Sometimes you go in to watching a movie and, based on title, era, and/or director, you more or less have an idea of what the movie’s going to be. This is especially true of genre pictures made in the ’60s and ’70s, when a movie needed to be weird, or salacious (or a little bit trashy if they didn’t have the budget), in order to ensure that movie made money. So when I sat down to watch Roger Corman‘s 1963 movie X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, I said “Yep, I know what this will be to the letter.” Boy was I mistook. It’s weird, sure, but it’s also existential and metaphysical and deeply troubling—you know, a sci-fi movie from the early ’60s.
Roger Corman is an incredibly prolific filmmaker. On top of the over 400 films he’s produced, he’s directed almost 60 movies, and most of those were during an incredibly prolific period making cheapies for AIP between 1955 and 1970. At his peak, he was churning out around four movies per year. In 1963 alone, Corman had five movies released including two of his Edgar Allan Poe cycle. (That sounds like a lot, but in 1957, he had nine movies come out.) While working on such a short turnaround schedule and small budget, the chances for stinkers was high, which is why it’s especially impressive when a number of these movies ended up being great. X is certainly one of those.
Written by Ray Russell and Robert Dillon, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes has a simple enough premise: Dr. James Xavier (Oscar-winner Ray Milland, who made a number of great movies for Corman) wants to help more people and using current X-Ray technology, he feels like he and other surgeons are actually missing what truly ails people. If he could see directly into a person without vivisecting them, he reckons hundreds of lives could be saved. He begins working on an experimental treatment where he drops radioactive liquid into his eyes in the hopes that it would allow him to look into the human body.
It works, to a degree, and he is able to see through people and he impresses his colleague and love interest Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diana van der Vlis), though she worries about how much he’s using. His other colleague and friend Dr. Brant (Harold J. Stone) is equally worried. The problem with the effect on his eyes is that it’s wildly erratic. Sometimes he can see through a person’s torso, sometimes through walls, other times—in an obligatory scene of people doing ’60s dance crazes at a party—he can see through people’s clothes, like all those kids who sent away for X-Ray specs from the back of comic books wished would happen.
When the downside happens, though, it goes downhill fast. Dr. Xavier clashes with a superior about the best course of action on a surgical patient, despite X’s seeing the real problem. He loses his temper. Then, when Dr. Brant attempts to reverse the effects via hypodermic, X accidentally knocks his friend out the window to his death. Now a fugitive from the law, and unable to turn off the x-ray eyes, he ends up months later at a pier carnival as a “psychic” run by the shady con man Crane (Don Rickles, who is seriously great and skeevy in the movie) who wants X to use his “gift” to lure naive yokels into getting help for money. But X can’t help people, “I can only see!”
While the general idea for the movie sounds like—and was intended to be—pretty gimmicky, it begins to transcend that and get very heady, psychedelic, and metaphysical at a time when those things were still years away from being commonplace. At a certain point, X begins to say that he can’t sleep because he can always see through his eyelids. He has to wear increasingly thicker and darker sunglasses just to keep from going mad. He can see through cards at to cheat playing Blackjack but that’s only when wearing unfathomably thick lenses. He can see people’s skeletons and eventually says he can see into the dark center of the universe. It gets incredibly bleak.
Something I always admire, even if it doesn’t quite get pulled off, is when a writer’s ideas aren’t tamped down by budgetary constraints. On such a small budget, doing something so out-there means the visual effects in X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes aren’t always the best, but I appreciate what they attempted. There’s weird ring effects used to show what he’s seeing, and eventually some multicolored distortions of footage and puppets of skeletons with different filters over them all to signify what having this kind of curse might look like. It doesn’t look great, and doesn’t even look like what x-rays look like, but I’m glad there wasn’t a call to lessen the story simply because the effects weren’t quite perfect.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is easily one of the best Roger Corman movies I’ve seen, and it’s one that I think would be very well suited to a remake. Only minor changes would be needed for the screenplay, but after seeing the nutso visual effects in Doctor Strange, I’m fairly certain we could get all sorts of crazy images to properly convey seeing the literal center of the known universe. And even though Roger Corman’s 90 years old, and hasn’t directed a feature film since 1990, he should direct it. Because obviously, right? Anyway, check out the original.
Images: American International Pictures