Monday, May 29, 2017


I'm a huge fan of 1950s science fiction films. I've seen a lot of them but there are still some out there that I have yet to watch. One of them was THE MAGNETIC MONSTER (1953), which I recently had a chance to see, thanks to TCM.

Halfway through this coma-inducing film, I succumbed and nodded off for a few minutes. When I awoke, it suddenly seemed as if I was watching an entirely different film. There was stalwart sf icon Richard Carlson valiantly trying to save the world but what's with that massive set of futuristic equipment that looks like leftovers from Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS (1926)?

THE MAGNETIC MONSTER was produced by Ivan Tors. It was the first in his trilogy of science fiction films featuring the Office of Scientific Investigation. The other two films were RIDERS TO THE STARS (1954) and GOG (1954). Tors also co-wrote the screenplay for MAGNETIC with genre veteran Curt Siodmak, who also directed (along with an uncredited Herbert L. Strock). Trouble is, there are no opening credits to let us know who's responsible for the film. We only get a title card with Ivan Tors name on it. Full credits are reserved for the end of the film.

Tors and Siodmak adopt a docu-drama approach to the material in MAGNETIC. There's a voice-over narration and everything is presented in a straight forward, matter-of-fact manner. All of the scientific jargon sounds reasonable and plausible (it's not) and there's a lot of it (what, no flux capacitor?). Imagine Jack Webb producing a science fiction movie and you'll have some idea of the style of this film.

Carlson stars as OSI agent Dr. Jeffrey Stewart. His partner is Dr. Dan Forbes (King Donovan). They're called upon at the beginning of the film to investigate a mysterious outbreak of super magnetism at a local department store. The plot escalates from there as it appears a fellow scientist, Dr. Howard Denker (Leonard Mudie), has created a new highly radioactive isotope, dubbed serranium, which consumes massive amounts of energy on an exponential basis, doubling in size and mass each time and releasing deadly radiation and intense magnetic energy.

The whole world is threatened by this "magnetic monster" and it's up to Dr. Stewart to save the day. This requires using an experimental Canadian power generator, the Deltatron, under construction in a huge cavern under the ocean. The plan is to "feed" the monster an overdose of energy hoping that the overwhelming amount of power will be enough to finally "kill" it.

And here's where that previously mentioned giant set comes into play. In order to stage an exciting climax, Tors and Siodmak spliced some ten minutes of footage from the German science fiction film GOLD (1934), into the narrative. The match cuts don't entirely work. Carlson is forced to wear clothes that match a character in the German footage and a Canadian official is made to stand in Carlson's way in order to match a similar action from GOLD. The footage from GOLD is spectacular and seeing these few minutes makes me want to see the entire film. It's clearly the best thing about THE MAGNETIC MONSTER. Is it a cheat, an unfair way to pull off a dramatic and exciting climax by using the work of someone else? Tors clearly didn't have the budget to stage something on this scale on his own and it works for the most part. But imagine nodding off for a few minutes while watching a boring, routine "realistic" science fiction movie and seeing something that looks like a cross between Jack Kirby and Kenneth Strickfaden!

Carlson, as always, is good in a role that was a prototype for future parts in such '50s science fiction films as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), THE MAZE (1953), RIDERS TO THE STARS (1954) and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), among others. Co-star King Donovan appeared in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1954), RIDERS TO THE STARS (1954) and Don Siegel's masterpiece INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). Director Siodmak had a long career as a screenwriter. His genre credits include THE WOLF MAN (1941), INVISIBLE AGENT (1942), FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946) and BRIDE OF THE GORILLA (1951). In addition to helming MAGNETIC MONSTER, Siodmak directed BRIDE OF THE GORILLA and CURUCU, BEAST OF THE AMAZON (1957). Included in the supporting cast of MAGNETIC are veteran character actors Kathleen Freeman as a switchboard operator and the legendary Strother Martin as an airplane co-pilot.

THE MAGNETIC MONSTER is a mixed bag. It sets up a difficult challenge from the get-go, one of how to make a "monster" out of what is essentially just energy, albeit an incredible amount of it. Everyone plays it straight which helps make the wild plot seem feasible. But the ending is jarring, throwing Saturday afternoon serial thrills (from another film), into what had previously been a pretty routine narrative. Definitely worth seeing for genre fans but if you're not already enamored of '50s science fiction films, you're better off giving this one a pass.

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