X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes

Year: 1963
Production Co: American International Pictures
Director: Roger Corman
Producer: Roger Corman
Writer: Roger Corman/Ray Russell
Cast: Ray Milland

The only reason I was ever drawn to this utter shlock was because of a book on sci-fi movies we had in my house while I was a kid, and I'll never forget the photo of Ray Milland with his eyes looking like blackened pits and a horrified expression his face.

Of course, if I'd seen the movie at 10 years old when I first read that book it might have captured my imagination a lot more, not just because I was so much younger but the effects work in this film was only two decades instead of nearly 50 years old.

Like a lot of atomic age B horror/sci-fi movies it's about a scientist who stumbles upon an incredible discovery and doesn't know when to stop until it threatens everything and everyone around him, mostly himself.

All I know about Ray Milland is hearing Tarantino talking about him in relation to Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, saying he was one of those square jawed matinee idols in the 50s who always played cowboys but had fallen on hard times as an actor and was only appearing in cheap dross, much like that movie's hero Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio).

And this Z-grade Corman romp is indeed hard times. He plays a stalwart doctor, Xavier, who develops a serum that allows the eyes to see outside the visible light spectrum. It's never completely clear why he wants it, although when he commits that most cinematic of scientific discoveries made by brilliant mavericks and tests it on himself, Xavier realises how much it will revolutionise medicine.

Like a superhero movie his powers are at first surprising, subversive and fun when he attends a party populated by bright young beatniks and he's shocked and delighted to find he can see through all their clothes.

But when he sees a serious misdiagnosis occur at the hospital where he's a surgeon (because he can literally see inside the body at what needs to be done), he becomes convinced he can use his gift for healing.

But Xavier has to do so in the shadows, away from inconvenient questions about where his seeming clairvoyance comes from. He's reduced to doing sideshow tricks at a travelling carnival for a shyster (Don Rickles), and when Xavier talks about wanting to help people as a doctor his associates can only see dollar signs.

But like a drug addict, he needs more and more of the serum to keep his powers intact, and it's disconnecting his vision from the world of visible light more all the time, Never able to get the maddening patterns of UV, infrared and other representations of the world out of his head – even with his eyes closed – the serum appears to be sending Xavier mad.

It can only end badly, and even though he finds some calm in the presence of his friend and colleague after she's tracked him down and they make a trip to Vegas to cash in big and go on the run, there's no ultimate hope for Xavier. He flees in his car, speeding across the desert and finding his way to a religious revival tent where he follows the advice of the sermon in a bloodthirsty and literal way.

You can see the period all over it, American pop culture not quite having abandoned the tie and smart sport coat for the deerskin jacket and peace symbols but already listening to rock and roll. It's also one of those films that's hard to judge owing to the era and filmmaking technology available at the time, but it's as cheap as all Corman's films and you can't help wondering what a much better cast and a much higher budget would make out of such pulp.

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