Japanese films (and TV shows!) dominate this genre that I love so goddamn much, but it started here in the good ol’ US of A with King Kong, and filmmakers around the world have chipped in with their own unique contributions (like Norway’s excellent Troll Hunter!). But before Godzilla’s classic sequels and cross-over films rightfully solidified him as King of the Monsters, Hollyweird was cranking out all kinds of mega-monster movies! 1957’s The Amazing Colossal Man is one of ’em!
It doesn’t have Eiji Tsuburaya‘s sprawling, meticulously crafted monster suits or miniatures, nor does it have Ray Harryhausen‘s astonishingly lifelike stop-motion animation. So what’s it got? Bert I. Gordon’s low budget ingenuity and a whole lotta elbow grease! Mr. B.I.G. (his actual nickname) never birthed the next Kong, Godzilla, Gamera, or even Them! but his oeuvre still left a mark on the 50’s monster moviescape. Nobody really talks that much about The Amazing Colossal Man, but it undoubtedly paved the way for the much more famous/beloved Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, was spoofed by Honey I Blew up the Kid, and was lovingly homaged (along with other atomic horror classics like The Fly) in the forgettable Monsters vs. Aliens.
All that, plus no director has been MST3k’d as much as he has! So uh… go him? AND it was his birthday last week! Dude’s still alive! Slap on your adjustable sarong and we’ll talk about his movie!
Give yourself a taste with the trailer!
It has all the classic hallmarks of 50’s Hollywood nuclear horror: bombastic score, hyperbolic title cards, a monster carefully explained by (pseudo)science, “a girl who loved a man”, and the narrator referring to the titular giant man as a “mammoth.”
The trailer also makes sure to show off the film’s best composite shots and of course, the Amazing Colossal Man lancing some poor schmuck with a gigantic syringe:
The score is by Albert Glasser, and it hits all the motifs you’d expect in classic atomic horror: snappy military drums, a sweeping love theme complete with maudlin strings for the REAL sad shit, and a thundering score perfect for ACM’s climactic rampage. You can give it a listen below!
Glasser’s score serves the movie well: it amps up our emotions for the scenes they accompany, but there isn’t a definitive, stand-out track or melody for me. I do want to hand it to Glasser for one thing though: even when the score is in full “spectacular rampage” mode, it still deftly communicates the tragedy of the main character/monster.
Maybe the reason I couldn’t place a stand-out track in the score is that Glasser composed music for over 200 fucking movies, including most of Bert I. Gordon’s output as well as awesome-sounding B-movies like Monster from Green Hell (1957), Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (1957), Teenage Caveman (1958)…. the list goes on. ACM sounds like every other 50s creature feature because the same guy scored every other 50s creature feature!
The Amazing Colossal Man follows the classic atomic horror formula pretty closely: nuclear weapons testing creates a monster, scientists scramble to figure out why it’s happening and how to stop it, then they stop it just before it spells the end of civilization. That sounds pretty dry and dull, but the real fun’s in the details: we’ll get to all the juicy, people-stomping, landmark-smashing stuff in a little bit. The film kicks off by cluing us in to the super top secret plutonium bomb test the US will be staging in the wee hours of the morning in Nevada.
After that grim announcement, we get a fun, goofy title card reveal:
Our hero, Lt. Col. Glenn Manning (played by Glenn Langan) is dug into a bunker with his fellow soldiers, anxiously waiting for the countdown to finish and for this test to be over with. The ominous countdown reaches zero, the bomb is triggered… and nothing happens. Now shit is tense. They’re ordered not to leave their positions, so our guys hunker down (classic bunker hunker) and smoke if they got ’em.
Nuke stuff creeps my ass out. I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about that on here before, but it’s a big reason why this whole genre fascinates me so much. Atomic warfare was my top fear as a kid, and it’s held strong in at least my top ten as an adult (Fallout 4’s prologue got to me). This might not be a very suspenseful scene for a general audience (especially in 2017), but on a purely personal level it works pretty damn well. This sequence feels surprisingly realistic largely because the US military absolutely plopped servicemen into trenches and set off nukes right next to them. Example:
And yeah, that is Great Gig in the Sky by Pink Floyd playing over the video. Why not? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
But hey, as long as Manning stays in the trench he’ll be fine, right? I mean, relatively fine… he’ll probably get some wicked cancer in a decade or two, but hey, nukes ain’t gonna test themselves!
Ha, yeah right, Manning wishes he was going home with something as simple as a bod full of dormant cancer! Some doofus crashes their Cessna right in the middle of the test area, and Manning races out of the trench to try and drag any survivors to safety. The plane is achieved with one of this film’s few miniatures, and it looks decent! The minimalist, dreamlike staging of Manning’s sprint into certain doom looks even better:
Well, maybe he was still far enough away from the bomb to–
The whole sequence is simple, effective, and horrific. I’d got out on a limb and say it’s easily one of the best parts of the entire film, capturing the nightmare scenario of being caught in the cataclysmic blast radius of a nuclear weapon. Of course it’s just the beginning of the story, so we jump forward to a team of specialists frantically trying to stabilize what’s left of Manning.
With Manning as stable as the doctors can get him, they practically mummify him in bandages and… wait what?
What is going on here? Is that penicillin? Is this a thing they used to do back in the day? I’m far from being any kind of medical expert, but this totally baffled me. Whatever it is they’re doing, when they finish up they discuss Manning’s condition and his odds of survival, effectively cluing us in to just how badly he’s fucked. The docs say that he came in without “a square inch of skin left on his body” and that he’ll either die of shock or infection by morning. The hospital staff can’t even muster up an optimistic lie for Manning’s concerned fiancee Carol (played by the prolific Cathy Downs).
Manning dying of shock or infection because all his skin was burned off by an atomic blast would be realistic, but it wouldn’t make for a very AMAZING or COLOSSAL movie, would it?!
A nurse makes a shocking discovery when she checks on Manning a few hours later. She peeks under the bandages on his arm and dashes out of the room, frantically calling for a doctor. The music gets scary and intense as doctors rush in and cut off Manning’s wrappings. What could it be? What horrors hath man’s hubris wrought?
Ha, it was all a big fakeout! …Sort of. The reveal isn’t of anything grotesque or horrifying (other than the certainly now-rancid romaine lettuce they stuffed into his bandages), but it’s real fuckin’ weird that a guy who was covered in radioactive third degree burns now has a fresh coat of smooth, healthy skin like he’s in a Noxema commercial.
I did not remember Noxema commercials being so fraught with sexual tension!
Carol is understandably jazzed about this development, but the doctors are a little more concerned. They get in touch with the lead designer of the plutonium bomb and rap with him about their concerns: they’re pretty sure it had to be some crazy side effect of the bomb blast itself, but the bomb doc is like “eh it probably was just a very very improbable and fortunate fluke.” Since it’s 1957, he walks us through a filmstrip of now-iconic nuclear bomb tests to clarify how they work and what they normally do.
Some army rando shows up at Carol’s house and lets her know she can’t visit Glen in the hospital any more for ominously vague security reasons. Carol, being a little bit of a bad-ass, tells the dude okay and then immediately heads to the hospital to try and find Glen.
Sure enough, something shady as fuck is going on at the hospital. Carol asks about Glen and Dr. Linstrom (played by William Hudson, who also starred in The She-Creature and would go on to star in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman!). The first doctor she talks to says he’s never even heard of them, the front desk lady doesn’t give up anything useful, so Carol gets desperate and sneaks a peek at some confidential documents. Turns out Linstrom is headed to a remote rehabilitation and research lab, and you bet your ass Carol’s making a beeline for that joint.
Carol rolls up to the lab and it looks like fucking Arkham Asylum.
The guy at the front desk says Glen’s not there, Carol knows that’s a crock of horseshit so she starts Solid Snaking around the compound. She dodges doctors and guards, ducks into vacant rooms, and in general steals the movie (at least for the first act).
Carol’s infiltration of the lab is moody and evocative, mostly thanks to some nice heavy shadows and the gorgeous smokiness that comes with shooting in black and white. It’s too bad genre movies don’t happen in B&W anymore. Plenty of arty dramas do it, but they just don’t benefit from it the way sci-fi and horror movies do. Anyway Carol finds Glen and (understandably) freaks the fuck out:
Carol straight up conks out, understandably. When she comes to Linstrom explains that Washington demanded they cover up Manning and keep his crazy condition a secret. Glen’s growing between 8-10 feet in height a day! That’s enough of an explanation for me, but they get into specifics with some light pseudo-science: he’s growing new cells normally, but his old cells aren’t dying off/being replaced like they should. So it’s almost like cancer. Except, you know, it’s his whole damn body.
Glen will keep growing like this until he fucking dies. Eternal puberty, guys. As much as I’d love to be a giant rampaging monster, I don’t think I would sign on for it if it meant forever-adolescence. Glen catches some upper-case Zs, and dream-flashbacks through the major milestones of his adult life. They are, in order of appearance:
It’s a quick recap that fleshes Glen out well. He’s had a full life so far, moments of tenderness contrasting with terrifying brushes with death. He was just on the cusp of settling down with Carol, but nooooooo, he had to get nuked into a big be-diapered giant instead!
This made me wonder, do dream-flashbacks ever happen in real life, or did fiction just invent that as a convenient way to stuff in back story? It happens in so many books, TV shows, and movies that I’ve just sort of accepted it despite never having experienced it myself, or even talked to anyone that has. Of course PTSD is very real, but whenever I’ve heard about PTSD-triggered flashbacks they happened while the person was awake.
After the 5-ish seconds of Carol and Glen making out, he relives the plutonium bomb countdown and his own annihilation, jolting him awake to the sound of his own screams. This is the first time he’s been conscious since the blast, so we get to see him slowly figure out what the hell has happened to his body. It’s a sad, spooky, and quiet moment that’s pulled off well thanks to a simple, effective miniature set and a rock-solid performance from Langan.
Carol gets the okay to stick around the compound because Dr. Linstrom thinks her interacting with Glen could help him stay sane while they try to find a cure. He’ll need all the positive vibes he can get, because he’s getting so huge that they’re gonna have to start keeping him in a circus tent.
We get a little downtime here: Carol tries to lift Glen’s spirits, we see a perplexed driver drop off a truckload of frozen meat to the hardly-staffed compound, and this is about when I realized that Glen looks like Billy Zane:
Am I pushing for Zane to play Glen in a remake? I mean yes, but I’ll get to that later!
This is also when we also get our first interlude with the weird, sarcastic newscaster “H. Wells.”
Wells mostly serves as an odd, pointlessly snarky exposition machine, letting us know what the general public knows about Manning’s situation. For now, not much! It isn’t long before Glen is over 30 ft tall at a weight of over 3000 lbs. The docs and army brass let Glen roam the grounds (though they admit at this point it’s at least partly because containing him is functionally impossible), and we catch up with him and Carol chatting on some remote hillside.
Glen laments that his old, normal, happy life feels like a distant dream now. He can’t stop thinking about it, and he punctuates his despair with snide bitterness, cracking joyless jokes about his bizarre condition. In these moments, Langan crushes, and the movie feels less like an atomic horror story and more like a super strange and tragic drama. In that way Amazing Colossal Man really reminds me of The Fly. Not the 1958 original, but the fantastic 1986 remake.
Of course Amazing Colossal Man never comes close to Cronenberg’s level of insane grotesquery, but the basic story beats are the same. Technological cataclysm seems to be a good thing at first (Manning grows his skin back, Brundle gets super-fit and energized), then it’s not a good thing (Manning can’t stop growing, Brundle becomes increasingly insectoid), love interest tries her damnedest to help but is eventually overwhelmed by the ghoulish changes, lead stays lucid but bitter, sarcastic, and desperate until he becomes truly and irredeemably inhuman.
Glen’s frustrated cries of “I dont want to grow anymore!” sound silly out of context, something approaching the Parks and Rec episode where everyone has a nasty flu:
But in context it’s appropriately tragic. Glen’s mood just seems to get worse when some low-ranking army schmuck brings him dinner (a whole huge bird) in his circus tent. The dude respectfully addresses Glen as sir and politely obliges when the giant asks for his newspaper. We get some terrific-looking composite shots and POV angles to really drive home Glen’s huge stature, and shit gets legitimately uncomfortable when he launches into a sarcastic tirade. “They call this living!!”
His ranting also serves as an in-universe way to explain his big diaper-thing to the audience (it’s an adjustable sarong the army designed specially for him), and a titular line drop! Glen rants about being a circus freak complete with a tent… then he really goes off the rails:
I think you’re the freak! I think you’re the one that’s different! I’m not growing, you’re shrinking!
He starts cackling, which then turns into a painful-sounding coughing fit. This is when Langan’s acting goes from top-notch scenery chewing to cornball theatrics.
So what’s with the chest pains and coughing fits? Dr. Linstrom clues us in via audience surrogate and rad car-owner, Carol. Linstrom dishes out some more wonky bio-babble (technobabble for guts), but the gist of it is that the radiation short-circuited all of Glen’s cells except for his heart cells. His heart’s still growing, but only at half the rate as the whole rest of his bod. Within the next few days, his brain won’t be getting adequate blood and his rotten little heart will crap out soon after. Or in Linstrom’s actual words, “his mind will go first, and then his heart will literally explode.”
Carol does not love this news (naturally), and Linstrom explains they’re doing everything they can to find some kind of solution (including extensive animal testing), but they just haven’t come up with anything yet.
That night one of Glen’s coughing fits wakes up Carol. She tries to comfort him by explaining that Linstrom and co. are working around the clock to find a cure, but Glen just wonders how huge he’ll get before he finally dies. “Could be a mile!” Despite Carol being a total trooper and standing by him through everything, Glen insists he’s a lost cause and finally he just tells Carol to fuck off.
The next morning Linstrom’s partner Dr. Coulter has cracked the problem! More bio-babble here, but basically they need to do an injection into Manning’s bone marrow to start reversing his growth. They had a breakthrough overnight with their elephant and camel test subjects:
Too bad Glen’s fucking gone.
It’s all good though! They have a giant syringe ready to go and are going to send two helicopters out to find their missing man-monster. The movie attempts to lampshade a couple glaring issues you may have already noticed:
- Why the fuck didn’t they lock down Manning before this happened?
- How the fuck has nobody spotted a gigantic dude yet?
Characters already talked about how locking Manning up is essentially impossible, but it comes up again here: they lament not chaining him up or at least trying something (we’ve had electric fences since the 30s guys, what the fuck?). In regards to Glen’s disappearing act, one of the characters flat out says “I’ll never understand why someone hasn’t reported seeing him.” The fact that they’re in the middle of the Nevada desert probably has something to do with it too. The Army (understandably) hasn’t gone blabbing to the public about their 50+ foot tall radiation man, but has got in touch with local police to report anything odd like broken fences or mutilated cattle.
They comb the desert and they don’t find shit. Their search is essentially impossible come nightfall, so they pack it in and hope Glen makes it through the night without hurting himself or anybody else. Which means it’s the perfect time for some hilarious drunk driving humor!
Glen’s crouched in the middle of the road (intentionally? Maybe hoping a semi-truck plowing into him would end his nightmare? He might have just picked a weird place to rest, this isn’t explained) and these winos slam on the brakes when they wake up long enough to see him. I love a good double take, and that absolutely includes a good drunken double take (this one’s solid: “Not another drop so long as I live, so help me”), but treating drunk driving like it’s a cheeky goof puts a gross stank on the joke for a 2017-ian viewer like myself. Different times!
During the night our heroes start getting calls about Glen from citizens in the area (including the lushes in the car!). Carol pointlessly blames herself for Glen’s running off: “Why did I have to argue with him?!” But she stands her ground when Linstrom tries to get her to fuck off for her own safety.
The Army brings in and briefs a small team on Manning and his condition: by now they estimate he’s about ten times the size of an average human man (specifically, ten times the height and “width” of human ;)), weighing in at a massive 18,000 lbs. Due to Glen’s unpredictable nature, they’re going to go after him during the day, with orders not to shoot unless it’s in self-defense. The success of Manning’s treatment will largely hinge on how quickly they can get to him and administer the serum.
The Army’s forces mobilize with an unobtrusive stock footage montage, and we check in with stupid H. Wells for some reason.
Our heroes are hot on Glen’s trail, but he beats them all to Las Vegas, baby! There’s not much movie left this point, but it’s almost all spectacular (well, relatively spectacular) set pieces from here out! First, Glen vs. the sultan mascot of the Dunes casino!
Then, Glen vs. parking lot!
In that shot above you’ll first notice the oddly sparse crowd, but then if you look at the back of Glen’s head, the light or shadow there must have fucked with the composite because you can see right through his dome to the onlookers on the other side. Whoops! Even with the lack of extras and that technical flub, I really like this shot and I’m glad they included it. Next up, Glen the creeper!
It’s probably meant as a fun homage to King Kong’s amorous nature, but it feels sleazier when it’s an engaged dude spying on a random bathing beauty instead of a confused creature reuniting with the woman he’d had a crush on since the second act. And again, it really just boils down to the fact that Carol deserves so much better than this.
We cut back to that fucking turd H. Wells again, and OH NOW he’s decided to take the giant man story seriously. Oh how lucky for us he’s finally decided to do his fucking job and objectively report the news instead of trying to hone his shitty stand-up routine. H. WELLS H. SMELLS.
I try to avoid just giving a straight-up play-by-play of the movies I review, but Glen stomping around The Strip is absolutely a highlight of the film. Here’s a quick rundown of all the tourist traps he hits… Literally!
Glen ends his delightful bender in Vegas by picking a fight with Vegas Vic, the big cowboy beebop himself!
Glen makes his way to Boulder Dam (which is weird that they’re calling it that here, because it’s been the Hoover Dam since 1947), and our heroes are able to intercept him by chopper. This is where the reliance on composite shots gets a little wacky. Not because the composites themselves look bad (though they are some of the weaker ones in the film), but because these types of shots severely limit how much Glen can interact with the chopper. He can swipe at it, but he can’t get that close to it, so he mostly just stands still while they land. He covers his ears a lot, so maybe his embiggening has made his ears super-sensitive to the loud-ass chopper? Grasping at straws here.
This sequence might be a little clunky, but it’s all worth it for what comes next!
HELL YES THAT’S A WRAP FOLKS! Best sequence in the movie. It’s so simple, it’s so good. Nevermind the fact that it’s crazy that Glen stands stock still while they run up and jab him and while he hucks the huge needle like a javelin through poor ol’ Dr. Coulter, it just fucking rules. Of course they can’t just roll credits on the brutal slaying of Dr. Coulter no matter how fucking radical it is, so with like two minutes of runtime left we rapidly build towards a more traditional monster movie conclusion. Step 1! Grab Carol!
Step 2, cross the Hoover Dam with some great looking composited long shots!
Step 3, almost get blown away by the Army until they find out you’re carrying a helpless civilian.
Step 4 WEIRD AS HELL composite shot where helpless civilian pleads with you to remember your humanity, your old life, and the love you once shared. Step 4 is sad, despite the bizarre shot composition and effects.
Step 5, remain just lucid enough to faintly remember your humanity and put down the screaming helpless lady.
Step 6, BLAM BLAM BLAM, FALL, LADY SCREAM, THE END
The ending is shockingly, comically abrupt. The Army dudes SMOKE Glen the nanosecond Carol is out his grasp. No lesson is learned, Carol doesn’t get to mourn Glen with anything besides sobbing, and blammo, THE END title card. WE DONE. FUCK resolution! Resolution is for babies!
That’s a point I never got around to, Glen DOES look like a giant baby, and it makes perfect sense thematically. He was reborn after the bomb, and had to re-learn how to live all over again. Bombs don’t make very good mothers though, so Glen grows up to be a destructive maniac and eventually meets his doom because he can’t possibly integrate into society…. But he doesn’t really meet his doom as soon as you might think!
Hell yeah, we got an official sequel the very next year! His face really is skullified like that too!
I haven’t seen War of the Colossal Beast yet, but I’ll make sure to review it one of these days. The fact that Glenn Langan doesn’t reprise his titular role doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but I’ll give it a shake! I’m getting ahead of myself though! Let’s wrap up with some nuggets about this movie.
Amazing Colossal Man was released as half of a double feature with Cat Girl (an unofficial remake of 1942’s Cat People, because people were fucking crazy about cats eons before the internet) and was an unofficial adaptation of a 1928 short novel called “The Nth Man.”
The Amazing Colossal Man was initially being developed as a Roger Corman film(!), set to star frequent Corman collaborator, classic “that guy” character actor, and Gremlins expert Dick Miller(!!!). Corman’s version was being developed as a comedy, but that went out the window when Corman bailed. I think Langan does a great job with a dramatic take on the character but I’ll always wonder what Miller’s humorous giant would have been like.
I mentioned this about about halfway through the review: I can’t help but daydream about an Amazing Colossal Man remake that takes the core premise and goes full Cronenberg with it. The original film makes Glen’s biological changes a front-and-center story element, basically dipping a toe in the disgusting, viscous waters of Lake Body Horror, but I want a version that goes all the way. Combine Glen’s incredible regenerative abilities with the fact that he’s getting too big for his body to hold itself together: this could be THE giant monster movie to not only address square cube law, but make it a major(ly disgusting) plot point! Every time Glen collapses under his own weight, his newfound regenerative abilities would kick in and mash him back together, right up until he finally loses his mind and goes on a rampage. I truly believe The Amazing Colossal Man could perfectly translate into a hard-to-look-at but impossible-to-turn-away from sci-fi/horror/drama! He will never ever read this, but I gotta try: David Cronenberg, you got one more movie in you? I bet Billy Zane is available.
But enough about what The Amazing Colossal Man almost was or could be someday! The actual movie we got is an earnest but middling entry into the American atomic monster pantheon. Influential, but hardly a game changer. Compared to its contemporaries, it falls short of the true classics, but it also rises above so-bad-it’s-funny schlock. A surprisingly strong performance from the titular lead and some impressively-achieved budget effects make this worth a look for dedicated genre fans, but it’s easy to see why the movie it influenced (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) would ultimately be better-remembered. See you soon, Glen.