Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes pares its mad-scientist story down to a series of nearly free-associative nightmare beats. The shtick that we associate with this subgenre of horror film—the scenery dotted with glowing, whizzy technological doodads; the failed experiments; the exhilarating scientific breakthrough; the hero’s proclamation of a God complex and subsequent rejection from society—is dispensed with in a handful of minutes, leaving the audience with a poignant, grimy chamber drama that renders the hero’s prolonged, allegorical cosmic downfall terrifyingly ordinary.
Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland), whose name should be familiar to fans of a comic book that was first published the year X was released, yearns to gaze upon the gods who may regard us either from above or from parallel existences within our own. Xavier doesn’t admit to this ambition exactly, as he makes an elaborate and partially legitimate pretense of striving to increase the power of humankind’s eyesight so that we may discern dimensional waves that are far beyond our present abilities of detection. But it’s apparent that Xavier’s quest to perfect his sight-enhancing eye drops has existential connotations, as he’s fiddling with the riddles of creation. The potential human benefit of Xavier’s discovery is a handy justification that empowers him to plumb his rapidly expanding limits of self-obsession.
That obsession is vividly physicalized by the intimate first-person images of Xavier’s evolving vision. Corman toes an unnerving line between the banal and the otherworldly; to the point that audience members may find themselves scanning the screen for hints of something that’s wilder than what they’re actually seeing. The film is hauntingly, poetically vague, courting universality (religious quandary) and idiosyncrasy (one addict’s torments) equally. As Stephen King famously wrote in Danse Macabre, there’s a strong element of Lovecraft at work in X—a sense of chaos existing just outside of the boundaries of what passes for civilized human society. At first, Xavier sees fun, useful things through walls and people’s clothes, and soon he sees through bodies so as to perform the medical functions that the drops were theoretically designed to enable. Then, he sees colors, which might merely signal a deterioration of the eyes, or madness. Cities are rendered as red-blackish hellscapes. Xavier can see backgrounds so clearly that foregrounds appear as blurs, stranding him in apocalyptic prisms of color and rudimentary structure. In Xavier’s obsession to look beneath appearances, he’s missed a key point about life as we know it: that the inner and the outer aren’t so easily compartmented. Appearances are reality.
The effects lean heavily on the sort of visual shorthand that would soon become cliché during the subsequent psychedelic film trend that Corman would help to briefly perpetuate, featuring dissolves, color filters, splashes of ink (which occasionally bring to mind a lava lamp), as well as a hokey but creepy ocular illustration that’s meant to suggest that Xavier can see the outline of his own eyes. Xavier’s visions increasingly resemble a square’s fantasy of a bad acid trip, tapping a fear of drugs as inadvertent gateways to something revealingly primordial and fragile about human existence, particularly in a key image of clustered lights that suggests that Xavier is looking straight through our reality to glimpse a detached, ambivalent god whose appearance serves to pointedly explain nothing about human life. X is most Lovecraftian in its suggestion that madness is ultimately a subterranean kind of sanity that’s derived from the revelation that no one’s minding the figurative store in the sky. “God” might be little more than cosmic flatulence, leaving us alone with our annihilation.
The transfer honors the film’s great, bold colors. The reds and blacks are eye-popping, and there’s a splash of purple wallpaper in a late apartment-set sequence that’s as wild and expressive as any effect in the film. Background clarity is striking, and skin textures are well-detailed, which is important to a movie that’s concerned with the deterioration of a man’s eyes. Graininess and image softness scan as appropriate to the film’s source materials, especially in the deliberate textural obscurity of the increasingly surreal landscapes that are discerned by the hero’s advanced vision. The soundtrack is rich and resonant, particularly in the nuanced mixing of Les Baxter’s haunting choral-infused score. A beautiful presentation.
Film historian Tim Lucas is an extraordinary font of information, serving as a human IMDB in an audio commentary that engagingly elaborates on the histories and influences of everyone involved in X to a greatly detailed degree. Particularly of interest are the anecdotes pertaining to the streamlining of the film’s script, as there was originally dialogue that more explicitly expressed themes pertaining to the search for God, as well as more ambitious set pieces that called for effects that were out of the production’s pay grade. Lucas draws compelling parallels between this film and Videodrome, another work on which he’s an authority, and generally brings X to life in a manner that should be of interest to seasoned and blossoming cinephiles alike. Roger Corman’s commentary is sparer, but the legendary filmmaker offers revealing glimpses of his shrewdness and dramatic acumen, such as when he indicates a standard series of over-the-shoulder shots that feature extras standing in between the scene’s subjects in the background for the sake of dimensional dynamism. A rare and wisely jettisoned prologue elaborating on the nature of man’s senses has been included to further illustrate Corman’s paring-down process, and directors Joe Dante and Mick Garris appear in featurettes to attest to X’s greatness, while contextualizing it as a thematic and aesthetic trial run for the filmmaker’s The Trip. Rounding out this terrific package is the original theatrical trailer.
One of Roger Corman’s leanest, meanest, most disturbing, and ambitious films receives primo Blu-ray treatment courtesy of Kino.