4D Man/The Evil Force/Master of Terror (1959) -**½
By 1959, the whole scientists-messing-around-with-atomic-power-screw-up-and-create-monsters idea had pretty much been bled white. Even the indefatigable Bert I. Gordon more or less called it a quits after ‘58. (Though Gordon would return to his old stomping ground in the 70’s, when the toxic monster genre rose up to take the place of its nuclear-powered predecessor.) But because the 50’s weren’t quite over yet, it’s scarcely surprising to see a few filmmakers gamely trying to squeeze one last movie out of the nuclear-physics-gone-bad theme. Director Irwin S. Yeaworth, Jr., and screenwriters Theodore Simonson and Cy Chermak were among these last holdouts, and 4D Man/The Evil Force/Master of Terror, adapted from a story by The Blob producer Jack H. Harris, was their attempt to keep the genre alive just a little bit longer.
And wonder of wonders, it actually ends up being a fairly original film. At its core are two scientist brothers, Scott (Robert Lansing, from Empire of the Ants and Island Claws) and Tony Nelson (James Congdon, of When Worlds Collide and Seeds of Evil). Scott, the elder brother, is employed as a researcher at the laboratory of Dr. Theodore Carson (Atlantis, the Lost Continent’s Edgar Stehli), a glory-mongering old egotist who invariably takes all the credit for his lab’s successes, while performing none of the work. Tony, on the other hand, has spent his life drifting from one job to another, always more interested in his own private projects than in anything his bosses are paying him to do. As the movie opens, some of that private research costs Tony yet another job, as the machine powering his experiment (it involves passing objects through each other via a process that Simonson and Chermak will change their minds about several times over the course of the film) shorts out and sets the building in which his laboratory was located on fire. The lab building burns to the ground, and the next morning, Tony Nelson is unemployed again.
Meanwhile, his brother is hard at work on an almost diametrically opposed project. Using a powerful nuclear reactor, Scott and his assistants, Roy Parker (Robert Strauss, also from Atlantis, the Lost Continent) and Linda Davis (Lee Meriwether, who played Cat Woman in the 1966 Batman movie), are trying to turn ordinary steel into an impenetrable material their boss calls “Cargonite.” (Considering that the characters make much over the name of this material as a testament to their employer’s ego, one wonders why it isn’t called “Carsonite” instead.) This Dr. Nelson isn’t having much more luck with his work than his little brother, but at least Scott manages not to burn down Carson’s lab while failing to create Cargonite.
It is while this unsuccessful experiment is going on that Tony Nelson drops by the Carson lab to see his brother. When he hears about how Tony lost his job, Scott berates his brother for his carelessness, shiftlessness, and lack of discipline, but then strangely offers him a job with the Carson outfit. Tony is unsure about the offer, and refuses to commit one way or the other, no matter how much his brother badgers him. Eventually, Scott backs off, and invites Tony to come spend the evening with him and Linda. Tony likes that idea, and agrees to accompany them.
Mistake number one. You see, Scott is in love with Linda, and has been trying to work up the nerve to propose marriage to her for God alone knows how long. (Considering that she doesn’t seem to consider herself to be even his girlfriend, this might be jumping the gun just a little.) But after a few hours in his company, Linda has fallen for Tony instead, though Scott is too dense to notice. Now this would be bad enough, but there is a further complication, in that Tony had already outmaneuvered his brother for the affections of a girl Scott wanted to marry once before. Tony is a sensitive guy, though, and when Scott mentions his love for Linda, he decides to leave town and remove himself thereby from the situation. But unfortunately both Scott and Linda think he’s just being his old undisciplined loser self, unwilling to take responsibility for his life by signing on at the Carson lab and finally making something of himself. Eventually, the peer pressure, combined with the realization that the lab’s equipment could finally give him success in his own private research, gets the better of his good intentions, and Tony accepts the job.
Shortly after Tony comes to work (and there is some vague indication of a causal relationship between the two events), Scott and Linda finally succeed in creating Cargonite. Carson, true to form, takes all the credit, passing Scott over with a brief name-drop in a press conference. Frustrated as he is, though, Scott is still too excited by his triumph not to gush about it to Tony when he sees him that evening. Scott’s self-impressed talk of his “impenetrable” material grates on Tony, and as it happens, the younger Nelson brother has the perfect pin to stick in Scott’s ballooning ego. Tony runs upstairs and brings down an extremely curious artifact, a block of metal with a number-2 pencil stuck through it. Tony tells his brother that he has discovered a way to enable anything to penetrate anything else by manipulating time so as to get around the law of physics that prevents two objects from occupying the same space simultaneously. (Or at any rate, I think that’s how Tony’s discovery works. Like I said, the script can’t quite seem to make up its mind on the subject, and other scenes suggests that a hitherto undiscovered fourth spatial dimension is involved.) Tony stumbled upon his technique almost completely by accident, and he has never been able to duplicate his initial feat. But he’s been hard at work in his off hours at Carson’s lab, and he thinks he’s close to the answer. The part Tony can’t quite figure out is that the power of his own mind seems to have come into play in some mysterious manner on that first occasion.
Funny that this should come up right after Scott learns that the laboratory’s reactor seems to be doing something to his brain, huh? The older Nelson has been suffering lately from migraine-like headaches, and the doctor who examined him says his EEG reveals brainwaves far more powerful than any human ought to have. And though Scott initially dismisses Tony’s claims that the power of his mind, enhanced by some outside source of energy, somehow enabled him to push a pencil through a block of chrome, his curiosity soon leads him to sneak into his brother’s private lab and run an experiment himself. And wouldn’t you know it, Scott’s radiation-enhanced brain proves to be exactly the element Tony was lacking, and Scott manages to reach his hand straight through a slab of steel.
This is too big a development to keep secret, and Scott immediately tells Tony about his experience, even though it means owning up to interfering in his brother’s pet project. The two Nelsons repeat the experiment the next evening, and this time, Scott is able to move through solid matter even when Tony’s energizer machine is turned off! Tony and Linda want to let Carson in on the project, so as to gain unrestricted access to the lab’s resources, but Scott has become embittered by the boss’s constant usurpation of the honors that rightly belong to his employees, and he insists that they carry on in secret. Later, after leaving the lab, Scott goes out on the town and has a little fun with his newfound abilities.
There are just two problems, though. First, Roy Parker, who has gotten just as sick of laboring in Nelson’s shadow as Nelson is of laboring in Carson’s, happened to be in the lab when Scott first conducted Tony’s experiment, and he saw what Nelson was up to. Parker stuck around after Scott left, and helped himself to Tony’s notes, which he then presented to Carson as his own work in the hope of getting put in charge of a project himself at long last. But even worse, Scott has found that there is a serious side effect to Tony’s process. Because it works by distorting time, whenever Scott walks through a wall or sticks his hand into a mailbox or whatever, he ages a few years. And as he discovers by accident, the only antidote to this accelerated aging is to steal time from other people by touching them while he’s in his four-dimensional state, a process that invariably results in that person’s death from “old age.” Furthermore, as a scientist who has done unheard-of things to his own body, Scott is now vulnerable to the effects of the Griffin Principle, the immutable law of B-movie science which states that anyone who turns himself invisible or gives himself X-ray vision or learns to turn his body into a cloud of gas, etc., will go irrevocably mad sometime during the final two reels. What finally sets Scott off, as you might have guessed, is his discovery that Linda is in love with Tony, and has no romantic interest in the elder Nelson whatsoever. Let the monster rampage commence...
As I have described it, 4D Man actually sounds like a pretty decent film. It’s certainly got an imaginative enough premise (the rather similar The Human Vapor/Gasu Ningen Dai Ichigo wasn’t made until a year later, and didn’t see American release until 1964) and some unexpectedly complex characters in the brothers Nelson. Meanwhile, the combination of color cinematography and surprisingly good special effects show that the studio thought the movie was worth spending some money on. But there are two ways in which these qualities are drowned out by goofiness. First, there’s the acting, which exhibits that same mix of wildly excessive over- and underacting that characterized the original “Star Trek” series, though admittedly not to such jaw-dropping degrees. Second, and perhaps more importantly, 4D Man is saddled with what must surely be the most utterly inappropriate background music in the history of cinematic science fiction. Every single scene unfolds to the distracting accompaniment of cacophonous beatnik jazz. Worse still, there is no indication that any effort was made to match the mood of the soundtrack to the mood of the action to which it was set. If ever an illustration was needed of why pop music should be avoided as incidental music in movies, 4D Man is it. You may think Marilyn Manson and Limp Bizkit sound cool on the soundtrack now, kids, but just you wait until 2040!