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Friday, February 20, 2009

Cosmic Monsters

Originally, this movie was titled "The Strange World" or "The Strange World of Planet X" when it was released in the UK in 1957. When it was released in America in late 1958, it was marketed with the title "Cosmic Monsters" (CM). Since the British film industry did not use promotional posters as actively as the American film industry did, it's the American poster shown at left. By whichever title, the film itself is a nice example of British B sci-fi. CM is yet another recasting of the Klaatu trope, but with a British entry into the big bug sub-genre. In some areas, (England, perhaps?) The Strange World of Planet X double billed with another British sci-fi starring Forrest Tucker, The Trollenberg Terror.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The opening narrator sets the tone of the cautionary tale. Man has advanced in many areas, but there is so much that remains unknown. At a country laboratory, men fire up a room-sized machine. It overloads, sparks, and injures one of them. The overload blows out TVs in the area and stops clocks. Wilson, a government man, sends a Cartwright to check on Dr. Laird's work because it has national defense implications. Wilson gives the Cartwright two bars of metal for Laird to experiment upon. Gil and Cartwright privately discuss the potential of a projected beam weapon. Laird is prickly about doing only 'pure research' in high-energy magnetic fields. The injured worker is replaced with a pretty French woman scientist. They fire up the machine again, with one of Cartwright's bars in the 'oven'. At full power, Cartwright's briefcase flies across the room. Gil shuts down the machine to save Michele. The metal bar now crumbles. The machine's overload also caused lightning storms and caused a 'meteor' to fall. A tramp in the woods sits up with a burned face. Turns out that Laird's magnetic field machine warped the earth's magnetic field, allowing deadly cosmic rays to get through. The tramp becomes a deranged killer. Local insects have mutated into giants. A mysterious stranger eventually explains that he came to warn us not to continue the experiments. The giant bugs eventually attack, killing some individuals. Soldiers arrive and attack the bugs. Gil and the stranger rescue Michele from a giant spider's web. Laird is about to fire up his machine again. With the earthmen's permission, the stranger summons a flying saucer which blows up the lab. The earth is saved. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The blend of a typically British Klaatu-like alien, and the big-bug sub-genre, can't help but be fun. The pacing is good. The big bug shots are not Bert I. Gordon's work, but interesting in their own right.

Cold War Angle
The Cold War is a background element, in that the British government wants Dr. Laird's research to become a projected beam weapon for neutralizing hostile aircraft. Late 50s audiences knew who that was. The bulk of the movie, however, is more the typical cautionary tale about the dangers of science.

Klaatu Returns -- The trope of the benevolent messenger had "legs", as they say. It is best remembered in Klaatu of The Day The Earth Stood Still, but reappeared many times. We saw it reworked in an earlier British B film, Stranger From Venus ('54), and will see it again in early 1959 in Cosmic Man. Mr. Smith in CM is much like the man from Venus in '54 and Rennie's Klaatu in being the model of benign civility.

Mad Scientist Redux -- Another trope within CM, almost a parallel plot line, is the selfish obsession of Dr. Laird to continue his work, even to the point of killing Wilson for trying to stop him. In this, there is a typically British understated message about the dangers of hubris in science.

Snow On Their Boots -- There is a great cultural "tip of the iceberg" line in CM. It may have been totally lost on American audiences. Early in the movie, Murray, the security man, is talking with Wilson, the government man, about all the hoopla (flying saucer stories) in the press about Laird's work. Wilson says, "You may have to find some chaps with snow on their boots, if you know what I mean." Do you? It would be easy to blow by that line, but it's actually full of meaning.
In the early days of World War One, British public opinion rankled at the lack of any British attack on Germany. Rumors arose about Russian soldiers traveling in closed trains from sea ports in Scotland to the channel coast. "Eyewitnesses" said they figured they were Russian soldiers because they saw snow on their boots. The implication was that Britain was actually "doing something" to stop Germany by transporting Russians (who were allies) to the front lines. The rumors were false, of course. It was suspected that the government and press cooked up the stories (or fed them) to deflect criticism over government inaction. Hence, the notion that Murray might need to use the flying saucer stories to cover up the real defense project truth. How many Americans would have gotten that?

Bottom line? CM is breaks no new ground in sci-fi, but is a very watchable remake of the TDESS plot, with some interesting variations. It is also a rare British example of the big-bug sub-genre. For fans of 50s sci-fi, it is well worth the time.


Mike Scott said...

I'm a big fan of Brit sci-fi and this one is pretty good. Not Quatermass good, but not bad!

Thanks for that "Snow On Their Boots" explanation! That line always went right by me, but now I'll be listening for it.

Quote: In some areas, (England, perhaps?) The Strange World of Planet X double billed with another British sci-fi starring Forrest Tucker, The Trollenberg Terror.

I've seen a combo US pressbook (DCA, 1958) for "The Crawling Eye" and "Cosmic Monsters", but there were no combo posters or trailers, so I'm not sure they ever played together in the US, at that time. I've never seen any UK posters for either film.

Nightowl said...

I heard the UK double bill reference from a guy in the UK. I've not seen any UK posters. Apparently lobby posters were not part of the British marketing style.

It's a pity, too. I'd liked to have seen how they visualized their movies. The American poster had a definite...um, style. As Col. Hawthorne said in the movie "It's a mad mad mad mad world" (1963) "What is it with you Americans and your positively infantile obsession with bosoms?"

Where would American posters have been with abundant bosoms and ample cleavage? Just some robots and a rocket, maybe a monster. Boring. ;-)

Mike Scott said...

Quote: Apparently lobby posters were not part of the British marketing style.

They mostly just had the Quads and a stills set (Front of House Cards), but nothing like the variety of posters the US studios used.

Quote: Just some robots and a rocket, maybe a monster.

My favorite parts, though the babes do add to the appeal (and are even the main focus, on occassion).