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Hidden Horror: Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes

Ray Milland in X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes Ray Milland in X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes

The following essay appears in the new horror-film anthology, Hidden Horror: A Celebration of 101 Underrated and Overlooked Fright Flicks. Click here for an interview with the book’s editor, Dr. AC as well as for links to four other essays published at Filmmaker.

“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.”

I sometimes think I learned everything I know about horror movies from Stephen King. I have an old copy of Danse Macabre that my parents gave me for Christmas in 1982. I’ve read it to tatters. One of the pieces of received wisdom found in that book is the notion that the most Lovecraftian film ever made is Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. I would have eventually noticed it myself, given some seasoning in the genre. Lovecraft really leaps off the screen during the film’s climax, in which Ray Milland’s James Xavier raves about the all-seeing eye staring at him from the center of the universe. The film doesn’t exactly depict Lovecraft’s three-lobed burning eye of Yog-Sothoth, but it doesn’t need to. Another arcanum found in Danse Macabre is the legend of a lost ending, in which Xavier, having plucked his eyes from their sockets, exclaims: “I can still see!” This is apocryphal. Corman himself debunks this particular legend—the scene was indeed discussed, but never filmed.

There was a lost beginning, though, that went out with the first theatrical prints only to be excised on re-release. It’s on current DVD editions, and it’s easy to see why Corman and A.I.P. would reconsider it. It plays like an educational film. Had it occurred to Corman and Sam Arkoff, I could see them shopping this footage to schools, though so far as I know that never happened. This lost beginning takes inventory of the senses, leaving sight for last, and then speculates about the dangers of enhancing them too much. It’s the old, “There are some things that Man was not meant to know,” trope. Then we get a shot of Milland, his eyes a gold-in-black color, stumbling through the desert. The educational stuff makes for a stiff beginning while the footage of Milland telegraphs the end of the film. Corman was wise to remove it.

X (the subtitle “The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” does not appear on the film) follows Xavier, a surgeon who is looking into ways to expand the scope of human vision. He has developed drops that enable the human eye to see into other spectra of light beyond the narrow spectrum that is naturally visible. His experiments on monkeys show that the drug does indeed work. The monkeys, unable to process what they see, die of fright. Undeterred, Xavier moves ahead with human trials with himself as the subject. At first, the effects of the drops are temporary, and kind of fun, particularly when those around him seem unclothed. Unfortunately, the foundation that has funded him pulls the plug on his research. He’s left fuming, determined to prove himself. He intervenes—correctly—in a surgery where he can see that the doctor on the case has misdiagnosed the illness. This doesn’t satisfy him. He is determined to see more. When his best friend tries to stop him, Xavier accidentally kills him. He goes on the run, first finding employment as a carnival mentalist, then as a faith healer. When the authorities eventually catch up to him, he leads them on a merry chase that ends up at a tent revival where he raves about the things he sees in the light at the center of the universe….

Corman was on a roll when X was made. It’s situated between the first few Poe films, in which Corman was still feeling his way around the Gothic horror playground, and the later Poes, which became increasingly daring formal experiments. Some of that experimentation can be seen taking shape in X. Early scenes look completely mundane. The dance party Xavier attends even descends into a goofy exploitation comedy when he sees through everyone’s clothing. It swings close to a nudie film. Corman always liked his party scenes. When the point of view shifts to what Xavier is actually seeing in later scenes, though, the whole thing turns into a psychedelic light show. Tricky optical effects turn the familiar skyline of the Vegas strip into a multi-hued, skeletal nightmare city. Eventually, X veers into complete abstraction as the light at the center of the universe consumes Xavier’s perceptions. It’s a profoundly disorienting feature that anticipates the drug films Corman would produce later in the decade. The horror is different from the Poes, which are often painfully Freudian. X is both more abstract and more visceral. The premise itself preys on both the vulnerability of our eyes and on their strangeness as the only exposed viscera in the human body. It hides what is happening to Xavier’s eyes behind dark glasses for much of its running time so it can provide a jolt to the audience when they’re finally revealed.

Corman knew Lovecraft well, but only in X does he really “get” him. The director’s next film, The Haunted Palace—converted into a Poe movie and given its title by A.I.P. when they acquired the production—is based directly on Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” But thematically, The Haunted Palace is all of a piece with the Poes, so there’s some justification for this. Corman produced two later Lovecraft films, The Dunwich Horror and Die,Monster, Die!, both helmed by his frequent art director, Daniel Haller, and both completely missing the thrust of the author’s specific brand of horror.

But then, the idea that thematic elements here are purely Lovecraftian is simplistic. X delves into another tradition of American horror. It’s set in Tod Browning’s universe of carnivals and con men. It’s a portrait of the high and the low. It features the dark descent of film noir, in which the hero rises to the peak of his world only to stumble and fall. It’s a steep drop. It has more in common with films like Nightmare Alley and The Unknown than it does with Corman’s own Lovecraft films. A more apt comparison is Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, which features the same shady con men and faith healers. There are several identical plot points, in which James Xavier and O’Connor’s Hazel Motes find themselves in the same metaphorical spot, including the ghastly climax of both O’Connor’s book and Corman’s film. Certainly, Don Rickles’ con man, Crane, is the sort of grotesque who wandered through O’Connor’s south, as is Xavier, for that matter. The movie even grants Xavier his moment of grace, his vindication, before shoving him down into the freak show. Xavier and Hazel Motes are also alike in their metaphorical blindness, even though both of them can “see” better than most. It’s almost too similar to be an accident. Co-screenwriter Ray Russell was the fiction editor for Playboy—it’s conceivable that he knew O’Connor’s book and that the similarity is intentional.

There’s one other thing concerning X’s ending. While the fabled “I can still see!” ending may not exist, it may not need to. After the final shot of Milland, the screen shifts to the multicolored nightmare of the X-ray Las Vegas as the credits appear. It’s as if Xavier is being driven through the city by the police. Is this his point of view? If it is, then the film is even more horrible than its Grand Guignol ending lets on.

Christianne Benedict is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. She blogs about movies at krelllabs.blogspot.com, among other places. Christianne lives in Central Missouri with her partner and her dogs.

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