There are certain films, youthful viewings of which leave you indelibly marked for life. In my personal experience these have tended to be films with crushing climaxes. There was Psycho… Peeping Tom… Onibaba… and Roger Corman’s The Man With The X-Ray Eyes (1963) fits no less (un)comfortably into that slot (or should I say socket?) The most unforgettable evening I ever spent with this film (I’m not convinced it was even the first time I saw it) was during a visit I paid to my sister in Durham in the mid ’70s. I attended the Miners’ Gala, took in a couple of rousing addresses from Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner, then downed a couple of pints and what turned out to be a dodgy pie. Later that evening the queasy physicality (and even more disturbing metaphysicality) of Corman’s film, screened on the BBC, was exacerbated by a vigorous vomiting session. Nearly half a Century later I’ve forgiven Corman enough to welcome this stonking UK BD debut of arguably his finest cinematic hour and a half… I’d still like to have a word with whoever baked that bloody pie, though!
“If you could have one super power…” has been the opening gambit in many aimless and often alcohol oiled conversations between adolescents of all ages. Well, my own preference is easily deducible (time travel, so I could have that word with the pie man) but for many an over-excitable young fellow, the traditional answer has been “X-ray vision!” Take a cold shower then viddy well, little brother and you might have cause to reconsider…
Dr James Xavier (Ray Milland) is an idealistic research scientist, frustrated (aren’t they always?) by the limitations of human understanding. He’s working on a solution that, when applied to the eye, will allow it pierce superficial surfaces and perceive what’s going on beneath. The potential benefits for e.g. surgical procedure are easy enough to see, but Xavier’s friend Dr Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone, below) warns him that certain things are best left to the Gods. Xavier’s hubristic response (“I’m closing in on the Gods!”) illustrates just how close he is to the thin line separating idealistic scientists from mad scientists.
TMWTXRE was made in the midst of Corman’s Poe period and in the same year as he directed The Haunted Palace, often cited as a Poe adaptation but actually based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward. There’s definitely something Lovecraftian about the scene in which Jimbo tries to impress his sexy colleague Dr Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis, above) by administering his solution to the eyes of a lab monkey, which becomes terrified – fixated on something – before dropping dead. “What did it see?” agonises Dr Di (a question answered with overly literal banality, albeit to riotously entertaining effect, in Stuart Gordon’s 1986 Lovecraft adaptation, From Beyond).
Undeterred, Dr Xavier throws caution (not to mention scientific methodology) to the wind, soaking his eyes in the stuff. The fringe benefits soon become obvious, as Diane takes him to a hep drinks party and he gets to see more of the groovy twisters and swingers than he’d probably bargained for. Elsewhere, he saves a little girl’s life by hijacking her operation but the surgeon he supplanted huffily pulls rank and gets him suspended.
Dr Brant tries to reason with the increasingly agitated Xavier, then to sedate him, only to be accidentally (and hilariously) defenestrated. On the lam, our hero is drawn into sideshow hucksterism (where he really pisses of Corman staple player Dick Miller) then a phoney healing racket by Carney barker Crane (Don Rickles). When Diane tracks him down he quits and accompanies her to Las Vegas, with the intention of making money on the slots and tables (why did it take him so long to think of this?) He’s so successful that the casino management challenge him, ripping off his dark glasses to reveal eyes now resembling puss-encrusted piss holes.
Again Xavier bolts, crashing his car fortuitously close to a bible-bashing revivalist tent show. He tells the redneck preacher that he can see God… more significantly, God is looking back at him and Xavier is withering under the Divine gaze. Advised by the pastor to pluck out the eyes that offend him, our man obliges and his cautionary tale ends on a freeze frame of his screaming face and gory, empty eye sockets…
… or does it? It was in his genre survey Danse Macabre (1981) that Stephen King floated the notion that this film originally ended with Milland screaming: “I can still see!?!”, a line subsequently excised on the grounds that it was just too damn horrible. Various contributors to the extras on this impressive set have differing takes on whether that ever actually happened and not even Corman’s own accounts of this are consistent. The film’s “real” title (it’s rendered as simply “X” on the credits here) remains similarly elusive.
Other bonus materials include a prologue that has always been an integral part of the picture in my previous viewings of it. This cut starts instead with a long static shot of an eyeball, which seems to puzzle even Corman on his informative commentary track. Elsewhere on that he relates how he first conceived this one as a story about the periods of recreational drug use by a jazz musician and concedes that in many ways it’s a dry run for his The Trip (1967). Although Corman first experimented with LSD while researching the latter, I would contend that TMWTXRE is in many ways a truer “acid movie” than its more literal minded successor. Corman closes his commentary with the arch observation “Classical Greek drama on the cheap!” as Ray Milland extracts his aching orbs. Great stuff. You also have the option of an alternative talk track from Tim Lucas, who’s characteristically on top of his brief (e.g. refuting the received wisdom that this is Don Rickles’ feature debut).
Still not seen enough? There’s a featurette with the ubiquitous Kat Ellinger (somebody else who seems to have seen everything) in which she connects the film to traditions of American Gothic and Romanticism… Joe Dante delivers his appraisal… a trailer and even a commentary on the trailer from Mick Garris. The limited edition boasts a rigid slipcase featuring new artwork by Graham Humphreys, reversible poster with new and original artwork and a soft cover book (which I haven’t set eyes on) with new writing by Allan Bryce and Jon Towlson). Oh, and of course there’s a new interview with Corman, who turned 94 about a month ago and still insists that he he wants to remake The Man With The X-Ray Eyes to take advantage of today’s improved FX technologies (personally I find the whole “Spectrama” thing a cherishable cheesey chuckle) and more relaxed attitudes towards onscreen nudity. But really, why bother? The original is a certified cracker with a splendid central performance from Milland (who never plays down to the material and later cited TMWTXRE as his strongest screen outing alongside the one that won him the Oscar for The Lost Weekend in 1945)… and why haven’t I mentioned Les Baxter’s emotive “eerie” score already? This is a pulp cinema treatment of profound themes…. what more could you possibly aspire to? If The Man With The X-Ray Eyes teaches us anything, it’s that hubris isn’t the greatest idea…