Roger Corman will surely go down as one of the best movie producers of all time. Through his 250+ credits, he was at the forefront of developing the B-Movie and gave breaks to a whos-who of actors and directors, Jack Nicholson and Avatar & Aliens director, James Cameron counting among the highest-profile. His influence is impossible to neglect.
As a director, it would be impossible for anyone to stand up to the same standards – still, he is overlooked and unfairly judged solely upon the brand of quick & cheap shlock produced through American International Pictures. Behind the camera, Corman is best known for his work with Vincent Price in adapting Edgar Allen Poe (House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum). According to an introduction by film-critic Kat Ellinger – on this new second sight release – he grew tired of such films and sought something fresh, something more in-line with the weird tales being told in science fiction: enter 1963’s The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.
Ray Milland stars as Dr James Xavier, a Doctor and researcher who is looking into methods to improve human vision – motivated by the fear that he may be starting to lose his sight. Like any “mad science” in sci-fi or horror, he begins these experiments by testing on capuchin monkeys before the threat of his funding being cut motivates him to take drastic action and start self-experimenting. It goes without saying that things don’t go as planned for the ambitious Doctor. Initially, he can see through folders and files, clothes too, living up to the adverts for X-ray-specs that famously featured in the back pages of comic books. This is depicted in a fantastically cutesy 1960s party with all the guests doing the Twist. After that, things take a turn for the worst with him hiding out at a nearby pier doing a magic show with Don Rickles before heading off to Las Vegas with a fellow doctor and love interest Diana Van der Vlis where things take a turn for the dark.
Man with the X-ray Eyes is part of a wave of 1960s Science Fiction that traded in existentialism and light body-horror, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man and the Fly. The difference between them and this is the quality of the leading man. Not to talk down to the other aforementioned classics, however, they don’t have an actor of Ray Milland’s class on centre stage. Fair enough, at this point in his career he wasn’t getting many choice roles with his Oscar-winning turn on Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend a distant memory.
He would be excused if he turned up and merely cashed his cheque. However, he takes a fairly silly conceit whereby a man’s hubris sees him experimenting on himself to the point of being able to see everything and unable to turn it off. Milland, through Corman’s direction, Robert Dillon and Ray Russell’s script, finds the personal horror in sensory overload. Over-acting and histrionics could sink the film only Milland finds the humanity amid the madness; Gregory Peck brought a similar class to Richard Donner’s The Omen, too.
Visuals are something that a Corman production isn’t known for. Many of his films, as either a producer or director, are legendary for taking resources already available and making as much use of them as possible – this is apparent in everything from actors to sets and costume. Corman is an expert at keeping the production costs down if nothing else. This 1963 film is different. Fair enough it’s not really the X-ray the title sets up, nonetheless, he used different layers of film on top of one another to give the impression of transparency. Further, into the film it becomes a sea of colour and distortion that can only be described as kaleidoscopic. A basic effect to modern eyes, yes, but in an era where back projection was still being used for dialogue scenes in vehicles, this technique is everything the film needs to give it a singular and unique idea of what visionary overload may look like.
The film reveals Corman’s talent as a director with far greater clarity, purely on the premise that he could express himself more within the platform of ambitious sci-fi than he ever could by adapting Gothic Horror. That being said, this 1963 does highlight problems that were endemic throughout genre films of the era. Namely, female characters. There’s one plot beat that I just can’t get by no matter how much I try. Diana Van der Vlis plays a Doctor who works as part of the committee that financed Milland’s research back at the hospital in the opening third. While running a mystical medical diagnosis house, Van der Vlis turns up after being absent for a good while – she found him through chasing clues after the titular man became careless. She left her job and resumed her career as a Doctor, setting up her own practice in the interim. Then as soon as Milland asks her to leave so he can make money in Vegas, she agrees. The script sets her up as an intelligent person only to rob her of agency, effectively turning her into a prop to move the story from one place to the next. There are far more sinful films of this vintage when it comes to the treatment of female characters, for sure, but it makes it no-less bothersome when such a decision actively undoes good work.
The party scene too, many younger viewers might find the scene laughable in how much it has dated and it would be fair to do so – it does not hold up for modern audiences. Personally, though, I get a great deal of pleasure from scenes like this that are so of their era that they become silly – Second Run’s Ikarie XB-1 has one of my absolute favourites. A gym scene for all the ages.
Second Sight aren’t as prolific as they are used to be, but in releasing more sporadically they’re becoming a far more attractive company when considering their new releases. The extras are well-sourced and complimentary: the aforementioned Kat Ellinger intro is great, same for the director’s commentary with Corman and there are videos from Joe Dante and his Trailers from Hell series. All of them add to this release, as does the booklet comprising new writing by Jon Towlson and Allan Bryce. For me, though, they are all foreplay when compared to the newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys. Even if I hated the film – which I don’t – I’d want that work of glorious art as part of my collection. The bigger the better.