Saturday, February 05, 2011


I was aware of this movie by reputation long before I actually saw it. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King hails Roger Corman’s X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES as “one of the most interesting and offbeat little horror movies ever made.” This is how King sets it up:

“Ray Milland plays a scientist who develops eyedrops which enable him to see through walls, clothing, playing-cards, you name it; a kind of super-Murine, if you will. But once the process begins, there is no slowing it down. Milland’s eyes begin to undergo a physical change, first becoming thickly bloodshot and then taking on a queer yellow cast. It is at this point that we begin to feel rather nervous – perhaps we sense the gross-out coming, and in a very real sense it’s already arrived… “

King astutely notes the film’s kinship with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft as well as Corman’s later counterculture features (namely, THE TRIP and THE WILD ANGELS) and concludes his description with an unforgettable anecdote about the final scene:

“At last Milland can stand it no longer. He drives his car to a deserted spot (that bright Presence hanging before his eyes all the time) and whips off his shades to reveal eyes which have gone an utter, glistening black. He pauses for a moment… and then rips his own eyes out. Corman freezes the frame on those staring, bloody sockets. But I have heard rumors – they may or may not be true – that the final line of dialogue was cut from the film as too horrifying. If true, it was the only possible capper for what has already happened. According to the rumor, Milland scream: I can still see!”

This is indeed a capper worthy of the best science fiction writers (and Roger Corman had several of the best science fiction writers on his payroll at the time), but I can't help thinking that Stephen King made up this ending himself in a late-night writing frenzy. Corman, never one to miss an opportunity, has since embraced the rumor – but not very convincingly. In the DVD commentary for the film, Corman says he doesn’t remember shooting this rumored ending... then adds that he believes it probably did happen and speculates that he must have decided that the original ending was better. I might have been convinced if he’d said that the censors wouldn’t allow the final line... but I hate to think that Corman could have been dumb enough to discard that ending. Whatever the case, that rumored phrase drives home both Corman and King’s message - that X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES is more than just a gross-out horror movie.

Corman explains that X – the first of his films about drug culture – originated with a simple idea about “a sax player in a jazz group who’s doing a lot of drugs.” He changed the hero to a scientist because he wanted to explore the idea that drug use could be progressive, not merely destructive. Certainly that’s what resonates about the film… Milland’s ability to see through women’s clothes and to best the dealers in Vegas is mildly amusing for a while, but the most memorable parts of the film are his trippy musings about “a city unborn, flesh dissolved in an acid of light” and a pulsating heart “close to the center of reality.” If only the visuals lived up to these turns of phrase…

In his autobiography, Corman writes that years later he realized “it was the concept that was important: a researcher moving through science toward a religious mystical experience. The theme of X-RAY EYES was rather similar to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, made five or six years later, in that there is at the end of the odyssey an hallucinogenic, mystical vision of light and motion. Kubrick’s trip was through space; X’s was interior.” Corman has also said that this is one of his only films that he would like to remake – because he believes the story deserves a bigger budget. (To give you an idea of the budget limitations, let me just point out that the supernaturally brilliant colors perceived by true visionaries are represented in this film by optical treatment of Pathe-processed film footage. Also, Corman used The Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City as a stand in for Las Vegas... Enough said.)

This is one horror movie remake that I’d love to see! And with so many of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers routinely giving lip-service to the genius of Roger Corman – the guy was just awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, for crying out loud – it's a wonder that none of them have bothered to remake X. In the right hands, a big-budget “re-imagination” might even be able to top the ending that Stephen King planted in my brain - something that attempts to go behind the doors of perception that Aldous Huxley wrote about:

"Each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet... Most people, most of the time, know only what comes through the reducing valve and is consecrated as genuinely real by the local language. Certain persons, however, seem to be born with a kind of by-pass that circumvents the reducing valve. In other temporary by-passes may be acquired either spontaneously, or as the result of deliberate 'spiritual exercises,' or through hypnosis, or by means of drugs. Through these permanent or temporary by-passes there flows, not indeed the perception 'of everything that is happening everywhere in the universe (for the by-pass does not abolish the reducing valve, which still excludes the total content of Mind at Large), but something more than, and above all something different from, the carefully selected utilitarian material which our narrowed, individual minds regard as a complete, or at least sufficient, picture of reality."

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