Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Man Who Turned To Stone (1957)

A prison for young women has a curiously high lethality thanks to a peculiarly high density of inmates with very weak hearts; nobody seems to care much, though, until young progressive social worker Carol Adams (Charlotte Austin), new to the facility, starts to take an interest. What she doesn't know is that most of the staff consists of the original mad scientists led by a Dr. Murdock (Victor Jory) who learned at the feet of the Count de St. Germaine how to siphon young women's bioelectric energy and become immortal in the process.

Nearly two hundred years seem to have made the group complacent, though, and an attempt to get rid of Carol by blaming her for the faked suicide of the newest of their victims only brings in another outsider with the best interest of the girls at heart, this time in the 50s-manly form of psychiatrist Jess Rogers (William Hudson). The scientists' life isn't made easier by the fact that their life-prolonging life-force-sucking isn't taking as well as it once did. In fact, Eric (Friedrich von Ledebur), the mute working as the group's factotum, by now needs a new soul nearly nightly lest he meet the end that awaits all of these semi-immortals and turn to stone. And you know how difficult to find good mute servants are. At the same time another member of the coterie has grown squeamish and might just leave a detailed account of what's going on to Jess when his friends decide to act against his defeatism.

László Kardos's The Man Who Turned to Stone is an obscure and minor entry into 50s SF/horror, but it's not a film completely without interest. Unlike other films of the style The Man is quite low on truly reactionary content. In fact, writer and blacklist victim Bernard Gordon makes it quite obvious that he approves of Carol's rather more progressive ideas about re-socialisation - though he's not so progressive not to turn to Jess as the film's actual hero and leave Carol by the wayside for most of the running time. On the other hand, he gives the female victims of our scientific vampires a smidgen more agency in their own rescue than usual in these films, and while they're not allowed to rescue themselves, they do at least have a hand in their own salvation. Additionally, it's rather difficult not to interpret a film that is about a group of older, well-situated people who literally suck the life force out of the young people they are supposed to better and take care of, until other, luckier young people who try to get through the class barrier with good-will and trying to see eye to eye with their wards save the day, as at least somewhat left-leaning.

The film's science vampire idea and its execution comes right out of a pulp story of the sort you could have found in Weird Tales or just about any other magazine interested in using the old science gone mad thrills, with Eric in the end turning into the usual mute fiend who likes to carry unwilling women around. But here, too, the film has a handful of half-way interesting ideas, with the addition of occultists' favourite Count de Saint-Germaine to its backstory, the simple yet effective details of the life force sucking process, and the plain strangeness of having the not-quite immortals slowly turn to stone when they are not feeding, their heartbeats suddenly audible to everyone around.

Thinking this over, I can't help but imagine what a fantastic film could have been done with this material. What we actually get is decent 50s low budget feature that could have used a director with more visual imagination than Kardos shows (except in one or two scenes the more generous viewer might call influenced by expressionism) but that does at least pace its often very obvious outward thrills decently and features a romance which, while not exactly bound to make the viewer of 2013 happy, not makes you want to scrub your brain out afterwards.

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