Written by: Curt Siodmak, Ivan Tors
Directed by: Curt Siodmak
Starring: Richard Carlson, King Donovan and Jean Byron
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"It's hungry! It has to be fed constantly, or it will reach out its magnetic arm and grab at anything within its reach and kill it."
In the 30s and 40s, you had films populated by “G-Men,” the government agents dedicated to tracking down the criminal underworld’s public enemies typically portrayed by James Cagney or Edward Robinson. By the time the 50s rolled around, these fedora-topped gumshoes were replaced by men in hazard suits--fictional “A-Men” since the threat was no longer Scarface, but, rather, the atom since everyone was convinced the world was about to go nuclear. Whether it descended from outer space or was concocted in a lab, something radioactive was going to kill us all, “duck-and-cover” tactics be damned. So the 50s were dominated with movies that reflected this, and producer Ivan Tors even concocted an unofficial trilogy centered around the also fictional Office of Scientific Investigation. The first of these films was The Magnetic Monster, a film whose title actually belies its monstrous and horrific qualities.
The main “A-Man” here is Dr. Jeffrey Stewart (Richard Carlson), who heads up the investigation of some mysterious magnetic activity at a nearby store. All of their clocks stopped, and everything metal is being magnetized by something up in the attic; it turns out to be some residual stuff left behind by an experiment. Meanwhile, the actual source of the magnetism and radiation is aboard a plane, so OSI has to race against time to track it down before this thing devours the world, or something.
We hear a lot of what this ball of energy is up to and what it could do--it is apparently doubling in size and draining surrounding energy, so much so that it could drain a nearby town of all its power. And after it’s done conquering Smalltown USA, it’ll move on to the world, which it will eventually spin right off of its orbit. But none of this really happens--it just sort of sits there, glowing in a chamber while all these scientists look at it through a giant Viewmaster. Imagine if The Blob was all about Steve McQueen telling us that the gelatinous title entity could engulf an entire diner, only we never see it happen--that’s pretty much what The Magnetic Monster is like. In fact, there’s really no monster, so the title is a bit of a misnomer.
Unless, of course, producer Tors and company were out to deceive audiences into their seats, which is just as likely. Such tactics were (and still are) pretty common in the schlock corridor, but audiences were treated to more paucity than usual with this no-budget snoozer. The lack of budget of course explains the lack of an actual monster (even though it does show up in some insert shots where, again, it just sort of glows menacingly), and it also explains why the film’s money shots are a bunch of stock footage featuring planes refueling in mid-air and a series of explosions at the film’s climax. Other than this, the film just drones on and on, sleepily narrated by Carlson, though the film stops just short of redundantly narrating every single frame like The Beast of Yucca Flats or The Creeping Terror; still, you’re maybe one or two steps away from Ed Wood here. Both Tors and director Curt Siodmak (whose other directorial efforts indicate that he shouldn’t have quit his day job of writing legitimate classics) were often attached to such Z-grade cheapies.
If you ignore that the film is essentially comprised of a bunch of primitive, pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo preying on atomic fears, it’s not altogether incompetent. Its cast is comprised of some pretty notable names--Carlson was featured in Creature from the Black Lagoon one year later, and his hound-dog inflected buddy (King Donovan) would show up in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They’re surrounded by plenty of familiar faces, all of whom don’t have much to do besides talk about their impending doom and how to thwart it. In between, Carlson takes time out to harangue his wife (Jean Byron) about being too skinny four months into their pregnancy; quaint, Rockwellian stuff, really (a high point in the film’s comedy comes when she switches their breakfast plates to trick him into thinking she’s eating more). Other quaintness abounds, particularly in the then-cutting edge technology--the OSI has this huge super-computer dubbed MANIAC that can be fed information and then spit out solutions, no doubt with processing power that couldn’t even run an iPod these days.
Finding that sort of stuff appealing is the key to even moderately enjoying The Magnetic Monster; it’s barely a horror film, unless you consider that the entire film represents the potential atomic nightmare that hung over the 50s. These things are always more fun when there’s a monster actually stomping around instead of just being promised in the title, though. Unsurprisingly, this one is just now making it to DVD via MGM’s Limited Edition series, which gives films a disc life that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day. Their presentation once again comes with the insistence that the best elements have been used for the transfer, which is still fine, regardless; it’s obviously only been given a moderate re-master, but it’s clear and detailed enough, as is the mono track . Unlike most films found in this series, it’s not streaming on Netflix, at least not yet. I’d wait it out before committing to the physical copy unless you’re just a super completist when it comes to 50s sci-fi. Rent it!
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