Back in the 1950s and 1960s, phobias around science, atom bombs and the end of the world (whether by giant insects, aliens or our own Promethean efforts to know and own the universe) made for some incredibly crazy times. They also brought some of the best awful movies ever.
X or X, The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is one of the many, many movies where a scientist – gosh darn it, even one with good intentions – goes just a little too far in the interests of improving man’s lot in the world. He usually damns himself, and occasionally damns the whole world as well.
This movie, directed by the King o’ Cheap Movies, Roger Corman, is one of the “damns himself” variety. Dr. James Xavier, the scientist in question, has decided that man’s eyes are too limited; his vision – if you will – takes in so little of the universe that he struggles to understand. Played with Larry Talbot-like intensity by Ray Milland (better known for his lead role as an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend), the good doctor only wants to allow man to see hither-to invisible wave-lengths of light. This leads to experiments, dangerous experiments, where monkeys die (with X-Ray vision). Keep in mind that the monkey (after receiving the experimental eye-drops) seems to be looking at something before its little monkey heart goes bang, and it dies. That’s what they call fore-shadowing, lads and lasses. After losing his funding to continue his work, and despite warnings from friends, the doctor uses himself for the experiment subject.
Do you remember the ads for cool (if incredibly cheap) toys that would run on the back inside page of comic books? The ones that sold “Build Your Own Levitation Machine” or gag “pepper gum” etc.? If you’re a male, and at all honest, your eyes zeroed right in on the “X-Ray Glasses” (didn’t they, ya little perv!). Oh sure, it showed the wearer using them on his own hands (“You can see your own skeleton!”) but it also had a comely lass in a skirt walking by. And you know what the wearer will do next.
In this movie, there is a whole swinging cocktail party scene where the good doctor gets both eyes full of naked everybody. A very attractive little miss, who seems very into him, gets him to dance. Watching Ray Milland dance may be what qualifies this as Horror and not just Science Fiction. Soon Dr. Xavier is seeing everybody’s goodies before his lady friend ushers him right out. Shame, really. Not that the scene is so short, but that Selma Hayek doesn’t play the lady friend. Or just stand in camera view. sigh... I know, I’m getting off-track, but just give me another moment or seven to imagine Selma Hayek naked.... Mmmmm.... thank you.
On the run after accidentally killing his best friend, The doctor falls in with a carney sideshow, playing “The Amazing Mentallo”! He uses his power to see what’s inside people’s pockets but makes it seem as if he sees great truths within them. This is assisted by another carney (played by a very young Don Rickles) who tries to use this talent for ill ends, though his idea is to pass of the doc off as a “Miracle Healer” who will tell each sick person what’s wrong with them (by seeing inside them) thus bringing in great wealth as they pay for the privilege. Man even in those days Universal Health Care was controversial, right?
Much like in the original The Invisible Man, the new-found super-power is trumped up as including, possibly, the ability to rule the world (How? By seeing every Emperor’s New Clothes?). And like The Invisible Man, just living with the power eventually drives the holder insane. The movie ends with the poor doctor ripping his eyes out to avoid than see some mysterious eyeball that belongs to some great being, just outside our reality. Remember that monkey earlier in the film? Told you, Mr. Scientist Man! Nyah!
Much like any other Roger Corman movie, the cheese is in great abundance. The movie itself was shot for a mere couple hundred grand, and spends almost all its budget on the special effects when we get to see through Dr. Xavier’s eyes (which go from normal, to black ‘n’ white, to all black over the course of the film). This “X-Ray vision” is an awful lot like a tight camera lens with filter, but why quibble? It’s still kind of neat, despite its age and relative hokiness.
Interesting side-note: The Marvel Comics book X-Men with its Professor Charles Xavier also came out in 1963, so one wonders is Roger Corman stole from Stan Lee or did Stan “The Man” Lee steal from Roger? I could see it having happened either way, and it doesn’t take X-Ray eyes to manage that miracle.
Ryk McIntyre is a Multi-Hyphen sort of person. Poet, critic, performer, workshop facilitator and co-host at both GotPoetry! Live (Providence) and Cantab Lounge (Cambridge,MA). He's been living in RI for the past 6 years, with his wife and daughter. Ryk has performed his work at Boston's ICA, NYC's New School, Portsmouth, NH's Music Hall and Lollapalooza, to name just a few. He has toured the US, performing in countless Poetry open mics and festivals. He turned down Allen Ginsburg once.