Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Magnetic Monster, The (1953)

... aka: A-Men
... aka: El monstruo magnético
... aka: Gizli Kuvvet (Secret Force)
... aka: Il mostro magnetico
... aka: Implosion

Directed by:
Curt Siodmak
Herbert L. Strock (uncredited)

Though he started out in Hollywood writing musicals, comedies and romantic dramas, Hungarian-born producer / writer Iván Törzs (Ivan Tors) was actually mostly interested in three other topics: animals, science fiction and all things aquatic. After starting his own namesake production company, he scratched his sci-fi itch first with The Magnetic Monster, following by Riders to the Stars and the 3D release Gog (both 1954 releases) and then the TV series Science Fiction Theater. Entering into the 60s, he began working on most of what he'd become most famous for today. 

After his ocean-centered adventure TV shows The Aquanauts and Sea Hunt concluded, he had his most noteworthy hit merging his animal and ocean interests with Flipper, which started out as two movies and then became a beloved TV series lasting from 1964 to 1967. Afterward, he produced Gentle Giant (1967), an adaptation of a popular children's book about a family friendly bear that doesn't want to rip your face off, which became the basis for the series Gentle Ben, which lasted two seasons.

Tapped to direct this first Tors sci-fi production was... Well, I'm not entirely sure. Listed in the credits only as editing supervisor, Herbert L. Strock also reputedly directed part, if not MOST, of the film sans credit. The sole directorial credit however was given to Curt Siodmak, who co-wrote the script with Tors. This seemed to be an unfortunate recurring theme throughout Strock's career. He also supposedly directed or co-directed the same team's aforementioned Riders to the Stars, Donovan's Brain (1953), the troubled Monstroid (which began production in 1971 but wasn't released until nearly a decade later) and other films without receiving credit. Strock's Los Angeles Times obit claims Magnetic Monster was his feature directorial debut and also claims he was one of the producers, though he's not credited for that either.

Science is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can make all of our lives easier. On the other, it can destroy us all. Our opening narrator warns of recently-discovered "deadly isotopes of unknown elements," sound frequencies that can penetrate the human brain and kill and chemicals that can burn and sear human flesh. Quite the pessimist he is. Thankfully, there's a team of scientists who are doing everything in their power to make sure we don't annihilate ourselves. They're the OSI, or the Office of Scientific Investigations. Operatives at the OSI are referred to as A-Men ("Sounds like the final word of a prayer. It is not."), who are described as being essentially detectives. With science degrees.

After receiving a call about strange occurrences from a concerned city engineer, OSI agent Dr. Jeff Stewart (Richard Carlson) and his assistant Dr. Dan Forbes (King Donovan) are on the case. Hardware store owner Mr. Simon (Byron Foulger) is at a loss as to why all of his clocks have mysteriously stopped at 12 past 12, his merchandise is sticking together and dryer doors and mowers are moving on their own. It appears to be a case of extremely strong magnetization. Geiger counters pick up strong traces of radioactivity, and they appear to be emanating from upstairs. Exploring the office immediately above, the two find a corpse, as well as a container that appears to be the primary source of all the radioactivity. It's now empty.

Numerous tests are run and all information is fed into a "giant brain machine" called M.A.N.I.A.C. (Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Computer) but M.A.N.I.A.C. is basically like I have no clue what this stuff is. The men suspect they may be dealing with a brand knew element, which shares some similar properties to uranium but is much denser and much stronger. Radio broadcasts are then arranged to let the public know to report any strange occurrences with their TVs, radios, watches, cars or other metal-based belongings. OSI is soon swamped with reports, with the townsfolk treating them as little better than repairmen. However, one call comes through that they definitely need to check out...

A cabbie picked up a nervous gentleman who was carrying a heavy briefcase that he wouldn't let the driver touch. After dropping the man off at the airport, the cabbie's vehicle has picked up magnetic properties. Traces of radiation are then found on an air trip insurance machine (was that really a thing back in 1953?), indicating the man had purchased a policy prior to boarding one of the planes. Cracking open the machine, they're able to find out the identity of the insurance purchaser: Dr. Howard Denker (Leonard Mudie), a well-known research physicist at Southwest University.

Jeff and Dan are able to order the plane to turn around and come back, and have a brief conversation with the sickly scientist before he dies of radiation poisoning. According to him, he and his assistant (i.e. the dead guy in the office) bombarded an element called "serenium" (any relation to selenium?) with alpha particles for hundreds of hours. Now whatever substance they've created is "hungry" and must be fed a constant stream of electricity or else it will "reach out with its magnetic arms" and grab anything in its reach. The deadly, constantly-growing element is then given a new home in a cyclotron at a state university, but that doesn't last long after it implodes and blows up the building. The scientists then learn some horrifying, and potentially apocalyptic, things about it.

I'd venture a guess and say the easiest way to make a monster movie is to have that "monster" be something that's invisible to the human eye. I'd also venture a guess and say that it's even easier to make an invisible monster movie when your entire exciting climax consists of stolen footage from an old sci-fi movie. And that's pretty much what we have here with this throwaway cheapie. Mind you, this isn't unwatchable. It's competent, with some interesting ideas here and there and a good central performance from Carlson, but it's also almost entirely devoid of action and exceedingly talky, with gaps filled in by endless narration and expository science blabber.

All of the airplane, military and explosion scenes are stock footage and everything centered around the "Deltatron" machine at the finale has been swiped from the German film Gold (1934), which looks like it's probably worth checking out in its original form. The cast is filled with overworked character actors from the day, with the likes of Roy Engle, Frank Gerstle and Billy Benedict filling small roles. Also on hand here are pretty Jean Byron in a thankless role as Carlson's pregnant wife, Harry Ellerbe (from Corman's House of Usher), a young Strother Martin as a pilot and Kathleen Freeman as a secretary.

A fairly well-circulated title over the years, this was released theatrically in 1953, reissued in 1956 and then debuted on TV that same year. There were numerous VHS and DVD releases from MGM, Sinister Cinema, Monterey, etc., plus a blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber released a 2016. It's also currently on the streaming service Tubi, though not an especially good print of it.

La mansión de la locura (1973)

... aka: Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon
... aka: Edgar Allan Poe: Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon
... aka: Edgar Allan Poe's The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether
... aka: House of Madness
... aka: Mansion of Madness, The
... aka: System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather, The

Directed by:
Juan López Moctezuma

Prior to this, Moctezuma produced Fando and Lis (1968) and El Topo (1970) for Alejandro Jodorowsky, and that surrealist bent has carried right on over to this Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, which was based on his 1845 lunatics-taking-over-the-asylum short story "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether." The director isn't the only Jodorowsky connection either. The film's producer (Roberto Vizkin), cinematographer (Rafael Corkidi), editor (Federico Landeros) and other crew members were also carried over from the aforementioned Jodorowsky films, as well as some of the cast members. Apparently a lot of them were also involved in some kind of experimental theatre group at the time. 

Though a Mexican production made by a mostly Spanish-speaking cast and crew, this was filmed entirely in English. Of the four primary stars, one is Mexican, one is French and two have been drafted in from America. And though set in 19th Century France, the entire movie was filmed in Mexico. Certainly sounds like the makings of a very strange brew and this film lives up to that promise, though not always in a good way.

Journalist Gaston LeBlanc (Arthur Hansel), who was born in France yet raised and educated in the United States, has landed a gig writing an article about a remote French sanatorium's novel way of treating its patients. This not only gives him an excuse to visit his homeland but also an opportunity to explore subject matter that fascinates him. You see, when he was very young, too young to actually remember it, his mother was killed and her family accused his father of murdering her, which led to his incarceration. He ended up living out the rest of his days locked away in a madhouse. Accompanying him on the carriage ride is acquaintance Julien Couvier (Martin LaSalle), who claims to be "terrified" of mentally deranged people but is willing to show his friend around, and Julien's cousin, Blanche (Mónica Serna).

Upon arriving at the tunnel entrance of the grounds, Julien is surprised to see posted armed guards blocking the entrance. There never used to be any guards before. When another guard shows up, they're finally allowed to pass and then encounter two nuts, one dressed up as a monk and the other like some reject from a community theater production of Alice in Wonderland. The latter shouts the various names of the devil before being chased off. Do they just let the patients run amok at this particular asylum? It's certainly starting to look that way.

Because they're scared of the asylum, Julien and Blanche drop Gaston off at the entrance and then bid him adieu. As soon as he's on the grounds, Gaston realizes that, yes, the disturbed patients are indeed allowed to freely wander, as are a variety of barnyard animals. He meets up with the eccentric asylum director, Dr. Maillard (Claudio Brook), who gives him a grand tour and tries to explain the methods to his madness. He claims the patients are like his children and the asylum is their playground. Maillard has been using a radical new technique called a "soothing system" to run the place, which allows patients the opportunity to constantly work on different "inventions" without interference. One has made a storm generating machine. Another, a metallic womb uniting man with the universe. As for the patients of "great warmth," they're stuffed into pipes to help with the establishment's heating system. The energy then generated is crystallized into a miraculous drug that kills inactiveness and keeps the patients' violent tendencies at bay.

Needless to say, Gaston is rather perplexed ("The more you say, the less I understand"), but Maillard assures him the techniques have been developed and fine tuned by the celebrated, world famous duo of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. Embarrassed, Gaston confesses to have never heard of either, though they're no doubt both extraordinary men. Further into the bowels of the establishment they go, where Gaston meets Mr. Chicken, a man who lives the life of a rooster, including doing the chicken walk, eating only corn and constantly clucking. From there, it's down into the asylum's dark, dingy and rat-infested dungeon, which is only accessible through a confusing labyrinth of underground tunnels. There, Gaston discovers the asylum is not all fun and games. A starving, deranged, Dante-quoting old man is tied to a rack, and other prisoners are scattered about, either shackled or locked in cells.

About the only thing keeping Gaston there is that he's started to fancy Maillard's beautiful, harp-playing niece Eugénie (Ellen Sherman). He fears her life may be in danger, especially after she performs a sacred Javanese dance where she seductively strokes a phallic conch and then tries to use the shell to stab Maillard. When Gaston accuses Maillard of being an impostor, he's locked up in his room and threatened with permanent imprisonment in the dungeon. There are revelations about the true identities of both Maillard and Eugénie as Gaston plots to escape.

As all of that is going on, it turns out that Julien, Blanche and their coachman Henri (Jorge Bekris) didn't make it far beyond the asylum gates before getting buggy-jacked by a group of bandits. The men are beaten, Blanche is raped and all three get tied up and dragged deeper into the forest. Julien manages to sneak away but is forced to hop around on one leg as cartoonish music plays. Later developments involve an attempted human sacrifice atop of pile of grapes and apples, a plot to "cleanse" our heroes by fire, a priest (David Silva) and priestess (Susana Kamini) who oversee a newly-invented religious sect, someone dry-humping a lamb carcass and a trio of tarred and feathered performers doing an interpretative dance accompanied by atonal, distorted chicken screeching. Ay ay ay.

No doubt this is trying to make a political statement with the smug, megalomaniac doctor-dictator ruling over his self-professed "kingdom," sometimes barking out orders from a throne made out of bones. Those who abide by his rules are rewarded with freedom and perks like music or a lavish feast while those who oppose him are killed, imprisoned (either in a large cage or in decorative glass boxes) or banished to the dungeon where they'll wither away and die. Naturally there's a revolution brewing from the 'have nots' of the establishment. 

Frequent jarring tonal changes, the talk-heavy script, pseudo-campy overacting and the extremely dreary, depressing setting and intentionally drab photography constantly at odds with the whimsical, lighthearted music and absurdist would-be "comic" content make this difficult to sit through.

There's some nudity (including that old surrealist standby of a naked woman riding around on a horse indoors for no good reason) but minimal violence. The best thing going on here is clearly the costume design and art direction. British surrealist painter / writer / sculptress Leonora Carrington, who lived out most of her adult life in Mexico, supervised both. Rather interestingly, Carrington spent time in an asylum herself after suffering from a psychotic break in her early 20s, and wrote about her experiences and harsh treatment in her memoir, Down Below. Her son, Gabriel Weisz, also worked on the production design.

A slightly cut version with the original English audio track played in U.S. theaters under the title Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon in either 1976 or 1977. The Spanish-language version, which had been released first (years earlier actually), had to be re-dubbed. This made its American home video debut courtesy of Magnum in 1985, then fell into public domain hell for a number of years with a subpar print (presumably culled from the VHS) distributed on all kinds of gray market labels. Mondo Macabro, who'd also handled the director's ALUCARDA (1977), saved the film with a proper restored DVD release in 2005. Extras on it include essays, a trailer, an interview with Guillermo del Toro (who counts Moctezuma as an influence) and a 1977 text interview with the late director, who passed away in 1995.

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