Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes
At long last, it is Roger Corman’s turn in the hot seat. We’ve talked about him a lot since the beginning of the year, what with his various associations to people like Samuel Z. Arkoff and the sort of movies he produced in the 1970s and 80s, but we’ve never taken a close look at his work as a filmmaker. He directed roughly 50 movies before deciding it was easier to produce them, including Teenage Caveman, The Little Shop of Horrors, and The Wasp Woman. While his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations are praised by the likes of Martin Scorsese today, his sci-fi pictures were meant to fill time and earn a quick buck on the drive-in movie circuit. Corman could deliver these modestly produced pictures with quickness and at least some energy. Nonetheless, their cheapness confers even the most serious-minded of his work with a certain cheesiness. Which brings us to what is arguably his best film — X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes — a film that while fairly well-made has still aged to become your weekend cheesy movie.
The plot concerns once Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland). Obsessed with creating a serum allowing man to see beyond the visible spectrum, he decides to experiment on himself when his funding is threatened. Though initially successful in allowing him a sort of x-ray vision reminiscent of Superman, the foundation cuts his funding after listening to an audio tape of his bad reaction to florescent light. Undaunted, Xavier continues to use the serum in an attempt to understand the hidden angles of the universe. He rejoins the surgery staff at the hospital, but immediately comes into conflict with the head surgeon when his X-Ray eyes allow him to see an undiagnosed tumor in a patient. Soon, the foundation’s analyst, Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis), and Xavier’s friend Dr. Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone) help him escape the hospital when the head surgeon accuses him of malpractice.
Back at Brant’s office, Xavier’s plans for the serum scare Brant and Fairfax. When Brant suggests slowing down, Xavier accidentally pushes him out the window. He subsequently goes into hiding as “Mr. Mentallo,” a carnival sideshow attraction who can apparently read peoples minds. But when the sideshow barker Crane (Don Rickles) figures out Xavier’s real power, he suggests they partner up as a more lucrative healer act. Xavier diagnoses people with his X-Ray eyes while Crane hoovers up the loot. Meanwhile, Xavier’s continued use of the serum has made sleep nearly impossible. He can see through his eyelids into the rooms above his basement apartment. Nevertheless, he continues to act as a healer in the hopes the money can used to fund further research and alleviate some of the side effects.
And if the plot sounds like an above-average episode of The Twilight Zone, that’s part of the charm. Written by Robert Dillon and Ray Russell, but apparently based on an idea Corman had for a jazz musician who experiments with LSD, X is a fairly ambitious film with a rare dedication to its speculative subject matter. The flimsy science aside, the writers and Corman present it as something which could work in the reality of the film. And Milland, an Oscar-winning actor, brings every last bit of his talent to maintaining that reality within his performance. But it is also where the cheese starts to culture.
Milland was a classically trained actor who won a Best Actor Academy Award for The Lost Weekend. Like Xavier, his character in that film is an obsessive who believes he needs a chemical aid to accomplish his great work. It’s a damned good movie. But sadly for Milland, the style of acting he excelled at was about to fall out of favor and the actor would soon find himself in the Corman wavelength. To look at his performance in The Lost Weekend or X now, one must forgive the very mannered, stagey performance. It is not naturalistic, but it is still remarkable as Xavier becomes increasingly desperate. At the same time, it is difficult to watch him act and not see a cheesy actor despite his conviction. His method just seems off.
Time, in many ways, is the reason X can be considered a cheesy movie despite the thoughtful script and Corman’s unusually accomplished direction. The obvious sets, television-style lighting most scenes, and somewhat outdated acting just gives X a cheesy quality it might not have if Corman had made the movie for, say, Columbia Pictures and not American International; his nominal home from 1955 until founding New World Pictures in 1970. According to some reports, X was made for $250,000 dollars. The cheapness shows as Corman makes due with incomplete sets, flats shaking if, say, Don Rickles is pushed against them, and a simple photographic effect to suggest Xavier was seeing beyond X-Ray vision into some substrata of matter. It is just an avoidable reality of the production.
At the same time, it is easy to see Corman cared about this movie. Though some of the photographic tricks used in the film are cheesy — a trio of medical skeletons shot behind a prismatic filter are used to stand-in for people during one of Xavier’s bursts of X-Ray vision, for example — they reveal an attempt to make the concept of Xavier’s heightened vision work. A less engaged Corman would be fine shooting the skeletons without the filter. He also assembled a cast of actors incapable of phoning it in. Character actors like Stone and John Hoyt, who plays the head surgeon, bring a sense of reality one rarely gets from the films Corman made at the time. Rickles is a revelation as skeevy carnival barker. Though he does some Rickles-style insult comedy in his first scene, he gives himself over to the disreputable character with a rare dedication.
Passion and dedication beyond clear technical limitations is something we love in our cheesy movies; moreso than the cynical motivations of films like Grease 2 or Corman’s later cash-in productions like Forbidden World or Deathstalker. And to be honest, we put X on our viewing calendar expecting the Corman of those films in the director’s chair. But we were happy to see him take this picture seriously, even if the ravages of time and the realities of filmmaking give it an unavoidable layer of cheese.
X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes is available for rent on Amazon video. A Blu-ray edition with audio commentary from Corman himself is available from Kino Lober.