Tuesday, December 05, 2023

X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes

With more money for special effects, X (often given the off-screen subtitle THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES) could have been a science fiction classic. In one scene, leading character James Xavier looking with x-ray vision at a skyscraper is represented by a shot of a building under construction! As it stands, however, X ranks among director Roger Corman’s finest science fiction movies, anchored by a committed performance by Ray Milland (THE LOST WEEKEND) and an acerbic dramatic turn by standup comedian Don Rickles (BEACH BLANKET BINGO). Plus, boy, what an ending.

Dr. Xavier (Milland) is carving new paths in optical research, but is in danger of losing the grant money necessary to continue. Out of desperation, he tests his new eyedrops on himself, and gains the ability to see through walls, book covers, clothing, anything. Unfortunately, as his powers grow, his human brain isn’t advanced enough to process the otherworldly information his eyes absorb, which leads to insanity. Instead of the scientific breakthrough Xavier intended, his new power turns him into a sideshow act. He hits the road after being falsely accused of murder and hides out in a traveling circus owned by the crooked Crane (Rickles).

Though AIP marketed X with an exploitative subtitle, it’s evident Corman took the film more seriously than that, turning out a mature, thoughtful sci-fi parable. Robert Dillon (FRENCH CONNECTION II) and Ray Russell (THE INCUBUS) wrote the screenplay, and while Corman must add bits of unnecessary padding to reach a scant 79-minute running time, the script is intelligent and ambitious — too ambitious for the visual effects department to reach.

Diana van der Vlis (THE SWIMMER), Harold J. Stone (later in Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE), and John Hoyt (ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE) provide more than capable support, and Corman repertory players Jonathan Haze (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) and Dick Miller (A BUCKET OF BLOOD) offer humor as hecklers of Xavier’s carny act. AIP released X on a double bill with Francis Ford Coppola’s DEMENTIA 13.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Demon Seed

Four-time Academy Award nominee (and winner for DARLING) Julie Christie may have given the screen performance of her life in this literate and underrated science fiction movie with a daring premise. Based on a Dean Koontz novel, DEMON SEED is a computer-goes-rogue story in the tradition of COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT and hundreds of other films, stories, and television shows as far back as Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. However, it’s directed so intelligently by Donald Cammell (PERFORMANCE) and given such visual and dramatic flourish that it plays like a true original.

Fritz Weaver (BLACK SUNDAY) co-stars as Alex Harris, a scientist developing an artificial intelligence called Proteus IV. Advanced enough to cure cancer, Proteus is advanced enough to want — and what it wants is Harris’ wife, Susan (Christie). Living alone after Harris’ obsession with Proteus broke up their marriage, Susan becomes trapped in her home by Proteus, which has taken control of the entire house with plans to impregnate Susan and live forever in human form.

The actors and the screenplay by Robert Jaffe (MOTEL HELL) and Roger O. Hirson (THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN) take the outrageous premise seriously — wisely so, as any hint of humor would blow the film apart. Though serious, the plot is also sloppy at times with a few annoying questions left unanswered (for instance, what happens to a car belonging to one of Susan’s visitors?) The special effects, particularly a snake-like tetrahedron that represents one of Proteus’ physical forms, are imaginative, and the orchestral score by Jerry Fielding (THE ENFORCER) is impressive.

Because DEMON SEED is basically a two-hander, it’s important that Christie play off an impressive foe, and she does — not just the mechanical effects representing Proteus, but also the uncredited Robert Vaughn (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.), whose voice is perfectly menacing and controlling. Weaver is believable, Gerrit Graham (USED CARS) is an effective sacrificial lamb, and Berry Kroeger (BLOOD ALLEY) gets to be a good guy in his final film.