The name Roger Corman is synonymous with the type of hack, horror sci-fi B movies one could only previously associate with William Castle. Corman has produced and directed over 450 movies and is still working today, manufacturing such demented but vibrant dross like Attack of the 50ft Cheerleader, Sharkoctopus and Camel Spiders. His current work is not as widely distributed or appreciated as much as his films of the sixties and seventies were, and from a modern perspective it’s hard to imagine how it ever will. But given they bode all of the characteristics of the earlier films, maybe, in time and with retrospect, people will view them with a similar fondness.
This month see’s the DVD release of X: The Man with X Ray Eyes (X), a Corman directorial effort from 1963. It is an overlooked curio that has much of the vibrant pizazz and wonderment that graced many of his more famous films like Little Shop of Horrors and Death Race 2000 but with a similar disregard to production value and performances.
Ray Milland plays Dr. James Xaivier a surgeon working on an experiment that involves sensitising the retina of the human eye enabling people to see through solid surfaces, thus detecting tumours and bone breaks in patients without the need of X rays. After testing the serum on a monkey, much to the dismay of his colleagues, Xavier tries it on himself with successful results. But following his sabotage of a child’s operation with hilarious consequences, Xavier is forced to take his new found gift/ curse out of the medical profession and into a seedy world of gambling and supernatural healing.
After opening with the close up of a seemingly severed eye and a wonderful, warbling 50’s style sci-fi score, the film drifts into standard B movie territory, introducing the protagonist and his intentions in a monotonous manner that suggests what will follow would be totally underwhelming. But surprisingly, thanks to an unintentionally hilarious plot twist, X curves off into an exciting new direction, out of the confines of the hospital setting and into a surprising new realm not often associated with the genre. All the while the evolution of Xavier’s condition, physically as well as genetically, makes the context of his bizarre encounters and scenarios all the more entertaining, lending the film some very welcome weight.
Despite the well paced screenplay, X boasts several naff elements easily associated with 60’s horror and sci-fi. The acting is cardboard and the visual effects dated but with these flaws come an unintentional humour and charm that are difficult to consciously manufacture or replicate for a modern audience, but it has been done. Paul Verhoeven successfully spliced B movie DNA with satire in both the concept of Robocop and more notable Starship Troopers. And Larry Blamire’s deadpan homage The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is a wonderful love letter to the sci-fi films of the 1950’s. Lake Placid and Piranha 3D are also noble efforts.
One could argue that the humour featured in X is intentional. The sights of Ray Milland lighting a cigarette with a Bunsen burner in a hospital and ogling (with X ray vision) at some teenagers dancing at a “house party” are hilarious. Coupled with a sometimes ingenious script and central concept, this makes for a highly enjoyable yet hokey treat. But his modern efforts are executed in a manner that is too knowingly self-referential instead of being incorporated at a deeper level with more subtle finesse, and without the benefits of a half-decent script to carry the pastiche.
The underlining element of humour featured in X is a welcome attribute to an overlooked and highly entertaining gem from the golden age of B movies, and is a treat for both fans of Corman and those coming to it raw, but the acting and production values are so bad that, like most films of the time and type, it is very easy to laugh and poke fun at it. Due to the fact that it is so entertaining it at first seems strange that X has taken so long to get released in the UK until now, but given that it is buried in a sub-genre riddled with forgettable hokum I suppose it is understandable that such an obscure film has only been recently unearthed.
It would be nice to see more of Roger Corman’s older films re-released without having a remake/ re-imagining/ sequel/ prequel or spin off to justify it. This would also put his current work into a greater perspective. Given the surprisingly quality of X some more undiscovered gem’s from the archives would be appreciated as an alternative to yet another another craggy Demon Octo-Jelly-squid rift on the psycho mutant fish sub genre.