In 1953 and 1954, producer Ivan Tors created a trilogy of science-fiction films, each loosely connected by a fictional governmental agency, the Office of Scientific Investigation, or OSI. The first and last films, The Magnetic Monster and Gog, have just been released on Blu-ray, Gog in stunning 3-D. So goggle-wearing fans should take note — neither film has looked so good since the initial release more than 60 years ago. In fact, Gog broke in many more theaters in standard format rather than 3-D. The then-much-flawed format was beginning to wear thin with audiences by 1954.
Riders to the Stars, the second and weakest of the trilogy, has yet to be released on DVD, but enterprising viewers can watch it (legally and legitimately) on some streaming sites. YouTube features the film in its original color but with a rather lackluster presentation; Amazon’s feature is in a much crisper black-and-white. It’s your choice until the eventual restoration on Blu-ray renders the dilemma moot.
Ivan Tors was fascinated with the scientific aspects of the genre, and his movies (and later TV series, the influential Science Fiction Theater) were grounded in lots of pseudo-scientific claptrap intended to make their subjects more credible and believable than the usual genre fantasies. In The Magnetic Monster, for instance, there’s actually no creature as such, but rather a tiny piece of a new element called “serranium” which, due to an irresponsible experimenter, begins to grow exponentially, emitting radiation as its magnetic properties threaten the very existence of Earth.
The actual origin of the film is almost as fantastic as its plot. Tors had obtained a copy of the German film Gold (1934), which had about 10 minutes of terrific special effects. Writer/director Curt Siodmak then fashioned his own completely different plot around those 10 minutes, which he seamlessly edited into the new film.
Richard Carlson, a stalwart icon of ’50s sci-fi classics like It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon, gives one of his best performances as the enterprising scientist who saves the day against all odds. Among the supporting cast is the always-reliable King Donovan whose face, if not name, was familiar to generations of moviegoers. One of his most memorable roles was as Kevin McCarthy’s buddy in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Intelligent and fast-paced, Magnetic Monster makes better use of its 76-minute running time than most bloated genre features today, a testament to imagination and ingenuity, in lieu of big-budget and special effects.
Carlson went on to make his directing debut in Riders to the Stars, the second in the OSI trilogy, casting himself in a supporting role as one of America’s first three “men in space.” Barely making it out of the atmosphere and nowhere near the stars, the men of the title (headlined by William Lundigan) are trying to capture meteors in order to find a substance to help the U.S.A. in its race to space against the Commies. The film’s science is even more ludicrous than the weak special effects, but the actors are great — including respected veteran Herbert Marshall, the lovely Martha Hyer and, yes, King Donovan again.
A mirror of its time, like the others in the trilogy, Riders to the Stars highlights Tors’ fascination with the emerging technology as well as the nation’s paranoia about the Red Menace behind the Iron Curtain.
Both concerns come front and center less than a year later in Gog. At a remote underground facility in the middle of the desert, research scientists feverishly at work on the first orbiting manned satellite are being eliminated one by one in a series of nefarious “accidents.” Rugged Richard Egan plays an OSI investigator trying to plumb the mystery, aided by Constance Dowling (the real-life Mrs. Tors) and Herbert Marshall. (No Carlson or Donovan this time.)
The three major nonhuman characters are NOVAC, a huge computer that’s the hub of the installation, and a pair of multi-armed robots, Gog and Magog. (The Magnetic Monster included a prominent computer, M.A.N.I.A.C.) The real culprit turns out to be a jet plane from an unnamed Menace (but we know it’s really the dirty Reds), jamming the facility’s electronics, causing the computer and robots to go on their respective killing sprees.
Restored to pristine 3-D, Gog looks every bit as good as the recent releases of House of Wax and Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. It’s hokey but fun, a worthy conclusion to the OSI trilogy and a faithful representative of ’50s sci-fi films.