Now remastered in High Definition for Blu-ray, The Magnetic Monster is a ’50s sci-fi film with an ambitious idea, a low budget, and a complicated history.
As with so much of sci-fi cinema, it all started with Curt Siodmak. Before he fled Hitler’s Germany and eventually landed in Hollywood, he wrote a big-budget German hit in the sci-fi genre — really more of a techno-thriller — called F.P.1 Antwortet Nicht. The film concerned trouble on a floating platform for airplanes in the Atlantic Ocean, and its popularity was directly responsible for director Karl Hartl reuniting with star Hans Albers for an even more expensive follow-up: the 1934 epic Gold. Siodmak didn’t work on that one, but he did write the British remake of Germany’s third big-budget techno-thriller, Der Tunnel.
So Siodmak had his finger in two of the three projects in that loose trilogy — but wait. Twenty years later, he collaborated with producer and co-writer Ivan Tors on The Magnetic Monster, which proved to be the first of a trilogy about idealistic heroes in the fictional Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI). What does this have to do with the German trilogy? Only that the climax of this modestly-budgeted movie reworks stock footage from the climax of Gold, dressing its characters up to resemble the actors of that 1934 film in order to fool us into thinking they’re the same figures we see in long shots of those monumental sets.
Somehow, it’s not badly done. In fact, it injects spectacle and grandeur into what’s otherwise a talky, low-key film based on documentary realism and grim-faced scientific chatter among hard-nosed men in uniforms. The “monster” is an unstable radioactive element that exponentially grows by absorbing energy and causing magnetic implosions, which will threaten the Earth unless the heroic scientist (Richard Carlson) can stop it. It’s a nuclear warning, albeit an optimistic one, of the kind that was about to become routine in cinema. Whereas such threats as Godzilla and Them, which both came out the following year, were about living creatures mutated to gigantic size, the monster in Siodmak’s vision is an inanimate, impersonal process, and therefore perhaps more disquieting.
Seen periodically is the scientist’s pretty and perky wife (Jean Byron), whose distinguishing trait is that she’s pregnant, although that word isn’t spoken. As they smile their way into their new house in the final scene, the husband tries to spell out a contrast between the different examples of cell multiplication, one based in love and the other in hate and fear.
For Tors, Siodmak would write the second OSI film, Riders to the Stars, also starring Carlson (who directed it), but not the third, Gog. Tors would then produce Science Fiction Theatre, a pioneering TV anthology that mentions the OSI in some episodes. There is some controversy, touched upon in Derek Botello’s commentary and elaborated further in Tom Weaver’s commentary on the recent Blu-ray of Gog, to the effect that Siodmak was replaced as director by Herbert L. Strock, who takes credit as editorial supervisor. Strock would direct Gog and many episodes of Science Fiction Theatre.
The chief problem with The Magnetic Monster, ironically, is the film’s lack of magnetism aside from that lifted from a more physically impressive movie. At least it’s presented in maximum shape here as a serious artifact of its era. Gold has a similarly talky, plodding quality, and that’s freshly on Blu-ray, too. Can Riders to the Stars be far behind?