July 27, 2011

2163: A Czech Space Odyssey

Ikarie XB-1 (1963)

I've avidly followed human spaceflight for years. My first cub scout project was compiling a scrapbook on the Gemini manned flights of the mid-60s. Like everyone else on July 20, 1969, I was glued to the TV watching grainy pictures from Apollo 11. The next year I was glued to the TV again as the drama of the crippled Apollo 13 spaceship played out. At that point, my friends and classmates couldn't have cared less. With the ultimate goal of a moon landing achieved, public interest dropped precipitously, and, while NASA managed 6 more moon flights, the fate of the program was sealed the moment the Apollo 11 astronauts planted the flag in the Sea of Tranquility.

My interest never flagged, and as I grew older, I expanded my spaceflight horizons. Over the years, I've collected quite a library. I'm looking at the space travel section of my bookcase right now. I've got the official NASA history of the Mercury manned program, This New Ocean. To the left is an illustrated history of The Soviet Manned Space Program, to the right is Heppenheimer's Countdown: A History of Space Flight. Also crammed in there are histories of the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs; astronaut and cosmonaut memoirs; and speculations about manned Mars missions, space colonies, interstellar flight, and more.

With all that interest you'd think I would have again been glued to the coverage of the final space shuttle flight. Well, not so much-- it was just too depressing. Atlantis' final flight feels more like the end of U.S. piloted space flight, period, than just the end of an era. Plans to return to the moon were effectively nixed even before the downturn in the economy and the resulting budget squabbles. I've read about the vague proposals for sending astronauts to check out an asteroid as preparation for an eventual Mars mission, but like the return-to-the-Moon plans, they seem like a halfhearted, half-baked attempt to find a reason for NASA to exist.

I'm no math whiz, but between a recession that refuses to go away, ballooning deficits, and spending commitments to Social Security, Medicare and the military that are effectively untouchable, there would seem to be very little left over for expensive national projects like a vibrant space program. Very reasonable people can and do object that in tough times it's hard to justify spending billions on something that has no obvious returns on investment for the average person.  Believe me, I do see this. On the other hand, I wouldn't dismiss the return on investment of a piloted space program too quickly. Launching people into space and keeping them alive there for long periods of time is very, very difficult. These challenges stimulate some of the greatest minds in the world to innovate and realize ever greater efficiencies, from lighter, stronger materials, to getting more out of energy sources, to recycling waste products, to maintaining elaborate, self-contained biospheres. And guess what-- that translates to innovation and progress on earth: lighter, better building materials, more fuel efficient cars, energy sources of all types that aren't dependent on fossil fuels, crops that can be grown in extreme conditions, and on down the line.

Beyond all those practical issues is something that's a lot more philosophical. It's the notion that a truly healthy society needs to constantly wonder about what's out there beyond this blue cradle we call Earth, and explore those new realms with all the tools at our command, including ourselves. Otherwise, we continue to sink into the cheesy, self-obsessed depths, where the most important matters of the day become who's been voted off American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. If we're to continue as an ambitious, inquisitive and exploring species with an eye toward the stars, we'll have to pool our resources and brainpower on an global scale, and involve governments, private industry, universities, and non-profit research centers. Which leads me (finally!) to the main subject of this post.

Ikarie XB-1 is a remarkable vision of just such a future. It bypasses many of the standard, gimmicky sci-fi conventions to tell a very straightforward, yet dramatic, tale of life in space. In contrast to many similarly-themed American sci-fi movies of the period, Ikarie is aimed at a literate, intelligent adult audience. There are no bug-eyed monsters, evil alien plots, or killer robots to liven things up. The drama arises out of the inherent challenges and conflicts of an extended deep space mission, with a large crew living in close quarters.  And, considering that the film was produced by a Soviet satellite country at the height of the cold war, it's remarkably propaganda-free (with one exception, which I'll get to later).

The year is 2163, and a united humanity has launched its first interstellar mission to explore the nearby Alpha Centauri system. Through some fairly subtle exposition, we learn that at near light speed, the crew's loved ones on Earth will have aged 15 years during the course of the ship's 28 month mission. This sets up the first bit of pathos, when, in the early stages of the mission, Commander MacDonald (Radovan Lukavsky) talks to his pregnant wife back on Earth through a fading communications linkup. His wife teases him that when he returns, she'll be 15 years older, and he, only having aged a couple of years, won't find her desirable anymore. More to the point, MacDonald sadly observes, is that his child, now in the womb, will be 15 by the time he gets back.

Anthony the mathematician introduces the captain
to his "antiquated" robot companion.
Ikarie is full of interesting bits of business and scenes that illustrate the challenges of being human -- needing to laugh, love, and enjoy life -- while at the same being sealed up in a technologically-advanced "tin can" traveling the vast recesses of deep space. In one scene, a crew member tries to stump the ship's computer, which also happens to be the "cook," by ordering all kinds of unlikely food combinations. He gets what looks like an Alka Seltzer tablet for lunch, while his shipmates chow down on more standard and appetizing meals. Another crew member, an older mathematician named Anthony (Frantisek Smolik), has brought aboard what looks to be a sophisticated robot as part of his personal gear ("Patrick" the robot looks very much like the bubble-headed robot from the Lost in Space TV series). While Patrick is very loyal, following Anthony around wherever he goes, he also happens to be "ancient" by 22nd century standards, and the rest of the crew make cruel fun of Patrick to the consternation of his owner. In another bit of interesting business, we see the bridge crew using the ship-wide video com system to spy on one of their shipmates who's trying to woo a female crewmember. He's wheedled a makeshift "bouquet" from the botany team to try to impress the woman. Once he's invited into her cabin, the officer-of-the-day calls a halt to the surveillance, telling his disappointed crewmates that what takes place in the ship's cabins is no one else's business.

While Ikarie is full of such human touches, it also provides high drama without resorting to monsters or ray-gun fights. Midway through the flight, the Ikarie comes upon a mystery spacecraft that's either been abandoned, or is occupied by someone or something that doesn't want to communicate. The captain (Zdenek Stepanek) throws caution to the wind and orders two of his crew to investigate. The ensuing sequence is masterfully done and very believable (see the clip below). The solving of the mystery, which I won't reveal here, is the film's one and only concession to Cold War era "anti-capitalist, anti-warmongering" propaganda.

The climax of the movie involves a mystery illness, a kind of sleeping sickness, that infects the whole crew as the ship draws nearer to the Alpha Centauri system. Most of the crew members recover, but one is so badly affected that he goes mad and endangers the whole mission. We learn in the last few minutes that radiation from a mysterious dark star is to blame, and that some intelligent agency has stepped in to shield the Ikarie from its fatal effects.

Commanding a starship is lonely work.
Ikarie XB-1 prefigures both Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Gene Roddenberry's optimistic vision of the future that became the classic Star Trek series (1966-1969). The Wikipedia entry on the film speculates that Kubrick screened Ikarie in his preparations for the 2001 project, and was greatly influenced by it. Parts of Ikarie will seem very familiar to both 2001 and Star Trek fans, from the astronaut's heartbreaking video talk with family left behind on earth, to the ship's computer's disembodied voice, to the revelations of an intelligent alien agency at the film's end.

One unfortunate result of the cold war is that Americans never got the opportunity to see some very good films that just happened to be made behind the Iron Curtain, or at best, saw heavily edited and crudely dubbed versions that managed to lose most of the wonder and charm of the originals. American International Pictures (AIP) released a chop-job of Ikarie XB-1 retitled Voyage to the End of the Universe. It shaved 10 minutes from the running time and changed the ending. Avoid this version. I purchased a two-disc set from Sinister Cinema that has both the original Czechoslovakian cut and the AIP U.S.-release version. The original Czech version is a glorious, clean, widescreen print. The less said about AIP's version, the better. Get it, watch it… you won't be disappointed.

Intrepid explorers from the starship Ikarie investigate a mysterious derelict spaceship:

July 13, 2011

An English Vampire in Africa

The Vampire's Ghost (1945)

Africa-- the dark land where voodoo drums beat in the night, where the jungles are deep and full of secrets, and the moon that lights them is still a mystic moon.
Thus intones the narrator at the beginning of The Vampire's Ghost as we see an outline map of the continent, the camera zooming in on the map's one detail-- Bakunda, the village in central Africa that is the story's setting. We quickly find out that this is no mere narrator, but rather a principal and intriguing player in the drama. Against the background of beating drums, he continues:
Africa-- where men have not forgotten the evil they learned in the dawn of time. I always come back to Africa, but even here there is no rest for me. The path of time is curved upon itself like a circle… without beginning, without end. I must follow it forever. I cannot die! I cannot rest! I cannot rest! I cannot rest…
A hand, presumably the narrator's, with a very unusual ring on its middle finger, slowly opens a creaking door in the middle of the night. A dog barks, and a native girl is startled from her sleep. She screams as a shadow envelops her.

"Dark land" indeed! Except in the case of this very unusual B picture from Republic Studios, the darkness is imported in the form of a world traveling, world weary English vampire who's lived too long and seen too much. More unusual still, the native African characters, rather than being portrayed in typical '40s fashion as hapless, comic relief foils, are instead strong and knowledgeable, quickly catching on to the evil in their midst (and trying to do something about it), while the white Americans and Europeans are mostly portrayed as vulgar, or clueless, or both.

Bakunda is apparently something of a thriving trade center in central Africa, having attracted 1.) the title character, Webb Fallon (John Abbott), the world-weary traveller, owner of a local entertainment club, and resident fallen angel (Fallon-Fallen, get it?); 2.) Roy Hendrick (Charles Gordon), the manager of the local rubber plantation; 3.) Julie Vance (Peggy Stewart), Roy's fiance; 4.) Father Gilchrist (Grant Withers), the moral voice of the expatriate community; and 5.) various businessmen, adventurers, cutthroats, and thieves.

A spectre is haunting central Africa, draining the blood from unlucky, random victims. But while the native Africans are fervently beating their drums and calling the community into action, the supposed bearers of progress and civilization fight among themselves, drink, gamble, chase after loose women, and, in the more elevated environs of the expatriate community, unwittingly invite the very cause of the evil to tea!

They can be somewhat forgiven, in that the Vampire's "ghost" hides in plain sight. Webb Fallon (Abbott) is about the unlikeliest, least formidable monster in all of vampire cinema (with the exception of the pasty-faced, morose tween-idols of the deplorable Twilight series). Fallon looks more like a long-faced, bug-eyed accountant than a blood-thirsty creature of the night. But then, the centuries have not been all that kind to him, as we find out later.

In spite of his Huckleberry Hound looks, Fallon is a sharp dresser, spending most of the film in a crisp white suit and tie -- a nice inversion of the "bad guys wear black" convention that Republic helped establish in their formula westerns. In the scenes at Fallon's gin joint / casino, he looks like a poor man's version of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca. (Abbott, whose acting career spanned five decades, specialized in "sinister, eccentric" supporting roles. Ghost seems to have been his only film role as an out-and-out monster.)

Lisa (Adele Mara) is the exotic
entertainment at Fallon's place.
While looks can be deceiving, Fallon acts so suspiciously weird through the first 15 minutes of the film that you just want to reach through the TV and slap the other characters silly. The clues mount up:
  • The thin, middle-aged man grabs the arm of a burly sailor who's just pulled a knife, then stares him down to the point where he sheepishly walks away.
  • A big winner at Fallon's craps table suddenly dies of a heart attack minutes after he leaves the casino.
  • There are no mirrors in his apartment.
  • He can scarcely stand the daylight, and has to wear thick sunglasses when he ventures out.
  • The mere touch of Father Gilchrist's hand makes him wobbly to the point of fainting.
  • He owns an ornate box engraved with his name and the year 1558 (he tells Roy it was owned by an ancestor of the same name).
  • At an expatriate gathering, the house servant is stunned to see that Fallon's suit and the teacup are reflected in a nearby mirror, but not Fallon himself (inexplicably, the other members of the group are too involved in conversation or tea to notice this horror).
  • On a safari to investigate a "witchcraft cult" in a neighboring village, the group is ambushed by hostile natives. An ambusher fires at him at point blank range, but the bullet seems to pass right through him, wounding the man behind him.

Ok, ok, we get it! Now what's the matter with all those other chuckleheads?!  Since the expatriates are too dumb or self-absorbed to be roused by all the evidence, it's left to the "lowly" house servant Simon Peter (Martin Wilkins) to figure it all out and take action. When the expedition beds down for the night, Simon Peter steals into Fallon's tent, finds the bullet hole from the ambush in his jacket, but sees no wounds on the sleeping man. He decides enough's enough. He fashions a silver-tipped spear, and then, during a second ambush, takes advantage of the confusion to skewer the vampire masquerading as a gin joint owner.

Roy (Charles Gordon) tries in vain to break
free from the vampire's malevolent influence.
Nice try, but no cigar. It might have worked in a Universal horror movie, but since this is a Republic picture, there's a different set of rules: 1.) A vampire can only be truly destroyed by fire and having his ashes scattered to the four winds; 2.) vampires can walk around in the daylight, but they need heavy shades; 3.) silver-tipped spears can hurt like heck, but a good vampire can be resuscitated by lying under the full moon with dirt from his grave propping up his head (huh?!!?)

When the naive Roy pulls the spear from his friend's gut and finds no blood on it, he finally gets the picture, but too late to prevent being hypnotized and turned into Fallon's patsy. "You're looking at a creature that doesn't exist," Fallon says mockingly to Roy. "The natives knew as soon as they saw the first body of the first victim…" (see the clip below). In thrall to the vampire, Roy helps him take his restorative moonlight bath.

Back in Bakunda, we learn that long, long ago in the 16th century, Fallon had tragically caused the deaths of two lovers (no details), and had been cursed --  doomed to walk the earth endlessly, causing trouble over and over again for successive generations of innocent lovers. The last half of Ghost gets a little Twilight-ish, with the lovesick Fallon trying once again to steal a damsel away from her true love-- in this case, Roy's fiance Julie.  He can hardly do otherwise-- after all, it's what the curse demands: endless lovers, endless longing, endless tragedy.

While Roy is bedridden with a mysterious fever, Fallon goes about his eternal business of wooing the hapless Julie. Things are wrapped up a little too neatly when Roy is freed from Fallon's spell with just the power of Father Gilchrist's prayers, and he leads a posse to track down the vampire and rescue his fiance (adding a little bit of a western flavor to this genre mash-up).

Fallon (John Abbott) gets "crossed up" in
his designs on Roy's beautiful fiance Julie.
The Vampire's Ghost is a strange, otherworldly little film, especially coming from a studio that specialized in the most formulaic westerns and serials. It's a sort of Casablanca meets Tarzan meets Twilight for old people. In some ways, it looks like something hastily put together by producers wanting to cheaply leverage existing sets and props-- "quick, let's get in and shoot on that jungle sound stage before the next unit arrives…" On the other hand, it's got a lot of imagination, some interesting new takes on vampire lore, and rich, dramatic lines, e.g., "Fate sometimes leads a man down strange pathways…"  And there are number of nicely done, chilling scenes. In one particularly well-done scene, a man who thinks he's gotten away with cheating Fallon at cards is accosted in a dark street by a shadow that seems to have a corporeal presence all its own.

I suspect that science fiction writer Leigh Brackett is largely responsible for Ghost's more unusual and distinctive qualities (she's credited with the story and as a co-writer). Leigh is best known for her moody, reflective space romances. As a screenwriter, she contributed to some pretty darn good films: The Big Sleep (1946), Rio Bravo (1959), The Long Goodbye (1973) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  Whoever's responsible, The Vampire's Ghost is a modest, low-budget gem that's been hidden for too long in a long line of mediocre Republic programmers.

The Vampire's Ghost is available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema.

Naive plantation owner Roy Hendrick (Charles Gordon) finally wakes up to the fact that his friend Webb Fallon (John Abbott) is a centuries-old vampire:

July 3, 2011

Synapses and Circuits

The Colossus of New York (1958)

What is it that makes you unique among all the billions of people in the world-- what is that makes you, you? Is it your mind alone? Is it some combination of mind and body? Is there such a thing as a soul that can be severed from both mind and body at death, and start floating around the universe (or heaven, or some other dimension), preserving everything that is you for all time? Philosophers and religious scholars have grappled with this problem  for a very long time with very little consensus.

Lately, with supercomputers undreamed of even five years ago, and molecular and quantum computing on the horizon, speculation has turned to the possibilities of mind uploading or "whole brain emulation" -- digitally mapping a biological brain and processes in such complete detail that it could continue functioning in some kind of computer system. Imagine taking an image of your brain, uploading it to the most super of supercomputers, and finally connecting it up with digital sensors and robotic capabilities. Suddenly, the concept of a "new you" becomes literal instead of figurative.

On second thought, forget the digital brain scan -- what if it was your actual, living brain that was now divorced of its body and hooked up to all the electronics. Would that still be you? Or is there something special about the mind-body interaction, some whole beyond the sum of the parts that really accounts for all that is you, and when that's messed up, the result is something else, something… not you anymore…

The great science fiction writer Damon Knight explored that very topic in his famous 1968 story "Masks." In a secret research project, a horribly injured quadriplegic has his consciousness transferred into a brand new, gleaming cyborg body. Sounds great, right? Not only have all his health and mobility problems been solved, but there's nothing preventing him from living for a very, very long time, if not forever. Only, as he interacts with the scientists and other people around him, he begins to develop a new aesthetic, and a growing distaste for these messy, sweaty, greasy, disease-ridden and very imperfect bio-organisms. He loses his connection with not only humanity, but all living things, with tragic consequences. Ten years before Knight's groundbreaking story, The Colossus of New York explored the same territory, with darkly surprising and at the same time head-slappingly silly results (after all, the film was made by fallible humans).

Colossus begins by introducing us to the Spenssers, a veritable think-tank of a family whose collective IQ is off the charts. Patriarch William Spensser (Otto Kruger) is a noted brain surgeon, and son Henry (John Baragrey) is a whiz with robotics and automation (quite fortuitous skills, as we will shortly see). But the youngest member of the family, Jeremy, is even more brilliant--  "one of the few authentic geniuses in the country," in the words of old family friend Dr. John Carrington (Robert Hutton). He's just gotten back from a trip to Stockholm where he accepted the "International Peace Prize" for his work in producing hardier, cold-resistant crops to feed a hungry world. Doting father William patiently explains to a reporter that his son works at the highest level of genius, which tries to address the needs of all humanity.

All that promise is tragically obliterated in the next few minutes. A wind kicks up as the ebullient Jeremy, family and friends prepare to leave the airport. Jeremy's son Billy loses his toy airplane in the wind, and foolishly, the dutiful father and peace prize winner chases the toy into the street. He looks up just a split second before a truck barrels into him.

William's grief seems to have gotten the better of him when he has Jeremy's body delivered to the Spensser mansion instead of a mortuary. No one understands why he's operating on a dead man in his home laboratory. Hours later, a grim-faced William emerges from the lab to tell John, Henry, and Jeremy's wife Anne (Mala Powers) that "I did all I could." Which apparently is quite a lot, as they soon discover.

At the funeral, Carrington declares in his eulogy that despite the seeming senseless of Jeremy's death, there must be in God's infinite wisdom a profound meaning in the loss of such a great genius. William jumps up, yelling "No! No!" and rushes out the room. Later, he has it out with Carrington. While keeping the results of the operation a secret from the old friend, he recklessly implies that not even death has to keep a good man down:
Brilliant scientist Jeremy Spensser's brain
is preserved in classic sci-fi style.
William: Don't you realize that Jeremy's brain was unique? It was like Darwin's, like Michelangelo, like DaVinci, like Einstein. Now suppose, all those great brains had been allowed to continue their work, unhampered by their bodies? Think of the advance in civilization there would be.
John: No, no… I believe that every man, and that includes every great man, is the product of his mind and body. It's through the divine spark of the creator that the interconnection of body and mind is achieved through the soul…
William: Oh, now don't speak to me of antiquated notions like a soul! You're a scientist-- can you measure a soul?
John: As a scientist, I believe that any brain, unable to feel hunger and cold, pleasure and pain, love and hate -- any brain -- divorced from human experience, must become dehumanized to the point of… monstrousness.
William: You are an idiot… an idiot! I tell you, that in the brain, and in the brain alone, lies the glory of man, the ability to think, to create… why, these go on eternally! I tell you that the brain is supreme, it is immortal, and I can prove…
John: Wait, wait, this is merely a theoretical discussion.
William (hand over his mouth, hesitating): Er, yes… quite…
Here then is the crux of the age-old mind-body problem, and the crux of the film. And, with a good working knowledge of Frankenstein and all the other "he dabbled in things best left alone"-type films, it's an easy guess who will be proved the greater fool in the end.

Brother Henry, no slouch himself as a scientist, has chafed for years at all the attention lavished on Jeremy by his father, and by the world. With Jeremy's death, he decides to make a move on his brother's attractive widow Anne. But a short time later, he finds out things aren't so simple. William gives him a tour of the dark lab, where Henry discovers that his brother's brain is still alive in classic sci-fi style in a glass container, hooked up to a plethora of tubes and electronics. The brain can receive voice transmissions, and in turn can "speak" through a teletype machine. Henry's response: "It's inhuman!" But William's doting on Jeremy has now become an obsession. "With your knowledge of automation, you can help him live again!" he pleads with Henry.

The product of the collaboration between the brain surgeon and the automation specialist is one of the more eerie creations in all of '50s sci-fi: an 8 ft. tall automation with a huge domed head; glowing white eyes; a crude, chiseled face; a mouth that moves slightly, but never fully opens; and huge metal hands with long, jointed fingers. An enormous cloak and Frankenstein monster-like boots complete the effect. (The Colossus is played by 7' 6" Ed Wolff, who had been a circus giant before getting work in movies.)

Henry, whose motivations are perhaps less than pure, makes William promise that once the new body is activated, he will let Jeremy decide if he wants to go on living in such a fashion. William, obsessed with the idea that Jeremy's genius can help the world cure much of its ills, reluctantly agrees. The activation scene is very well done, and in a low-key way produces more chills than all the arcing electricity and pulsating dials of all the Frankenstein films put together. In a nice point-of-view shot, the interference in the automaton's visual circuits clears up to reveal a concerned William staring up at the giant. In a distorted electronic voice that makes the flesh crawl, Jeremy wails that "he can't move." "You can move!" William insists. It's a physical therapy session from Hell that gets kicked up several notches when the bewildered Jeremy sees what he's become in a less-than-ideally-placed mirror. His spine-chilling electronic screams wake up Anne, who insists she heard a voice like her husband's before the ruckus. The patronizing men reassure her it was nothing at all. (Later on in the film as the Colossus finds his voice, it's clearly Jeremy's/Ross Martin's, which is satisfying from a dramatic standpoint, but not from a scientific one-- how in the world, and why, did they recreate such a unique human attribute in the giant's electronics, when everything else about the thing is otherworldly in the extreme?)

Anne (Mala Powers) has just about had it with
her manipulative father-in-law (Otto Kruger).
After the shock of seeing himself in the mirror, Jeremy pleads with his father to destroy him. But the obsessed William talks Jeremy into continuing by appealing to his sense of duty to humanity:  "Jeremy, you still have a priceless gift to give to the world… I can give you destruction, or you can give us a world of abundance!" How can any self-respecting cyborg turn an appeal like that down? But Jeremy has one condition-- "I don't want anyone ever to see me…"

Henry is bummed, skeptical and frightened: 1.) even after Jeremy's "death," he's still being eclipsed by the favored son; and 2.) this 8 foot tall monstrosity he himself designed might just stand in the way of his designs on Anne. He unwisely taunts the Colossus, and then hurriedly shuts the creature down remotely when it moves menacingly toward him, hissing in its creepy electronic voice, "Don't taunt me Henry…"  (the scientists have wisely built another safety mechanism into their creation-- a shutdown lever attached to the back of Colossus' body where he can't get to it with his mechanical hands!)

Ever the good son, Jeremy tries to adapt to his electronic/mechanical "prison." Not only does he adapt, but he develops new faculties. He describes to William and Henry a disturbing vision he's had of two ships colliding in a fog-shrouded sea. Hours later, the collision is worldwide news. But along with the ESP, he's developed something darker-- a growing cynicism. When his father excitedly reports that the World Food Congress will be held at the United Nations and Jeremy's work will be featured, the Colossus sneers that it's good to be remembered, especially on this day-- the first anniversary of his death. He declares that he shall commemorate his own death with a trip to the gravesite. When William forbids it, Jeremy/Colossus reveals yet another talent-- the ability to hypnotize with his flashing white eyes (see the clip below).

It's at this point that Colossus veers from dark, gothic, Frankenstein-inspired sci-fi to Saturday matinee chapter-serial stuff. By itself, Colossus' ability to hypnotize by flashing his eyes is acceptable, if a little corny. But in the latter half he acquires all kinds of superpowers that come out of nowhere and leave you scratching your head: precognition, the ability to walk underwater, and coolest of all, the ability to shoot death rays from his glowing eyes. To top it off, the filmmakers try to tug at the heartstrings by having Jeremy/Colossus meet up again with his son ("Are you a good giant, or a bad giant?" the implausibly calm boy asks Colossus at their first meeting). At one point he even gives the boy a new toy airplane. Ouch!

The first half of the movie is darkly effective, and the rest so cartoonish that you have to believe at some point the money people started turning the screws to make the thing more kid-friendly. As Jeremy's paranoid psychosis blooms, so do his superpowers. With his ESP, he can see where Henry is and what he's doing at all times-- the duplicitous would-be wife stealer gets his comeuppance with some well-placed death rays (the monster surprises his no-good brother by suddenly emerging from the East River after a nice underwater stroll). And his mind takes even a darker turn. "Why should we work to preserve the slum people of the world?" he asks his stunned father. "Isn't it simpler and wiser to get rid of them instead?… It will be necessary to get rid of [the] humanitarians first!"  Hmmm…. maybe John Carrington wasn't such an idiot after all. Divorced of the essential mind-body connection, Jeremy/Colossus has become as soulless as a Wall-Street bankster or a Washington politician.

The Colossus tries to "enlighten" the world's
top scientists gathered at the United Nations.
The climax takes place at the United Nations building, where the misguided humanitarians have assembled to talk about world hunger. Yes Virginia, there are death rays, and shouting, and screaming, and shattered glass-- all against the backdrop of the Isaiah 2:4 quote inscribed at the U.N., "They shall beat their swords into plowshares [and so on]." And yes, that safety shutdown lever built into the Colossus becomes quite handy.

Besides the overdone pathos, other production elements served to take Colossus down a peg or two from minor sci-fi classic status. Van Cleave's original score for single piano strikes just the right ominous tone in the title credits, but as the movie progresses, the dirge-like piano music begins to sound like a cheesy accompaniment to a silent movie. The sound effects are also amateurish. The cartoonishly-loud clomping of Colossus' boots sounds the same regardless of location-- lab, forest, lawn, or the marble floors of the U.N. And the electric-current buzzing that follows the cyborg around wherever he goes wears thin pretty fast.

Sadly but predictably, Colossus was not a resume highlight for most of its cast and crew. In Keep Watching the Skies (McFarland), Bill Warren relates that director Eugene Lourie signed onto the picture while waiting for the go ahead on a much larger sci-fi project, The Giant Behemoth (1959). Despite reservations with the script (or maybe because of them), he shot Colossus in eight days. In an interview published in Fantastic Films #17, he's extremely dismissive: "I remember very little of the actual shooting as I remember very little of the scarlet fever I had when I was eight years old." Okay then! (Lourie made more of a name for himself as an art director, but he did direct some of the greatest "giant monsters on the loose" movies of all time: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1953, Behemoth, and Gorgo, 1961.)

Robert Hutton, a character actor with leading man-looks who seems to have been in half of all the sci-fi movies made in the 1950s and '60s, was similarly unimpressed with the production: "To be quite honest with you, I had completely forgotten that I even made that movie until I saw it recently on television. It was wonderful working with Otto Kruger (William Spensser) -- he was great, a fine actor. Except for that, it was not a very memorable experience [laughs]." (Tom Weaver, Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes, McFarland)

Anyway, I remember it pretty vividly for scaring the heck out of me as a kid. The scene in which William activates Colossus for the first time, and poor Jeremy takes a good look at his new body, is especially effective and chilling. Even though the film -- like the title character --  loses a bit of its soul midway through, it's worth the trouble of looking up. A watchable (but not great) copy is available from Sci-Fi Station.

Update: Olive Films will be releasing Colossus on DVD on August 16, 2011. The film is finally getting the kind of video release it deserves!

Brilliant scientist Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin), now a hulking Colossus, decides to take a stroll and visit his own grave: