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The Magnetic Monster

The Magnetic Monster(1953)

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teaser The Magnetic Monster (1953)

Not all of the rampaging monsters of the sci-fi thrillers and horror films of the fifties A-bomb era were mutant insects or oversized lizards or gigantic humans. Some were uniquely original and a credit to their creators such as The Monolith Monsters (1957), growing towers of meteor crystals that absorbed moisture from humans, and the square-shaped robot with cylindrical legs known as Kronos (1957), a giant alien robot that smashed everything in its path. The Magnetic Monster (1953) belongs in this latter group and is an intriguing and intelligent sci-fi thriller, despite its limited budget, modest production values and the occasional serious scene that plays better as comedy.

Released the same year as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The War of the Worlds, The Magnetic Monster was one of the first American sci-fi films to exploit the theme of nuclear energy run amok and the dangers of radioactivity, thus establishing a popular formulaic precedent that would be repeated in such subsequent movies as Them! (1954), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). The film also benefited from the casting of Richard Carlson in the leading role of scientist Jeffrey Stewart, a member of the U.S. government's Office of Scientific Investigation. By this point in his career, Carlson was no longer a freelance supporting player at MGM, RKO and other studios and was building a solid career as a leading man in B pictures. The Magnetic Monster marked Carlson's initial foray into sci-fi and horror and he would follow it with several better known titles that would forever associate him with that genre: It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Maze (1953), Riders to the Stars (1954), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and such TV series as Thriller and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Filmed mostly on the former Hal Roach studio lot with some exterior location filming in Los Angeles, The Magnetic Monster establishes its disturbing premise from the get-go with reports from Jeff's coworker Dan (King Donovan of Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956] fame) that high levels of radioactive dust have been detected in the area. When Jeff and Dan go to investigate a complaint from a store owner that all of his metal appliances have magnetically bonded and are creating havoc, they discover something much more disturbing above the shop: the body of a man who has died from radiation poisoning. They learn that the dead man was an assistant to research scientist Howard Denker, who had fled the scene with something in his briefcase. A manhunt ensues and Denker is apprehended but also dies from radiation poisoning, leaving behind the monster he has created - an atomic isotope that devours energy and doubles its size every 12 hours. Although Jeff manages to isolate and contain the growing threat temporarily, he races against time to prevent the isotope from destroying the town and the world beyond.

According to notes in the American Film Institute entry on The Magnetic Monster, producer Ivan Tors and director Curt Siodmak were planning to create a television series based on the "A-Men" characters presented in this movie. Nothing came of it but a later episode of The Outer Limits TV series would feature a similar plot premise. Much more intriguing is how Tors, Siodmak and film editor Herbert L. Strock integrated approximately ten minutes of footage from the 1934 German sci-fi film Gold into the suspenseful climax of The Magnetic Monster, which is set in a subterranean laboratory in Nova Scotia.

Tors, who is better known today for his family-friendly features (Zebra in the Kitchen [1965], Around the World Under the Sea [1966]) and TV series such as Sea Hunt, Flipper and Daktari, dabbled in the sci-fi genre in his early years. The Magnetic Monster was his first venture into that realm but he followed it up with Riders to the Stars (1954), the 3-D thriller Gog (1954), the 1956 documentary Unidentified Flying Objects: The True Story of Flying Saucers and the TV series Science Fiction Theatre, which ran 1955-1956.

There is a bit of controversy surrounding The Magnetic Monster today due to a question of directorial credit. Although Curt Siodmak is acknowledged on-screen and in most sources as the film's director, many accounts name Herbert J. Strock as the true auteur behind this 1953 feature. According to Strock in his interview with Tom Weaver for Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Directors, Actors, Moguls and Makeup, he stated that Tors became displeased with Siodmak's work on The Magnetic Monster after a few days of shooting and asked Strock, the film's editor, to come to the set. "The script supervisor," he recalled, "a charming lady by the name of Mary Whitlock Gibsone, said, "They want you to take over the picture." I said, "What?! I'm not a director, I'm a film editor!" And she said, "This picture uses so much stock footage from the German film we have, and you know exactly how everything must go together - and Curt [Siodmak] couldn't understand it. Ivan [Tors] came over and said, "Don't worry, I've called the Directors Guild, you're in the Guild, take over." So, I was called upon to instantly become a director!"

The ironic twist in all of this is that some genre enthusiasts feel that The Magnetic Monster is Siodmak's best work as a director. Actually, he was much more prolific as a screenwriter and his other directorial efforts were nothing to brag about; the less than stellar productions include Bride of the Gorilla (1951), Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956) and Love Slaves of the Amazon (1957). Herbert L. Strock's track record as a director, despite many more credits than Siodmak, is equally dubious. After all, for a man who helmed I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), Blood of Dracula (1957) and The Crawling Hand (1963), the term masterpiece is not likely to enter into any film discussions of his work. In the end, regardless of who deserves the credit for The Magnetic Monster, it remains a superior example of a low budget sci-fi film - thought-provoking if far-fetched, tensely paced (the brisk running time is 76 minutes) and it features a spectacular climax that was lifted from a completely different film but is ingeniously integrated into this movie's visual design.

Producer: Ivan Tors
Director: Curt Siodmak; Herbert L. Strock (uncredited)
Screenplay: Curt Siodmak, Ivan Tors
Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Art Direction: George Van Marter
Music: Blaine Sanford
Cast: Richard Carlson (Dr. Jeffrey Stewart), King Donovan (Dr. Dan Forbes), Jean Byron (Connie Stewart), Harry Ellerbe (Dr. Allard), Leo Britt (Dr. Benton), Leonard Mudie (Howard Denker), Byron Foulger (Mr. Simon), Michael Fox (Dr. Serny), John Zaremba (Chief Watson), Lee Phelps (City Engineer).

by Jeff Stafford

Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Directors, Actors, Moguls and Makeup by Tom Weaver (McFarland)
They Fought in Creature Features: Interviews with 23 Classic Horror, Science Fiction and Serial Stars by Tom Weaver (McFarland)
It Came from Weaver Five: Interviews with 20 Zany, Glib and Earnest Moviemakers in the SF and Horror Traditions of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and Sixties by Tom Weaver (McFarland)

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