Whether it’s sarcasm, poetic justice, cruel but satisfying twists of fate, or the drama of knowing more than the movie characters know, we surely do love us some irony here at Castle Blogferatu. And that’s why I was particular entertained to jam my hand into The Cinematic Coffee Can only to grab X: The Man With The X-ray Eyes.
First of all, it’s Ray Milland, possibly the greatest ever example of someone character acting his way through a lead role. Not that I’m complaining. Any opportunity to watch Ray Milland being Ray Milland is just fine by me, and this is certainly one of those opportunities.
I can’t help but love this flick. The gags are bad, the acting is so melodramatic, and the final act is beyond outlandish. Milland plays Dr. James Xavier who is experimenting with eye drops that in theory will enable people to see more than just the spectrum currently possible for them. He’s been testing on monkeys, but they can’t articulate whatever the fuck it is they see, so they die of fright.
Huh. Can’t express your fright, so you die. Now where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, The Tingler. Anyway, Dr. Jimmy is unfazed by this minor inconvenience. What’s a few croaked over primates in the face of science right? Instead, he jumps right to the human trials. On himself. Apparently the whole monkey problem didn’t manage to raise any red flags. Instead he just, well, turns a blind eye you might say.
Turns out the drops work. At first they’re like a novelty. Our Professor X is able to see through people’s clothes, ho ho (like any straight white guy would). The effects, however, intensify as time goes on, eventually revealing some kind of indescribable shimmering quasi-form out there in the universe. By the end, he’s driven insane by it and rightly so. In fact, it’s one of the rare occasions when a movie manages to capture Lovecraftian horror without being anticlimactic.
Lemme ‘splain. As I’ve said before and doubtless will say again, cosmic horror does not always translate well to the screen. It can be profoundly difficult to portray something that A) defies description and B) can drive one into utter madness by its mere sight. Roger Corman pulls if off in this case, however. Like the monkeys in his experiments, Dr. Xavier is incapable of articulating what the hell he sees.
But it’s out there, it’s menacing, and it sees him (and us?) as clearly as he sees it. What’s more, there’s nothing he nor anyone else can do about it. Worst of all, as in so many Lovecraft stories, the very act of trying to explain this to anyone can only result in, at best, people regarding you as odd or, at worst, locking you up.
Also, not to go all liberal artsy on y’all, but it’s worth bringin’ up everybody’s favorite motherfucker, Oedipus. I don’t mean Dr. Xavier killed his father and married his mother. But in the play, the person who knows the truth early on is Tiresias, the blind prophet. When Oedipus is finally made aware of the truth, he gouges his own eyes out. Once Xavier sees the truth of our place in the universe and what’s out there waiting, he too performs an auto-enucleation.
It would seem the truth will not always set you free.
The final, twistedest irony is one that exists only in legend, and there are conflicting reports from Corman himself about whether or not this ending was actually filmed. Some sources claim that Corman confirms it was. Others maintain that Corman debunked it.
The story goes that Xavier wrenches out his eyes during a revival meeting amidst the preacher’s shouts of King James’s Matthew 5:29 and the crowd’s refrains of “Pluck it out!” Ah yes, that old time religion. They say it was good for old Jonah. Anyways, as the scene fades to black, Xavier cries out, “I can still see!” Jeebus, what an ending, if true. But is it? Who knows? Who cares? I have to believe it is. Besides, it fits the Lovecraftian theme perfectly.
Either way, that tale has been told regardless, and like that bygone vintage theology, it’s good enough for me.
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