Synopsis: Late one night in the California desert, a man drives his pickup truck along a lonely stretch of highway. Suddenly, his radio is filled with static and his truck stalls. He gets out and lifts the hood, then notices a strange white sphere racing toward him. When the sphere hits him it vanishes, and he calmly lowers the hood of his vehicle, gets into the truck, and heads back the way he came.
Soon the driver arrives at a scientific research facility called LabCentral. There he knocks out the security guard and barges into the office of the lab’s director, Dr. Hubbell Elliot (John Emery). In an instant, the white sphere transfers from the truck driver to Dr. Elliot. The driver collapses, dead; now Dr. Elliot seems not to be himself. He immediately goes to a locked cabinet and peruses a file that lists the locations and yields of all the world’s atomic power plants.
Elsewhere in the building, three other LabCentral employees are working late: Dr. Leslie Gaskell (Jeff Morrow) is tracking the path of an asteroid, with the help of his beautiful assistant / #1 squeeze Vera Hunter (Barbara Lawrence); Dr. Arnold Culver (George O’Hanlon) is using a mammoth computer nicknamed “Susie” to compute the asteroid’s orbit. But something hinkey is going on: Gaskell is certain the asteroid’s course is changing for no apparent reason. And before long Susie bears this out: the asteroid is now heading directly for Earth.
When told of this, Dr. Elliot shrugs, suggesting that Susie might have made a mistake; in any case, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Gaskell finds Elliot’s attitude perplexing. He implores Elliot to contact the government immediately — missiles loaded with nuclear warheads must be fired at the asteroid while it’s still in space. If the object isn’t destroyed, Gaskell says, its impact could cause enormous damage.
Reluctantly, Elliot agrees. Soon a trio of missiles are launched at the asteroid. All three strike their target. At the same moment Dr. Elliot collapses to the floor, unconscious. But to Gaskell’s astonishment, the asteroid is left completely intact and its course is unchanged. The object splashes into the sea, a few miles off the west coast of Mexico. On a hunch, Gaskell and Culver travel to Mexico to see if they can determine the asteroid’s makeup. Gaskell is surprised but eventually delighted when Vera shows up as well.
Back in the States, Dr. Elliot, moving in and out of a trance-like state, is being treated by a psychiatrist. In his lucid moments, he tells the shrink that an alien intelligence has gained control of him, and is forcing him to betray the human race. The alien race is trying to absorb all the Earth’s energy, and will succeed if given time.
The following morning, the scientists in Mexico awake to discover that in the same place in the ocean where the object landed, a 300-foot robot now stands….
Comments: While it certainly isn’t the best science fiction movie of the 1950s, Kronos has a lot going for it. The word “underrated” is almost always applied to it, perhaps because it’s somewhat smarter than many of its contemporaries and because it has remained fairly elusive over the years. In fact, a lot of people who know their 50s sci-fi films backwards and forwards have never seen it.
Structurally Kronos resembles Japanese science fiction of the era — it’s shot in widescreen; the heroes are scientists rather than military men; the threat is a giant robot, not an alien armada; and destruction is on an epic scale.
But in other respects it stands as an almost generic example of midcentury American science fiction: it’s shot in black and white, there is a standard-issue alien possession subplot, the hero has a curvaceous assistant who doubles as his girlfriend; and the method used to finally cripple the energy-hungry Kronos is a fairly predictable let’s-reverse-the-polarity-and-overload-its-circuits gimmick.
The movie was directed by Kurt Neumann, who famously beat George Pal’s Destination Moon to theaters in 1950 with his own low-budget imitator, which had been announced to the trades as Expedition Moon. Under threat of a lawsuit, Neumann changed the title to Rocketship X-M (the “X-M”, however, standing for “eXpedition Moon”) and changed the rocket’s final destination ( it was supposed to land on the Moon, we’re told, but through a wacky mishap ended up on Mars instead).
Rocketship X-M is better remembered today than Kronos, perhaps because of its tenuous association with Destination Moon, and because it starred a young Lloyd Bridges. But Kronos is unquestionably the better movie. It builds an air of suspense and mystery with admirable speed, and while the characters sling around a lot of technobabble, it’s there to establish verisimilitude, and it doesn’t get in the way. The audience can pretty easily follow what’s happening.
The concept of LabCentral is interesting, even if it is a little hard to swallow: it seems to be a robustly-funded R&D lab without any particular portfolio or specialty. It has an observatory that tracks asteroids, a supercomputer that appears to be up for any task, and the facility squirrels away all manner of classified information. We don’t know much about LabCentral — whether it is privately-funded or government-run, or some combination of the two.
Some of the plot elements suggest that Kronos takes place in the near future; for instance, Gaskell impatiently tells Elliot to call the government and order a missile strike against the incoming asteroid, as though everyone knows this is standard procedure. In fact, no rocket was capable of leaving the Earth’s atmosphere when Kronos was made, let alone one bearing a nuclear warhead (the rockets we see being launched at the asteroid are German V-2s, the only rockets at the time for which stock footage was available).
Neumann has a talented cast to work with here. John Emery, one of the better players in Rocketship X-M, is memorable as the doomed Dr. Elliot. As is typical with movies of the time, Barbara Lawrence’s Vera doesn’t get a lot to do, but she is in many ways the character who is meant to connect most directly to the audience, always trying to get the stuffy scientists to ground themselves in the real world. This is one of Jeff Morrow’s better performances — he plays the absent-minded but determined Dr. Gaskell with a nice touch of humor. George O’Hanlon (best known as the voice of George Jetson) also provides some humor, though his anthropomorphizing of the computer mainframe (“Susie, speak to me!”) gets a bit tiresome after a while. We also have Morris Ankrum on hand, always a welcome presence. For once, he doesn’t play a general, but a psychiatrist who believes – mistakenly – that his patient’s nutty story is a delusion.
The Black Room
Synopsis: In a Tyrolean fiefdom, a baron anxiously awaits the birth of an heir. But he is greatly distressed to learn that his wife has given birth to twins. An old family prophecy holds that one day twins will be born to the family, and that the younger twin will murder the older in the onyx-lined “black room” of the castle. Fearful of the prophecy, the baron orders that the entrance to the room be bricked up.
Some forty years later, we find the older twin Gregor ruling as baron. He is a cruel and dissolute tyrant, hated by his subjects, and he is suspected in the disappearances of several young women. But the local authorities turn a blind eye to his activities.
The younger twin Anton (Boris Karloff) is a nice but somewhat ineffectual fellow, and has been away since his brother’s rule began. At Gregor’s invitation, Anton returns home.
At first Anton refuses to believe the rumors about Gregor, but it soon becomes clear to him that his older brother is every bit as cruel and despotic as the locals allege.
To everyone’s surprise, Gregor tells the townspeople that he will relinquish his authority immediately and turn it over to his younger brother Anton. This mollifies the crowd and Anton becomes the new baron.
While acquainting Anton with his new duties, Gregor shows him an interesting trick: inside the huge fireplace in the main hall there is a secret passage that leads into the Black Room. Gregor reveals that he has been there many times, and that there is a pit beneath the room. When Anton looks down into the pit, he sees a number of bodies that have been thrown down there — including the body of the missing girl Mashka. Gregor strikes Anton and tosses him down into the pit as well.
As Anton dies, Gregor taunts him. He reminds him that, according to the prophecy, Anton was supposed to kill Gregor in that room. “The prophesy will be fulfilled!” Anton insists. “From the grave?” Gregor asks sarcastically. “Yes,” Anton says as he dies. “From the grave!”Emerging from the Black Room, Gregor now assumes the identity of Anton, able to rule again while being absolved of all his past crimes. Yet Anton’s dying words keep coming back to him…
Comments: Kronos made its first appearance on Horror Incorporated 14 years after its theatrical release, the newest movie to date on Horror Incorporated; and you may have already guessed that we’re moving into a new phase, where the science fiction films of the 1950s are starting to supplant the old Shock! package standards. The Shock! pictures won’t ever go away completely, of course, but the less famous titles will start to slip to second-feature status.
So back to the boneyard we go, with the 1935 Karloff opus The Black Room. This one stands up well to repeat viewing, which is fortunate — because by my count only Dracula has been broadcast more frequently. I talked about the movie previously here and here; I don’t have a lot to add, except that it stands up somewhat better as a thriller than as a horror film. Gregor’s depravities aren’t dwelt upon, and most of his cruel deeds happen off screen. By today’s standards horror was a relatively tame genre in the 1930s, but even so, there seems to be an effort to keep things from getting too ghoulish. Gregor’s evil nature is largely an ascribed attribute. We never see him do away with poor Mashka, for example. Instead, Anton finds her body in the pit, along with a lot of other bodies; the only one we really see bumped off is Anton himself.
All the same Karloff is deliciously evil as the bad twin, and we can’t wait for his comeuppance, which arrives right on schedule, and occurs in the most satisfying way. Having Karloff play twin brothers is almost a hindrance in this movie — we focus on the brothers’ different characters and forget that Gregor is the only really interesting one. And Karloff plays him to perfection.
Here’s a quick programming note: next week marks the premiere of Horror Incorporated’s noontime show, which was broadcast as a supplement to the midnight program.