Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
When horror geeks hear the name “Roger Corman,” it’s understandable if their first thought is of the incredibly low-budget creature features of the 1950s and 1960s, trifles like Attack of the Crab Monsters or Creature From the Haunted Sea, with its tennis ball-eyed joke of a monster. Their thoughts also might turn to the prolific director-producer’s so-called “Poe Cycle,” which saw Corman adapting Edgar Allan Poe classics like The Pit and the Pendulum or The Fall of the House of Usher throughout the 1960s, with the great Vincent Price as his muse. They might even recall his 1990 comeback in Frankenstein Unbound, or underrated social dramas like the William Shatner-starring The Intruder in 1962. The point is, Roger Corman has always been a more versatile artist than many gave him credit for over the decades, and there really isn’t a genre he hasn’t turned into a profitable enterprise at one point or another.
This is certainly true of science fiction, a genre that Corman dabbled in often, regularly infusing his sci-fi features with whatever themes were popular in the horror films of the day. X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes is a prime example, and an instance where it actually feels like Corman may have decided to take on a more heady concept than usual after being inspired by his previous film. Having just come off the so-called “Poe” movie The Haunted Palace in 1963, which was in actuality an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, one has to wonder if Corman had absorbed more of the legendary horror author’s cosmic horror sensibilities than even he realized. How else to explain the clear streak of Lovecraftian horror that runs through X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes? Its title character is exactly the kind of boundary-crossing explorer of the unknown who is always most likely to suffer a terrible fate in a Lovecraft horror story, precisely because he hungers for the kind of forbidden knowledge that is forbidden for a reason.
That man is Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland), a skilled surgeon whose true obsession lies in research surrounding the human eye and our limited ability to perceive only the narrow spectrum of what we term “visible light.” Xavier desperately wants to probe beyond that spectrum, in order to see things that no human being has ever seen before. When grilled by a colleague on why it’s such an important goal, Xavier casually replies with “Well, why do you want to go on breathing? To stay alive.” To this man, anything short of complete commitment to his research is tantamount to suicide.
It’s no surprise that Corman would conceive the character this way—the film’s premise was one of his own ideas—because the story requires Dr. Xavier to be free from any burden whatsoever of self preservation. This is a man who experiments with eye drops on a monkey that immediately drops dead from fright, and his response is “Well, I guess I’d better test these on myself if I want to really learn anything.” Ignoring the pleas of his associates, he makes himself into a guinea pig in the classic pulp sci-fi magazine fashion, upping the dose continuously after he’s “merely” able to see through walls and solid flesh. Soon enough, the sights swimming across Dr. Xavier’s vision begin to include the fraying edges of our own universe.
What results is an eclectic hodgepodge of genre influences, with star Milland (two decades after he starred in classic 1944 ghost story The Uninvited) essentially subbing in for the likes of Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, at first ecstatic about his success and eventually driven to madness by the unintended consequences of his new abilities. There are moments of quasi-exploitation, which surely would have ended up being more graphic if this film was made a decade later (think of all the nudity that could have been shoehorned in), but the film still maintains a somewhat sleazy demeanor despite the more serious cosmic horror overtones. Milland is surrounded at all times by sleazeballs who want to profit off his abilities—there’s even a non-comedic appearance from Don Rickles as an oily carnival profiteer who tries to blackmail Dr. Xavier into essentially becoming his superpowered indentured servant. This certainly feels like a more Corman-esque touch, tainting the noble intent of ‘50s sci-fi protagonists such as the titular Incredible Shrinking Man with a streak of grimy, cynical ‘60s counterculturalism.
Like so many Corman films, though, it’s ultimately the ideas of X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes that linger with the viewer, rather than any of the events literally pictured on screen. It offers an anxious glimpse at what it might look like to peer deeper into the void than anyone ever has … only to find some new intelligence there, staring back, just now taking notice of the fact that it’s being observed. On second thought, perhaps it might be best to turn away?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.