Color, 1963, 79m.
Directed by Roger Corman
Starring Ray Milland, Dian Ver der Vlis, Harold J. Stone, Don Rickles, John Hoyt
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Shortly after teaming up with Roger Corman for The Premature Burial, actor Ray Milland joined forces with him again for one of the best-remembered titles in their careers. A colorful and deeply unsettling early entry in the body horror subgenre, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (sometimes simply titled X) takes a far more thoughtful look at man's place in the cosmos than what was normally found in drive-ins at the time. It's no wonder it left a deep impression on generations of viewers, including a lengthy and well-remembered analysis in Stephen King's groundbreaking book, Danse Macabre.
A pioneer in the field of ocular treatment, Dr. James Xavier (Milland) has developed a powerful new drug that, when applied via a dropper, can allow the patient to see through objects. Xavier decides to use himself as a guinea pig and finds that not only does it work, but the drug allows him to see further and further through clothing, walls, and other obstacles. At first his abilities are what you'd expect, allowing him to see through people's clothes at a party (a nod to Russ Meyer's recent hit The Immoral Mr. Teas) and diagnose illnesses by observing people's organs. After a tragic accident, Xavier goes on the lam and uses his powers to win money at gambling and work in a carnival where he hooks up with a huckster (Rickles). Donning sunglasses to cover the darkening appearance of his eyes, Xavier finds himself able to see further and further than man has ever seen before, with highly disturbing results.
A success for AIP (who frequently double billed it in a grisly pairing with Dementia 13), Corman's film has held up exceptionally well and benefits from a very strong, convincing performance by Milland. As usual the budget was very low, but the inventive and often eye-catching visual effects still work like a charm. The tonal shifts are also handled well as the film gets darker and more twisted as it goes along, culminating in that big tent finale that no viewer has ever forgotten (complete with some gruesome imagery that still catches many off guard). Incidentally, if you ever come across a copy of the original Gold Key comic book version, it has an extended and even more unsettling version of the ending that was presumably far beyond what the film's budget could accomplish. Cinematographer Floyd Crosby, best known for shooting Corman's Poe films, does a solid job conveying the film's nightmare vision of 20th-century American life, while veteran composer Les Baxter juggles swinging source music and more unorthodox experimental tones for the more surreal sequences.
Not surprisingly, this film has remained popular on video in a number of formats beginning with its VHS release way back in the clamshell days of Warner Home Video. MGM released it on DVD in a solid anamorphic transfer in 2002, then again in 2007 as part of MGM's The Roger Corman Collection. (For some reason the bootleg outfit Cheezy Flicks took a stab at it, too, but avoid that one like the plague.) The 2015 revisit from Kino Lorber as part of its Studio Classics line sports a superior HD rendering of the film that does a fine job of capturing those borderline psychedelic colors, while the odd textures of the Pathécolor look accurate to the original cinematography. If any Roger Corman film demanded a commentary, this would be the one - and thankfully the one MGM recorded for the DVD is included here. The director turned B-movie mogul shares a number of recollections about the film, including his experience with Milland who was in the middle of a triple threat whammy at AIP (counting his self-directed apocalypse favorite, Panic in Year Zero). Corman also offers an explanation for rumors about an infamous additional line started in the Stephen King book, too. The theatrical trailer is included as well along with some great new goodies, chiefly a fast-paced new Tim Lucas audio commentary loaded to the brim with trivia for AIP-philes, a rare five-minute prologue cobbled together from stock footage (wisely unused), an enthusiastic six-minute video interview with director Joe Dante about his lifelong fandom for the film, and the Trailers from Hell version of the trailer with narration and wraparounds by Mick Garris. Yep, you definitely want to upgrade on this one.