Sunday, February 25, 2018

Retro Movie: Ray Milland in Corman's "X"

Diana Van der Vlis & Ray Milland
Filmmaker Roger Corman made a name for himself as a producer and director with a host of successful low budget genre films in the 1950s and 60s, and also helped start the careers of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and many others, by giving them work on his movies. His series of influential Edgar Allen Poe adaptations (most of which starred Vincent Price) are now regarded as classics. Another interesting Corman project from this period is the 1963 tale, X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, simply titled “X” onscreen. The movie tells the story of Dr. James Xavier, who is experimenting with moving beyond the limits of vision in humans. Xavier develops a serum that will expand what we can see. After briefly testing it on animals, Xavier decides to uses the eye drop serum on himself, and his visual capacity does increase. At first, he can see through clothing and solid objects. He is startled by, and elated with, the results.

But that’s not enough for the scientist, and as he continues to use the serum, Xavier begins to see much more than he bargained for: it’s a textbook example of the old science-fiction theme, “there are some things man was not meant to know.” Xavier’s research partners drop his funding, and even though his increased visual capacity helps save a young girl’s life at the hospital where he works, no one supports him. He ends up working at a carnival sideshow as a mentalist, and later as a faith healer. Xavier continues to see deeper into the world than any man ever has; will he see beyond this dimension, or even this universe, and will it drive him insane?

The movie is well cast; Milland (who had worked with Corman previously on the Poe film, The Premature Burial) is excellent in the title role. He perfectly conveys the elation, and later dread, that Xavier feels as he sees shapes, colors and things that he eventually can’t (or won't) comprehend. Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone and John Hoyt are all effective in supporting roles, and Don Rickles (yes, that Don Rickles) is quite good as a carnival barker who wants to cash in on Xavier’s visionary powers. Corman regulars Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze have cameos as customers at the carnival sideshow. The effects are well done for the period, and eerily convey the odd & mind-bending things that Dr. Xavier sees, which are beyond the veil of normal human perception.

X is a solid bet for fans of the sci-fi & horror genre; it definitely transcends its B-movie origins to tell a unique story. There are some nice touches from director Corman (who was several films into his excellent work on the Poe cycle at this point) and it strives to deliver a bit more than the typical genre films of the period. Many reviewers & writers (including Stephen King in Danse Macabre, his landmark study of the horror genre) have noted the almost Lovecraftian themes that pop up late in the movie. It’s a well-crafted chiller, however you interpret it. The film often airs on Turner Classic Movies and other cable channels, and is also available in a nifty Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber, which includes commentaries from Corman and writer-director Joe Dante, among other extras. Here’s a link to the trailer: the way, it's interesting to note that Dr. Xavier coincidentally shares his last name with the telekinetic Dr. Charles Xavier, the leader of Marvel Comics mutant heroes, the X-Men, who also debuted in 1963.

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