“The Amazing Colossal Man” (1957)
Throughout the 1950’s, atomic energy was responsible for all manner of species succumbing to cinema gigantism from ants to tarantulas, scorpions, grasshoppers and a fellow named Gojira, but it wasn’t until 1957 that Bert I. Gordon turned such mutation onto the human species itself with “The Amazing Colossal Man”, a film that despite the intercession of the eponymous unfortunate having the capacity of reason, resists all attempts to divert from the standard formula of giant monster on the loose. The typically thin special effects work of B.I.G. efforts and the visibility of poverty level production values wouldn’t be as important if the film were smart and adventurous in the writing (something that doesn’t cost a penny more in the budget but enriches the value of a film tenfold); a pity since even with its late arrival in the atomic monster sweepstakes, “The Amazing Colossal Man” does feature several intriguing new wrinkles which are summarily underdeveloped, forgotten or represented with a tinny ear for amateurish dialogue and a complete misappropriation of the most fundamental principles of medical science for the sake of expedient convenience.
During the initial desert testing of an experimental plutonium bomb, Colonel Glenn Manning (Glenn Langan) attempts to rescue the pilot of a crashed civilian airplane (thus creating an immediate duality between Man’s opposing poles of disciplined aggression and reckless spontaneous empathy), resulting in the skin being seared from his body. Miraculously alive, doctors frantically treat his wounds but expect his continued survival to be short-lived. However, the next morning, it is discovered that Manning’s skin has experienced a complete regeneration which would be astonishingly unlikely on its own, except that Colonel Manning is also increasing in size from anywhere from six to ten feet a day, which will predictably pose greater problems than his fiance Carol (Cathy Downs) having to bother the tailor to constantly adjust Manning’s wedding tux. The film attempts a reasonable facsimile of medical jibberish to correspond with the absurdity of the situation though the eventual explanatory whoppers will fool no one; though the mechanics of the abnormal growth spurts are given an additional novel twist (one that virtually assures an intensified immediacy to the proceedings) with canny inclusion of a fairly ingenious time bomb that is threatening the very existence of the behemoth: his heart is growing at a markedly less accelerated rate, thus leading to exhaustion and chronic chest pains as his increasingly insufficient pump is struggling to healthily support the growing body; contributing to Manning’s unsurprising anxiety and creeping anger.
The film presents a unique opportunity (at least until the next year’s “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman”) to explore the effects of such an altered physical dynamic on the human psyche, making manifest into a metaphorical physical state the paranoiac anxieties of Cold War; which is certainly open to more intelligent considerations of Man and his perceived place in the Universe (or, at least, his crummy corner of it) than through the base antagonisms of animal instincts destructively unleashed in similarly speculative territory with the affected creatures situated lower on the natural food chain. In the instance of a man being the proverbial atomic guinea pig, there is an opportunity for philosophic articulation rather than brute action; a not unduly burdensome possibility, and not without precedent, as one can easily construct a clear associative connection to the case of Scott Carey in Jack Arnold’s masterful “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, in which the gravitational pull of pulpy SF alternatives are resisted for a more profound and appropriate metaphysical meditation on the value of being even as an obscure mote in the vast peripheral vision of Creation. (Much of the serious SF of 1950’s film is cloaked in an undeniable caul of spirituality willfully intermingling the presumably insoluble literal nature of science and the subjectively theological.) Unfortunately, the Bert I. Gordon alternative is merely a downward plunge on the cinematic evolutionary ladder.
However, if the emergence of a ethereal overcoat is far beyond Gordon’s design, so too are any considerations traveling the path toward useful (or even interesting) humanistic evaluation. And it’s a fairly stupid movie: openly demonstrating a lack of cognizant narrative development by systematically eliminating those features by which it’s sole traces of tension emerge: the inevitability of Manning suffering cardiac failure, and the race to reverse the mutating process. The script by Gordon and Mark Hanna strides into a narrative cul-de-sac almost immediately upon the onset of Manning’s regeneration with the introduction of an alternating plot thread that follows both the doctors attempting to find the cure- though this ludicrously underpopulated effort, represented by a mere two doctors, belies the presumed need for credibility against the comfort of falling back on the standard genre trope of the small band of scientists available to tackle more dire threats to civilization (there never seem to be more than three eggheads who are ever available and equipped with test tubes) -and Manning’s increasingly tiresome sulking, punctuated by manic outbursts at anyone within his circus tent, while there is absolutely no exploration of his character. Though the opening sequences are handled with the expected shorthand economy of clever low-budget production (there is an admittedly eerie feeling to the initial expository sequences), the same resourcefulness appears paralyzed when moving the film beyond the introduction to it’s concept. “The Amazing Colossal Man” is a film with a fairly intriguing beginning and a finale built upon the rushed necessity of ending the whole thing before the money runs out, but it’s lengthy center portion betrays Manning by abandoning the promise of a layered personality (certainly hinted by his earlier selfless sacrifice) with a sudden shift into crazed behavior of the frustrating variety that exposes the resultant chaos as unnecessary if one character would simply open their mouth and explain their actions to the other; thus the killing of one character might be averted (as would the climactic exchange against the military) if characters who are jamming a giant hypodermic needle into the leg of a giant they have already identified as increasingly unhinged (and certainly paranoid) had simply told Manning what they were doing in the first place. Manning’s walk through the Las Vegas strip- which leads to a confrontation with trigger happy cops -is another incident which could be avoided with a simple verbal exchange, yet the wandering behemoth is, by this time depicted as a burgeoning mute lunatic who is driven insane by the slightest noise (one would think the enlarged eardrums would have thickened sufficiently to induce deafness). That an intelligent man would revert without explanation into a mad monster (his heart condition miraculously cured by a prescription of screenwriter amnesia) is a signal the filmmakers have surrendered to the pattern of feral behavior consistent with that of an enlarged arachnid or prehistoric beastie, though those examples would been based on magnified examples of animal conduct, whereas Manning’s actions are at the mercy of, not a logical progression of character and external influences, but by the tidal pull of the easy plagiarism of increasingly tired, but tested, formula writing. It is understandable if the resources of the low rent filmmaker are meager- one might even appropriate a certain level of sympathetic forgiveness from a patient audience -but there is no excuse for a deliberately elected poverty of imagination.
“War of the Colossal Beast” (1958)
Comprising aspirations on a scale which evoke artistic dwarfism, Gordon’s 1958 follow-up, “War of the Colossal Beast” casts any possible hint at creative intelligence to the wind and divests its eponymous “monster” of any human qualities- save for a remarkably fit body considering it suffered a tremendous fall off of, plus someone forgot about the supposed weakness of the heart from the previous film -as Colonel Manning has apparently suffered brain damage from the original film’s finale (explaining a half-erased countenance that does more to disguise the fact that the giant is now played by unconvincing look-alike Dean Parkin than to explain how they are no other residual bumps or bruises from a fall of over 700 feet). This complete reduction of an initially sympathetic and intelligent character into a snarling, feral “beast” demonstrates the mercenary surrender of the returning produce-writer-director Bert I. Gordon toward sacrificing his initially sympathetic character into a useful substitute for the already used giant soldier ant or octopus (it probably didn’t help employing screenwriter George Worthing Yates who enjoyed a career surge in writing the same damn giant monster movie over and over again, including contributing to the referenced “Them!” and “It Came From Beneath the Sea”, as well as “The Amazing Colossal Man” itself) whose only method of communication is a truly unnerving, gargling roar (kudos to the sound effects technician who braved the proximity of what sounds like Elizabeth Taylor swallowing an all-you-can-eat fried chicken buffet for that invaluable bit of aural bestiality), removing the possibility of the film emerging as anything but a giant-monster-on-the-loose programmer (the several attempts at capturing Manning are purposeless, as there doesn’t seem to be any reason to extend his life beyond more carnage and to excuse the existence of this film, nor is there any attempt to reverse the enlargement process, as was explained in the first film, as suddenly we are conveniently told no such cure exists).
Despite its status as a direct sequel, the film abandons every character from the first film- save Manning -and all of its players; substituting even more unmemorable colorless performers (who would have thought that possible?) than the first film. Manning’s sister Joyce (inhabited by Sally Fraser, though already a direct contradiction of the first film since there we are informed the Colonel has no family) believes that her brother has somehow survived a shot by bazooka and fatal plunge from Hoover Dam, clearly being a subscriber to Variety and being apprised of the lucrative box-office potential of a sequel, though onscreen her suspicions are aroused by the disappearance of several trucks in Mexico. (Really?? Even for a third-tier formula retread this is pretty thin material on which to launch a manhunt.) After a brief search, Joyce and Major Mark Baird (Roger Pace)- whose presence contributes so little to the plot, one must assume he is included only as a catalyst for the building of a perfunctory romantic tension which, oddly enough, never emerges -discover the giant in a mountainous region and he is soon captured, where he immediately breaks free of his shackles (obviously no one had seen “King Kong”) until he is captured and again breaks free. It is at this point it becomes very apparent that no one involved in the film has the slightest idea of where to go with their concept: there’s only so far you can go with Manning roaring like a bull elephant or peering through windows with his cyclopean mug; the director lazily resting on the impressive skull baring make-up executed by Jack H. Young (certainly more effective than the Play-Doh troweled countenance he conceived for Gordon’s “The Cyclops”) to proffer the expected B-movie thrills the film’s lack of drama fails to provide.
The last minute attempt to instill either novelty or a stimulant by presenting the final moments in color neither makes a great deal of difference (the scene involves a miraculous restoration of cognitive thinking and a swift reversal of brain damage, which in the case of the Manning saga, seems to come and go with the needs of the scenario) in the by-the-numbers presentation. Gordon seems to attempt a momentary attempt at sympathy toward a character who has been used as a thoughtless substitution for the usual atomic mutation, an attempt which merely demonstrates the callous disregard with which he approaches his characters when faced with the labor of instilling genuine human elements into his story. In “War of the Colossal Beast”, the director finds his cinematic doppelganger in a half-blind man who roams the Earth roaring into the winds and signifying nothing.