Flesh Dissolved in an Acid of Light: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)


Images courtesy of American International Pictures

Science has always been captivated by the notion of uncovering the intangible, and much of humanity's progress, for better or worse, has hinged on revealing the unseen. The identification of bacteria in the 1670s transformed medical care and saved innumerable lives, but the confirmation of atoms, while a scientific triumph, eventually led to the creation of the atomic bomb. Humans, driven by an insatiable curiosity, persist in their quest to comprehend the world around them, a trait that can be both a blessing and a curse. What if one individual dared to venture into the uncharted? Can the human mind truly grasp the concept of infinity?

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) follows the research of James Xavier (Ray Milland), a doctor obsessed with eyesight and clarity. He develops a special eyedrop solution that enhances vision beyond normal limits, allowing one to see spectrums that are usually invisible to the naked eye. In a bold move, he decides to test the drops on himself, as he doesn't trust the observations he would get from animals or other test subjects. Although the eyedrops do work initially, giving Xavier the ability to see through items like paper and clothing, the effects are cumulative, meaning that every time he applies the drops, his vision is further altered in ways he doesn't expect.

The film starts with a palpable B-movie tone, focusing on the sillier aspects of the concept. Xavier uses his powers to quickly diagnose patients by looking through their skin into their internal organs. Later, at a swinging shindig, he gleefully discovers he can see through everyone's clothes as the camera pans around, tastefully showing the nude partygoers. These are the types of things that people fantasize about when asked what they would do if they had X-ray vision or something that might pop up in a comic book or sci-fi tale. This is a bait-and-switch on director Roger Corman's part; however, about halfway through the narrative, the story makes a hard left into existential horror territory as Xavier's vision continues to evolve.

Corman periodically swings the viewpoint to Xavier's POV, at one point phasing the camera through the back of his head and out his eyes to show the surreal and psychedelic colors and images he sees. The world looks alien and strangely beautiful, and at first, Xavier is fascinated by it, but eventually, he loses the ability to tone it down, and even his eyelids offer no relief from the onslaught. The story has a body horror aspect as Xavier loses the ability to control one of his senses. As his eyesight sharpens, something starts to come into focus: a bright light, an entity that he isn't supposed to be able to see. His slow descent into madness is chilling to behold.

Perhaps this is a morality play about the dangers of ego and the folly of ignoring the scientific method. It is not wrong to wonder about the world and want to learn everything about it, but jumping in headfirst without first examining all the variables is a fool's game with terrifying repercussions. Early in the film, a fellow doctor voices his concerns about Xavier's research, to which he replies: "My dear doctor, I am closing in on the gods." Xavier is no god and crumbles under the weight of omnipotence like a pile of burning logs.

--Michelle Kisner