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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Escapement (Electronic Monster)

The British movie market had its B-grade sci-fi movies too. They couldn't all be Quatermass. Released in the UK in 1958, Escapement languished for a couple years before being brought to the USA in 1960. When it was, it was given a jazzier title for the American market -- "Electronic Monster." A new title clip was wedged in amid the original credits. In many ways, Escapement is a fairly pedestrian crime/mystery story that happens to feature a bit of electronic equipment as the tools of the villain. The trope of brain-washing was not all that new, but Maine takes it to a sort of industrialized level. The poster art, at left, is from the American release. As befitting it's more sensationalist title, the art depicts a well-endowed redhead tied up and being subjected to electric bolts and a big man's face with a creepy gaze. In the movie, there are some less-clad young women, but they're the modern dancers in the dream-tape studio. They're not in bondage. American audiences hoping for the movie to deliver the scene in the poster, were disappointed -- again.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A movie star crashes his car while a film studio was making a movie in the south of France. The studio files a claim with Consolidated Insurance. Suspecting that it was suicide or foul play (which would negate the policy), the insurance company sends Jeff Keenan to France to investigate. An old friend, Brad, who works with the studio tells Jeff of two other mysterious deaths which have some things in common. One common thread is their having undergone therapy at a psych clinic shortly before they died. Circuitously, we learn Phillip Maxwell has an elaborate machine that projects taped "dreams" to help his patients. The tapes are recorded in a nearby studio. Jeff's old flame, Ruth, works in the clinic's studio. Maxwell has misgivings about the process, given the deaths. The clinic's owner, a sinister man named Zakon, dismisses the connection. He uses the dream therapy to gain mind control over wealthy patients. He planned to then have access to their fortunes. Zakon orders his thug to silence the problem. Brad is found hung in his apartment. Maxwell's wife is nabbed as a hostage to force his cooperation, but she's actually killed. Ruth is nabbed too, and put into a treatment cell. Jeff convinces Maxwell to act against Zakon's evil and help save Ruth. They confront Zakon and his men. A good old fashioned fist fight breaks out. Ruth is freed. Maxwell inflicts the same dream machine process on Zakon, at painfully high levels, then shoots him. Maxwell then takes an axe to all the equipment, sparking a huge fire. Ruth and Jeff walk out together as the firemen rush in. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There are some intriguing notions around the edges of what amounts to a fairly average crime drama. Can emotion be "taped"? Mind control via sensory substitution has some legs. Those patients in the morgue-drawer-like "cubicles" had a sort of Matrix flavor.

Cold War Angle
The British tended to focus more on the subversive politics of communism than the military and the nukes. The Zakon character is the micro-scale analog of the communist despot. He will quietly take control of his people by shaping their thoughts, under the guise of 'helping' people until all follow his will without question. "(They will see me as) the symbol of benevolence and mercy. Thus, I will obtain control over them..."

Poor Adaptation? --
The screenplay for Escapement has been called a poor adaptation of Charles Eric Maine's book, "The Man Who Couldn't Sleep" (or Escapement). The trouble is, Maine himself wrote the screenplay too. Can an author do a poor adaptation of his own work? Maine either re-wrote it to satisfy the producers' demands ("Make it simpler. Write me a crime story!") or he wanted to take the kernel of the idea from his book and spin a new tale. Maine's earlier forays into sci-fi screenplays, Spaceways ('53) and Timeslip (or the Atomic Man) ('56) were also cast as crime dramas, making Escapement rather similar to them. Rather than a poor adaptation, it could be the movie Escapement was the author's own revision of his prior work.

What's In A Name? -- The British movie title, (Escapement), is curiously more cerebral than the book's title ("The Man Who Couldn't Sleep") and much more so than the sensationalist American release title, "Electronic Monster." An escapement is that little part of a mechanical clock that makes the tick, tock sound. Even though it is a small mechanism, it controls the entire set of gears, running speed and the energy use in a mechanical clock. Via the little dream-therapy inserted thoughts, Zakon sought to control an entire group of people for profit. His scheme was like a human version of the modern computer viruses and bot-nets. By a nearly invisible little tweak deep with the "operating system", the whole "device" is controlled without anyone even being aware of it.

The Face of Big Brother -- The British have a long-standing cultural obsession with domineering dictators. Napoleon really got under their skin. The several dream sequences shown, with smoke and interpretive dance, etc. have a big mask of Zakon floating through them, looking rather like the omnipresent face of Big Brother in Orwell's 1984. This floating mask visual was probably lost on American audiences. British viewers, more sensitive to the idea of despots sneaking in and taking over, were probably more creeped out. There was a similar sort of mind-control dictator theme in The Gamma People ('56).

Auto Trivia -- An interesting, though admittedly trivial, detail is the car in which the very tall actor Rod Cameron (playing Jeff Keenan) drives in the movie. He's driving a 1956 or 57 Volkswagen Beetle! How can you tell it's a '57? Look at the front view of the car. Notice the little turn signal lights low and outside of the headlights. '55 and earlier models had none. The '58 models (and later), had them atop the fenders. Use this secret knowledge to dazzle your friends when you watch the movie with them. They'll be so impressed!

Bottom line? Escapement (or Electronic Monster) will be more pleasing to fans of crime dramas and B-grade mysteries. It's toehold on science fiction is tenuous at best. Yet, there are some thought provoking themes, once you look beyond the detective crime novel layer. Just don't look for aliens or a lot of action.


Mike Scott said...

Quote: As befitting it's more sensationalist title, the art depicts a well-endowed redhead tied up and being subjected to electric bolts . .

Found this still that is the origin of the image of the girl on the poster.

Nightowl said...

Hey Mike,
Thanks for the link to the cool picture. Do you know the origins of that photo? Original British promotional materials, perhaps?

I reviewed Electronic Monster again, and found where that scene ought to be. About 42 min into the movie, Hoff & Zakon are subjecting Kalini to the 'harsh' dream. That's the "dungeon" stage set shown in the photo (rock wall backgrounds, pots of fire, hay on the floor). But the image in the photo doesn't appear in the movie. Mostly, it's the female dancer centered in the camera. You get only a fleeting glimpse of someone in chains as the black guy in leopard print cape gets out the "N" branding iron. (was it supposed to be a "Z" for Zakon?)

I wonder if the American distributor got a batch of publicity stills from the original producers.

Mike Scott said...

Quote: Do you know the origins of that photo? Original British promotional materials, perhaps?

Don't know, but I assume it was amongst the various publicity materials given to Columbia by the UK Prod/Dist.

According to the IMDb, the movie was trimmed by 4 min. for the US release, so maybe that scene was in the original UK print?

You can see that photo, without the bit of poster pasted onto it, at moviegoods.com. Search for "Electronic Monster".

Nightowl said...

Thanks for the tip to Moviegoods.com. I can see that the original print -did- feature the black guy in leopard print. Thought it would. He was the second most prominent actor in the dungeon dream sequence.

Cut by 4 minutes, eh? They could have taken some out of each of the three dream sequences. (nice-Kalini, harsh-Kalini, Ruth's) They're "artsy" and we know American audiences tire quickly with artsy things.

There's also the death of Laura Maxwell. We don't see anything to know that Wayne actually killed her (instead of just taking her hostage). And the blanket in the back seat scene feels rather disjointed (I thought at first, Wayne was trying to "frame" Jeff, but no). Could be some of the missing footage was the death of Laura. (too much grim reality for American tastes? i.e. you don't kill pretty women on screen (yet) )

Also, all the dream sequences had ample use of drifting smoke double-exposures. The still at Moviegoods is clear.

All fun stuff to muse over. Thanks.