Monday, July 6, 2009

The Amazing Colossal Man (Malibu/American International, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of The Amazing Colossal Man, a Bert I. Gordon production for his Malibu company, released through American International. Made in 1958, a year after Universal-International’s hit The Incredible Shrinking Man, it was obviously an attempt to do a knock-off of that film, copying the cadence of the title, reversing the central premise (atomic radiation induces someone to become ever-larger instead of ever-smaller) and attempting — and dismally failing at — the philosophical profundity the far more talented (than Gordon, Mark Hanna and an uncredited George Worthing Yates) writer of The Incredible Shrinking Man, Richard Matheson, managed to achieve at least some of the time.

Glen Langan (whose first name usually had a double “n”) stars as Lt. Col. Glenn Manning, who’s part of an army unit in Nevada witnessing the first test of a plutonium-powered nuclear weapon (actually the first plutonium-powered nuclear weapon was developed in 1945 — it was used in the Trinity test and the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, though the Hiroshima “Little Boy” bomb was uranium-235-powered). The bomb doesn’t go off on schedule — we’re solemnly told the chain reaction was still picking up steam — and a private pilot flies over the site and crashes just as the bomb is about to go off. Manning charges out of the protective trench to try to rescue the pilot — and then BOOM! The bomb goes off and Our Hero gets a full blast of radiation, which at first burns up to 90 percent of his body and then, within a day, magically heals him — but with the unfortunate side effect that he starts growing uncontrollably. (He also loses all his hair and starts looking like Mr. Clean without the earring.)

Most of the film takes place at the Army hospital where he’s being cared for, with a lot of boring chatter between the doctors and a lot of scenes involving his fiancée, Carol Forrest (Cathy Downs, a potentially personable actress thoroughly wasted here). The doctors are trying to figure out whether they can harness the healing power of plutonium to treat ordinary burn patients without turning them into jumbo-sized monsters, and also whether there’s a way to develop a serum that will at least arrest Manning’s growth, and maybe even return him to normal size. When Manning gets too big for the hospital to accommodate him, they build him a tent off to the side of the building, where he tries to read normal-sized books and newspapers (unsuccessfully), eats entire animals for his food, picks up dollhouse-sized furnishings (Bert I. Gordon probably did get his props from a toy store selling doll furniture!) and goes into self-pitying laments, notably when he tells his girlfriend, “Why don’t you ask me what it feels like to be a freak?”

Eventually the doctors come up with a serum and, to administer it, they construct a hypodermic that looks like a harpoon — only when they corner our big guy and jab him with it, he reacts like he’s being attacked and, in his first truly anti-social act in the entire movie, he hurls the hypo harpoon back at one of the people who injected it into him, killing the guy, then scoops up Carol in his giant arm (looking very much like at some time in his pre-enlarged life he saw King Kong and thought it was cool) and carries her … well, not to the top of the Empire State Building but to the top of Boulder Dam, from which pilots in helicopters come and knock him off in both senses of the term … though not permanently, since Gordon quickly made a sequel, War of the Colossal Beast, also released in 1958. The special effects in The Amazing Colossal Man are actually pretty good for a low-budget movie in the late 1950’s, but the script offers almost no thrills and seems to think a giant-sized guy walking around in infinitely expandable shorts (the Army doctors rigged them up for him when they saw what they were up against) would in and of itself instill terror in movie audiences without the giant actually having to do anything.