Mladen and Del review ‘The Magnetic Monster’

Image courtesy of United Artists.

“The Magnetic Monster” Starring Richard Carlson, King Donovan, Jean Byron, and others. Directed by Curt Siodmak and Herbert L. Strock. Writers Curt Siodmak and Ivan Tors. 76 minutes. Rating: Approved. Amazon Prime.

Mladen’s take

The Atomic Age fuses with a quark-y idea, valent script writing, and energetic performances to form the nucleus of “The Magnetic Monster.”

This elemental gem of a sci-fi movie is only 76 minutes but tells the story, and captures the fear of the unknown about radioactivity, in 1953 with panache.

There are no goofy sound effects in “The Magnetic Monster.” No overdone dumbing-down of science. There are no mad scientists, though there’s one not-too-bright physicist, in the film. There’s gentlemanly sexism. Dare not there be a woman engineer or researcher. Instead, we get a clever pregnant wife, a diligent switchboard operator, and a very athletic store clerk with one helluva body.

Now that I irritated, or is it irradiated, Del long enough by withholding a film summary, here you go.

An appliance and hardware store near a Government facility populated by “A-men” (atomic men) is magnetized. Watch out for the engineless push lawnmower with some dastardly looking blades bolting at you because you’re in the way of the pull of the polarized attractor with thirst for pure energy. A-men Drs. Jeffrey Stewart (Carlson) and Dan Forbes (Donovan) are dispatched by the Office of Scientific Investigation chief scientist to uncover the facts and cure the problem. Geiger counters tick. A man is found dead in a secret, makeshift laboratory. Off go Stewart and Forbes to get to the bottom of the incident.

The disaster that unfolds isn’t a nuclear reactor going China syndrome. The disquiet and radioactivity haven’t been released by a detonating A-bomb. “The Magnetic Monster” menace is tough to find and, when found, tough to throttle. It has to be fed to keep contained. Each subsequent feeding requires magnitudes more food and, in one instance, takes blacking out a city to provide the needed electricity. The magnetic monster grows after it eats like the Republican party bloats as it chews our democracy. That means the next monster feeding will require a bigger source of power. How long before the Earth, the solar system, the galaxy, the constellation, or the universe are consumed because the beast needs matter converted to energy to stay satiated? Oh, Einstein, what have you caused with that E=mc2 thing.

I loved this black-and-white movie for its effort to pay attention to science. For showing us wavy lines on cathode ray tubes. For demonstrating how fast those new-fangled jet-powered airplanes with straight wings can fly. For the cool, realistic explosion of a volt-injecting machine the size of a building. Thank you for at least making the effort to show that decaying metals are heavy, literally. And, dadgum, you made a block of gray material smaller than a breadbox the plausible villain.

A-, Del. “The Magnetic Monster” is an A-. Need a rationale? If you think “The Haunting” is an A-, there’s no way you can think anything less of “The Magnetic Monster.”  

Del’s take

A- my ass.

“The Magnetic Monster” is at best a C. It has a couple of things going for it and a lot of things that don’t, so let’s touch on the positives first.

Number 1, forget the story. “The Magnetic Monster” is a time capsule of life in the 1950s, and while much of that life is better left to history, other aspects invoked a pleasant nostalgia for conduct and commodities that I wish existed today.

For instance, the cars. The cars are behemoths of chrome and steel, fitting of all the old nicknames – land yachts, battle cruisers and road hogs. No doubt they got crappy gas mileage and polluted the environment, but man, they sure were nice to look at. Designers back then were still trying to create art, not aerodynamically efficient blob mobiles. We all could use a little more art in our lives.

Men and women dressed for work. The ladies wore dresses and skirts with hats and gloves, while the men were clad in suits and ties. Call me old-fashioned but I think a more formal workplace dress code imparts a more formal manner of job conduct and thinking. Much of the work today seems like it was done by somebody wearing a bathrobe and house slippers.

People back then – at least in the movies – seemed more articulate. Their speech was almost patrician, with a whiff of an English accent in some – a welcome departure from the onslaught of slurred, mispronounced vulgarities we are subjected to these days.

From there “The Magnetic Monster” sleds downhill.

I’ll be first to point out life in the ’50s might have been grand for white males but not many others. Women, as illustrated in “The Magnetic Monster,” occupied the lower rungs of the corporate ladder or were kept at home in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. In many of these movies you don’t see people of color unless they’re about to be devoured by the title threat.

Value judgments aside, the movie makes a laudable attempt to sell a scientific plausibility, and unlike many B movies of the ’50s you never see an actual “monster.” That’s because the monster is radiation, though I was confused about the relationship between magnetism and radioactive particles that sicken and kill people.

From what I’ve read, much of the “science” in “The Magnetic Monster” is nonsense, which is not necessarily a cause for dismissing the movie. The science in virtually all science fiction movies these days is nonsense. Don’t get me started on “Star Wars.” Still, while it must have sounded impressive to an audience of that era, I heard mostly nonsense.

The movie itself relies on special effects “borrowed” from a German science fiction film of the 1930s called “Gold.” It also features brief cameos by a computer called “M.A.N.I.A.C.,” which are good for a chuckle. I’d wager an Apple Watch has millions of times more computing power. Such is the march of technology.

“The Magnetic Monster” was the first movie of a trilogy, which included “Riders to the Stars” and “Gog,” both shot in the mid-1950s.

I mentioned two things in the movie’s favor. The other is that it’s short, a hair over an hour.

I enjoyed some aspects of “The Magnetic Monster” but mostly I thought it was boring. The ’50s produced some wonderful science fiction movies – “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Forbidden Planet,” but this is not one of them. It’s a product of the days when people feared the atom, the Russians and the unknown. Now, we know that climate change, incompetent politicians, corporate greed and evolving pathogens present a much greater threat.

Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind returning to those simpler days. At least in some ways.

Sorry, Mladen. C.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.

Image courtesy of United Artists.

Del reviews ‘Red Planet Mars’

“Red Planet Mars” Starring Peter Graves, Andrea King and Herbert Berghof. Directed by Harry Horner. 87 minutes. Rated approved.

Del’s take

Maybe you’ve noticed I’m reviewing more Netflix, Prime and Hulu offerings these days. That’s no accident.

My MoviePass account expires at the end of this month and I won’t be renewing. When I first joined, the MoviePass deal was unbeatable – watch as many movies as you like in one month for a piddling $7. I wondered how they could make money and they didn’t. Soon they were altering the terms, adding steps and otherwise making it impossible to use your MoviePass for anything but low-rated matinees only once per week. With my new work schedule I could not have seen more than one movie per month, if that. Not much of a deal.

I subscribe to Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Shudder and Curiosity Stream. I can also choose from Vudu and Tubi TV. Needless to say I am not deprived of video content.

But finding the good ones can be a challenge. More than once I’ve searched Google for the best hidden gems on Netflix. I even have a browser extension that lets me search all the “hidden” categories Netflix does not include with its interface.

It stands to reason if I am having this problem, others likely are too. And that is the direction I am taking “Movie Faceoff.”

I will continue to review theatrical releases when I see them, and if I can ever coax Mladen away from the Great American Novel he’s working on, we’ll do them together. Meantime, I am reviewing some of the gems – and dogs – I find on my streaming services. And that brings me to this latest offering, “Red Planet Mars.”

“Red Planet Mars” is one of the most remarkable science fiction movies I have ever seen. Released in 1952 by United Artists, the movie stars a very young Peter Graves at the height of his Nordic grandeur.

The basic plot of the story is as follows: Astronomers spot what appear to be artificial canals on Mars that are transporting water from a rapidly diminishing polar ice cap. At the same time an American scientist (Graves) has established a kind of crude radio communication with the inhabitants.

At first, the communication is a simple repetition of signals sent from Earth. But Graves’ son, Stewart (Orley Lindgren) suggests transmitting the numerical value of pi to see if the Martians, if they are indeed Martians, will carry those values to the next decimal point. They do, and a dialogue is established after the cryptographers who decoded the Japanese military signals during World War II figure out how to interpret their language.

The Martians soon reveal an astonishing grasp of science, informing Graves that they live to be 300 years old, use cosmic energy as an energy source and grow enough food on a single acre to feed an entire city.

When these messages are revealed to the world, the world responds with panic and hysteria. Farmers, afraid their crops will be rendered valueless by new growing methods, demand government compensation. The oil industry freaks out (they wouldn’t do THAT, would they) and the medical community has a shit fit. The stock market collapses, riots spread across the country and the western world grinds to a halt.

Simultaneously an evil subplot is playing out. The Russians have a spy listening in on the broadcasts, a Nazi scientist who invented the technology that enables Graves to contact the Martians. The Russians intend to use the chaos as a means to subjugate the west and take over the world.

That is until the messages from Mars detour from the standard our-technology-is-superior-to-yours script and move off in a weird, unanticipated direction. Tables get turned and “Red Planet Mars” becomes something that rises above the modest aspirations of a killer B movie.

The clothes, home furnishings and cars are vintage 1952, but the giant flat-panel TV mounted on Graves’ wall is anything but, suggesting “Red Planet Mars” is set in an alternate universe.

But what’s astonishing about the movie is its willingness to address the deep issues of first contact, or the Cold War conflict between east and west. It does so in surprisingly thoughtful ways, so atypical of the ’50s B movies with their bug-eyed monsters and giant insect predators.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying “Red Planet Mars” is a “good” movie. It’s definitely a product of its time. The viewer must make a deal with himself to overlook the overacting, the offensive patriarchal viewpoints, crappy special effects and script clinkers so common of movies of that day. But do that and you may be surprised.

I will say I liked the movie a lot. It entertained me right to the end.

I would grade “Red Planet Mars” at B+ purely on the merits of its ambition.

Stone is a former journalist and author.