• Film reviews

    #559 – The Magnetic Monster (1953)

    The Magnetic Monster (1953)

    Film review #559

    Directors: Curt Siodmak, Herbert L. Strock

    SYNOPSIS: The Office of Science Investigation (OSI), made to deal with new threats in the atomic age, send their agents, led by Jeffrey Stewart, to investigate a case of strange, powerful magnetism. It turns out that the incident is caused by the research of a scientist who has created a new element that is feeding off energy, and threatens all life on Earth…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Magnetic Monster is a 1953 science-fiction film. In the opening, we get a monologue about the threats faced in the new atomic age, and in response to this, the Office of Scientific Investigations (OSI) is established to counter this new threat. One of their A-men, (atomic-men) agents, named Jeffrey Stewart, is called to investigate a strange case involving items becoming magnetised, and stumbles upon some dangerous research and a new element that could threaten to destroy the earth. The film has a very serious tone to it: the narration by the main character is very dramatic and dry, and reminds me more of what you would find in a crime-noir film. The plot itself is decently structured, with some mystery that unfolds at an even pace. The narration helps explains the story, but perhaps overdoes it by relying on it too much rather than showing the story.

    At a time of cheap b-movies which were cheap looking that leads them to not being taken seriously, The Magnetic Monster does put some effort into treating the new era of atomic warfare seriously, which presented science almost as if it was exclusively a weapon of war. As mentioned, the narration gives the film a very serious tone, and there’s not much light-heartedness or humour to supplement it. There’s also not really that much action: the “Magnetic Monster” is just some sort of…radioactive element that can only be seen through a microscope, so it limits how much of a threat it can be perceived it to be, but the effects it makes look quite nice. The characters are all fairly bland and similar: just middle-aged men in uniforms talking or arguing with each other, with a grand total of one female character, who’s only role is as Jeff’s wife. 

    Despite being an independently produced film, there’s some good points about the production: there’s a variety of sets and locations, and they’re fairly detailed so you get a sense of the different locations. The huge machine at the end of the film is quite impressive, but the footage of it is taken from the 1934 German film Gold, and the finale of The Magnetic Monster essentially revolves around the use of the footage from Gold, taking place in an underwater facility that provides the climax for a series of explosions. The Magnetic Monster feels like something a bit different from the usual 50′s sci-fi b-movie. It takes the spirit of the time seriously and delivers a sombre and straight story without any cheesy monsters of special effects. the downside to this is that it’s not that entertaining, and a lack of action and energy might this film difficult to concentrate on through it’s runtime.

  • Film reviews

    #466 – The Lost Planet (1953)

    The Lost Planet (1953)

    Film review #466

    Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet

    SYNOPSIS: Investigating a suspected U.F.O. crash in the mountains, reporter Rex Barrow and photographer Tim Johnson head there to check it out, but find themselves captured and sent to the planet Ergro by scientist Dr. Grood, who sends them to work on the planet to mine minerals and build his inventions to take over the universe. Rex, Tim, captured scientist Professor Dorn and his daughter Ella must overcome Grood’s mind control device and other contraptions as they try to put a stop to his evil plans…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Lost Planet is a 1953 serial produced by Columbia Pictures and comprised of fifteen chapters. It is the last science-fiction serial that the studio produced (although the studio itself only produced three serials which could be fully described as “science-fiction”). The serial starts out with reports of a flying saucer crashing on Mount Vulcan, and reporter Rex Barrow and photographer Tim Johnson go to investigate, but end up getting captured along with Ella Dorn, and taken by rocket ship to the planet Ergro, where evil scientist Dr. Grood has taken over the planet to mine a new element that fuels his evil inventions. The plot of the serial revolves around trying to stop Grood and his various inventions, most notably his mind control device, which places prisoners in his power. It’s not only that though: this element that Grood is mining also fuels inventions such as a death ray, mind-reading device, invisibility and a whole host of other sci-fi tropes. Normally just one of these inventions would be enough for a serial to focus on, but here they’re all thrown into the mix. While this helps with keeping the serial varied across its fifteen chapters, it also has the effect of having little focus on any one of them. The one which stands out most is the use of the mind-control/hypnosis device. which is probably the least interesting of them all, and a lot of the plot just revolves around being hypnotised and de-hypnotising certain characters, creating a predictable back-and-forth.

    One of the interesting aspects of this serial is that it seems to have been planned to be a sequel to the Captain Video serial. A lot of the same actors return, and the costumes and props are obviously re-used from it (for example, the outfits of the “video rangers” are used for the uniforms of the brainwashed people on Ergro). Whether the idea of making this a sequel was scrapped early on for some reason is anybody’s guess. The characters themselves are an unassuming bunch, and fit the typical parts that these serials provide. Unlike Captain Video though, this serial actually has a female character, although as usual, her only noteworthy aspect is being related to another more important male character. There’s a number of villains that have their own unique personalities and play off against one another, but it never really develops into something remarkable, and the web of villains just becomes confusing and muddled. Particularly as the serial switches between Earth and Ergro constantly.

    In terms of production, there’s some decent sets in this serial. The rocket ship looks good, and the space travel sequences between Earth and Ergro look pretty good, considering in 1953 no one had ever been into space. The acting is not great, but there’s definitely worse performances I’ve seen in serials. It might have gotten away with it, but some of the dialogue is pretty dull and loaded with technical jargon that the actors seem to be convinced about saying. One other problem is that both Earth and Ergro look exactly the same; obviously because both are filmed in the California hills like every other serial, and as such this adds to the confusion surrounding the story, as both planets look so alike you don’t know where you are some of the time. Another curious decision about the making of the serial is that there’s none of the typical fistfights you get in nearly every serial: the only time someone throws a punch is when Rex is turned invisible, and so even then, you can’t see him actually throw the punch. This is incredibly strange, most notable because Spencer Gordon bennet, the director, practically invented the choreography for serial fistfights. Maybe they wanted to focus on the scientific inventions and their varied effects for the action, but even then, as mentioned, this is only the third sci-fi serial Columbia made, and it seems a bit out of their comfort zones.

    Overall, The Lost Planet is a bit of a mess, and suffers from attempting to do too much. The inventions and sets are cool, but they’re all just props without a decent plot to coalesce around. The stakes are pretty detached as most of the action unfolds on this non-descript planet, and the characters fail to make an impact despite having such a large cast. The lack of action in this serial is very questionable, and the array of inventions don’t really fill in the gap. The whole serial is full of typical set-ups and schemes, but fails to give any motivation for the characters, or direction for a plot to develop.

  • Film reviews

    #377 – Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders (1953)

    Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders (1953)

    Film review #377

    Director: Franklin Adreon

    SYNOPSIS: Canadian mountie Don Roberts is teamed up with intelligence operative Kay Conway to investigate reports of spies operating in the area attempting to set up covert missile bases in the Canadian wilderness. Don suspects two members of a group of settlers travelling across the wilderness are working for the spies, and so goes undercover in an attempt to expose them. Meanwhile, Beck and Reed, the spies lackeys, are secretly working to discourage the settlers from travelling to the site where Marloff, the foreign spy, wants to build his missile bases…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISCanadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders is a 1953 serial. I think the title alone should grab anyone’s attention, so let’s see if there’s any substance underneath it…

    Mountie Don Roberts is visited by his boss and intelligence operative Kay Conway to investigate the presence of foreign spies in the area. They believe that some of the settlers moving through the town are working for the spies, and so Don goes undercover with them to try and uncover their identity and motives. The first part of the serial sees Don travelling through the wilderness with these settlers as he tries to foil the spies schemes. This leads a variety of associated perils such as avalanches, dog-sled chases and other such perils of the wilderness. These sorts of sequences you don’t see too often in these serials of the time, so it is something a little different. The main plot of the serial though is nothing too special, with a constant back-and-forth chase between the heroes and villains. The “atomic invaders” are just plain foreign spies and also not very interesting. In 1953, these kinds of serials were dwindling in number as studios turned towards the feature film (and the b-movie), and the introduction of television would mean that these serials would be viewed at home each week rather than getting people to go to the theatre. With that in mind, the chapters are all (with the exception of the first one) just over thirteen minutes long, which seems a waste of effort going to see such a short film. I suppose a positive of this is that the chapters aren’t drawn out with pointless dialogue and scenes that go nowhere…but that said, there is still plenty of it to fill out the time…

    After Don foils Marloff’s (the foreign spy) plans to stop the settlers, the spy changes the location of his proposed missile sites which will destroy the U.S. cities to allow his country to invade with little resistance. This “foreign country” is never mentioned by name, but since the cold war was beginning to get underway at the time, I think it’s fairly obvious which country they are referring to. The rest of the serial involves a more usual set-up of fistfights, car chases and cliff hangers that will be familiar to serial watchers. Again, at this time, the format really had been exhausted, and it can offer no real surprises or originality. Some serials hide the identity of the villain until the very end so as to maintain a sense of intrigue throughout, but this serial does not. It might have been a good idea to keep the identity of Smokey, a village resident who is Marloff in disguise, a secret until the end. Instead, it reveals it almost instantly, and the conflict between the heroes and villains really lacks any dynamic.

    Given that the film has a variety of scenes in different locations, there is a lot of stock footage used and shots in the wilderness are cobbled together in a studio with painted backgrounds that look rather unconvincing. The chase scenes in cars and boats look alright, and the explosive cliffhangers have an impact, but the format leaves every twist in the story all too predictable, and despite the bizarre title, Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders fails to contribute anything unique to a formulaic format.