Dr James Xavier (Ray Milland) is experimenting on increasing the scale of human sight. He has developed eye drops that, when applied, give him the power of X-ray vision. He has tested this on lab monkeys, with unfortunately fatal results, though he is not put off by this setback, and thinks it only fair he experiment on himself. But his obsession with his work leads to his downfall, and although he is able to diagnose illness simply by looking at his patients, his gift becomes a curse as he begins to see far more than he bargained for...
"X", one of Roger Corman's most enjoyable non-Edgar Allan Poe films, was scripted by Ray Russell and Robert Dillon, from Corman's original story, originally planned to be a druggy tale of a jazz musician who gains the power featured. Instead, it followed the familiar pattern of the determined scientist dabbling in things Man was not meant to meddle with, especially when you begin to wonder what use X-ray vision would be in the first place - wouldn't it be better to develop a better X-ray machine instead of mutating yourself?
The reason Xavier invents for his experiments is medical research, and there is a preoccupation with disease in the film which adds to the slightly queasy air - as if watching the addicted Milland using the eye drops on his inflamed eyes wasn't bad enough - the drug aspect was carried over to that element, at least. And of course, that finale where he performs an impromptu operation on himself is fantastic. But before we get to that, Xavier uses his ability to see through people's clothes (cue the quaint party scene, with twisting a-plenty) and, when he is forced to flee after a ridiculous plot twist that demonstrates fate or some kind angry god has it in for him, he becomes a sideshow attraction in a carnival.
Philosophy is introduced when not only do the humanitarian aspects of the X-ray vision become apparent but, in addition, the danger of seeing too much - into the heart of the Universe itself. This doesn't seem out of place thanks to Milland's determined, grim yet sickly approach to the character, and you're not surprised when Xavier gives up good deeds and turns to crime by cheating at gambling under the corrupt guidance of the surprisingly good insult comedian Don Rickles, here playing it straight and convincingly seedy and conniving. Even religion gets a look in - maybe that angry god which has noticed Xavier staring at him is the Lord God Almighty after all.
Maybe the film is lit brightly and flatly like a contemporary TV show (though seeing a Corman in colour is not to be sneezed at), and maybe the special effects are lacking when they depict Xavier's vision thanks to a lack of budget betraying the boundary-pushing, way out there concepts, but "X" is more than just a gimmicky sci-fi movie, even though it can easily be mistaken for one. Corman adds nice flourishes, such as the shot that goes through the back of Milland's head, through his brain and out of his eyes, and the showgirl stuffing discarded dollar bills down her cleavage cleverly sums up the greed of Las Vegas. Justifiably well-regarded. Watch for: a cheeky monkey. Music by Les Baxter. I've got a device that allows me to see through walls, myself - it's called a window! Ha, ha! Window. Heh.