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X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes

By 1963, director Roger Corman had established himself as the master of low-budget suspense creepers, his chief claim to fame being his atmospheric adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories such as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum. But he had worked up through the ranks, directing schlock cheapies such as It Conquered the World, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Teenage Cave Man, and other fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000. The little masterpiece that elevated him beyond his earlier work was a taut science-fiction thriller (or philosophical exploration, or religious allegory), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, starring Ray Milland.

In a textbook example of a Things Man Is Not Meant To Know plot, surgeon Dr. Xavier (Milland) invents eyedrops that increase the eyes' ability to see beyond the normal human spectrum. After an experimental monkey dies of shock from what it sees, Xavier experiments on himself. His success is, pardon me, transparent. He can see through human flesh during surgery, and through clothing (in a "crazy daddy-o" vintage cocktail dance-party scene). After accidentally killing a fellow surgeon, Xavier goes into hiding to avoid the cops and continue his experiments. He takes refuge in a sideshow, where he dons opaque black goggles and goes by the stage name "Mentallo." It's a dive for a sanctuary, but it affords him time to experiment and to keep adding more of those eyedrops. Bad news comes when he falls under the scheming control of a scam artist played (with surprisingly straight aplomb) by Don Rickles. Soon his vision is more and more dominated by a mysterious glowing thing. He flees into the desert and, half-crazed, stumbles into an evangelist preacher's tent, where he tells the congregation that he's able to see into the center of the universe — and something there is looking back! His final act is one that mixes Old Testament dictum with Greek drama.

Without the budget and resources to fully explore the potential of its story, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is more of a pencil sketch than a fully detailed painting, but it's still effective and memorable. Milland, deadpan yet driven, is terrific and doesn't succumb to the easy path of "mad scientist" tropes. Instead his scientist-hero is a good man who opens a door to something human beings are unequipped to handle. Science fiction's much-vaunted "sense of wonder" gets flipped to reveal the horrific back side of that coin. Floyd Crosby's cinematography goes a long way toward overcoming the film's inoffensively drive-in look. Although once again Corman's ability to squeeze wine from turnips guarantees that every dime in the small budget is put to good use, the older the film becomes the more we notice that its lo-fi special effects can't keep up with the story's chilling, Lovecraftian profundities. Even so, no less an authority than Stephen King, in his nonfiction book on horror in radio, TV, and film, Danse Macabre, places X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes on his list of films that contributed something of value to the genre, and he gives it a special asterisk as one of his personal favorites.

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MGM's "Midnite Movies" edition offers a stunningly clean transfer (1.85:1 anamorphic) in crisp DD 2.0 monaural audio. Features include another fine scene-by-scene commentary from Corman. In it he directly addresses a long-standing rumor about a too-horrific-for-release line of dialogue that might have been cut from the final scene. Also here are a dreadful "rare prologue" and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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