The Magnetic Monster
by Jason Coffman
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The name Curt Siodmak is no doubt familiar to fans of classic horror and sci-fi cinema, although perhaps not to many others. Siodmak may be best known for writing the original screenplay for Universal’s classic The Wolf Man, although his name appeared on a number of sci-fi and horror films both high-profile (Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie) and low-budget (Siodmak’s own directorial effort Bride of the Gorilla), as well as writing the repeatedly adapted novel Donovan’s Brain. The Magnetic Monster, released in 1953, is one of Siodmak’s few credits as director, and has gained something of a “lost classic” status since it has not been available in the U.S. on home video. MGM has now released the film as part of their Limited Edition Collection, finally allowing a new generation of film fans a look at a very unusual film.
Dr. Jeffrey Stewart (Richard Carlson), a scientist and agent for the Office of Scientific Investigation, is called to investigate an odd situation at a local housewares store where all the clocks have stopped and the electricity is not working. He discovers the entire place has become severely magnetized, and a wrecked laboratory on the second floor is emanating dangerous amounts of radioactivity. Before he knows it, Stewart and his partner Dr. Dan Forbes (King Donovan) are involved in a manhunt for a radioactive material on the loose— it’s so serious, Stewart even has to cancel dinner with his pregnant wife Connie (Jean Byron)!
Stewart and Forbes track down the rest of the radioactive material, in the hands of rogue scientist Howard Denker (Leonard Mudie). Denker has created a voracious radioactive element that needs constant electrical current or else it implodes and doubles in size every eleven hours. This “Magnetic Monster,” then, threatens to destroy the entire world if it is not quickly neutralized, pitting Stewart, Forbes and the O.S.I. in a race against the clock. Can they stop it in time? Will Connie Stewart ever gain weight so the Stewarts will have the “fat, sassy baby” Jeffrey wants?
The Magnetic Monster is a very unique sci-fi/horror film from this era in that most of its time is spent in labs and board rooms where very important-looking men say very impressive-sounding science things while trying to figure out how to deal with the titular “monster.” The “monster” itself is also very unusual, in that it’s not really a standard sci-fi monster at all, but a radioactive element out of control— it’s not a living beast at all. In some ways, The Magnetic Monster prefigures bureaucratic “behind the scenes” films like Steven Soderbergh’s recent Contagion, focusing more on the people who have to deal with the problem that has presented itself than the reaction of the public to this danger.
Certainly, the scientific babble all sounds and looks (on chalkboards) pretty impressive, but whether or not the individual audience member will enjoy The Magnetic Monster will depend largely on their tolerance for lengthy scenes of dialogue cut with generous portions of stock footage. There are a few moments of levity that feel completely out of place (typical for films of this era), but otherwise the cast plays everything deadly seriously. It may not exactly be a lost classic, but it’s still great of MGM to give audiences a chance to see something truly unique from the golden era of American sci-fi cinema.
The Magnetic Monster is available through MGM’s Limited Edition Collection on DVD. The disc contains a theatrical trailer for the film and the film is presented in 4x3 full-frame.
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and is a regular contributor to Fine Print Magazine (www.fineprintmag.net).
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