Another 1950s sci-fi entry from producer Ivan (GOG) Tors makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics. THE MAGNETIC MONSTER is the Curt Siodmak-scripted tale of an old scientist’s creation inadvertently causing panic to the nation.
Dr. Jeffrey Stewart (Richard Carlson, THE VALLEY OF GWANGI) and his assistant Dan Forbes (King Donovan, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS), two scientists from the Government’s Office of Scientific Investigation (O.S.I.), are contacted by the police when unexplainable occurrences transpire at a hardware store where all the clocks and appliances are going haywire. With Geiger counters in tow, there they discover high levels of radiation and magnetism which naturally causes metallic objects to move about haphazardly. Similar occurrences in the vicinity are reported, and they soon learn that an elderly scientist (Leonard Mudie, THE MUMMY), who is dying of radiation poisoning, has created a new isotope which carries dangerous levels of radioactivity. The problem is that this isotope hasn’t been properly isolated and has been growing at an enormous rate by assimilating surrounding energy into itself, with its magnetic field and radioactivity increasing drastically enough to actually throw the Earth off its orbit. Discussions with the government and military lead to the conclusion that the only way to stop this menace is with a massive detonator located in Canada which can produce the multi-millions in voltage needed to do so.
With a brisk running time of 76 minutes, THE MAGNETIC MONSTER was written by legendary horror/sci-fi screenwriter Curt Siodmak (THE WOLF MAN) along with producer Tors. Siodmak (who also is the credited director, with Herbert L. Strock rumored to have also been involved) throws in a lot of scientific jargon about atoms, radiation and other chemistry lab stuff, assembling a rather smart script despite the absence of any kind of visible creature on display. The “monster” of the film’s title is a force or an element, allowing the viewer to use his or her imagination, even if the proceedings tend to be talky. The idea of the unseen magnetic force does allow for some humorous sight gags, but is also cause for limited special effects (by Harry Redmond, who had worked on KING KONG) and an ultra low budget, both which can be appealing if you allow yourself to become engaged in the plot. The shoestring endeavor also calls for extensive use of stock footage, including the outside of a flying-jet which doesn’t match the coziness of its Ed Wood-esque set-designed interior. The climax itself and most of the more impressive visual effects are inserted (unconvincingly) from a 1934 German film called GOLD. Watch as Carlson, for no apparent reason, slaps a cap on his scalp and then quickly removes it just to match his double from the said 20-year-old footage.
The performance of Carlson (who also narrates in character) as an overly concerned yet underpaid and overworked government scientist, is what holds the film together. Carlson is engaging in scenes where he is determined to ultimately save the Earth, or just fawning with thoughtfulness over his pregnant wife (Jean Byron, INVISIBLE INVADERS, “The Patty Duke Show”) with promises of a new home to raise their unborn child in. After this film, Carlson would of course go on to star in two Universal Studios 1950s science fiction classics, and here it’s easy to see why he was a well-fitted heroic leading man for this type of pulp cinema. THE MAGNETIC MONSTER also features bit parts from familiar character actors including the great comedienne Kathleen Freeman (THE BLUES BROTHERS) as a secretary who has no trouble poking fun of her weight, a pre-fame Strother Martin (THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN) as an airplane’s co-pilot, and former Bowery Boy Billy Benedict (BRIDE OF THE MONSTER) as a hardware store salesman who is harassed by the panicky owner (Byron Foulger, DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL). Donovan adds good support as Carlson’s pipe-smoking sidekick.
Recently seen on TCM as part of a series of drive-in double feature airings, then released on DVD by MGM as part of its manufactured-on-demand Limited Edition Collection, Kino Lorber has now licensed the film for Blu-ray, and it looks fantastic, only dropping in quality when stock footage is on display. Presented in 1080p HD, the full frame image is accurate to its original aspect ratio, and the black and white picture is sharp and well-detailed. The white and gray areas are particularly bright while blacks remain deep. There are only a few random age-related speckles and other blemishes found on the source print. The LPCM 2.0 English audio track is fine for a film of this vintage, with dialogue music and sound effects all being clear. There are no subtitle options on the disc.
An audio commentary has film historian Derek Botello discussing this “monster movie without a monster” and its “educational film” and documentary-like qualities. He touches upon the film’s stars, its producer, director, the uncredited supervising editor (Herbert L. Strock, director of I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN) and also delves into the characters and plot, so it’s definitely a good listen. Botello also quotes some vintage reviews of the film, and points out when the actors dress a certain way (and laughably so) to integrate with the GOLD footage. The original trailer is included, and the absence of an actual screen monster prompts the announcer to proclaim, “Looking like creatures from another planet, these two scientists risk their lives to move a new titanic element…”, referring to their special radiation suits, as well as such hoopla as “a cosmic Frankenstein that threatened to engulf the world!” Trailers for DONOVAN’S BRAIN, INVISIBLE INVADERS and JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET round out the extras. (George R. Reis)
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