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Director: Roger Corman
Starring: Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone, John Hoyt, Don Rickles
“My dear friend, only the gods see everything.”
“My dear doctor, I’m closing in on the gods.”
Despite (or perhaps due to) dominating horror cinema for the previous decade, contemporary science-gone-wrong films had passed out of vogue by 1963, but Roger Corman had other ideas.
By then, the pendulum had swung back to favour more supernatural fare, with the director’s gothic Poe cycle being a major element. This time though, Corman added his own lurid spin on that staple of scientific horror – the hubristic quest for knowledge with catastrophic consequences.
After his turn as the doomed lead in The Premature Burial, Academy Award-winner Ray Milland would return to the Corman stable, delivering a note-perfect turn as the arrogant but sympathetic doctor who’s rapid descent into Hell once again reminds us that some things are just not meant for man to meddle with…
Dr James Xavier’s (Milland) experiments into human vision have led him to create eye drops that he believes will allow sight beyond the normal wavelengths and into the realms of x-rays and ultraviolet. After a promising test on a lab monkey (which also results in the animal’s death), he begins to use himself as a human test subject.
Initially, the effects are a great success, allowing him to see through clothes and then skin, meaning he can save the life of a young child on the operating table who had been misdiagnosed. The process begins to affect his mind though, making him more impulsive and erratic, leading him to not only be accused of malpractice, but accidentally kill his friend and colleague Dr Brant. (Stone)
Escaping the authorities, Xavier hides in a nearby carnival posing as a blindfolded psychic. He has continued to experiment on himself though and while his mind has deteriorated still, he can see more than any man ever had before…
In Universal’s 1931 take on Mary Shelley’s classic novel of scientific hubris, Henry Frankenstein wanted to play god and feel what they felt in the act of creation, but all Dr Xavier here wants is to see through the eyes of god, but the results are the same. This is a tragedy and one that is clearly signposted as such from the off.
Xavier is initially a sympathetic, if driven, character, due in no small part to Ray Milland’s natural charisma. His motives are pure enough, to allow man to see beyond the normal spectrum would indeed revolutionise the world. It’s not an insane idea, but how it affects him almost immediately and the consequences of his work should be red flags, but he is too far gone far too quickly for any sensible actions.
Robert Dillon and Ray Russell’s script lures us in, with a light scene at a party where Xavier can suddenly see everyone naked, which is usually the first and only thing anyone thinks of when they think of x-Ray vision. They’d cleverly left a marker though with the dead test monkey and Xavier’s colleague/love interest Diane’s (Van der Vlis) repeated question of “what did he see?” hinting that this was a road that should not be travelled.
Very quickly, everything starts going to Hell for the good doctor and well, very little of it isn’t his own doing. Within minutes he’s ended his own career and (accidentally to be fair) pushed his best friend out of a window.
His turn as Mentallo, the “man with the miraculous mind”, is a diversion that allows us to see how developed his powers are by now and at least he’s still trying to help people, but we can see the anger growing within him, that his experiments have to continue, regardless of the consequences. He’s miserable, trapped and ultimately being blackmailed by Don Rickles’ unscrupulous carnival barker, but the work must continue.
By the time we get to the casinos of Las Vegas, Xavier’s arrogance and aggression is out of control and you know he’s beyond hope. It’s all downhill from here on in.
It’s no coincidence the faith healer tent he stumbles upon after crashing his stolen car echoes his own carnival tent as Mentallo. Both are filled with paying rubes, seeking answers for the big questions of existence and reassurance of their place in the universe. Xavier though, has actually found those answers and there’s nothing reassuring about them.
That final scene in the tent is genuinely shocking, with his eyes now completely black with gold irises, his vision now beyond anything he could ever have imagined. When asked if he was there to be saved, Xavier’s response is a hammer blow: “Saved? No. 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 center of the universe… the eye that sees us all!” As it that wasn’t enough, his scream of denial when he actually looks at that eye tells us all we need to know. We’re deeply into Lovecraftian cosmic horror territory here, making his response all the more inevitable…
Encouraged by the preacher to perform that biblical solution to resolve an offending eye situation, we last see Xavier in a horrific freeze frame, blind and demented, a victim of his own genius and yes, hubris. Aren’t they all?
It’s worth noting that the supposed “original” ending popularised by Stephen King in his Danse Macabre book, where Xavier, having plucked his eyes from their sockets, cries out: “I can still see!” Sadly Corman himself debunked this as being only a scene that was discussed, but never filmed. A shame, as it would have made that nightmarish finale even more unsettling.
One of Roger Corman’s finest moments, X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes is a wonderful new take on an old idea, reminding us once again that not only are there things man is not meant to see, but that we are nothing more than a small and insignificant part of a much bigger and terrifying cosmos. Sometimes, ignorance actually is bliss after all…
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy