Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Cyclops (1957)

Even though her fiancée Bruce has disappeared in plateau somewhere in Mexico, Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott) is convinced he is still alive. She manages to get together three men to help her with a small expedition into the area. These are Russ Bradford (James Craig), a bacteriologist and old friend of Bruce’s who is in love with Susan and is really coming along to prove his friend’s death, alcoholic stock market trader Marty Melville (Lon Chaney Jr.), out to find some uranium, and hired pilot Lee Brand (Tom Drake).

After some trouble with the local governor, the quartet barely manage to land where they want to go – turns out having Lon Chaney Jr. grabbing the control stick of one’s plane in mid-flight is not a good thing. But hey, at least there’s more uranium to be found here than Marty could ever have dreamed of! In a strange coincidence, there’s also a frightening amount of preposterously giant fauna around. After boring interpersonal problems and too much footage of “giant” animals slaughtering one another, our heroes finally meet the titular personage (Duncan “Dean” Parish), though the “cyclops” really is a giant guy with a half melted face and brain damage. You’ll never guess who he was before the glories of radiation had their way with him.

Bert I. Gordon’s The Cyclops is a bit of a shame, for it puts a rather interesting and effective twenty minutes of film behind forty minutes going on two-hundred of library footage of planes, pointless feet-dragging, and the kind of interpersonal conflict that doesn’t even make sense if you believe every character in the film to be a fool as well as an arsehole.

Worse, the film’s early three hours of running time are mostly dull as dishwater with scenes that shouldn’t have been in the movie in the first place going on for far too long while little of importance to character, theme, plot or audience enjoyment happens. It’s, as is regularly the case with Gordon’s films for me, particularly frustrating because the director actually was one of the more visually dynamic ones of his time and budget bracket, talents that are wasted when there isn’t anything in Gordon’s own script to actually apply them to. The animal slaughter involved doesn’t exactly help improve things, adding a degree of unpleasantness that still manages to be pretty dull, adding insult to the injury of animals dying for our enjoyment by not containing even the suggestion of enjoyability.

The thing is, once the actual film begins about forty minutes of real time in, the still conscious viewer is actually treated to something worthwhile. Jack H. Young’s “cyclops” make-up is as gruesome as anything I’ve seen in a film from this era, really making the so-called monster look like the victim of radiation damage, enabling the film to make its so-called monster painfully human at the moments when it counts. And make no mistake, this make-up, the big guy’s background and his unceasing desperate grunting (thought up in a time when sound design generally was an afterthought), as well as his undeserved end combine not just into one of the sadder giants in Gordon’s giant-rich filmography, but reach a point amounting to actual tragedy; which is no mean feat given that the giant also has an embarrassing wrestling match with a python (or is it a boa?).

I find this aspect of the movie so surprisingly dark, so effective in its darkness, and so atypical for 50s horror/SF films I’d nearly be willing to suggest it’s worthwhile wading through the dullness that comes before. At the very least, this part of The Cyclops illustrates that Gordon, despite what people - including myself - often unfairly suggest had ambitions as a filmmaker beyond making a quick buck by showing giant or tiny things.

2 comments: said...

I suppose this sort of thing was bound to happen eventually, but how is it that we both managed to post a review of this on the same day?

I love The Cyclops (first Gordon film I ever saw). This, Colossal Man, and Colossal Beast all have tragic overtones, which was, as you state, quite out of the ordinary for American giant monster cinema of the time.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

It's that "great minds think alike" business again, I believe.

Now that I think about it, Gordon's ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE also has tragic undertones, at least, with its somewhat sympathetic mad doll maker.