The Magnetic Monster (1953) **½
First off, forget the title. Go into Curt Siodmak’s The Magnetic Monster looking for a monster movie, and you’re going to leave sorely disappointed. What we have here instead is one of the most serious science fiction films of the 1950’s, and one of the very few that attempted to examine the newborn horrors of the nuclear age in a sober, non-sensational manner. The downside to that, as anyone familiar with 50’s B-movies has surely already guessed, is that The Magnetic Monster is also an extremely talky and laborious film, and considerable patience is required to get much enjoyment out of it.
It also opens with one of those big globs of narrated exposition the makers of 50’s sci-fi flicks loved so much. One of the side-effects of that decade’s rapid expansion of the importance of cutting-edge science in all fields of human endeavor has been an emerging need for a federal investigative agency to deal with other unexpected consequences of the new science. Thus it was that the Office of Scientific Investigation was created to serve as a sort of scientific counterpart to the FBI. Dr. Jeffrey Stewart (Richard Carlson, from The Power and Riders to the Stars) is one of the OSI’s most talented scientists. One morning, he and his partner, Dr. Dan Forbes (King Donovan, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), are sent out to look into a strange occurrence indeed. Every metallic object in a hardware store in downtown Los Angeles has been mysteriously endowed with a powerful magnetic charge. Stewart and Forbes determine that the source of the intense magnetic field is in one of the apartments above the store, and they go upstairs to investigate. When they do, they discover that the strange magnetism emanates from the body of a dead man, killed apparently by some sort of radiation. Stewart orders the store closed and the building evacuated, and then returns to OSI headquarters with the magnetized, radioactive stiff.
Further investigation reveals that the hardware store was scarcely the only place in town to experience curious magnetic manifestations lately. Eventually, the scientists deduce that someone is traveling around the city with a hitherto unknown radioactive material that periodically contaminates whatever it comes into contact with, imparting both radioactivity and extraordinary magnetism to the contaminated objects. Because one of those objects happens to be the ticket-taking machine at the airport, Stewart and Forbes are able to track the unknown element to one specific plane, which the airline then orders back to the ground. The OSI agents board the plane when it lands, and thereby meet up with Dr. Howard Denker (Leonard Mudie, of A Message from Mars and The Mummy). Denker is a nuclear physicist who was up until recently engaged in a private line of research involving the radioactive element cesium. By bombarding his cesium samples with alpha particles from other radioactive nuclei, Denker unexpectedly transformed the cesium into something completely new, an element which he has dubbed “serranium.” The new element turned out to have properties Denker never remotely anticipated, and two of those properties in particular are extraordinarily dangerous. Serranium, you see, doesn’t just give off energy like a normal radioactive element. Every eleven hours, it also draws energy into itself from the surrounding environment and converts it into matter, doubling in size every time it does so. Secondly, each of these implosions is preceded by a massive electromagnetic pulse— the results of which Stewart and Forbes have already observed— which grows stronger in proportion to the mass of the serranium sample. The only way to prevent these ever-stronger EMPs is to feed the serranium enough energy to double its mass immediately before the pulse goes out. The upshot of all this is that Denker has gone and created a force which will eventually destroy and consume the entire world if it isn’t destroyed soon itself.
Yeah, but how the hell do you kill a lump of radioactive metal? The OSI folks get right on that with thinking, and what Stewart comes up with is the possibility of overfeeding the element the next time its implosion cycle comes around. The trouble with this plan is that the serranium has now grown to the point that the full power output of Los Angeles was required to keep it happy the last time it imploded; Stewart calculates that it would take an electrical discharge of 900,000,000 volts to produce a fatal overload. There’s only one electric dynamo in the world capable of delivering that kind of a wallop, and even it has never been run at more than two thirds of that output before. And though the Canadian government, which owns the super-dynamo, is perfectly happy to let Stewart use the thing, the scientist in charge of it (Harry Ellerbe, from The Fall of the House of Usher and The Haunted Palace) is quick to realize that Stewart’s plan will destroy the irreplaceable machine, setting his own research back to an incalculable extent. Count on him to make trouble for Stewart when the chips are down.
See what I mean about The Magnetic Monster not being a monster movie? In fact, there’s a good chance this one is suitable only for the truly dedicated fan of 50’s sci-fi— it sure as hell isn’t the kind of thing you can casually toss into the VCR at a party! That said, if you are one of those dedicated fans, The Magnetic Monster is one of the more interesting also-ran films of the decade. There really is, to the best of my knowledge, no other movie quite like it, and while it doesn’t always work as intended (and sometimes it doesn’t work at all), it’s still a sad state of affairs that it has become so difficult to see in recent years. This is one movie that converts the flat, businesslike style characteristic of the 50’s into an asset. The crisis postulated by the story is obviously a problem to be solved by scientists, who will solve it by doing exactly what they always do. In contrast to what we are accustomed to, defeating the menace of serranium really is all in a day’s work for these people, and Curt Siodmak’s direction reflects this. For the same reason, casting the sturdy but colorless Richard Carlson in the starring role was also a wise decision. If only The Magnetic Monster plodded slightly less, it might have deserved the somewhat overused epithet “forgotten classic.” As it stands, it will have to settle for “intriguing oddity” instead.