Attack of the Intelligent Mud


Up from The Cape: 4 March 2019

Anyone who can’t remember a time before Facebook existed will probably benefit from skipping this piece. It’s filled with references to a period of human history called the 1950s and 60s. For the social media generation that will be about as relevant and meaningful as The Roman Empire.

I’m usually disdainful of hoarders, but I wonder if I really should be more tolerant. I’ve been going through my DVD recordings and discovered an early pre-Dracula Hammer film I’d hoarded called “X – The Unknown.” It’s  a pretty commonplace monochrome 1950s story about living intelligent mud that erupts from a fissure in a quarry. Being an apex predator it consumes anyone it discovers not paying attention while it forages to satisfy its own bloated self-serving appetite – somewhat reminiscent of the way mainstream media conducts itself these days. It feeds on radioactive material, and any cheap screaming actors who get in the way.

This is not what I’d describe as a trip down memory lane for me. It’s a story off on one of those barren tracks that end at a rusting abandoned car and tangled undergrowth. What follows are some of the more memorable sights along the way. It’s not in any sense a review, though I do offer a blizzard of personal opinions throughout, for whatever they’re worth. Think of it as “a day out in the 1950s” with a few pictures for illustration.

Below a very young Marty Hopkirk (Kenneth Cope from “Randall & Hopkirk [Deceased]”) is saying “Please Sir – I haven’t had a turn yet”. He means a turn on the Geiger counter rather than having a fit. Note also that as this was a Hammer film, there’s the inevitable presence of Michael Ripper, still at this stage evolving into the ” Coachman” or “Innkeeper” roles he nailed down later. He’s looking doubtful about the whole thing. You can imagine him thinking to himself “I’m in the wrong bleedin’ century I am – where’s me coach an’ ‘orses?”

Mr Grimsdale from Norman Wisdom films turned up as (of all things) the head of an Atomic Research Establishment – on this occasion without Norman Wisdom to look after the atomic pile. Perhaps on balance that was for the best.

An improbably youthful Frazer Hines found time from his school day to appear for a short while. He only seemed capable of repeating “ah cannie….ah cannie” when asked what he and his friend had been up to the previous night (how many public figures have been asked that to their shame?). This is the face he had on him when an adult said “But that was when Willie was fit and healthy wasn’t it?” His answer in 1950s British film industry Scots was “We went ooooot to the toooowerrrr in the marrrrshes.” Pray that isn’t a euphemism.

Below, Mr Grimsdale tried to entertain the actor Leo McKern by standing in front of him like an enormous surreal chess-piece that thinks it’s just won the game. McKern for his part was probably dreaming of better material (and actors) to work with. The distant look on his face is a bit of a clue.

After a sterile closed-mouth kiss, this Lothario (below) said what anyone with a nurse in his arms and a stirring somewhere else would say: “Darling…..why didn’t we start doing this earlier?” Did men really say “darling” when they were squeezing a nurse in the 1950s? I can’t remember. I was too young.

Mr Lothario came to a nasty end after the appearance of Private Fraser’s “slithery thing” from “Dad’s Army.”

The nurse didn’t look too happy either. Because it’s a tight camera shot she has to scream with her hands clawing up against her face (I bet women can confirm there have been wedding nights like this). The image I’m referencing is at the top of this piece.

Anthony Newley put in a passing appearance as a gore-blimey guv’nor squaddie with an edgy central casting Scots squaddie friend. Predictably his Scots friend was called “Haggis” (or ‘Aggis” as Newly truncated it affectionately). The image below reveals the moment when Newley fell prey to “shouting the same word repeatedly” disease. He kept bellowing “‘Aggis………..’Aggis………..’Aggis” into the darkness of a muddy field. I suppose that’s what bored soldiers had to do for entertainment before games on smartphones.

The film also had a stern public address system announcer at the Atomic Research Establishment, though she was only in spirit form (i.e. audio only). She sounded like the Queen would have if she’d been made to go out to work in the 1950s, and didn’t care if her subjects knew what she thought about it; rather cross.

The token American actor employed to improve the film’s chances of US distribution was Dean Jagger. He suffered from the common problem men on the phone had in 1950s films. He kept going deaf for the first part of a phone call, which compelled him to say “Where?” after being given a location. In this case saying “where?” coincided with him looking up when he’d been told that four people had just “been melted in a car”. Evidently he expected to find their remains on the ceiling. Not seeing them there he fumbled about and asked someone for a pencil, so he could write down the location of where the four people had been melted by the slithery thing. Surprisingly, to make a note of the location he seemed to do nothing but draw a single cross on the paper, like an illiterate yokel practising his signature. Then he asked Mr Grimsdale if he had a map. I couldn’t understand why. All he had for a location was the mark he’d made on an otherwise blank piece of paper. A map wasn’t going to help there.

Below – Police spot the slithery thing:

Eventually the principal cast subdued the slithery thing by using a standard portable radar-dish gizmo to which most 1950s monsters were susceptible. Unexpectedly, it was followed by an explosion that appeared to take the actors by surprise. They all stared towards smoke hanging over the set. Mr Grimsdale broke the silence and said “What was that?” – sounding genuinely puzzled. Dean Jagger looked equally confused and said in what sounded like an unscripted moment “I don’t know……but it shouldn’t have happened.” Leo McKern was speechless for a moment in a “thank God it’s almost over” sort of way. As the credits rolled, so was I.

Over sixty years ago, this would have been an evening out for some people, and a very quiet bus ride home afterwards. That journey home would have been spent in contemplation of whether it was time to think seriously now about committing to a newfangled thing called a television set. Ironically of course, that’s exactly where I saw X – The Unknown, decades after it may have driven some from the cinema into television’s treacherous embrace.