powered by AFI
The Cosmic Monster (1958) was the onscreen title given to the American release (by Distributors Corporation of America) of the British science fiction film The Strange World of Planet X; title confusion invariably comes into play because in all of the advertising for this film, DCA called it Cosmic Monsters instead. One of three British 1950s science fiction films to star American actor Forrest Tucker, it is the least known of the batch and is seldom revived. Generally considered a minor effort in the genre, The Cosmic Monster is notable for its interesting premise, for a few effective shock scenes, and for being an across-the-pond cousin to the American "Big Bug" subgenre of science fiction movies.
Synopsis: In a small, rural research laboratory in the South of England, the eccentric Dr. Laird (Alec Mango) is working on experiments which manipulate magnetic fields, with the assistance of Canadian Gil Graham (Forrest Tucker). Following the injury of another assistant, project head Brigadier Cartwright (Wyndham Goldie) sends a replacement, Michele Dupont (played by Gaby Andre although the voice is awkwardly dubbed by another actress); the fact that she is a woman concerns both Laird and Graham. The experiments have potential military applications since they seem to distort the properties of metal, but the local townsfolk only know that the laboratory wrecks havoc with their radios and televisions. As Gil and Michele spend more time together, strange things begin to occur in the woods near the lab. In the midst of flying saucer sightings, little Jane (Susan Redway) meets a stranger wandering in the woods who call himself Mr. Smith (Martin Benson). "Smith" is anxious to mix among the townspeople and is particularly curious about the experiments going on at Laird's laboratory. More ominously, a harmless tramp that sleeps in the woods begins attacking innocent people, and an army of insects in the vicinity grow to enormous proportions.
Britain's most notable contribution to the cycle of 1950s science fiction films was a pair of movies featuring the Prof. Quatermass character, which were based on popular television serials by Nigel Kneale. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955 aka The Creeping Unknown) and Quatermass II (1956 aka Enemy from Space) presented science-based protagonists who respond to horrific outer space threats with intelligence and resolve. Another movie that traded on the Quatermass feel was X the Unknown (1956), a Jimmy Sangster-penned original for Hammer Films. Nigel Kneale himself followed up the Quatermass films with The Abominable Snowman (1957), also for Hammer and director Val Guest. This film starred Peter Cushing and, making the first of three British science fiction thrillers, American actor Forrest Tucker. Tucker went on to make two more Quatermass-inspired films in England the following year - The Strange World of Planet X and The Crawling Eye (both 1958). Although these two films were often released together on a double bill in the theaters, they were made by two different production companies. The Cosmic Monster was produced by Artistes Alliance Ltd. while The Crawling Eye was produced by Tempean Films. The Crawling Eye was based on the ATV television serial The Trollenberg Terror by Peter Key; it was quite ambitious in its settings (mountaintop retreats in the Alps) and effects (large alien blobs with tentacles and a single eye, taken out by jet aircraft strikes).
By contrast, The Cosmic Monster was modestly mounted compared to most of the other Quatermass-inspired films, which usually dealt with themes that were epic in design, if not always in execution. British actress-turned-author Rene Ray wrote a novel dealing with time travel called The World of Planet X, which was also adapted as a 7-part serialized drama (for ATV Television) by the same name. Accounts vary, but apparently the serial changed the premise from time travel to inter-dimensional travel. The film's screenplay by Paul Ryder in turn changed the source of the menace to mutations grown in a small area affected by powerful magnetic fields. The dialogue in Ryder's script is clunky and occasionally embarrassing. When Dr. Laird is first told that his new lab assistant will be female, he indignantly says, "But a... woman? This is preposterous. This is highly skilled work!" The film was shot in Isleworth Studios, a small facility that normally handled industrial shorts and commercials for television.
The "Big Bug" element of The Cosmic Monster is the source of the film's climactic shocks, although it is not the main thrust of the plot as it is with such well-known American films as Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and Beginning of the End (1957). Director Gilbert Gunn treats the early scenes of The Cosmic Monster in a very pedestrian manner, seldom coming in for close-ups and sticking to a lethargic pace. For the insect-attack scenes, Gunn creates a few stylish moments, as when a schoolteacher (Patricia Sinclair) finds herself trapped in an empty schoolhouse at night, surrounded by attacking bugs. Another sequence finds Gaby Andre caught in a giant spider web; the misty lighting of this scene renders it surreal and other-worldly.
The special effects came courtesy of an uncredited Les Bowie, a fixture in the effects field in England for decades, creating mattes and process shots for many Hammer films and eventually working on such high profile films as Casino Royale (1966) and Superman (1978). The optical work is quite good, but the images of various centipedes, grasshoppers, and beetles are less effective because they move at their normal speed so the footage still appears as enlarged; had high-speed photography been used, the critters would have moved slower and looked more naturally over-sized. The only shot in which the insects clearly interact with humans is a gory shocker in which a bug is seen chewing the flesh from a dead soldier's face; here a large puppet insect is utilized. This shot is rather gratuitous and it is worth speculating that it was included purely to ensure that the film would be given the "X" certificate (suitable for those aged 16 and older) from the British Board of Film Censors. The earlier films The Quatermass Xperiment and X the Unknown flaunted the "X" Certificate in their titles as a come-on at the box-office, and the same may hold true for The Strange World of Planet X.
Critical reaction to The Cosmic Monster was lukewarm. The writer for Variety said it was a "gloomy little item, ...not ingenious enough or sufficiently 'horrific' to add up to anything but a nave [and] singularly uninspired potboiler... [The monsters] look rather daft and add up to fairly tepid entertainment..." He adds that "Robert Sharples' music has an efficiently eerie note [but] Joe Ambor's camera work is not sufficiently distinguished to hide the phoniness of the studio-made insects, designed to provide thrill which is more revolting than hair-raising." The critic for the Monthly Film Bulletin echoes the same sentiment, writing that "This piece of British science fiction is resourcefully directed, and only some badly handled process work lets the film down. The giant ants, spiders, worms, etc. are all too obviously stock micro-cinematographic material; and the spectacle of the cast running in terror from them is a trifle absurd. Only a most unpleasant shot of an ant feeding off a human face makes the film unsuitable for younger audiences." The Film Daily writer was more charitable, calling it "a neat little science fiction chiller, more scientifically plausible than many. With plenty of action, suspense and properly terrifying shots of giant insects, [it] should be pleasing to all who favor this type of film."
Producer: George Maynard
Director: Gilbert Gunn
Screenplay: Paul Ryder (adaptation); Rene Ray (story)
Cinematography: Josef Ambor
Art Direction: Bernard Sarron
Music: Robert Sharples
Film Editing: Francis Bieber
Cast: Forrest Tucker (Gil Graham), Gaby Andre (Michele Dupont), Martin Benson (Smith), Wyndham Goldie (Brigadier Cartwright), Alec Mango (Dr. Laird), Hugh Latimer (Jimmy Murray), Geoffrey Chater (Gerard Wilson), Patricia Sinclair (Helen Forsyth), Dandy Nichols (Mrs. Tucker), Richard Warner (Inspector Burns)
By John M. Miller
Keep Watching the Skies: The 21st Century Edition, Bill Warren, McFarland, 2010