X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes
In X, Roger Corman creates a pseudo-philosophical, oddball sci-fi that has become a cult classic. When thinking of this film, I’m always reminded of a story my father told me about when he first saw the film. The legendary Pere Ubu were putting on a show somewhere in North Carolina and my father procured a ticket. Throughout the show, the band projected the film behind them on a large screen. It seems the film’s quirks were in the same spirit of that old Orson Welles of underground music, David Thomas.
The film starred Ray Milland, the existential Cary Grant, and was released in 1963, between Premature Burial (also starring Milland) and The Masque of Red Death. both of these two films were Edgar Allen Poe Gothic films so I imagine that X was something a kitsch romp/break for the independent maestro.
In the film, Milland plays one Dr. James Xavier who is fascinated with vision. He knows all about its mechanisms and how it functions, and he laments the fact that human vision can only register around one-tenth of the total available wave spectrum. Ultraviolet and gamma are bracketed from our visionary apparatus, and as such, we miss out on over ninety percent of what the universe has to offer, visually speaking. “We are virtually blind,” he complains to his optometrist.
He has been experimenting on monkeys in his lab with various chemicals thought to increase the eye’s ability to interpret the wave spectrum. But the new data is too much and some of the monkeys die of shock at the experience. He believes that humans are more resilient and begins experimenting on himself. And the results are overwhelming. He can see into patients to better diagnose them and at parties, all his wildest, unspoken fantasies about seeing through clothing are realized.
But everything goes wrong, he challenges a senior medical professional who has misdiagnosed a patient and performs the surgery himself, successfully. The senior doctor threatens to sue him for malpractice. He then accidentally kills his friend, goes on the lam, becomes a side-show attraction at a carnival, gets exploited by a carnival barker, attempts to win money illicitly in Las Vegas, is caught after playing his hand and revealing he has a trick up his sleeve, somehow manages an escape, goes on the run from police cars and helicopters and ends up in an ecstatic tent-pole church in the desert.
His eyes have slowly deteriorated as he’s seen more and more truths of the world. He realizes the pains of all the people he passes in the street. He understands that the cities of the world are but cities of metal spires and structures hidden underneath, hidden by concrete and stone. He sees the “city unborn,” the human being unskinned, and the sun perpetually. The light of reality in all its forms is too much of an abyssal creature for human beings to contain. He confesses at the church what he has seen of the universe in all in its horror: “There are great darknesses. Farther than time itself. And beyond… a light that glows and changes. and in the center of the universe, the eye that sees us all.” The abyss, which is total reality, the thing not visible to us until we become saints or madmen is here represented in the most traditionally philosophical way possible: as the abyss we stare into that challenges and breaks us down as it stares back.
Xavier’s eyes slowly become malformed over the course of the film. They eventually become black with small golden pupils before being consumed totally by the darkness. The tent-pole preacher listens to his confession of what he has seen with his eyes and responds in the best way he knows how, and in a manner quite dramatically effective for the close of this film. He quotes scripture, “If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out!” Whether Xavier does so or no is a hard question to answer. He seems to attempt to do it, but his eyes reappear just as black as ever: either eyes or black pits where eyes used to be.
This ambiguity may just be visual and unintended. It could be my own misunderstanding, but it serves a purpose if intended. The person is either stronger or deranged by virtue of persistence in their gaze at the abyss. A third option is to stop peering into it (ie. plucking out the eyes). But is this a coward’s option? A weak decision for those without the fortitude to go the distance or the courage to try? Who knows? Roger Corman?
[Catch the next essay in my October Horror essay series: The Serpent and the Rainbow!]