Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Magnetic Monster (1953)

The Magnetic Monster is something of an anomaly, being a sci-fi monster movie without an actual monster. This low-budget 1953 release ends up working more successfully than you might have expected.

The movie was produced by Ivan Tors who would go on to earn his greatest fame with the wildly successful 1960s TV series Flipper . Tors shares the screenwriting credit with Curt Siodmak, a name associated with a variety of science fiction movies most of which are at the very least interesting. Siodmak also gets the directing credit here.

The movie adopts a pseudo-documentary style with star Richard Carlson acting as narrator. We learn of the A-Men (or Atom Men), scientists working for a US government agency tasked with investigating anything odd and/or threatening that might have a scientific basis. In this instance the case seems initially to fall into the odd rather than threatening category. Strange magnetic phenomena have been reported. Dr Jeffrey Stewart (Richard Carlson) and his A-Man colleague Dr Dan Forbes (King Donovan) are called to a hardware store where every metal object has suddenly become magnetised. Dr Stewart is mildly concerned that they may be dealing with a uni-polar magnetic field, which is apparently one of the things that worries men like Dr Stewart. The high radiation levels in the store also worry out two intrepid scientist-investigators. Searching for the source of the magnetic field they discover a corpse - dead of radiation sickness.

Now comes my favourite part of the movie. Dr Stewart calls in the local police and orders them to shoot to kill! Of course at this stage they have identified no villain and have not even identified the source of the strange magnetic field. One has to wonder exactly whom he expects the police to shoot to kill?

The A-Men press on and the trail leads to an elderly and rather kindly physicist whose experiment had gotten slightly out of control, with slightly out of control being very definitely an understatement. He had been bombarding a particle of an unknown element with alpha-rays. This had changed the particle’s nature in a very surprising, an very frightening, way. The particle started to grow, absorbing energy and converting it into mass. And in the words of the elderly physicist, now it’s hungry. Very hungry.

Dr Stewart now realises they are dealing with a threat that could well mean The End Of Civilisation As We Know it. In fact it may mean the End Of Everything.

The fundamental weakness of this movie is that we still have no actual monster, merely a microscopic particle with menacing potential. While this is unquestionably a weakness the movie does manage to turn it into a strength as well. Such an abstract threat can be more terrifying is the subject is deal with skillfully, and this does deal with it fairly skillfully. After all any monster can be killed if you have enough firepower but how do you kill a non-living particle?

Of course there’s also the advantage that an unseen menace saves lots of money on social effects! Given the very low-budget nature of this movie one suspects that may have been the main attraction. There are some very cheap special effects representing the particle viewed through a special gizmo and while they’re less than spectacular they do create the right kind of gee-whizz science feel.

The movie’s other strategy for dealing with the no-monster problem is to introduce a race against time element, always a plus in a movie of this type. Unfortunately, while the idea of using stock footage of jet fighters that are supposed to be transporting the killer particle to a secret underground laboratory in Canada might have seemed like a good idea, it is a pity that the fighter on the ground is about as dissimilar in appearance from the same fighter supposedly in the air that rather than adding excitement it just adds a jarring moment.

Richard Carlson is solid enough as the top A-Man scientist who would really rather be home with his wife than being a hero but hero is the role he gets forced into. The supporting cast is about what you expect in a low-budget movie not made by a major studio - barely passable but at least not actively irritating.

If you’re a diehard 50s sci-fi fan what you want is lots of outrageous technobabble, and this movie delivers the goods on that count. It’s the sort of screenplay you’d expect to be written by someone who has read an article on Einstein’s theories in a popular magazine but has (quite correctly) decided that to do any serious research on the subject would just spoil the fun.

The movie relies a bit too heavily on stock footage and poorly integrated element from older movies but since the producers clearly had very little money to spend there’s probably no real way they could have avoided this.

MGM put this one out in their DVD-made-on-demand Limited Edition Collection. The transfer is adequate but with no extras at all the price is perhaps a little on the high side.

The Magnetic Monster, despite its cheapness and its potential weaknesses, actually works quite well. It manages to generate a fair degree of excitement and urgency and it takes itself just seriously enough. Definitely worth a rental.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Enjoyed catching this one last year on TCM! Highly recommended!