Double Bill Two – Saturday 15th July
22.40 – 23.55 The Fantastic Disappearing Man (United Artists, Landres, 1958)
00.00 – 01.15 The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (AIP, Corman, 1963)
Look at me… You can see me if you try. You can see me in your mind. I can free your soul… I can take you from the blackness into the light. Look at me … Can you see me now?
Count Dracula (Francis Lederer)
I’ve come to tell you what I see. There are great darknesses. Farther than time itself. And beyond the darkness… a light that glows, changes… and in the centre of the universe… the eye that sees us all.Dr James Xavier (Ray Milland)
So a week had passed, as weeks are wont to do. I know, I know. It’s that kind of profound insight that elevates my horror-related ramblings to the level of High Philosophy. Eat your heart out Schopenhauer.
The second entry in the 1978 BBC2 season featured a pairing of films rather less well known and more rarely seen than anything I’d so far come across. Dracula, Frankenstein – and Friends (the 1977 season of horror double bills – the first one I’d watched) consisted largely of all of the best-remembered Universal monster movies, coupling them with either 1960s Hammer Horror or one of the Corman Poe Pictures. The opening double bill of this, the 1978 season, had offered up Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Man Who Could Cheat Death, which were, relatively speaking, minor Universal and Hammer films, but recognisably Universal and Hammer nonetheless. The double bill of Saturday July the 15th, however, travelled for the first time into territory altogether more offbeat and obscure, since it consisted of an almost unknown 1958 United Artists vampire movie originally called Return of Dracula, but transmitted here under its alternative British title The Fantastic Disappearing Man, and The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, a Roger Corman AIP sci-fi film from the early 60s which neither starred Vincent Price nor pretended to have any connection to Edgar Allan Poe and is, therefore, much less well remembered than the Poe cycle.
One thing the two films have in common (beyond both having the word ‘Man’ in their titles) is a consciously, almost aggressively contemporary setting, which further heightened the slightly uneasy sense of this being unfamiliar terrain. Hammer’s films, just like the Poe Pictures, were almost defined by their period settings, and while the Universal cycle did typically give their monster movies a contemporary 1930s flavour this was prevented from ever becoming too overt by the timeless, fairy-tale quality of their middle European locations and by the fact that the 30s themselves had long receded into what seemed like the distant past for a child like me, lapping up the films for the first time in the late 1970s. The Fantastic Disappearing Man, however, brings Dracula to small-town 1950s America, an all too familiar apple-pie America of teenage sweethearts, high-school hops and costumed Halloween parties, with teams of vampire hunters squealing urgently up to the mausoleum gates in Fords and Buicks. The Man With the X-Ray Eyes is more modern still, and steeped in Americana, all gleaming hospital corridors, high rise blocks, basement tenement offices, carnivals, Vegas casinos and revivalist missions. Contemporary horror can sometimes have a more unsettling immediacy than the classic gothic – it was this, in part, that defined the really game-changing horror films of the next decade or so, films like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist – and, at least for the thirteen-year-old me watching them on a balmy summer night in 1978, that was certainly the case with this pairing. It also, perhaps, helps account for the fact that this particular double bill is burned rather more indelibly into my memory than many of those that followed. The tone of the double bills, over the course of this season, became less cosy and comfortable than the films I’d encountered a year before, and it was this specific Saturday – the especially challenging Man With the X-Ray Eyes in particular – which first pointed in that direction.
To take The Fantastic Disappearing Man first. For the sake of clarity, I’ll continue to use the British title here since that is how it was billed and broadcast in 1978, even though I usually tend to think of it as The Return of Dracula – the title on my DVD copy of the film. The alternative titles tell you a lot I think, both about the differences between the British and American markets and the specific context into which the film was unleashed. You see, given that to the best of my knowledge The Fantastic Disappearing Man was the first time since the Universal films that an American studio had Returned to Dracula (see what I did there?); given that its daringly contemporary setting offers quite an innovative approach to the subject, and most of all given that, at least for me, it’s actually a very good film, its relative obscurity is a little surprising, and is largely down to the context of its release. And that context can be summed up in a single word: Hammer. Rarely can the fate of one film – this one – have been so entirely wrapped up with the overwhelming power and success of another film – Hammer’s majestic 1958 Dracula (or Horror of Dracula in America) – despite the films being made completely independently of one another. The Fantastic Disappearing Man was shot in October 1957, while Hammer’s Dracula began production in November of that year, and wrapped in January 1958. When it came to release, however, Hammer were a little quicker out of the blocks, with Dracula opening from May to June 1958 in both the USA and the UK, while The Fantastic Disappearing Man was released, on a smaller scale and to much less fanfare, at about the same time in the US (under the title The Return of Dracula, perhaps hoping to cash in on some of the success of Hammer’s smash hit) but didn’t reach the United Kingdom until November, by which time it had become The Fantastic Disappearing Man, possibly in an effort to avoid comparison altogether. And while if you were only judging from a synopsis the United Artists film (with a modern American setting, a vampire count who has moved with the times in order to be able to hide in plain sight – a rather stylish 50s overcoat doubling for the iconic cape – and a bobby soxer heroine) might seem more innovative, in fact what Hammer did with an apparently more traditional Victorian Dracula is so genuinely radical and startling that The Fantastic Disappearing Man was almost entirely eclipsed and overshadowed.
The American film, despite its seeming novelty, in fact takes a largely conventional approach – it’s not, in its essentials, far away from something like 1943s Son of Dracula, with Dracula as the subversive alien outsider disrupting and undermining the modern world (itself almost exactly the strategy Stoker uses in the original novel when he moves his vampire count from old-world Transylvania to a modern England of railway timetables, phonographs and typewriters), and there is really very little in its narrative which couldn’t work equally well in a nineteenth century setting. The modern world is there, but it’s not really integral to the film. Although it makes for quite an interesting effect, in the end it’s simply window dressing. A similar kind of uncertainty afflicts something like Hammer’s later Dracula A.D. 1972 where Swinging London seems to exist only for the film’s slightly outdated groovy ‘teenage’ cast while Christopher Lee’s resurrected vampire remains restricted entirely to the gothic surroundings of a de-sanctified church and doesn’t really interact with the modern world at all. What Hammer’s 1958 Dracula does, however, is bring a thoroughly modern sensibility to bear on a nineteenth century setting. Lee’s potent, dynamic, intensely physical Dracula is not the old world coming to take revenge on a complacent modernity, but a lithe, urbane, virile and ‘modern’ man himself, and what’s true of Hammer’s conception of the vampire count is also true of the film as a whole. Colour; pace; urgency; swashbuckling action; lurid Kensington gore liberally applied, and, perhaps most significant of all, full-blooded (geddit?) sexuality – it’s the Victorian world for the rock and roll generation, with the result that, made and released almost simultaneously, The Fantastic Disappearing Man appears by contrast almost quaintly old-fashioned in many respects.
There’s no disgrace in that, of course. Hammer’s Dracula is breathtaking; electrifying; one of the greatest and most important horror films ever made, and if you have to be overshadowed, well, it’s better to be overshadowed by one of the very best. It’d be a lot worse to be overshadowed by The Mole People, say. Even so, I think it’s something of a shame, because, viewed on its own terms The Fantastic Disappearing Man is an interesting and highly effective film with a lot to recommend it.
First and foremost, there’s Francis Lederer’s performance as Dracula. When it comes to responding to actors in the role, there’s always a lot of subjectivity at play. Ever since the publication of the novel in 1897, Dracula has been a shapeshifter, a chameleon, capable of an almost infinite variety of iterations and reinterpretations, almost all of them valid to one degree or another. Dracula is a kind of empty vessel for each succeeding generation to pour their anxieties and dark desires into. If I happen to like the stately, odd, rather otherwordly quality of Lugosi even more than the animalistic power of Lee, well, that’s just me. It doesn’t make the Lugosi version right and Lee’s wrong. They’re both wonderful. I very much like Louis Jourdan in Count Dracula, the 1977 BBC TV adaptation (my favourite screen version of the story), but don’t much care for either Denholm Elliot’s Dracula in the 1960s ITV anthology series Mystery and Imagination, Jack Palance’s 1974 take for American television, or Marc Warren’s in the 2006 BBC Christmas production. Yet Elliot, Palance and Warren are all wonderful actors, and I don’t think I could say with any degree of fairness that any of them are simply wrong in the part. It’s just that, for my tastes, none of those very fine actors are particularly well-served by their productions, though there are some interesting things in all of them. In the 1940s, John Carradine was perhaps even more poorly served by the paucity of material given him in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, and yet I like the actor’s Dracula very much. Complete miscasting is actually very rare. To the best of my knowledge (bearing in mind that, worldwide, there will always be many more screen Draculas I haven’t seen than ones I have) it’s a list of just one in fact: Lon Chaney Junior in Son of Dracula, an actor who is absolutely terrific elsewhere. But although miscasting is generally not an issue, for my part I tend not to like the versions of the character which lean most strongly towards the ‘Dracula as Byronic romantic hero’ trope – in particular Frank Langella in the 1978 John Badham film (a marvellous film in many ways, but one which I find crucially flawed by its conception of a Dracula who is entirely a swoon-inducing creature of smoulder and charm) and Gary Oldman in the later stages of Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula; all doomed love and doe-eyed yearning for Winona Ryder’s Mina. But again, Langella and Oldman are brilliant actors, and in their own way both are brilliant Draculas. Just not my Dracula. If Dracula Untold is largely a failure – and I think it is – it’s not the fault of Luke Evans’ very effective performance. And while the recent Moffatt/Gatiss Dracula was a mixed bag of things I absolutely adored and things that just didn’t work for me – at least not as seamlessly as the same duo’s magnificent Sherlock – the performance of Claes Bang in the title role was definitely one of the things I loved.
All of which is a lengthy way of pointing out that when I say Francis Lederer’s performance as Dracula is among my favourites, it’s an opinion that, on the one hand, is a reasonably informed one – in the sense that, like Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet and the Doctor, there are plenty of versions to choose from and I’ve seen more than my fair share – but on the other, it is just an opinion. And if your top three will always be Langella, Oldman and Max Schrek, that’s perfectly reasonable and I wouldn’t presume to try to change your mind. Though if you were seriously trying to make the case for John Forbes-Robertson in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires we might have to have words.
Lederer’s Dracula is an interesting composite. On the one hand, he is imbued with a fair degree of quite convincing old world charm, and he is believably able to ingratiate himself into the American family who serve as his hosts, taking him to be their cousin, a painter named Bellac Gordal who (fortunately for Dracula’s cunning plan) none of them have seen in many years. With his plain black suit and tie, his dark overcoat and his understated accent (Prague-born, Lederer’s accent, though evident, is much less marked than Lugosi’s) he is quite capable of assuming an identity that enables him to be fully accepted as a genuine, if slightly eccentric and anti-social, visitor. This is a Dracula, like Lee’s, who seems fully human, real, and corporeal. Unlike Lee however, Lederer’s vampire also retains many of the more mystical elements drawn from Stoker’s novel which Hammer were determined to strip away – in his first appearance at the American train station he literally manifests out of thin air. He also projects an effective, icy menace, by contrast to Lee’s animalistic sensuality, and an underlying seething disgust for the forces of ‘normality’ which he is infiltrating.
In this regard, Lederer’s performance reminds me of another, even more accomplished one; that of Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Indeed, in some ways it is easy to see The Fantastic Disappearing Man as a – slightly more obvious and literal – reworking of Hitchcock’s classic. Both films centre around a visit to a small, cosy American town by a long lost relative who is not what they seem – Lederer’s vampire count is a literal imposter where Cotten actually is a relative, but beneath the initial family bonhomie Uncle Charlie is a homicidally misanthropic serial killer. In both cases the mysterious stranger exerts an exotic fascination for, and shares an unexplained, almost supernatural connection with, the teenage daughter within each family: Norma Eberhardt’s Rachel Mayberry in The Fantastic Disappearing Man and Teresa Wright’s Young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. In both films it is the teenage protagonist who ultimately brings to light the villain’s true nature and destroys him. And, as has been observed by, among others, David Sterrit in his 1993 book The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Richard Allen in his Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony, Hitchcock’s portrayal of Uncle Charlie draws quite consciously, if implicitly, on vampire iconography.
The opening shot of Cotten’s Uncle Charlie shows him lying completely immobile on his bed, fully dressed in a dark suit and tie. It emphasises the darkness of his room, particularly as it follows a series of shots establishing a bright, comforting setting with neighbourhood children throwing a ball in the sun. Uncle Charlie is introduced to us through his unnerving stillness, like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (Anthony Hopkins’ described his childhood memory of Lugosi’s Dracula as an influence on his own performance). Cotten’s stiff, unmoving pose brings to mind the vampire in his coffin by day. A few moments later, pursued through the streets by two mysterious men, Hitchcock mischievously chooses not to show us the means by which Uncle Charlie escapes to a rooftop, further adding to the sense of him as an almost supernatural creature. For Hitchcock, of course, the vampire references are no more than a handy visual shorthand to indicate Cotten’s inner darkness, a darkness which preys upon the complacency of the picture postcard perfection of American small town life. In The Fantastic Disappearing Man, as you would expect in an actual vampire movie, that iconography is deployed more directly but often to a startlingly similar degree and purpose. There are shots of Lederer in his room which closely echo Hitchcock’s opening sequence, the difference being that we are also shown Lederer in a couple of later sequences as literally, rather than purely metaphorically, a vampire in his coffin.
Subtle and sophisticated, in the end Shadow of a Doubt is a genuine masterpiece, one of Hitchcock’s most powerful, playful and profound meditations on the nature of evil, while The Fantastic Disappearing Man has no pretension to being any more than an efficient little chiller, but its use of the framework of the earlier film (which I think is certainly a conscious borrowing) helps lend it a greater point and potency than most quickie 50s drive-in horror. Within its limited ambitions, the film feels very achieved; it has shape and structure and some convincingly drawn characterisation.
It also uses location shooting very effectively. Spared the expense of having to create a Transylvanian or a period setting, the use of the Hollywood hills is imaginative and, at times, genuinely eerie. The abandoned mine workings which Dracula occupies in lieu of a crypt are highly atmospheric and the barren, dusty landscapes offer a genuinely novel mood for the vampire story, as does the use of a contemporary, neat and well-tended graveyard. The frequent exteriors give the film a grounded, realistic tone that hints at the genuine edginess Romero would achieve in not dissimilar surroundings ten years later in Night of the Living Dead. The only evident drawback is a degree of narrative inconsistency which the use of day for night shooting entails. With emphatic traditionalism, the narrative makes clear that Dracula must remain in his coffin by day and can only emerge at night. However, when he rises from his coffin – in a simple but effective dry ice sequence – and exits the mine he is casting a very visible shadow.
Perhaps paradoxically, the film is in many ways a relatively faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel, following a number of the original plot points and characterisations beat for beat. Once Dracula arrives in the New World, we have the blind, ailing Jennie (Virginia Vincent) fulfilling the Lucy Westenra role as the count’s initial victim who rises from the grave as a vampire before being resoundingly staked by our surrogate Van Helsing, a representative of the ‘European Police Authority’ played by John Wengraf and his Dr Seward stand-in, the Reverend Whitfield (Gage Clarke) in a moment which, quite startlingly, switches into colour for a single shot, as though we were suddenly watching a Hammer movie after all. Norma Eberhardt gives a very effective and engaging performance as Jennie’s friend Rachel Mayberry, or, in effect, Mina, to whom Dracula now turns his full attention, and her altogether irritating high school sweetheart Tim, played by Ray Stricklyn, is essentially a teenage Jonathan Harker. There are also some often overlooked elements of the novel which are included here. For instance, Stoker’s Dracula adopts the form of a large white dog – probably a wolf misidentified by local witnesses – when the Demeter is first washed up on the Whitby coast; a form which in this film he uses at a deserted train station to attack and kill one of the mysterious vampire-hunting agents who are on his trail. Stoker’s vampires are able to dissolve and materialise at will, sometimes as mist, and the film dutifully shows us just this when Jennie rises from her grave to find Dracula waiting for her in the mausoleum. Perhaps most closely of all to the tone of the source material, the scenes of vampiric predation are presented with a dream-like, ambiguous quality. In Stoker, Harker’s account of his encounter with the three vampire brides in Dracula’s castle, and both Lucy and Mina’s recounting of their encounters with Dracula emphasise a kind of hypnotic, half sleeping half wakeful state which is exactly duplicated in The Fantastic Disappearing Man, so effectively in fact that I’m still not certain whether the scene where Lederer’s Dracula preys on Rachel in her bedroom is intended as dream or reality in the world of the film.
All in all, The Fantastic Disappearing Man hangs together remarkably well. It may be a little unambitious, but it’s an efficient and very effective film, well-directed and well-played by its leading actors, with some highly charged and atmospheric moments and is altogether a very enjoyable watch. If it had only had the luck to be released a couple of years earlier, it might have had a greater impact than it did and today might be a more fondly remembered film than it is.
As for thirteen-year-old me watching way back in 1978, well, I certainly enjoyed the film, but at the same time it left me a little uneasy. You see, by then I knew what a vampire movie was, and it meant Universal. Or it meant Hammer. Or imitators thereof. It meant Lugosi or Lee, or Louis Jourdan or Carradine, or even, at a push, Lon Chaney Jr. It meant Gothic castles. It meant wolves howling and bats fluttering. It meant capes, dammit! As far as I was concerned back then, I was an expert! Horror movies? Vampires? This was my thing. I’d read Dennis Gifford a hundred times, and Alan Frank and Carlos Clarens just as often. And yet The Fantastic Disappearing Man was something of an unknown quantity. If it had even been mentioned in any of those books then it had been granted no more than a passing reference. And it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like cosy old Universal, or thrillingly transgressive but ultimately cosy Hammer, or even the earnest and sincere ‘let’s be faithful to the novel’ BBC version. Good though it was, The Fantastic Disappearing Man didn’t feel like any of them. There was nothing especially disturbing or unsettling about the film itself – it was hardly Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which was to scare seven shades of shite out of me in its first television showing just over a year later in December 1979. Even so, the vague element of uncertainty that came with my experience of watching The Fantastic Disappearing Man , that sense that I just wasn’t on the familiar ground that I had thought I was and that the world of the horror film was maybe bigger and odder than my ‘expert’ self had yet quite got fully to grips with made for slightly less comfortable viewing than usual.
Not nearly as uncomfortable as what was about to come, however.
The Man With the X-Ray Eyes landed very powerfully for me back then, again not so much because there is anything particularly disturbing on the surface of the film – even though it begins and ends on a visceral note of shock, the opening credits playing over a gleeful close up of a single eye floating in an experimental beaker and the final shot of the film being a freeze frame of Ray Milland’s anguished face, bright red sockets where the eyes he has just torn out should be – but because the film’s peculiarly queasy, philosophical tone felt even further from my usual experience of a horror movie than The Fantastic Disappearing Man.
So now I’m going to make a bold claim. Roger Corman is horror cinema’s greatest auteur. Howl your outrage if you wish. Remind me that he’s the king of the cheap exploitation picture, that he famously shot the entirety of his film The Terror in two days using sets left standing at the end of the schedule for The Raven. Check with me, with just a touch of supercilious condescension, whether we can really be talking about the director of Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Little Shop of Horrors (also shot on a two-day schedule) and A Bucket of Blood? Yes, I’ll reply slyly, that’s the chap, the same Roger Corman who, between 1960 and 1964 directed no fewer than nine of the best horror films ever made. By all means cancel me for my thoughtcrime (cancelling is really only a threat to someone who actually has a career anyway). But just before you go, pause a minute to think about the likely alternatives.
James Whale? Well, Bride of Frankenstein is certainly a finer film than anything in Corman’s horror ouevre. Arguably, so is the original Frankenstein. But Whale only has two other horror credits to his name, and both The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House are wonderfully entertaining but essentially slight films. Corman’s The Raven and Tales of Terror are similarly slight and similarly enjoyable, but beyond them Corman has a much more substantial body of work within the genre than Whale. The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Haunted Palace (the first, and for me still the best, cinematic adaptation of Lovecraft), The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia. If none of those quite touch the heights of Whale’s two masterpieces, well, they’re not far off, and there’s seven of them!
Okay then. Not Whale. But if it’s a combination of quality and quantity you want, then surely Terence Fisher is your man. He directed nearly all of Hammer’s Frankenstein films, and all of the good ones. In Dracula, Brides of Dracula, and Dracula Prince of Darkness he directed three of the best vampire films ever made. Throw in The Mummy, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Devil Rides Out and you can see an extraordinary ability to sustain the very highest quality across a substantial body of horror work. And that’s before you even throw in the lesser Fishers, the ‘not quite as good but still pretty damn good judged by any normal standards’ films such as The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Phantom of the Opera and The Gorgon. And I won’t argue. It’s an exceptional run of wonderful films, wonderfully directed. Fisher may well have a case to make as horror’s greatest director. But my claim for Corman was not as the greatest horror director, but as its greatest auteur. And I’m not sure Fisher’s level of control over those wonderful films is sufficient to really grant him that status. The mark of Fisher’s work is an exceptionally skilled craftsmanship, an absolute professionalism. But ‘Hammer’ is the ultimate signature on those films – none of them could ever really be billed as ‘A Terence Fisher film.’ Fisher’s films tell a story, powerfully and beautifully, and there’s no reason to feel they should be doing any more than that, but I’ve never really felt they are expressing a personal vision. There are other very good Hammer films – Quatermass and the Pit say, directed by Roy Ward Baker, or The Plague of the Zombies, directed by John Gilling – that I would certainly believe had been made by Fisher if you told me so (if I didn’t already know better which I do so there!), and by the same token, if you told me Gilling or Baker had directed Brides of Dracula or Curse of the Werewolf or Hound of the Baskervilles I’d see no reason to doubt it. Corman, however, is instantly identifiable – a few frames of any of his horror movies would usually be enough to recognise his style. And ‘An AIP film’ doesn’t really mean anything in the way that ‘A Hammer Film’ does. The signature on the Poe pictures (and their close relatives, like The Man with the X Ray Eyes) is emphatically Corman’s. If you’re in any doubt, just take a look at the couple of films AIP tried to pass off as Poe pictures after Corman had finally, irrevocably left the series. Despite the presence of Vincent Price, and despite using titles like The Conqueror Worm (the American title of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General) or The Oblong Box which are drawn from Poe in an effort to suggest a continuity with the earlier entries, the later films never feel remotely like Corman’s movies. There are other major contributors to Fisher’s Hammer movies; Jimmy Sangster’s writing; Bernard Robinson’s designs; Lee and Cushing among others. The same is true for Corman; often Richard Matheson’s scripts; Daniel Haller’s designs; Price, of course. But they’re utterly Corman’s films, and I’m not sure the same can be said for Fisher.
So I maintain, Corman is the horror genre’s greatest auteur, in large part because of his ambition. Always a commercial filmmaker whose proudest boast is that none of his films ever lost money, paradoxically Corman is also an aesthete and a theorist with a passionate interest in the artistic possibilities of film and at least one foot in the art house, something just as true of the kinds of European films he chose to distribute as it is of the films he directed himself. For all their skill and professionalism, no-one ever came out of a Fisher movie looking at the world differently, or feeling that they’ve grappled with the existential and philosophical depths for a couple of hours in the darkness of the cinema. That’s for a Bergman, or a Fellini.
Or a Corman.
Films like The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, The Premature Burial, The Masque of the Red Death seem to me to express a single, consistent, bleak and profoundly pessimistic vision, a personal vision and style as idiosyncratic and immediately recognisable as any more critically respectable cinematic auteur – Godard, or Truffaut or Bunuel say. The difference being of course that Corman is a genre filmmaker and they are not. For me though, that’s beside the point. Using genre to say something powerful and profound is in some ways an even more impressive trick.
OK, so it’s depth and consistency of vision you want then, you say? What about Hitchcock?
Well, unarguably, Hitchcock has a body of work which surpasses – well, anyone’s, actually. But I’ve never felt you could really consider Hitchcock a horror director. Psycho, certainly, and The Birds arguably, but other than those two I don’t feel ‘horror movie’ is an appropriate term to describe any of his films. Of course the Master of Suspense knew how to manipulate and scare an audience, but he’s not really working within the horror genre in any meaningful sense. And while you could certainly make a decent case for the best of the new wave horror directors – for me that’s John Carpenter and George Romero, both of whom made a number of wonderful horror films – when it comes right down to it I just think Corman made even better ones.
So, I repeat, Roger Corman is horror cinema’s greatest auteur, and The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is as good a film as any to justify the claim, even though it is atypical in a couple of key ways – firstly, like The Premature Burial, it has Ray Milland rather than Vincent Price as the lead, and secondly it is a sci-fi/horror hybrid with no connection at all, not even a spurious one, to Poe.
Milland is Dr James Xavier – no relation to the boss of the X-Men – an experimental researcher who is investigating ways of expanding the range of human vision. The ‘Xavier’ is presumably coined in order to tie in with the ‘X’ of ‘X-Ray Eyes’ – in fact a large ‘X’ filling the frame is the only on-screen title which appears in the film, The Man With the X-Ray Eyes being reserved for posters and trailers and press kits. As a result, for years my younger self laboured under the misapprehension that Corman was trying an exploitative trick drawn straight from the Hammer playbook (as in The Quatermass Xperiment and X the Unknown) to draw attention to the film’s tantalising ‘forbidden fruit’ X certificate status, before eventually realising that an American audience would have had no idea what an X certificate was.
After some initially promising, ultimately very ominous, results obtained by testing his serum on an unfortunate monkey which develops the ability to see through solid objects but dies, apparently of shock (‘What did he see?‘ asks Xavier’s colleague Dr. Diane Fairfax, very well played by Diana Van der Vlis), Xavier inevitably succumbs to the temptation to become his own experimental subject, like Jack Griffin and a hundred others before him. And the first half-hour or so of the film unfolds relatively straightforwardly; experimental success; funding pulled by narrow-minded executives; Xavier’s abilities enabling him to save the life of a young patient but bringing him into conflict with the medical establishment in the form of the senior surgeon he contradicts; increasing dependence on the drug in an effort to more reliably control the effects; and, of course, given a title designed to cash in on the fantasies of a generation of comic-book reading adolescents intrigued by the erotic possibilities presented by the X-Ray Specs adverts in the back pages, there is a light-hearted party scene in which Xavier enjoys his new-found capacity to see through clothing, all framed in an almost comically tasteful early 60s ‘shoulders up and knees down but nothing in between’ series of shots. It’s all very effective, and very well played, particularly by the trio of Milland, Van der Vlis and Harold J Stone as Dr. Sam Brant (the Frankenstein trope of the more cautious friend and colleague trying vainly to rein in the wild genius), but nothing in the first section really departs from relatively conventional, realist norms.
The turning point comes at the end of the first act, when Xavier accidentally pushes Brant out of a high window during an argument, and, having killed his friend, becomes a fugitive. There’s then a time jump, and we next encounter Xavier as ‘Mr Mentalo’ doing a mind-reading act in a carnival sideshow. From the first visual – a robed Milland blindfolded by a scarf bearing a striking single eye design – we are in a very different world, with a very different tone, from the crisp white corridors of the hospital and the laboratory. Corman has moved us beyond science and into the metaphysical.
Even the most immediately evident flaw in the carnival scenes – the slightly jarring use of stock footage for the fairground exteriors – actually lends a further layer of unreality which doubles down on the hallucinatory, visionary quality of Xavier’s continuing odyssey. He is now a man alone, separated from humanity by his vision. Religious allegory begins to accrue, neatly foreshadowing the film’s devastating conclusion in a revivalist tent. The most telling dialogue in the opening section of the film came when Brant tells Xavier that only the gods see everything, and Xavier replies with Promethean pride ‘I’m closing in on the gods.’ Now he has tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and is exiled as a result of his ability to see what the rest of mankind cannot. More, he has killed, and like Cain, is doomed to a life of purgatorial wandering.
The unsettling, existential tone of the middle act reaches a strange and wonderful conclusion in a scene where a number of the other carnies, along with Xavier himself, discuss his abilities, and what, if they are real, they might mean. It’s a fascinating intermission – pausing the action to reflect on it – and it reminds me of nothing more than the ‘end of days’ cafe discussion in The Birds. In both cases I think, it’s a scene which shows the filmmaker straining against the bounds of their own reputation. The Hitchcock of The Birds, flattered by the praise and critical respectability recently bestowed on him by the Cahiers du Cinema young bloods like Truffaut and Chabrol, is determined to offer them a film which feels like a European arthouse movie, finally demonstrating that he is more than just a great entertainer, while Corman, the King of the Bs, has an arthouse sensibility which sees him restlessly pushing the limits of what he can achieve – exploitation becomes Art in his hands.
There’s a sense in which Milland’s Xavier is not only seeing through solid objects; he is seeing a different America than the one he has known before, an America of poverty, of stunted dreams and quiet despair. There’s kindness and hope and intelligence here, but there’s also greed and narrow-minded, self serving malice, embodied specifically in the very effective performance of the comedian Don Rickles as the carnival barker who becomes a manager to Xavier, seeing greater potential financial reward coming from establishing him as a kind of healer rather than a sideshow performer. The sense of despair only grows stronger as Xavier encounters an American underbelly of sickness and misery – patients unable to access real health care turning to him as a miracle worker. As he realises however, confronted with a dying and frightened old woman, he may have the ability to see her cancer, but not to cure it, and he can offer her no more than a comforting lie.
It is here that Diana Fairfax finds him once more and the film begins to move towards its final act. After an abortive attempt to use his powers in a Las Vegas casino to get hold of the money he needs to continue his research and, hopefully, ameliorate the increasingly unbearable consequences of his ability to see, Xavier finds himself on the run from the police. Crashing his car, he stumbles blindly – or perhaps more accurately, he stumbles too-sightedly – through a desert wasteland until he comes upon an evangelical revivalist meeting; the faithful fervently accepting the word of the granite-faced fire and brimstone minister. Like an old testament prophet, Xavier tries to explain his vision, a vision so acute now that it passeth all human understanding. He stumbles in anguish towards the preacher. ‘I’ve come to tell you what I see. There are great darknesses. Farther than time itself. And beyond the darkness… a light that glows, changes… and in the centre of the universe… the eye that sees us all.’ But the faithful reject his insight, and the preacher falls back on a literal interpretation of scripture. ‘If thine eye doth offend thee,’ he demands, ‘pluck it out.’ Seeing no other way out of his agony, Xavier does just that, and we end with a startling freeze frame of Milland’s Oedipal fate. Stephen King described his memory of seeing the film, which he remembered, wrongly, as ending with Milland’s anguished voice crying out ‘I can still see!’ Hearing of this, as Corman put it ‘Stephen King imagined an ending to my film. And his ending was better than mine.’
Corman is also on record as saying that this is the only one of his films which, given the money and the opportunity, he would be interested in remaking, because of the possibilities raised by the exponential developments in visual effects since the early 60s. For myself though, I’m not so sure. The psychedelic effects in the film work perfectly well in showing that Xavier is seeing the world differently – they don’t make the mistake of trying to literally depict a world beyond the reach of human vision. Instead the film conveys Xavier’s shift in perception through some truly extraordinary dialogue, delivered beautifully by Ray Milland – who, incidentally, is absolutely terrific here, just as he was in Corman’s The Premature Burial, never for a moment giving a hint of condescension towards material which many another former Oscar winner might have regarded as beneath them – ‘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. A city of the dead.’ The fact that we can’t see what Xavier actually sees is surely a part of the point, a part of his doomed isolation and an underscoring of the idea that we are not meant to see too much. As Shirley Jackson has it in that wonderful opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House ‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.’ And this is what the film explores; it’s not just a literal expansion of Xavier’s eyesight, it’s a heightened insight into the nature of reality which he discovers, and which destroys him. Corman always showed an interest in the hallucinatory, in altered states. Just look at the wonderful dream sequences he inserts into all of the Poe films. And although The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, released in 1963, comes a little before the psychedelic revolution got into full swing three or four years later, Timothy Leary was already making waves as a Harvard professor researching and advocating the use of LSD, and it’s certainly possible to see the film as a rehearsal for Corman’s full blown drug film, 1967’s The Trip, written by Jack Nicholson and starring Peter Fonda. Xavier’s ‘serum’ opens the doors of perception and allows him to see ever more deeply into the nature of things. But the revelations and the visions that lie beneath the everyday crust of reality are increasingly terrifying and increasingly impossible to bear.
This, in the end, is why The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, which is essentially a sci-fi movie, can sit perfectly happily within a season of horror double bills. Although there is nothing overtly frightening on the surface of the film, it makes for deeply uncomfortable and unsettling viewing. It was a new kind of horror for me at the age of thirteen, even more profoundly new than the earlier Fantastic Disappearing Man, because at that age I knew nothing about Weird Tales; about Lovecraft; about Cosmic Horror. I knew the gothic, from Stoker, and from Universal and Hammer, and the idea of forbidden and dangerous knowledge was familiar from Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but this peculiarly unsettling sense of the unknowable and the incomprehensible, this sense that the terror of the story derived not from the monstrous or the evil but from a revelation of the truth of humanity’s hopeless position in the universe, from an awestruck vision of the face of an ancient God was not something I had encountered before. And when, many years later, I finally discovered Lovecraft, the cosmic dread I found there reminded me of nothing more than watching, both enraptured and profoundly uncomfortable, as Corman’s The Man With the X-Ray Eyes unfolded in the early hours of Sunday the 16th of July 1978.
For me at least, horror was never going to be quite the same.
Particularly since the following week’s double bill, as promised in the inappropriately soothing tones of the closedown continuity announcer, offered not only the birth of Hammer, at least as we know it, in The Quatermass Xperiment, but a first encounter with the New Wave: George A. Romero’s The Crazies.