The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) -***
For my money the greatest one-trick-pony of the 1950’s, Bert I. Gordon made his living by making exactly the same movie over and over and over again. Only the titles and the species of the monster changed-- for example, a gila monster and an armadillo in 1956, a tarantula in 1958, and in 1957, The Amazing Colossal Man. Without exception, every Bert I. Gordon movie that I know of involves the creation and subsequent rampage of a gigantic monster, transformed by radioactive fallout from an ordinary inhabitant of the American Southwest. And in every Bert I. Gordon movie that I have ever seen, the special effects employed are exactly the same: a combination of back-projection, matting, and forced-perspective techniques is used to give the appearance of immense size to a real person, spider, lizard, etc. After all, it’s cheaper than building puppets and models, and given the tiny budgets with which Gordon always had to work, it probably ended up being more convincing, too. Have a look at the embarrassingly phony monster in the comparably-budgeted The Giant Claw if you doubt my words. Gordon’s monsters were bad, but they were never that bad!
The lucky monster candidate in The Amazing Colossal Man is Lieutenant Colonel Glenn Manning (Glenn Langan, from Women of the Prehistoric Planet-- and here we see another unmistakable mark of the really trashy film, the main character whose first name is the same as that of the actor who plays him), the ranking officer in the field during a U.S. Army plutonium bomb test. In true 50’s style, the army has sent Manning’s regiment (or whatever unit a lieutenant colonel commanded in 1957) to stand in trenches out in the desert while they set off an A-bomb not far away. Much to the chagrin of all involved, the chain-reaction in the bomb’s “physics package” (the screenwriter doesn’t know this, but that’s the actual name for the essential components of a nuclear weapon) fails to proceed according to its designers’ calculations. The bomb is almost certainly live, and can still be expected to go off, but it is completely impossible to predict when-- call it an occupational hazard of working with nukes. (The film’s excuse for the missed calculations is that this is a new and experimental weapon, that nothing of its kind has ever been tested before. Hate to burst your bubble there, Bert, but the first plutonium bomb was set off fully twelve years before this movie was made; Fat Man, the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, was a plutonium bomb.) While the soldiers sit in their trench, grumbling about the necessity of staying down there indefinitely with their dark glasses on (as everyone knows, dark glasses are your surest protection against nuclear attack, short of a public school desk), Colonel Manning notices a small private plane flying over the test site, apparently experiencing engine trouble. When the plane crashes, Manning disregards orders and races across the desert to rescue the pilot. You can see it coming a mile away-- before Manning can reach the downed aircraft, the bomb goes off, catching him not only out of the trench, but without his dark glasses on either.
Manning survives the blast, but just barely. He has received third-degree burns over some 95% of his body-- the man basically has no skin left at all. Generally speaking, burns on this scale are a death sentence. You just don’t recover from them, and when Manning’s fiancee, Carol (Cathy Downs, from The She-Creature and Missile to the Moon), comes to the hospital, the doctors essentially tell her as much. So imagine everyone’s surprise when a nurse discovers the next day that not only is Manning alive, but all of his skin has grown back overnight. The man doesn’t even have any scars. The doctors don’t know what to make of it, and neither do the army scientists who designed the plutonium bomb. Whatever happened, though, Manning’s doctors want to find the answer-- can you imagine the boon to medicine that a technique for repairing massive third-degree burns would prove? But it quickly becomes apparent that something is wrong. The next time Carol goes to see Glenn, she is told that he is not in the hospital, and that there is absolutely no record of any such patient ever having been in the hospital. Her efforts to track down Glenn’s doctors prove equally unavailing, until she spots a notation on a receptionist’s clipboard indicating that the missing doctors came originally from the Army Research and Rehabilitation Center. The center proves to have been out of commission as a hospital since “the War” (the Korean War? World War II?), and it is absolutely off-limits to civilians, but Carol manages to sneak in and find the room where Manning is being kept. (No wonder we were so worried about communist infiltrators-- if Carol can just waltz in off the street and gain access to restricted areas, imagine what a KGB agent could do.) Her first sight of her husband-to-be goes some way toward explaining all the cloak-and-dagger business. Glenn Manning is 18 feet tall.
The center’s staff have no trouble finding Carol after her discovery-- screaming, fainting women attract a fair amount of attention on an army base. When she meets with the doctors soon thereafter (she’s lucky the colonel in charge of the place didn’t have her shot), they explain to her that Manning’s cell growth is “out of balance;” new cells are being formed, but the “old cells are refusing to die.” Everyone’s fairly certain that the bomb is to blame, but it is far from clear what to do about it. The only thing anyone is sure about is that Glenn is growing fast-- between eight and ten feet per day-- and that Carol could be of assistance by helping to keep him on an even psychological keel while the doctors search for a cure. Meanwhile, the authorities on the base will do whatever they can to make Manning comfortable. They acquire a circus tent for him to live in, order gigantic shipments of food for him from the local farmers and ranchers, and have the Corps of Engineers create a massive expanding loincloth for him to wear.
But it’s not enough, and you and I know it. There’s just no way that this movie is going to end without Glenn rampaging around Nevada; the only question is, what will make him do it? The answer: Manning’s mental state is understandably precarious. Yours would be, too, if you woke up 18 feet tall and growing one day. But there’s more to it than just that. You see, Glenn’s heart is not growing as fast as the rest of him. In fact, it’s growing at about half his overall rate. (The reason that the doctors give by way of explanation deserves its own shrine in the Great Gaffes of Cinematic Science Hall of Fame. It’s a hundred times worse than the paleontology in Gigantis the Fire Monster/Godzilla Raids Again, a thousand times worse than the astrophysics in Armageddon. Behold: “the heart is, for all practical purposes, made up of just one cell...” A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Mr. Wizard is probably referring to the intercollated disks, the ingenious apparatus at the ends of cardiac muscle cells that regulate and synchronize their contractions so that the heart’s cells contract as one. It could thus be said that the heart behaves mechanically as though it were a single cell, but in every other respect, including and especially cell growth, the heart’s cytology is no different from that of any other muscle. Dr. Science has spoken.) The practical result of this differential growth is twofold. First, Glenn will die of heart failure in a matter of days if his growth is not arrested. Second, as his heart becomes increasingly smaller relative to his body, his brain will begin suffering from oxygen starvation, and he will go mad. Aha! I spy an excuse for a rampage! And sure enough, the colonel in charge of the center shows up right then to say that Elvis Has Left the Building-- there’s no sign of Colonel Manning anywhere on the base.
And now the payoff. It’s a race against time as the doctors look for a cure, the army looks for Manning, and Manning looks for buildings to smash. Actually, it isn’t quite as exciting as all that, but there’s some more wonderful pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo (albeit nothing to equal the Amazing Unicellular Heart), some decent shots of Manning wrecking the giant-sized representations of normal things that adorn many Las Vegas hotels and casinos (check out the sequence in which he thinks about wearing the huge crown from the roof of one hotel, but puts it back after he realizes it’s still just a tad too big for him), and the best prop in the movie, the eight-foot hypo with which the doctors hope to cure Glenn (wait ‘til you see what Glenn does with that!). I have to say that the ending is a bit anticlimactic, and that Glenn’s rampage doesn’t last nearly long enough, but overall, the movie does an admirable job of keeping the stupidity coming, so as never to quite lose my interest. It’s still far from being the best 50’s giant monster flick, or even the most fun, but it carries the El Santo stamp of approval nevertheless.