“The Colossus of New York” (1958)
by A.J. Hakari
They don’t make very many monster movies like 1958’s The Colossus of New York. This here is a specimen from the golden age of creature features that deigns to explore the horror of actually being a freak of nature one’s self, an angle few genre pictures of the time had the chutzpah to address. For sure, The Wolf Man‘s Larry Talbot struggled with his wild side, but this conflict was played out with a melodramatic bent rather than as a truly dire dilemma. But as its spare piano score pounds out note after foreboding note over the opening credits, you can tell that this definitely isn’t the case with The Colossus of New York. A feeling of doom and gloom takes residence in the pit of your stomach at the start of the movie and stays there, brought on by the way the story emphasizes the pain and loss of humanity that the process of becoming a walking abomination would incur. That the film wasn’t able to iron out all of its stodgy staging and wooden acting does detract a bit from its overall power, but it still leaves you with a uniquely solemn impression regardless.
Dr. Jerry Spensser (Ross Martin) could have changed the world. Thanks to his revolutionary research, he was on the cusp of solving the world hunger problem once and for all. But before he made it to the history books, Jerry was killed in a terrible accident, depriving mankind of one of its greatest minds — and his wife (Mala Powers) and son (Charles Herbert) of a loved one. However, Jerry’s father William (Otto Kruger) isn’t about to let all that genius go to waste. He spirits his boy’s body away to his basement laboratory, working around the clock to preserve as much of him as possible. Helped reluctantly by his other son Henry (John Baragrey), William at last reveals the fruits of his labors: a towering android that now houses Jerry’s brain. The formerly deceased doc is none too pleased with being booted back to life, especially upon realizing he can never see his family again. As much as William tries forcing him to continue his groundbreaking work, Jerry finds his mind drifting towards using his newfound strength and longevity to violently take out his aggressions on the world at large.
So many individual elements in The Colossus of New York work so splendidly, it’s disheartening to see it have such a tough go at tying them all together into a consistently solid product. That the film at least lives up to the grim narrative foretold by its opening minutes is a definite point in its favor and a move that will forever etch this in the memory banks of vintage science fiction fans. Though it doesn’t even begin making a case for why it chose to cram Jerry’s cranium into a ten-ton robot (which can move, yet remains stationary while he does his work anyway), the movie still does a great job of hammering home how horrible adapting to his transformation must be. The eponymous android does look a touch cheesy — just imagine a more humanoid Gort with a poncho — but have fun trying to get the haunting, static-tinged screeching Jerry lets loose when he returns to the living out of your head. His journey is a fascinating take on the genre’s typical, Frankenstein-style cautionary tales of meddling with science, focused on what might happen if mankind’s physical limitations were taken away. With a body that endows him with immortality, great strength, and the ability to tap into other supernatural planes, what’s to stop Jerry from losing all sense of compassion for humans and go mad with power? We’ve seen monsters and madmen struggle with their darker impulses, but this picture makes it loud and clear that being a virtually boundless brute is not fun.
With this level of maturity applied to what lesser films would regard as simply some dude in an unwieldy costume, one might assume that the rest of The Colossus of New York would follow suit. But while it’s not for a lack of trying, director Eugene Lourie (Gorgo) doesn’t quite succeed in nurturing the seeds of an uncommonly emotional B-movie into fruition. He passes over opportunities to really dig into the film’s other dramatic goings-on, from Henry dealing with always having been favored less than his brother to William letting his grief cloud the fact that his beloved son is well on his way to becoming a killing machine. These sections ring fairly flat, and while The Colossus of New York tries to shake things up with an unexpected character death or two as it marches towards the climax, it has a tricky time of holding our attention whenever the metal maestro isn’t onscreen. The ending is especially problematic, as what’s supposed to be the culmination of Jerry’s darkest designs coming to life is handled in a rather hurried manner. The last ten minutes blow the previous hour’s worth of ominous plotting in a mad dash to the finish line, robbing the best thing the flick had going for it of what should have been its most powerful moment.
From its minimalist score to its dark thematic overtones, there’s much to like about The Colossus of New York. It does such a fine job of accomplishing what it can with a B-movie’s budget and length, one wonders where it really could have gone had it been able to shed some more of the restrictions keeping the remainder of its ideas reigned in. Still, The Colossus of New York carries a flavor all its own that discerning cinefolk and card-carrying monster kids can agree isn’t like much that they’ve tasted before.
(The Colossus of New York is available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.)