In American monster movies of the early 50’s the monstrous generally had a scientific explanation – of course the science didn’t always stand up to close examination, but then it rarely got any. It was only required to generate panic – for the length of the film, at least.
Thus although we were notionally in the domain of the rational, we were but a whisper away from the Gothic (which was to return in full effect with the popularity of Hammer Films and Roger Corman’s adaptations of Poe).
That Gothic staple, Frankenstein, was technically science fiction anyway but in the 50’s even previously supernatural creatures like the werewolf and the vampire were being generated in the laboratory in films like The Werewolf (1956) and The Vampire (1957).
Those unimaginative titles might be indicative of the problem: removing them from their natural habitats (mist-wreathed graveyards, crumbling castles etc.) only robs these creatures of their mystery. And in the end it must have become apparent that there wasn’t much difference between science and superstition when it came to accounting for these phenomena. It was all bullshit of one kind or another as far as the average viewer was concerned.
In The Colossus Of New York Dr. Jerry Spensser (Ross Martin), a scientific and philanthropic genius, dies in a dumb accident (run over while trying to retrieve his son’s toy plane). However, as luck would have it his father (Otto Kruger) is a brain surgeon and his brother Henry (John Baragrey) an expert in automation, and the dead genius’ brain is soon housed in a giant robot, all the better for him to continue his humanitarian work, should he be so inclined.
Should he not be so inclined he has been fitted with an off-switch (something often neglected by monster makers) though, set in his side, it isn’t easily accessible to him. They don’t want him to do anything silly after all, and there is a strong chance of this as he is not happy about the situation. Not in the least.
In fact the scientist’s anguish at his predicament is well-conveyed, his voice electronically distorted, the fizzing and snapping of electrical circuits accompanying, and somehow mocking, his bursts of emotion (to employ a contemporary analogy, imagine having to navigate even face-to-face encounters through Zoom).
Not only is he now estranged from wife Anne (Mala Powers) and son Billy (Charles Herbert), who have been kept in the dark about his resurrection, he has to watch brother Henry trying to get off with the former.*
As for Billy, although he manages to avoid his wife (despite living in the same house) Jerry does manage clandestine meetings with his son in the vicinity of his own grave.
It’s a scenario that’s oddly suggestive of ‘stranger danger’ but here it is the ‘stranger’ who begs Billy not to ‘touch him there’ – ‘there’ indicating the off-switch, which will, Billy is warned, make Dad ‘fall down and not get up again’ if used inappropriately.
A penis is more of an ‘on-switch’ I suppose, but it is hard to avoid the phallic connotations of this ‘lever’, as it is described. Or mock-phallic connotations. Surely this switch (in both senses of the term) is at the root of Jerry’s anguish, and the familial aspect would only serve to intensify the trauma. Jerry has effectively been castrated by his father and brother. No wonder he’s upset.
The film too seems oddly paralysed by this trauma. Jerry never finds himself as a monster somehow. His new state gives him psychic and hypnotic powers and even the ability to walk underwater. He kills his brother with deadly rays from his eyes (something of an irony given that Henry must presumably – and unaccountably – have installed this feature himself).
Finally, he turns to fascism, repenting of his previous good works as nothing but ways to ‘keep human trash alive’ and heading to the UN building, where he frazzles a rather random selection of onlookers with his death rays before meekly encouraging Billy to ‘touch him there’ after all – indeed, actively encouraging it (‘Push harder, Billy!’) At which point he does indeed fall down and not get up again, as tears of oil (?) leak from his eyes.
It feels less like a reign of terror than a nervous crisis – there’s a sense of Jerry’s brain flailing about in confusion, having never quite recovered from the brave new world it has been forced to inhabit. In this film monstrousness is turning in on itself, away from gigantic, unknowable creatures looming over the skyline and towards devastated inner worlds. Nevertheless the film still seems to aspire to be a monster movie, only its heart (or brain) isn’t in it.
If many of the monster movies of the 50’s seem to be dealing on some level with the ‘rise’ of women, and look with varying degrees of bemusement at the phenomenon of the female scientist, Anne here – a wife and mother – is remarkably passive. When Henry kisses her she capitulates, but we have no idea what her real feelings are, and when her father-in-law suggests that she is spending too much time with her son, she seems to accept this without question.
She never overtly makes the connection between the ‘monstrous thing’ that wants Billy to ‘call him Daddy’ and her late husband, but perhaps we are meant to assume a tacit understanding of the situation, perhaps even a kind of emotional paralysis induced by grief and horror. Perhaps she is like a Gothic heroine, prey to forces she can’t comprehend, only the film – co-scripted by a woman, incidentally (Thelma Moss) – never dramatizes this.
And yet there’s something distinctly Gothic going on here, arising from the claustrophobic domestic setting, the psychosexual complications and from the design of the robot – it looks more like a living statue than a futuristic machine. In fact it is The Golem more than Frankenstein that springs to mind here – in the most famous filmed version of the story, Paul Wegener’s 1920 The Golem: How He Came Into The World, the creature also meets his end at the hands of a child.
Director Eugène Lourié imparts a certain dignity to the story, and Van Cleave’s piano score (lending a silent movie feel to the proceedings) helps too. Yet it may be Billy’s point of view that is the most crucial one here – his perception of the robot as a ‘giant’, a creature out of fairy tale, acts as a corrective to the merely mechanical aspect of the situation, which his father finds so unbearable, and adds a poignant note of fantasy.
It’s still very silly of course, but then that is perfectly in keeping with childishness.
THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE (1959)
Silly too is Roy Del Ruth’s The Alligator People (also on Blu-Ray from 101 Films) though this plunges even more deeply into Gothic waters. I don’t know what kind of things I expected to find an alligator person getting up to before I saw this, but playing a piano in a Louisiana mansion in the middle of the night was not one of them.
The story is narrated in flashback by the heroine, Joyce (Beverley Garland) whose husband Paul (Richard Crane) abandons her on her wedding day after receiving a mysterious telegram, which seems like a promising beginning for a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Eventually she tracks him down, and he has gone back to his mother.
There is more than performance anxiety going on here though – or at least if that is what this is ‘really’ about then the theme has been wildly Gothicized.
It turns out that Paul’s mother (Freida Inescort) occupies the aforementioned gloomy mansion, where hook-handed and permanently drunk handyman Manon (Lon Chaney) lives in an outhouse taking potshots at the ‘dirty, nasty, slimy gators’ responsible – as a species – for the loss of his hand, and mad Doctor Sinclair (George Macready) makes house calls.
But wait! Portrayed rather winningly by Macready, he isn’t mad at all, just tragically misguided in his belief that injecting injured men with alligator hormones will improve their capacity to heal without subsequently turning them into alligators. After all, some species of reptile (though not alligators) manage to regrow their tails when they lose them, so it all makes perfect sense, and just to prove it, it works. For a while.
For a start it has enabled Paul to recover from a plane crash that left him ‘completely torn, mangled, smashed’ and wed Joyce – only for the telegram to inform him, a little too late, of some unpromising test results.
By the time Joyce has arrived at the mansion he is skulking about in a raincoat with the collar turned up, skin distinctly leathery, piano-playing abilities as yet undiminished – possibly even improved, it’s hard to tell.
He is anxious to conceal himself from Joyce, but she finds out all about Dr. Sinclair’s experiments from the doctor himself, who is refreshingly transparent about his activities. Though she is a ‘trained nurse’, it takes her an almost absurdly long time to work out that injecting people with stuff from alligators is turning them into alligators – presumably the training didn’t cover this, but really, it’s not rocket science is it? Closer, in fact, to primitive magic.
Although one aspect of the treatment does involve the application of a ray beamed from machinery that is lowered from the ceiling of what might under other circumstances have been Dr. Sinclair’s drawing room. The sight of this bulky machinery descending against a background of leaded panes is perhaps the most impressive one in the film, synthesizing as it does its traditional Gothic and science-fictional aspects into one arresting image.
The Gothic aspects predominate though, with the tormented heroine fleeing at one point into the storm-ravaged swamp in pursuit of her husband, and instead being ‘saved’ by Manon, who then, not being one of Chaney Jr’s more nuanced characters, tries to rape her. Paul intervenes, however – ‘I’ll get you, alligator man’, vows Manon, in what could be the film’s silliest line.
In fact Paul is not quite yet ‘alligator man’. This happens after he undergoes a final kill-or-cure dose of the ray, and Manon intervenes, smashing up the equipment, and electrocuting himself in the process. After this Paul ends up with the full snout, and certainly looks more satisfyingly (if not convincingly) reptilian, but like Jerry in Colossus he hardly seems to know what to do with himself now – identity isn’t everything, it seems.
He doesn’t even think to grab hold of Joyce and take her out to the swamp, as is normally de rigeur in these situations (in fact he has already carried an unconscious Joyce in his arms, before he went ‘full alligator’, after rescuing her from Manon, so that box has been ticked). Instead he wrestles an alligator – it feels like another box-ticking exercise – before blundering out into quicksand (unless this is suicide), after which his wife forgets he ever existed.
This is literally true by the way. The bulk of the film purports to show memories recovered under the influence of sodium pentothal by Joyce’s psychiatrist employer – only he knows her as Jane, Joyce having shed her real identity along with all memory of these events.
This is presumably because it was all too distressing, not because it was in any way unbelievable. However, this repression only adds whole new level of implausibility to the affair.
We can understand Jane repressing a traumatic incident, but surely not such details as her own real name – what do her family, assuming she has any, call her? Do they just go along with it? She even seemed to be getting on with her mother-in-law quite well towards the end – it seems a shame if they can’t keep in touch.
However, this is all part of the problematic nature of women as it is presented in American SF/monster movies of this era – that panicky sense that they are changing, that they need to be monitored, that men don’t know what they really are anymore (if they ever did).
Having discovered what is going on inside this one, Jane’s employer and his colleague conclude that a.) it checks out and b.) Jane should never be told about it, and should be permitted to go about her business in happy ignorance of her short-lived marriage to an alligator person.
At least until she wants to get married again – although maybe she managed to get a divorce before repression kicked in, we wouldn’t know.
On the trail of her husband at the start of the film, Joyce insistently refers to herself as ‘Mrs. Paul Webster’, as if her identity is inextricably bound up with his. Perhaps forgetting everything is the price she has to pay for ‘independence’ – yet it’s a qualified kind of independence, effectively granted by a couple of patronising, pipe-smoking psychiatrists (‘A very competent girl’. ‘And pretty…’).
The moral of these two films might be: there are some things Woman is not meant to know.
But what they are not meant to know is not so much the secrets of the universe as the secrets of men – their failures, their secret shame, their impotence. It’s worth remembering that the real victims in these Gothic scenarios are the men, Jerry and Paul.
There’s a sense here that science, beginning as a great shared project of humanity that can destroy all monsters (even if it has created them in the first place) has become something sordid that men get up to in the basement (literally in the case of Colossus).
Or it might be the case that – as 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man suggests – ‘Man’ is having to adjust to a universe that is fundamentally indifferent to him. As science gets bigger, ‘Man’ gets smaller (technically bigger in the case of Colossus, but still able to be turned off by a small child).
But the hero of TISM concludes as he looks out from his basement window that the infinitesimally small and the infinitesimally large ultimately converge. Perhaps after all there is no need to leave the basement.
Or at least, the house. The shadowy interiors of the Hammer and Corman Gothics at least provide an elegant solution to the troubling question of a woman’s place – why, it’s in the home. Imprisoned in it, more often than not.
*Henry reminds me peculiarly of Brad Garrett’s Robert in popular 90’s US sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond – another sulky looming presence, another less-favoured brother. It may or may not be relevant to note that Ray Romano’s Ray often jokingly referred to Robert as a ‘giant’.