Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) is one of the most original and conceptually mind-bending pieces of 1960s American cinema, produced at a time when the psychedelia craze – both on the streets and on the screen – was still a few years away from really taking a hold in the public’s social consciousness. It wasn’t the first genre film to deal with hallucinogenics – William Castle’s classic The Tingler (1959) had Vincent Price as a scientist injecting himself with LSD to induce fear – but its exploration of pharmaceuticals and the self-discovery (and ultimate horror) they can induce laid the groundwork for later AIP counter-culture drug films like Corman’s The Trip (1967) and Richard Rush’s Psych-Out (1968) – the former written by a young Jack Nicholson, the later starring him.
Of course, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is not a film specifically about LSD, but it clearly seems to have been informed by the controversy surrounding the drug and its recreational use – and supposed insight it gave users – which was starting to gain media attention at that point, thanks most famously to its public endorsement from (soon to be ex) Harvard lecturer Timothy Leary.
Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland) is a renowned research scientist obsessed with increasing the field and depth of vision in humans to a point where they can see beyond our visible spectrum (currently limited to a mere 10%). “Only the Gods see everything”, Dr. Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone) warns Dr. Xavier when he hears about his experiments, to which he boastfully replies, “I’m closing in on the Gods”. Developing an optical serum that he believe will help him achieve his miracle, Xavier experiments at first on a tiny monkey with mixed results – the poor little primate seems at first to be able to distinguish the colours behind a solid barrier, but soon dies of apparent shock (“What did he see?”, Xavier’s assistant Dr. Diane Fairfax – played by Diana Van der Vlis – ominously wonders after the monkey dies).
Realising that experimenting on animals will not yield much in the way of valuable information, and under pressure from his financial sponsors to deliver results, Xavier decides to use the eye drops on himself. “It’s like a splitting of the world!”, Xaiver exclaims to Brant moments after he administers his mysterious formula, which makes its first effects known by allowing Xavier to read covered letters and spot a missing shirt button hidden by a tie. Despite Brant’s objections, Xavier continues to use the X formula on himself, keeping his experiments on the hush while realising the formula has a cumulative effect, and his eyes seem to be irreversibly opening themselves up to a wider spectrum of colours, forcing Xavier to wear dark sunglasses even indoors in order to try and block the blinding light which he sees even in the pitch dark.
Unfortunately, the hospital where Xavier is working cuts off his research funds and he is forced to return to work as a doctor, where his vision works wonders in treating patients but causes friction with his superiors when he questions their diagnosis. Xavier and Diane blow-off some steam at a med school cocktail party, which allows the film to introduce the first comical use of his x-ray vision when he looks around and sees all the partygoers swingin’ to the music in nothing but their birthday suits (all filmed in a discreet, early-sixties fashion, of course – nothing more than naked legs, backs and shoulders revealed).
After he accidently kills Brant by pushing him out the window during a heated exchange, Xavier flees the scene of the crime and hides out in a seedy, low-rent boardwalk carnival, where he puts his gift to good use by working under the name of Mentalo, a mystic seer who ekes out a living by using his vision to read the questions written out by rubes on a folded sheet of paper. While many of those who work with him think he is just another carnie conman, sleazy barker Crane (Don Rickles!) senses the chance to make some money and convinces Xavier to leave the carnival and set up shop as a diagnostic doctor for the sick and elderly.
Making his office in a rundown old tenement building, Dr. Xavier attracts a steady stream of patients that eventually brings Diane to his doorstep, proving her suspicion correct that the miracle doctor which her own patients have been praising is in fact her old boss. When Diane convinces Xavier he needs to get away from the place before the police discover his whereabouts, they tear-off for Las Vegas (much to Crane’s anger), where Xavier plans to use his x-ray vision to determine which slot machines are due for big pay-outs. With some finances under his belt, he then hopes to continue his research in a bid to reverse or at least control his condition. But when Xavier is confronted by casino staff questioning his remarkable run of good luck at the slots and the tables, he throws his winnings in the air to create a diversion before commandeering a car and racing off into the desert with the authorities (and Diane) on his tail. Blinded by the daylight and having lost his sunglasses in the scuffle, Xavier crashes his car in the desert on the outskirts of town and stumbles his way towards a revival tent, guided inside by the preacher’s rousing sermon.
“Come forward”, the preacher beckons to the obviously distressed Xavier as he staggers up the aisle between the small crowd of gathered worshippers. “Do you wish to be saved?”
“Saved? No. I’ve come to tell you what I see”, replies Xavier, telling the preacher of a giant eye in the centre of the universe that sees us all. The preacher of course accuses Xavier of being is collusion with sin and the devil, and offers the man a powerful quote from Matthew Chapter 5, which ensures that the movie ends on a suitably stunning and remarkably downbeat note:
“If thine eye offends thee…pluck it out!”
Right from the start, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes manages to provoke and disturb, as the opening shot lingers on a bloody eyeball that is dropped into a bubbling lab beaker, followed by the film’s titles appearing over a hypnotic purple swirl pattern as Les Baxter’s often experimental and abstract jazzy score fills the aural landscape (the actual onscreen title for the film is merely a big, bold yellow X – the follow-on was only added to the film’s posters, lobby cards and other promotional material). The opening certainly sets the tone of the film, mysterious and foreboding, and is much more effective than the original opening prologue that was cut from the film prior to its release (the prologue starts out beautifully with some stunning psychedelic lava lamp effects, but quickly bogs down into a five-minute narrated dissertation on the five senses).
One of the elements which makes X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes particularly impressive is the way it so effectively gets its points across and brings on its mind-trip without the use of extravagant special effects. While Corman does utilise the expected super-impositions, flares and other simple photographic effects to help visualise the world as Dr. Xavier is now seeing it, it’s the dialogue which brings on the real freak-out. When Xavier uses phrases like “Diane looks like a perfect dissection” and “flesh dissolved in an acid of light” to describe what he is seeing, our minds conjure-up images that are far more chilling than whatever visual effects could have been achieved at the time.
Of course, dialogue is only as good as its delivery and as Dr. Xavier, Ray Milland turns in a particularly fine performance that indicates the level of respect he pays to the screenplay, rather than treating the material as if it is beneath him (an oft-familiar story when one-time A-listers are forced to turn to low-budget exploitation in their career’s twilight). Milland, 56 at the time of filming X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, was nearly 20 years passed his Oscar-winning role in The Lost Weekend, but while the big roles may have stopped coming in Milland was still finding some regular work with AIP, delivering solid performances in Corman’s The Premature Burial (1962) and both starring in and directing the fine post-atomic war film Panic in the Year Zero (1962). Ten years later, Milland starred in two other classic AIP drive-in films, the eco-horror Frogs (1972) and the wonderfully ludicrous The Thing with Two Heads (1972). Though he was clearly in physical decline by the early-seventies, Milland continued to work regularly on television and in low-budget films almost up until his death in 1986,
The sequences which take place at the midway carnival show X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes at its most purely exploitative, and these moments are amongst the most memorable in the film for me. The inclusion of some genuine vintage carnival footage gives these scenes a more authentic feel, as well as providing a real visual time capsule of an era that’s now largely passed. You also get the great Dick Miller, a much-loved Roger Corman regular, playing a sceptical young rube (carny slang for “sucker”) who ribs Xavier/Mentalo during his act, before getting publicly humiliated by Mentalo. And of course, these scenes are also bolstered substantially by the appearance of legendary comedian Don Rickles as Crane, the carnival barker who tries to exploit Xavier for financial gain. Though he is as obnoxious as ever, by toning down the actual comedy Rickles creates a genuinely repulsive character who makes your skin crawl uncomfortably. It’s a terrific performance and Rickles dominates the moments he is on screen. Particularly effective is the scene in which Crane becomes bitter and angry that Xavier is walking out on him, turning to the elderly patients who are sitting around waiting to see the doctor and screaming at them that Xavier does not heal people but is actually an evil man who “looks inside you and gives you the sickness”.
While Milland and Rickles provide the best performances in the film, Diana Van der Vlis also delivers a nice turn as the likeable and loyal Dr. Diane Fairfax, the one real friend that Dr. Xavier can trust and count on (while the pair share a few moments of casual flirting, most notably during the cocktail party where Xavier is seeing her nude, there is refreshingly no romance between them). As Dr. Sam Brant, Harold J. Stone fits the part to a T with his authoritative demeanour and rich, commanding vice. Aside from Corman, Stone also worked with directors Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus, 1960) and Russ Meyer (The Seven Minutes, 1971) and shared the screen with Elvis (Girl Happy, 1965), Jerry Lewis (The Big Mouth, 1967) and even Robby the Robot (The Invisible Boy, 1957)! Distinguished-looking veteran John Hoyt adds further authority to the film as Dr. William Benson, and the hardened, familiar low-budget face of Morris Ankrum turns up in an uncredited appearance as a hospital board member (this would be one of Ankrum’s final roles before his 1964 death).
One simple visual effect that proves quite effective in the film are the coloured contact lenses utilised to depict the physical changes in Dr. Xavier’s eyes, ultimately ending up as pitch black with gold irises. A striking visual, the gold perhaps reflecting that Xavier has indeed now closed in on the Gods and has become one himself. A further tone of mystery and menace is added by having Milland wear two pairs of sunglasses at once (a larger pair over a smaller) as he becomes increasingly desperate to block out the light. In most instances, seeing someone wearing two pairs of sunglasses would be a comedic sight, but Milland manages to make it look menacing and creepy.
The final minutes of X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, where religion, science and philosophy all intersect, provides the film with a climax that is not only shocking but also extremely intelligent, and ending it on such a note further demonstrates the creative risks Corman took with the project. In his 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre, Stephen King claimed that X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes originally ended with Dr. Xavier crying out “I can still see!” after gouging his own eyes out. While it would have added a stunning exclamation mark to an already brilliant climax, Corman himself insists that no such ending was ever filmed (Corman jokingly said of King’s claim: “Stephen King saw the picture and wrote a different ending, and I thought, ‘His ending is better than mine'”).
At the time of its release, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes spawned not only a paperback novelisation tie-in written by Eunice Sudak (published in the US by Lancer) but also, amazingly enough, a one-shot comic book adaptation published by Gold Key and featuring a beautiful piece of painted cover art, along with some stills from the film inside. They are essential pieces of ephemera that any die-hard fan of the movie should seek out. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes also made a belated appearance on the cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland #242 (May/June 2006), which featured a portrait of a wide-eyed, vacant Milland from the movie.
In terms of home viewing, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes has seen a number of VHS and DVD releases since the 1980s, but the only version you really need is the 2015 Blu-ray released by Kino Lorber, which features a beautiful hi-def transfer, two highly informative commentary tracks (one from Roger Corman the other from noted film historian and writer Tim Lucas), an interview with director Joe Dante discussing the film, the original trailer (and the “Trailers from Hell” segment with Mick Garris), and the aforementioned original prologue sequence.
Buy it, watch it, love it…and see the light.