XHere’s a film that should be remade, an early sixties Roger Corman potboiler with an unusually imaginative script that utilizes ominous Lovecraftian overtones.  Interesting stuff, but hopelessly dated in its low rent (even by 1960s standards) production values.

X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES was one of five films helmed by Roger Corman for American International Pictures in 1963.  It’s clear that an unusual amount of care was lavished upon it, with the casting of Oscar winner Ray Milland in the title role and the whopping 15-day shooting schedule (quite extravagant by early-sixties AIP standards) Corman was granted by AIP’s notoriously tight-fisted honchos James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff.  X also has an invaluable asset in scripter Ray Russell, a writer who’d go on to pen several powerful tales of horror/sci fi and script William Castle’s classic MR. SARDONICUS.

One thing that has always intrigued me about the film is the possibility, suggested by Stephen King in his nonfiction tome DANSE MACABRE, that there might have been an alternate ending that was never shown, apparently because it was “too terrifying”.  For years I figured this improbable tale began and ended with the King book, as it contains the only mention I’ve been able to find anywhere of this rumor…at least until the release of the MGM DVD in 2001, which contains an audio commentary in which Corman admits he did indeed shoot the alternate ending in question, which he says he came up with on the day of shooting, but then decided he preferred the original scripted conclusion, which is what remains.

Dr. Xavier has concocted a serum that can improve the vision of monkeys.  Unfortunately, said monkeys all die after being administered the serum.  Xavier, unwilling to admit defeat, experiments with the serum some more and decides to use it on himself; he doesn’t die, but does develop X-ray vision that enables him to see through women’s clothes and inside people’s bodies, which comes in handy when diagnosing patients.  One day Xavier’s vision reveals that a fellow surgeon has misdiagnosed a sick girl and is planning surgery that may kill her.  Xavier does everything he can to stop the surgery, eventually finding himself with no choice but to slash the hand of the surgeon.  This gets him into hot water with his superiors, and Xavier flees into the desert, where he finds employment in the only place he can: a circus freak show.

But weird things are happening with Xavier’s eyes.  They become grotesque and discolored, forcing him to wear dark glasses everywhere.  It seems that the more of the serum Xavier takes, the more he can see.  Eventually he finds he can he see through the very fabric of reality itself and into the center of the universe, where a terrifying all-seeing eye stares back.  ***!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!*** Eventually Xavier finds himself with no choice but to (as a preacher suggests) pluck his eyes out, leaving two bloody sockets.  (About that alternate ending mentioned above: apparently this gruesome scene continued with Xavier screaming “I can still see!”)

Roger Corman was never an Academy Award caliber filmmaker, but he knew how to crank out extremely low budget features in stylish and entertaining fashion.  X has many interesting camera angles and innovative transitions to keep viewers interested, even if the low budget is apparent throughout (check out that fall from a building, presented via a patently obvious falling dummy) and Corman, in true early-sixties sleazemeister fashion, shamelessly pads his 79-minute running time (the reason a gratuitous plucked eyeball shot is held nearly a full minute prior to the opening credits).

The biggest problem with this film from a directorial standpoint is that its virtues are due entirely to the screenplay and lead performance.  Certainly its account of a man driven mad by the ability to see into the center of the universe is a fascinating one, and Ray Milland delivers one of his best-ever performances as that man (he later dubbed it one of his all-around favorite roles).

There’s also the fact that Corman’s techniques have dated extremely poorly in the four decades since the film’s inception.  The special effects depicting the title character’s x-ray vision, consisting more often than not of out-of-focus cityscapes with prisms around them, may have seemed passable back in the sixties, but not all these years later!

Vital Statistics

American International Pictures

Director: Roger Corman
Producer: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Robert Dillon, Ray Russell
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Editing: Anthony Carras
Cast: Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Don Rickles, Harold J. Stone, Jon Hoyt, Morris Ankrum, John Dierkes, Kathryn Hart, Jonathan Haze, Dick Miller, Vicki Lee, Barboura Morris, Jeffrey Sayre, Lorrie Summers