The Psychotronic Zone
By Ed Garea
The Cosmic Monster (Artistes Alliance, Ltd./DCA, 1957) – Director: Gilbert Gunn. Writers: Paul Ryder (s/p), Rene Ray (novel). Stars: Forrest Tucker, Gaby Andre, Martin Benson, Wyndham Goldie, Alec Mango, Hugh Latimer, Geoffrey Chater, Patricia Sinclair, Dandy Nichols, Richard Warner, Hilda Fenemore, & Susan Redway. B&W, 75 minutes.
Back in the 1950s, England came out with a number of science-fiction miniseries. They were well acted and tended to be more concerned with plot and dialogue than special effects, being that the latter wasn’t that advanced at the time, especially considering the financial limitations of a television production. English movie studios, always looking for product, would adapt some to feature length films. Like their American counterparts, many featured a good, scary monster to keep the audience intrigued. But while American studios set their films in populated areas, the English took a more parochial outlook, setting the drama in an out of the way village or area. Hammer Films, better known for their gothic horror entries, produced a few notable films, in particular the Quartermass films. However, other producers, looking for a low-budget hit, did not fare as well.
A case in point is The Strange World of Planet X, an intelligently written, thoughtful six-part miniseries. Written by English actress-turned-author Rene Ray, it was adapted as a six-part miniseries by Ray herself for ATV Television and revolved around the premise of inter-dimensional travel. But in the hands of producers John Bash and George Maynard and writer Paul Ryder, it loses much in the translation to feature film. For one thing, it’s too short, as important plot points that could be exploited instead are left unexplored by the wayside.
However, what really does the film in is it was made on the cheap, and that cheapness detracts from what is an intelligent plot. It's reduced to a tawdry sci-fi movie marked by awkward and clichéd dialogue, and cheats the audience from what could have been a spectacular second half.
The film begins in a small laboratory at the home of Dr. Laird (Mango) in rural Bryerly Woods, located in the south of England. There, Laird and his assistant, the Canadian Gil Graham (Tucker), are conducting experiments in magnetism for the military by creating huge ultra-intense magnetic fields. He uses a lot of power and the townsfolk suspect him as the source of the interference in their television and radio signals.
Following an injury to another assistant, project head Brigadier Cartwright (Goldie) is ready to pull the plug, but after Laird shows him how he can turn metal into powder, Cartwright sends Laird another assistant in the form of French scientist Michele Dupont (Andre). Following ‘50s science-fiction protocol, the fact that she is a woman is of major concern to both Laird and Graham, who aren’t sure she’s up to the job. For his part, Laird is indignant: "But a . . .woman? This is preposterous. This is highly skilled work!" But, of course, she proves them wrong and becomes a member of the team.
As the experiments continue, Laird becomes obsessed with pushing the boundaries even further. He tells Graham he never considers anything that might interfere with his work: “If I always stopped to calculate the risks there would be no research.” (The typical mad scientist comment.) During one experiment, he punches a hole in the ionosphere, allowing dangerous cosmic rays through and causing a freak storm that damages televisions and radios in the village. A harmless tramp living in the woods is burned by the influx of cosmic rays and turns into a psychotic killer. In addition, strange things are being reported, such as UFOs in the skies.
The next day, young Jane Hale (Redway), roaming the woods for insects, meets a strange man who introduces himself to her as Mr. Smith (Benson). She asks him where he comes from. He replies that he comes from a faraway place where people ride giant dragonflies. She’s not exactly buying that, but does comment on his “funny beard,” eliciting a response that maybe he should shave it off. “Smith” is most anxious to visit the town, and is particularly curious about the magnetism experiments.
He manages to track down Gil and Michele at the town pub, telling Gil that the experiments must be stopped because they have weakened the Earth’s ionosphere, which is allowing natural cosmic radiation to come through. When Gil questions him further as to how he knows this, “Smith” comes clean. He has come from “Planet X” to investigate Dr. Laird’s mad experiments. He goes on to explain that his advanced, space-traveling people have been watching Earth even since humans stepped out of the primordial ooze. But now it’s time to step in, for messing with the forces of magnetism can lead to all sorts of nasty consequences, from flipping the poles to cosmic ray bombardment, and his people have made it their business to stop it, though we’re never told the reason for this interplanetary kindness. In other words, he’s the Z-film version of Klaatu, though he doesn’t have a robot. (Thank God, considering the last robot we saw in an English film, Devil Girl From Mars, had one that looked like a refrigerator with a police car emergency light on top.)
As their conversation continues, our tramp is whipping all sorts of horror in the woods. He takes a young woman who just got off a bus. (Interesting how the bus stop is in the middle of the woods.) The woman turns out to be Helen Forsyth (Sinclair), the new teacher in the village. The quick action of a man driving by in his car saves her in the nick of time. Another young woman isn’t so fortunate, as she is attacked and killed along with the person coming to her aid. After these heinous crimes, the disfigured tramp now has the common decency to die of his wounds.
As they sit at the pub, Gil, Michele, and Smith begin discussing what else could be affected, when Smith mentioned insects, “the little breeders.” That’s it! And they all head out the door. They rescue the young schoolteacher, trapped by the insects in the schoolhouse. The army is called out and shoots every large bug they come across.
Smith tells Gil it is imperative that Dr. Laird stop his experiments, but when representatives of the government go to his house to tell him, he locks himself in and announces he’s going to go farther than ever before. Smith radios his mothership, which hovers above Laird’s house, and destroys it with a ray, thus ending the experiment. With the danger averted, Smith returns to his ship and Gil and Michele get on with their love lives.
Two things bring this film down. First, it’s the script that dominates. This is both good and bad, considering the short running time. Paul Ryder adapted the script from the miniseries, written by Rene Ray from her novel. Besides filling the movie with outworn clichés, Ryder goes to absurd lengths to include most of the characters from the series. There’s Dr. Laird, his boss and his boss’ liaison to the lab, all of whom are given screen time. In the local town, we meet the barkeeper, the cop, two middle-aged couples, the new schoolmarm, a local lady and her inquisitive daughter, and even a hobo who lives in a van down by the river. Each character gets screen time to relate their life history; maybe a line here and a short speech there. However, none of this really advances the plot and we find ourselves getting antsy for some action. It would have been better to condense all these faces into one or two people who have contact with the scientists in the lab and let’s them know what’s happening outside.
Secondly, and most damaging, the special effects literally ruin the picture. While director Gunn provides some capable framing shots, almost everything on the effects side is awful. Les Bowie, one of the better effects artists, handled the f/x. But in order to have good effects, one needs the money to do so. The insects were enlarged using the old B-movie standard of optical enlargement, a trick most famously used in America by Bert I. Gordon. However, compared to the insects in this film, Gordon looks as if he splurged with the budget. In Bowie’s case, the reason why the insects don’t look all that menacing is because high-speed photography wasn’t used. Had it been used the insects would have moved slower and looked more naturally oversized, making it easier to match them with the actors.
First stop with our monsters is the classroom where our new teacher is getting ready for the school day. In a truly eerie scene, in fact, the only such scene in the whole damn picture, the young teacher finds herself trapped by the insects. As Gil arrives to rescue the fair damsel, we see the giant insects for the first time. They’re actually optically enlarged, and tend to do what insects do, which is not paying attention to the humans supposedly nearby. As Gil walks ever so carefully by the enlarged insects right outside of the schoolhouse, they seem to be far more interested in each other than in Gil. The same happens with Michele as she becomes trapped in a giant spider web. The spider’s there all right, only he’s busy subduing a cockroach. When the spider finally turns its attention to Michele, Smith shows up in the nick of time and kills the beast with his handy-dandy ray gun.
When the army ventures into the woods, they begin shooting whatever insects they happen to come across, but we never actually see an insect shot. We see soldiers firing their rifles and a quick cut to an insect falling from a tree or rolling on the ground. A puppet grasshopper attacks one soldier, eating his face in a scene that looks as if director Gunn inserted it as a gross-out moment (to insure the censors hand out the X-Certificate that bars those under 16 years of age and alerts the public that something good is going on here), but it’s so obviously a dummy that the scene loses any terror it might have had. And at the end, when the UFO destroys Laird’s lab, we can clearly see the strings that hold it aloft.
The Cosmic Monster also looks as if it was slapped together with much haste. Besides the clumsy fitting of humans with the insect matte shots, the cutting of the film itself is very haphazard. Jump cuts that make no sense and the terrible day for night shots seem as if they were better thought out and executed in the films of Ed Wood.
Sometimes acting can make up for lapses in the script, but not this time. The actors are not bad, but director Gunn doesn’t give them a way to be noticed in the material. Aside from Martin Benson, who plays Smith, no one really stands out. Even Forrest Tucker, who can usually be counted upon to provide a good performance no matter what the picture, seems overwhelmed; at a loss as how to proceed. French actress Gaby Andre is also a strange choice, as her dialogue wound up being dubbed. Susan Redway, who plays the precocious young budding entomologist Jane Hale, gives the liveliest performance.
Gilbert Gunn, best known for making low-budget quickies, including a dull comedy about the Loch Ness monster, What a Whopper (1961), directs the film in a very pedestrian style, with only a few close-ups. Though he’s given the chance to make a good mystery, considering the strange laboratory experiments and Benson’s mysterious stranger, his lethargic pacing takes the life out of the film. He does manage to create a few good moments, such as when the insects attack the schoolhouse. The use of shadows surrounding the empty schoolhouse makes for an effective scene, one ruined later by the special effects when help arrives to free the trapped schoolteacher. The scene when Gaby Andre finds herself caught in the giant spider web has its moments until, again, we see clearly that she and the insects are not in the same frame, and the effect is ruined.
Although The Cosmic Monster is a film that fails to live up to its promise, it is watchable and will probably hold a nostalgic memory from those of us who saw it on television as kids, when it was run seven days a week on Million Dollar Movie, or surfaced on late-night Saturday television, introduced more often than not by a horror host.
Martin Benson is probably best remembered as Solo, the American gangster crushed with his car into a dense metal cube in Goldfinger.