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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Saturday, February 12, 1972: Gog (1954) / The Lady and the Monster (1944)



Synopsis: In a top-secret laboratory complex, researchers are working to make practical the age-old dream of manned spaceflight.  In one experiment, a monkey is given an injection and then placed in a cold chamber.  The temperature drops to over 100 degrees below zero; the monkey is quickly frozen solid but when it is thawed out it's as good as new. In a similar manner, we are told, astronauts will one day hibernate during long space journeys.

Later Dr. Huburtus (Michael Fox) is working inside the chamber alone when the door slams shut behind him.  The controls begin to turn on by themselves, plunging the temperature inside the chamber to -100 degrees.  Huburtus freezes to death, as does his assistant (Marian Richman)  when she tries to go inside the chamber to rescue him.




The two mysterious deaths cause station director Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall) to call in the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI), a sort of brainy FBI.  Soon Dr. David Sheppard (Richard Egan) arrives at the facility, which is located in the desert southwest. Sheppard is brought in via helicopter, as the base is inaccessible by road.  As the helicopter approaches the base, the controls begin to move by themselves,  and the pilot lets go of them. He explains to Sheppard that the last part of the voyage is controlled by the installation's computer, NOVAC.  This, he says, is in order to keep the exact location of the base a secret.

Dr. Sheppard is introduced to Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling), who is tasked with giving Sheppard a tour of the facility.  However, we soon find that Joanna and Sheppard have been lovers, a fact they keep hidden from the rest of the personnel at the base.

Sheppard is shown the various experiments going on in the lab.  We see a chamber where gravity can be artificially reduced, and a man and a woman do acrobatic feats in a near-weightless environment.  In another part of the facility, a centrifuge whirls prospective astronauts around at dangerous speeds.





Dr. Van Ness shows Sheppard a scale model of a planned orbital satellite.  America, Van Ness says, must be the first to launch such a satellite.  If the enemy gets into space first, it could be the end of the United States.  To prove this dubious claim, he shows Sheppard a parabolic mirror that will be mounted on the satellite.  The mirror is designed to focus sunlight into a mercury-filled chamber, creating steam and powering the space station.  However, he warns, such a mirror could be used for more sinister purposes.  He uses the same kind of focusing mirror to direct sunlight on a scale model of a "an industrial city on the shores of Lake Erie".  The model city bursts into flames as soon as the focused sunlight touches it.

Later, Sheppard meets Dr. Zeitman, a suspicious-looking German expatriate who designed NOVAC and spent five years assembling it in Switzerland. Zeitman is clearly a genius, and he demonstrates two innovations he believes are even greater than NOVAC itself: the robot Gog, and its twin Magog....

Comments: In the first edition of his book Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Bill Warren notes that while Gog had originally been shot in color, no color prints are extant. I found this interesting because I don't recall ever seeing a black-and-white print of the film.  It's possible that a color print was unearthed at some point after 1982, the year the book was first published; or it could be that Warren's memory was faulty.  Warren's first edition, after all, was published before this title was available on home video, and it might have been years since he'd last been able to see it.  In fact Gog was filmed in 3-D, scope and color, which was unusual for the time, especially for a low-budget sci-fi picture.  While it's available in Technicolor prints today, it hasn't been seen in scope or 3-D since its initial release.

Well, no matter. Regardless of the format, Gog falls victim to the worst sin a feature film can commit: it's painfully, dreadfully dull.  We're clearly meant to be dazzled by the technological wizardry on display (and in fact both the concept and the on-screen realization of most of the gadgets is moderately interesting, thanks to the help of Honeywell and its authentic scientific instruments)  but for the most part the science is bad, the special effects aren't that special, and the characterizations are paper-thin.  

Let's be honest: for a science fiction movie that pants so heavily over the science, Gog gets an awful lot wrong.  The anti-gravity chamber is a perfect example of this. No such chamber exists or could exist, and even if such anti-gravity rooms were possible, Tors completely bungles how this one is  depicted.  A pair of gymnasts jumping and tumbling around does not look anything like weightlessness, even as it was understood 60 years ago (though to be fair, science fiction films of the era rarely got it right; even the meticulously accurate Destination Moon barely made an effort to show a zero-G environment inside the Luna).  

Likewise, the fear of the Soviets burning whole cities to the ground with an orbiting mirror is nothing more than Cold War hysteria. Like Destination Moon and  Riders to the Stars there's a weird certainty that America would instantly fall to the Soviets if they beat us into space (inexplicably, we didn't surrender the day Sputnik was launched).

I've commented previously that Gog was surprisingly prescient in its depiction of computer technology. The idea that the Soviets could hack into the NOVAC mainframe, use it to monitor the personnel at the secret base, and control the devices that NOVAC controls, including the anti-gravity chamber, the centrifuge and the freezing-chamber, is actually quite credible. 

But there's no real reason for NOVAC to be put in control of every switch and dial at the base in the first place, except that it is convenient to the plot that it do so. It allows the Soviet agents who have gained control of NOVAC the ability to carry out a program of sabotage on the American base. But in Cold War terms, this is amazingly short-sighted. The real currency during the Cold War was intelligence.  A direct line into NOVAC would have provided the Russians with eyes and ears in a top-secret American research station, yielding a treasure trove of data.  Why would they call attention to the hack by monkeying with the dials and switches throughout the station?




There are two answers for this, of course.  First, it wouldn't be much of a movie if they didn't (this, by the way, also explains why Dr. Van Ness doesn't simply order NOVAC disconnected from the base controls so that the instruments can be run manually); and second, Cold War paranoia made it easy to believe that the Russians were lurking behind every tree, gleefully causing mischief wherever they could.

Early on we're led to believe this is a whodunit, but it isn't; we're presented with an obvious red herring in Dr. Zeitman but there are essentially no other suspects.  When the Russians and their high-altitude spy plane are outed as the culprits in the final real, we're not terribly surprised (the level of paranoia in the secret facility is so great it's a wonder anyone gets any work done at all) 

In fact the suffocating level of paranoia is probably the only thing that really works in Gog. We're presented with a near-dystopian society where everything has become so secret that even the people who work in the lab don't fully know its location.  Meanwhile the Soviets, who are the reason behind all the secrecy, know everything about the place. Whether the producers thought it was near-dystopian, however, is another matter.

The Lady and the Monster








Synopsis: Dr. Patrick Cory (Richard Arlen) is a scientist working for Professor Franz Mueller (Erich Von Stroheim) at Mueller's residence / laboratory, a fortress-like place called The Castle.  The two are doing experiments on keeping brain tissue alive separate from the body.  So far they have only worked with animal test subjects, and while the results have been encouraging things are progressing a little slowly for Dr. Mueller.  Like many scientists in these sort of movies, he's obsessed with vindicating his line of research, and he isn't above some ethical monkeyshines to get things moving. More than anything, he wants to test his procedure on a human brain, though the chances of his getting an opportunity to do so seem remote.

Cory and Mueller's assistant Janice Farrell (Vera Ralston)  have fallen in love, but unbeknownst to them, Mueller has a yen for Janice himself.  Janice and Cory talk of leaving the Castle and running off together, but Mueller excels at manipulating others, and he manages to keep them both on hand and under his control.

One evening a private plane crashes nearby and Mueller transports a critically injured man back to the Castle.  He calls Cory back from his date in town with Janice and bullies both of them into assisting him.




The patient dies, and Mueller sees his chance.  He removes the man's brain and puts it in a solution of brine; soon, he and Cory are able to verify that the brain is still alive independent of its body.

Mueller and Cory learn that the man who died in the crash was a powerful industrialist named W. H. Donovan. When the coroner comes to the house Mueller tells him that Donovan had suffered a severe head injury and that he and Cory had operated in hopes of saving his life.  However, the absence of a brain in the man's head is difficult to conceal and even more difficult to explain, and Mueller employs a little sleight-of-hand to get the death certificate signed and the body taken away.

As the brain marinates Mueller predicts that this is the dawn of a new age; human minds might be able to be indefinitely preserved after death.  The knowledge and wisdom of the ages might be able to be stored and accessed at will.  Meanwhile, Cory begins to have strange dreams; he can hear a voice repeating the name "W. H. Donovan" over and over again.  Mueller speculates that the brain, freed from the body and floating in an electrolytic solution, has become more powerful and has made a psychic connection to Cory.

Janice becomes increasingly alarmed by Cory's behavior.  With greater and greater frequency, Cory falls into a fugue-like state, acting like another person entirely.  Soon she and Dr. Mueller realize that Cory's body is being possessed by Donovan's brain, that he is being forced to act according to Donovan's will.  Cory begins traveling into town, withdrawing large sums of cash from various banks under dummy accounts and spending large amounts of money in efforts to get a convicted murderer sprung from prison.  But what is Donovan's connection with the man?  And -- what will Donovan's brain do in order to keep Cory's body under its control?




Comments: While The Lady and the Monster was the first film adaptation of Donovan's Brain,  the CBS radio anthology program Suspense was the first to translate Curt Siodmak's novel to another medium.  Orson Welles played Patrick Cory in this two-part audio drama, which retained Siodmak's narrative gimmick of a diary penned by the ill-fated scientist.  A  number of plot elements were jettisoned for this 60-minute work, including the shady financial transactions that Cory, possessed by the mind of Donovan, enters into during Cory's frequent fugue states.  The ending is also streamlined, and it differs significantly from that of the novel.  Nevertheless, the Suspense adaptation is quite taut and -- well, suspenseful.

As the program begins Welles plays Patrick Corey as something of a carefree dilettante, like Lamont Cranston in Welles' radio series The Shadow.  It's clearly a reflection of the way Welles saw Corey: a man who lives in a world of his own ideas, with little interest in what goes on outside. Corey becomes more agitated and serious as he begins to realize the true import of what he has done.  The counterpoint to Corey is Donovan -- Welles supplies him with a low, gutteral growl.  The Donovan catchphrase -- "Sure, sure, sure" -- is gravelly and menacing, and Donovan -- who invades Cory's dreams with images of bloody and ruthless conquests -- is more than enough of an antagonist to carry the drama forward to its conclusion.

As I mentioned in my previous write-up of this title, The Lady and the Monster strays farther from the source material than any of the other adaptations, for reasons that aren't entirely clear.  Eric Von Stroheim's Dr. Mueller becomes the ambitious surgeon, and Cory takes a back seat as his assistant, though we still identify with him as the protagonist.  The wife that Cory had in the novel is changed to his girlfriend, and a rather weak love triangle is added (Mueller, we gather, is in love with Janice, though she evidently has no interest in him). 

I've speculated that the Mueller character was inserted to a) make Cory seem more sympathetic to the audience; and b) provide an antagonist that's more recognizable to the audience than a mean guy's brain in a jar.  Having seen this one a second time I'm still convinced that this is the right explanation.  My guess is that screenwriters Dane Lussier and Frederick Kohner had very little confidence in the story they were given, and felt they had to insert some more conventional screen elements in order to "fix" it.  To say these guys were ill-suited to the task is an understatement. Kohner had never touched a genre screenplay in his life (he seemed to specialize in lightweight comedies) and went on to write the novel Gidget, as well as a number of scripts based on it, both for movies and TV.  Lussier specialized in low-budget programmers like Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946) and The Falcon's Alibi (1946).  Lussier was, to put it bluntly, a hack, unable to deviate from the clumsy templates he used to grind out poverty-row scripts. Director George Sherman was also out of his element.  He usually directed cheap westerns designed to run at the bottom of a double bill.

So its really in spite of these guys, not because of them, that the film works at all. The addition of Mueller's character makes Cory more sympathetic, but it also badly weakens him -- he is blameless for Mueller's crimes only because he got bullied into helping Mueller to carry them out. But the movie nevertheless picks up steam when Donovan begins to work on the hapless Cory's mind, forcing him to go into town, slowly assuming Cory's walk and manner. 

The cast is competent enough, though no one has the sort of arresting presence that Orson Welles brought to the radio drama (it would have been very interesting, by the way, to see Welles direct a screen adaptation of this story).  Richard Arlen is thoroughly forgettable as Cory, and while I usually like Eric Von Stroheim as an actor, his glowering and muttering seems less effective than usual here. 

No write-up of this movie is complete without a mention of Vera Hruba Ralston as Janice.  The figure skater's reputation as an actress was so poor that leading men of the time were known to back out of projects rather than star opposite her. The lead roles kept coming to her, though, because her husband was the head of the studio.  As a result, she became something of a laughingstock in the industry, which is really too bad.  She wasn't the worst actress to garner top billing on a movie poster (Aquanetta? Pia Zadora? Persis Khambatta? Come on!)  In any case, I can't blame her for taking the starring roles that were offered to her.  She was pretty, and surrounded by people who told her she had something special. And while she wasn't great, she really wasn't that bad.  Had I not heard repeatedly how bad she was, I probably wouldn't have noticed her performance at all.  Her reputation sort of magnified her shortcomings as an actress, and everyone gleefully piled on.  But she is more forgettable than anything else.  In that department she's pretty well suited to the leading man in this one.







6 comments:

kochillt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kochillt said...

I actually prefer GOG over other Ivan Tors bores like THE MAGNETIC MONSTER or RIDERS TO THE STARS. I wouldn't have bothered with THE LADY AND THE MONSTER either, were it not for three appearances on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater. Second remake VENGEANCE aka THE BRAIN at least showed up five times, just not that fond of science fiction

Uncle Mike said...

I rather liked THE MAGNETIC MONSTER, though I concede that it takes a while to get going, and the subplot involving Richard Carlson and his pregnant wife is incredibly grating. The movie did make very clever use of the footage from GOLD, which really served to stretch the budget and provide a slam-bang ending. GOG was clearly much more ambitious but it simply couldn't generate suspense and even the climactic battle between Sheppard and Gog (and / or Magog) was surprisingly lacking in drama. The less said about RIDERS TO THE STARS, the better.

kochillt said...

THE MAGNETIC MONSTER must be the best film from director Curt Siodmak, author of "Donovan's Brain." Who could ever like CURUCU BEAST OF THE AMAZON?

Uncle Mike said...

Oof! I saw CURUCU when I was around 8 years old -- a very educational film for me. It was a master class in cheating the audience.

Grimm said...

Oh man! I haven't heard of either of these films in such a long time! That's why I love visiting horror blogs, we all have something different to say. Way to go man, great site. I saw you over on the Horror Blogger Alliance and had to check this site out. I just followed you!

If you wanna chat horror sometime, come swing by my page.

http://grimmreviewz.blogspot.com/

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