Friday, January 19, 1973: Gog (1954) / Ghost Ship (1952)


Synopsis: In a top-secret laboratory complex, researchers are working to make practical the age-old dream of manned spaceflight.  In one experiment, a monkey is given an injection and then placed in a cold chamber.  The temperature drops to over 100 degrees below zero; the monkey is quickly frozen solid but when it is thawed out it’s as good as new. In a similar manner, we are told, astronauts will one day hibernate during long space journeys.

Later Dr. Huburtus (Michael Fox) is working inside the chamber alone when the door slams shut behind him.  The controls begin to turn on by themselves, plunging the temperature inside the chamber to -100 degrees.  Huburtus freezes to death, as does his assistant (Marian Richman)  when she tries to go inside the chamber to rescue him.

The two mysterious deaths cause station director Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall) to call in the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI), a sort of brainy FBI.  Soon Dr. David Sheppard (Richard Egan) arrives at the facility, which is located in the desert southwest. Sheppard is brought in via helicopter, as the base is inaccessible by road.  As the helicopter approaches the base, the controls begin to move by themselves,  and the pilot lets go of them. He explains to Sheppard that the last part of the voyage is controlled by the installation’s computer, NOVAC.  This, he says, is in order to keep the exact location of the base a secret.

Dr. Sheppard is introduced to Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling), who is tasked with giving Sheppard a tour of the facility.  However, we soon find that Joanna and Sheppard have been lovers, a fact they keep hidden from the rest of the personnel at the base.

Sheppard is shown the various experiments going on in the lab.  We see a chamber where gravity can be artificially reduced, and a man and a woman do acrobatic feats in a near-weightless environment.  In another part of the facility, a centrifuge whirls prospective astronauts around at dangerous speeds.

Dr. Van Ness shows Sheppard a scale model of a planned orbital satellite.  America, Van Ness says, must be the first to launch such a satellite.  If the enemy gets into space first, it could be the end of the United States.  To prove this dubious claim, he shows Sheppard a parabolic mirror that will be mounted on the satellite.  The mirror is designed to focus sunlight into a mercury-filled chamber, creating steam and powering the space station.  However, he warns, such a mirror could be used for more sinister purposes.  He uses the same kind of focusing mirror to direct sunlight on a scale model of a “an industrial city on the shores of Lake Erie”.  The model city bursts into flames as soon as the focused sunlight touches it.

Later, Sheppard meets Dr. Zeitman, a suspicous German expatriate who designed NOVAC and spent five years assembling it in Switzerland. Zeitman is clearly a genius, and he demonstrates two innovations he believes are even greater than NOVAC itself: the robot Gog, and its twin Magog….

Comments: Before I sat down to watch this Ivan Tors meller again I tried to put aside all prejudice and disengage all my adult (and 21st century) cynicism. I made every effort I could to put myself in the place of a moviegoer from 1954, presumably weaned on Andy Hardy movies and Flash Gordon serials, seeing Gog for the first time.

Approaching it this way helped me appreciate Gog‘s strengths. We’re pretty jaded these days; we have seen a lot of on-screen death and mayhem, and have become quite desensitized to it. But conceding that the intended viewers were somewhat more innocent than we are today made the opening scene — in which Dr. Hubertus gets trapped in his own cold chamber, pounding desperately on the glass as the temperature plunges to below -100 and he freezes solid — quite impactful. The grim fate of the two scientists at the base is rolled out early and helps to do two things: it effectively demonstrates the omnipresent danger inherent in working at the secret installation, and it also sets up an intriguing mystery: who or what is responsible for the computer system going haywire and killing people at the base?

So let’s give the movie points for a strong opening and move on to the main narrative conflict. Dr. Sheppard comes in and surveys the situation, and asks a question that, to the viewer, should be pretty obvious: if the base is so dangerous that scientists are being systematically murdered, why not shut down operations until the culprit is found? But Van Ness is adamant that the work is too important to be halted. He then reveals that there’s a race to launch the first satellite between the US and the Soviets (who are, as is typical in this sort of movie, only mentioned obliquely, as “the other side” or “an enemy power”, etc). He demonstrates for Sheppard a focused solar mirror that can melt metal, and tells him that an orbiting platform equipped with such a mirror could burn cities to the ground and boil oceans. He uses a scale model of “an industrial city on the shores of Lake Erie” to show how such a mirror could burn America’s industrial might to ashes (one wonders how many scale models of Cleveland Dr. Van Ness has sitting around).

Now, this must have been worrisome stuff for your average viewer in the mid 1950s, who were just beginning to understand that America wasn’t quite as unassailable as it had always believed itself to be. And the race against time adds spice to the plot: if the Soviets get their satellite in orbit first, America will be helpless as fur-hatted collectivists gleefully burn our cities to smoldering ruins. Only by getting our satellite up first can we prevent that fate — presumably by burning Ivan’s cities to smoldering ruins before he can do the same to us. Ah, the Cold War!

The movie assumes — as many Americans at the time assumed — that war with the Soviets was inevitable, and that they were determined to attack us the moment they got the upper hand. Like Destination Moon, Gog pushes the idea that being second into space wasn’t even an option. We were either first, or the Russians would be dancing on our collective grave.

But while channeling audiences of 1954 helps us appreciate Gog a bit more, our goodwill can only go so far. All Ivan Tors movies are talky, but this one is irredeemably so, burying the audience under an avalanche of words, most of them unnecessary. Nonsensical systems, useless gadgets and Rube Goldberg-esque contrivances are explained to us, and explained and explained and explained. We are told seemingly everything about the robots Gog and Magog in excruciating detail — everything, that is, except what exactly they’re for. The robots are able to respond to voice commands and hand people objects like screwdrivers. Why? They are equipped with cutting torches — again, why? There is some vague hand-waving toward working in hazardous environments, but the robots seem ill-equipped for much of anything except destroying the lab they’re occupying. Moreover, if launching the satellite is such a desperate priority, why does no one seem to be working on it? Why are we freezing monkeys solid and fooling around with robots and watching gymnasts leap around? Who’s in charge here?

In fact the urgency of the task at hand is an argument for, rather than against, shutting down operations at the base and moving essential research projects to more secure locations. Once the miniature transmitters are discovered on the base it would have been obvious that not only is the location of the base known (the movie makes a big deal of the fact that even its location is classified) but that there is at least one mole running loose within it. On top of this, the Russians are able to murder any scientist they want, whenever they want, just by pushing a button.

So rather than the impregnable, super-secret base with which we’re supposed to be so impressed, instead we have a facility that is so vulnerable to Russian spying and sabotage that it might as well be located in Red Square.

It’s absurd to imagine any classified facility continuing its work after such an enormous security breach.  The biggest mystery in Gog is why Dr. Van Ness still has a job at the end of it. In fact, had Tors really wanted to add some life to the movie, he ought to have made Dr. Van Ness the mole, thus revealing his refusal to shutter the base as a way to play for time while the Russians get more intel and cause more damage. It would probably be too much of a plot twist for a movie as stuffy as this one. And making a high-level government official the bad guy would probably have been too much for Cold War-era censors.


Ghost Ship 

Synopsis: Guy Thornton (Dermot Walsh) and his wife Margaret (Hazel Court) have recently returned to England after a few years of living in the U.S.A. Guy was in the Canadian navy during the war and the two have the idea of buying a yacht and using it as their home. They see an advertisement for a diesel ship called the Cyclops; upon looking at the ship Guy can see that while it’s long been neglected, under all the grime and the peeling paint is a beautiful yacht — exactly what the couple has been looking for. The dealer seems reluctant to sell, though, telling the couple a strange story that he wants them to consider before purchasing.

The Cyclops had been owned by a married couple, the Martineaus, who one day drew the ship out from her berth — the very berth she is resting in now, the dealer says — and set out on a pleasure cruise in the English Channel. With them was the ship’s engineer, a very capable man. Some weeks later the Cyclops was discovered, drifting and abandoned. She was found to have absolutely nothing wrong with her. The three people on board had simply vanished.

After an inquest the ship was put up for sale. The new owners became alarmed by many odd things happening on board – a persistent smell of cigar smoke, even though no one on board smoked them; and the ghost of a man that sometimes appeared in the engine room. The owners put the ship up for sale, but the Cyclops’ reputation as a haunted vessel has dogged her since.

The Thorntons don’t believe in ghosts, but do see the ship’s dodgy reputation as a way to get a good price for her. They throw themselves into renovating the Cyclops, and after a great deal of hard work a very handsome yacht emerges. But hiring a crew is nearly impossible: no sailor wants to work on a haunted ship. And before long, Margaret begins to note the overpowering smell of cigar smoke on board, and Guy sees the ghost of a man staring at him down in the engine room….

Comments: Ghost Ship is a charmingly old-fashioned movie, a ghost story in the classic sense. The ghost in question doesn’t do anything hostile; and that fact alone would make it a non-starter as a horror film today.

These days, ghosts aren’t allowed to do anything so old-fashioned as just haunt a place — they have to eviscerate people, or drive them to suicide, or drag them through a portal to hell. But the ghost in this feature doesn’t do anything more, really, then glower at people and occasionally stink up the place with cigar smoke. It is the sort of restless spirit that you encounter in Victorian literature, one that refuses to be quiet until the circumstances of its death have been put right; and this leads the Thorntons to a very intriguing mystery: what happened to the Martineaus and their engineer on that fateful voyage to the channel? Why was the ship found abandoned?

The film builds tension very slowly, and when the mystery is resolved through a series of flashbacks (precipitated by Dr. Fawcett and the medium he brings with him to the Thornton yacht) the results are pretty satisfying — all of our questions are answered, and the haunting is done away in a way that doesn’t require the ship to be burned, no one gets dragged into a pit to Hell, and the disfigured bodies of the dead don’t come tottering out of the lower decks. It’s refreshingly low-octane stuff, and it works because it isn’t constantly trying to jangle your nerves. I’d never even heard of this title before it came up on the Horror Incorporated list, and I suppose you could call it an obscure title. It’s certainly worth your time, should you ever come across it.


One comment

  1. I only encountered GOG ten years ago, as one of the nearly 650 titles aired on Pittsburgh’s Chiller Theater, as was THE MAGNETIC MONSTER and RIDERS TO THE STARS. All three proved a chore to watch, as I can’t recall a damn thing about any of them! GHOST SHIP was a pet project for director Vernon Sewell, its stars, Dermot Walsh and Hazel Court, wed in real life; their daughter Sally appeared as young Elizabeth in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the same character played by her mother as an adult.


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