle) looks absolutely fabulous as she
gets a blood transfusion in the comfort of her boudoir.
Worse yet, Dead Men wastes the precious talents of a couple underrated performers. Beautiful, energetic Mary Carlisle has little to do but moon at her wooden-faced fiance and look absolutely fabulous in her fur wrap (?!) as she tries to recover from her mystery anemia. (For more on Mary, see my special Halloween write-up of One Frightened Night, 1935). Sadly, Dead Men would be her last film. And poor Dwight Frye, the ultimate victim of Hollywood typecasting, plays yet another standard-issue demented assistant, complete with hunchback. Even accounting for the makeup, Frye looks old, tired and bloated. His story is especially tragic. In his write-up of Dead Men Walk in Poverty Row Horrors! Monogram, PRC and Republic Horror Films of the Forties (McFarland, 1993), interviewer par excellence Tom Weaver quotes Dwight Frye Jr. about the depressing arc of his father's career:
There was in the latter years of his life a lot of discouragement. He'd gotten, unfortunately, into this mold of playing horror characters with lots of makeup or playing Nazis during the war or playing gangsters in the mid-1930s. He got typed and not until just before he died did he have the possibility of breaking out of type… The unfortunate and ironic thing was that when he was in New York originally from 1922 to 1928, he was a big star on the stage playing musicals, comedies and all kinds of light stuff. The moment he went to California that all stopped and he never got the chance to do that sort of thing again. [According to Frye's Wikipedia entry, the break out was to be a role in the A-list picture Wilson, based on the life of president Woodrow Wilson. Frye died of a heart attack just a few days before he was to report to the set.]
George Zucco as Elwyn Clayton
George Zucco serves up a generous portion
of ham as the mad, evil Elwyn.
Predictably for a nothing-budget B, the Dead Men (actually man-- there's only one undead creature in it, despite the title) talk a good deal more than they walk. Even by 1940s standards, there is precious little action -- the most we see is Elwyn slowly leaning over Gayle to deliver the vampire's kiss off camera, the vampire's eerily-lit face at the window (actually quite effective), and Lloyd scuffling with Zolarr and Elwyn at the climax. Coming from the mouths of most of the supporting characters, the surplus of talk is a drag. But when the evil Elwyn talks, you listen, because he's given the juiciest lines, and George Zucco is just the man to deliver them.

We get a taste of the melodramatic language to come with an unusual introduction featuring a hand grabbing a book titled "A History of Vampires" and tossing it into a burning fireplace (a foreshadowing of Lloyd's burning of his twin's blasphemous occult library). An eerie floating head then appears superimposed over the fire, challenging the audience:
"You creatures of the light, how can you say with absolute certainty what does or does not dwell in the limitless ocean of the night? Are the dark-enshrouded regions of evil nothing but figments of the imagination because you and your puny conceit say they cannot exist?"
(The bizarre intro is very reminiscent of the distorted head in the crystal ball that introduced Universal's series of Inner Sanctum mysteries starring Lon Chaney Jr. The first of the filmed Inner Sanctums, Calling Dr. Death, also debuted in 1943.)

Floating heads from Universal's Inner Sanctum series and PRC's Dead Men Walk
These two sinister floating heads both debuted in 1943 to introduce B movie chillers.
(Universal's Inner Sanctum series on the left, Dead Men Walk on the right.)
Zucco as Elwyn handles similarly florid lines with such gusto and aplomb, you can't help but be entertained. By all accounts, Zucco was the complete antithesis of the sinister characters he tended to play in the Bs -- a gentle, educated man who drew praise from everyone he worked with. (For more on Zucco, see my post on The Mad Ghoul, 1943.) If Zucco was embarrassed by the formulaic roles he played in the forties, he didn't seem to show it. At his best, Zucco was able to bring out subtle hints of humanity in his villain roles (The Mad Ghoul is a good example). While there's zero humanity in the irredeemably evil Elwyn, Zucco still delivers his lines with a zeal that's hard to fake. Generous portions of ham may be salty and fatty and bad for you, but if they're Zucco-brand ham, you may find yourself, like me, wolfing them down anyway.

Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Available on DVD

"Whence came a story, told in frightened whispers, down through the ages... of witch and warlock, werewolf and vampire, and all the spawn of Hell! "

August 16, 2013

X Marks the Spot: A Thinking Person's B Sci-Fi Treasure

Poster - The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)
Now Playing: X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)

Pros: Unique and disturbing premise; Wonderfully thoughtful and philosophical for a B sci-fi movie
Cons: Several plot elements are forced and implausible, seemingly designed simply to get the action going

For as long as there have been tales of heroes with extraordinary powers, storytellers have had their protagonists grapple not just with monsters and other external evils, but with the consequences of their own powers, and the hidden evil within themselves. For example Hercules, the son of a god and super-powerful hero, could also be undone by his overweening ego and terrible temper (a temper so bad, it cost his wife and children their lives). Overconfident heroes with no flaws are boring -- kids' stuff. Early on, I gravitated to heroes with tragic flaws and antiheroes -- I've always preferred the dark, moody Batman to invincible Superman, and neurotic Spider-Man to brash Captain America.

It seems to me, obvious and cliched as it may sound, that what we do with power (and in the mythological universe, superpower), is the ultimate test of our character. We can do unto others in extra-special ways, or we can use our power to make others conform to our wishes (or even punish them for bringing inconvenient truths to light -- Washington, D.C.-types, take note!). Kids don't care about any of that stuff. Superpowers are self-evidently good-- who wouldn't want them? Along with that youthful sense of immortality, they're absolutely sure that they could easily handle any superpower, and use it to do good and enrich themselves at the same time.

Comic book ad for X-Ray vision glasses
X-ray vision for only a buck! Man, those were good times!
Comic book advertisers of the '50s and '60s brilliantly took advantage of that youthful exuberance. We'd read about the exploits of our favorite superheroes and then, thumbing to the end of the book, we saw that for just a buck here or a couple of bucks there, we could have a little slice of those wild, wonderful universes shipped direct to our homes: Sea monkeys, real monkeys (I wonder how many moms actually let their kids order squirrel monkeys out of the back of a comic book?), wrist-radios, hypno-coins,  diet regimes to bulk us up into muscle men, and of course, the ever popular X-ray glasses! ("See through fingers, see through skin, see yolk of egg, see lead in pencil!…") Wow, if the mailman -- and the admen -- could actually deliver on that stuff, the world wasn't such a boring, tedious place after all!

(Side note: I never ordered the X-ray glasses or saw how they worked, suspecting, even at that young age, that the claims were perhaps, maybe, somehow overstated. But the concept did inspire my friend Jerry and me way back in junior high. We took the red taillight cover from an old junked car, got some foam rubber and duct tape, and made a pair of goggles out it. The patterns stamped into the plastic refracted light in all sorts of crazy ways. We borrowed black lights and posters from our older brothers, decorated his garage, and then charged the neighbor kids 25 cents a pop to take a hippy, dippy "LSD trip" -- with the goggles, sans the drug itself. What can I say, it was a different time -- today kids stupid enough to pull something like that would probably be hauled away to juvie court, if the cops didn't shoot 'em first. True entrepreneurship is dead, I tell ya!  … Okay, okay, so it was all Jerry's idea. But I did help put up posters and take money. I think. It was a long time ago…)

Now where was I? Oh yeah, pre-teens (and national politicians) have absolutely no problem with fantastic, unlimited superpowers. But we adults, we know better. We know that there's a price to pay for everything. Just like those Powerball winners who have to go into hiding after their normal lives fall apart, acquirers of superpowers walk a tightrope, and one false step can send them falling into the abyss. I talked a little bit about the fine line between a superhero and monster in my earlier post on the obscure B sci-fi thriller Hand of Death (1962). In that film, scientist-protagonist Alex Marsh (John Agar) accidentally exposes himself to experimental chemicals, acquires a very unique superpower, and then proceeds to make every boneheaded decision in the book, thereby turning himself into a monster.

In X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, our Xtra-special hero purposely exposes himself to experimental chemicals in the hopes of doing humanity a service -- then makes every bone-headed decision there is to make, turning himself into … not quite a monster, but certainly one of the more creepy antiheroes in B sci-fi movies. The film opens with Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland) getting his eyes checked out by a physician colleague, Dr. Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone). Since he'd had an eye checkup only months before, his friend, familiar with his research, guesses that he's getting ready to use himself as a guinea pig in his experiments with x-ray vision. Xavier protests that human beings are "virtually blind," and that he wants to tap into the 90% of the wave spectrum that humanity currently can't see.
"My dear friend, only the gods see everything," Sam lectures his friend.
"My dear doctor, I'm closing in on the gods!" an exuberant Xavier replies.
Ray Milland and Diana Van der Vlis in lab scene
This poor monkey is about to see
something that will stop his heart!
Back at the lab, Xavier gives a tour to another doctor, Diane Fairfax (Diana van dev Vlis), who's been sent by the sponsoring foundation to make sure they're getting their money's worth. He waxes ecstatic over the medical applications -- how a doctor with chemically-aided super-sight could diagnose patients with an accuracy and clarity that even X-rays couldn't match. He gives the skeptical doctor a demonstration with a monkey, who's been trained to turn on switches corresponding to various colored lights when he sees the colored panels that Xavier inserts in a slot in his cage. After being treated with the special eye drops, the monkey flips the lights in the correct sequence -- except, the colored panels are blocked by an opaque white one. Clearly (pun intended), the monkey is seeing through the white panel to the colored ones behind it! However, triumph turns to concern when the poor animal, his part in the experiment done, lays down in his cage and dies. A post-mortem examination reveals that the creature's heart simply gave out, as if he'd been frightened to death. "What did he see?" Fairfax wonders.

The obsessed Xavier isn't going to let a little set-back like the monkey's heart failure get in the way of progress, and begins treating his own eyes with the drops. The effects are almost immediate, but Xavier senses that his enhanced eyeballs have only scratched the surface of what's possible (ouch!). In spite of Xavier's success using himself as a guinea pig (or perhaps because of it), the cautious foundation board cuts off funding for the project. Disappointed but undaunted, Xavier returns to his hospital duties, where he quickly puts his new eyesight to good, but ultimately tragic, use. He makes the rounds with the hospital's senior surgeon, Dr. Benson (John Hoyt). They're to operate on a young girl in the morning, and Benson goes over the diagnosis and surgery plan with Xavier. Except, Xavier, with his new eyes, can see that the diagnosis is all wrong. Benson is surprised and irritated when Xavier insists that the diagnosis is off, yet refuses to provide a clear explanation.

In the operating room, Xavier pleads with the surgeon to let him do the procedure. Benson curtly cuts him off, then, as he begins, a desperate Xavier grabs a scalpel and nicks Benson's hand, declaring that he is taking over the operation. Before the stunned Benson and the other assisting physicians and nurses can react, Xavier is calmly saving the girls life with his skilled hands and x-ray vision. "She appears a perfect, breathing dissection!" he exclaims. After the successful operation, Benson, humiliated and perplexed, promises to bring Xavier up on charges. (Apparently in this hospital, no good deed goes unpunished.)

With the hospital buzzing about the Xavier's bizarre hijacking of the operation, Sam and Diane are concerned for his mental health. When Sam tries to give the agitated man a sedative, Xavier panics and pushes Sam away so hard that he careens through the office window and falls to his death. Xavier, convinced that the authorities will lock him up in an asylum, takes off as sirens wail in the distance.

Don Rickles as Crane, seen through Xavier's X-ray eyes
Some guys are just transparent, like the cheesy
carnival barker Crane (Don Rickles)
Cut to a cheap, rundown carnival, where the once proud doctor is using his powers to amaze the rubes as "the Great Mentalo." With the aid of sleazy carny barker Crane (Don Rickles in a role that seems to be tailor-made for him), Mentalo, wearing a blindfold with an eerie single eye painted on the front, tells the wide-eyed audience members things about themselves that he shouldn't be able to know. Mentalo/Xavier dispenses with one young heckler (Dick Miller) by reciting so many details about the man, that the punk gets spooked and practically runs for the exit. The street-wise Crane has seen acts like Mentalo's before, but this guy doesn't seem to employ the usual tricks. But if his powers are real, Crane wonders, what's he doing in a run-down carnival sideshow? When Xavier asks what he would like to see with x-ray vision, Crane smirks, "All the undressed women my poor eyes could stand!"

Crane, who may be smarmy, but is no dummy, soon realizes that Mentalo is the real deal. We can almost see the wheels turning inside his bald head as he concocts a plan for Mentalo to use his special sight to diagnose people's pains and diseases while humbly taking "donations" from the grateful masses. Crane of course will act as front man and promoter, taking his cut. Soon, word gets out about Xavier's special powers, and his makeshift waiting room is practically overflowing with desperate, ill people. Crane, still a carnival barker at heart, tells everyone who will listen about his friend the great healer. Xavier, his eyes now encased in thick, dark wraparound glasses, responds icily, "I can't heal. I only look… and tell what I see."

Diane, who has been out of the picture since Xavier went on the lam, tracks him down to his new "clinic." In spite of the freak show he's become, it's obvious she has feelings for him. Crane overhears Diane pleading with Xavier to come away with her, and he threatens to turn him into the police if he cuts out. Diane and Xavier speed away in her car as Crane runs after them, yelling that he's a fraud and a murderer. Still thinking that he can redeem himself, Xavier decides to take a road trip to Las Vegas -- he's going to fleece the casinos to fund more research. Lovesick Diane decides to tag along.

James Xavier's psychedlic, x-ray view of the lights of Las Vegas
Even with super X-ray vision, the lights of
Las Vegas don't look that much different!
When Xavier wins a fortune at blackjack, the suspicious casino pit boss shuts down the table. The manic Xavier goes to another table, and when the bouncers descend on him, his glasses fly off. As Xavier whirls around, almost blinded -- yet seeing everything -- the pit boss, who doesn't seem to be the sharpest pencil in the box, hisses to his henchmen, "Something's not right here, call the cops!" In this case, what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas-- the now exhausted, demented Xavier flees into the desert with a police helicopter in hot pursuit.

The bizarre, surreal ending in a tent revival meeting is justifiably notorious. There were actually two endings filmed. In the early 2000s director Roger Corman confirmed that an alternate ending had been done, but that he'd been dissatisfied with it and kept the original. If you're curious, read all about it in the film's Wikipedia entry.

What interests me about X is its fidelity to Greek tragedy. All the elements are there: hubris, a special power that becomes a curse, and a horrific sacrifice. With the possible exception of The Masque of the Red Death (1964), this is Roger Corman's most adult, intelligent sci-fi/horror film. There's no bug-eyed monster, but there is a bug-eyed tragic hero. Like Cassandra, the gods reward Xavier with special sight, but instead of aiding humanity, he reaps fear, distrust and disbelief everywhere he goes (except of course for the loyal, lovesick Diane).

He also becomes a sort of tabula rasa upon which mortals project their deepest fears and desires. The sleazy Crane would use X's power to look at naked women and bilk gullible people out of their hard-earned cash. In a very effective scene, some of the carnival workers, acting as a sort of Greek chorus, are gossiping about Xavier/Mentalo on their break, wondering out loud if his powers are real or faked. Some kind souls are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Soon, the conversation turns to what each would do with Mentalo's power. They imagine themselves helping out their fellow human beings, but one of the carnies reveals his true face, bragging that he'd use his power to force others to be good, and punish them if they didn't. When Xavier overhears the conversation and gently takes issue with the man, he loudly denounces Mentalo as a fraud. Xavier wearily walks away.

Fantasy writer Ray Russell penned the original story, and is one of two credited screenwriters (Robert Dillon being the other). I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that many if not all of X's more poignant moments like the scene above are due to Russell (my apologies to Robert if this is not the case). Ray is most famous for his novella Sardonicus, which was originally published in Playboy in 1961, and which was filmed as Mr. Sardonicus by William Castle the same year. I remember in junior high school being bowled over the story, which I found in a paperback horror anthology collection. Despite being published in the early '60s (and in Playboy no less!), it was an unabashed, dark homage to Gothic horror stories of the 19th century. It was (is) beautifully crafted, with nicely developed characters and rich, almost flowery language. The description of how Sardonicus the monster came to be is especially poignant and horrifying.

Ray Milland as James Xavier, the Man with the X-Ray Eyes
Xavier's special power soon becomes a terrible curse
when he begins to see cities of the dead and the eye
in the center of the universe "that sees us all."
Russell's poetic flair and old-school sensibilities come out strongly in the latter part of the film. As Xavier and Diane drive away from the makeshift clinic and the clutches of the greedy, cynical Crane, Xavier grimaces as he looks out the car window at the city skyscrapers. "What do you see?" Diane asks.
Xavier: "The city, as if it were unborn. Rising into the sky with fingers of metal… limbs without flesh… girders without stone… signs hanging without support… wires dipping and swaying without poles…  A city unborn! Flesh dissolved in an acid of light! The city of the dead!"
It would only take a few short years for Russell's/Xavier's vision to be realized in places like Watts and Detroit, where riots and the business establishment's "benign neglect" created actual cities of the dead. True visionaries rarely succeed, especially in decaying, corrupt societies like ours. Sometimes it takes someone steeped in the past, like Russell, to point out the pitfalls and tragic nature of the "progress" that the rest of us mindlessly embrace.

X is one of those rarities that manages to say a lot about the human condition while at the same time thrilling and entertaining in classic B movie style. At times it almost rises to the level of poetry. Ray Milland manages lines like the "city of the dead" monologue without making them seem forced or overwrought. And Don Rickles is an amazing, slimy wonder as Crane. The dialog, the acting and overall artfulness more than make up for the occasional clumsy moment, like Sam's implausible header out the window.

If you want out-and-out monsters and pure escapism, then X definitely does not mark the spot. But if you want to see one of the more unusual and intelligent low-budget sci-fi thrillers of the '60s (or any other decade for that matter), then put on your X-ray specs and look around for it -- thankfully it's not hard to find.

Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Available on DVD

"A doctor with the power to see what others cannot believe!"