HAL on Earth

It’s a Baby Boomer movie fan’s dream come true to announce the Blu-Ray release of a full-color 3D restored version of the 1954 sci-fi flick GOG, now available from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios in conjunction with the grand folks at the 3D Film Archive. Man, that’s a lot of words!

What is GOG, and why do we love it?  The first part of this question is an easy, the latter – less so.  GOG is the name for a new super robot, constructed (along with its mate, MAGOG), to pave the way for America’s entry into the space race.  The fact that getting to their on-screen intros and subsequent horrific, rampaging malfunction is an often slow-moving, scientific jargon-laden journey (courtesy of script writer Tom Taggert) consistently makes me ponder why we do adore it so.  But we do.  And perhaps more now than ever, as, so often in “far-fetched” science-fiction narratives, time proves to be a friend, turning the fiction into fact.

Midway lethargic pacing aside, GOG begins on a high note.  Scientists are being murdered in a mysterious heinous fashion. And since this is an Ivan (Riders to the Stars, Science Fiction Theater, Around the World Under the Sea) Tors production (he also concocted the original story), it tosses us eager junior futuristic progressives a plethora of juicy “things to come” tidbits.  These killings are taking place in a secret high-tech multi-leveled complex, located some 500 feet below the surface of a desert nuclear testing area (red flag numero uno).  These crème de la cranium of human brain power are being frozen to death (breaking into a thousand crystalized pieces), incinerated, exposed to lethal radiation, etc., etc.  In short, it’s a malevolent home improvement cookbook offering a myriad of creative ways to prepare egghead salad.

It’s of no surprise then that head of the complex, Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall), is informed by D.C. bigwigs of the arrival of hunky physicist Dr. Sheppard (Richard Egan; in reality, a secret agent, assigned to find out WTF is going on).  He, in turn, is the lover of Marshall’s hottie-cerebral assistant, luscious Joanne Merritt (Constance Dowling), looking particularly lover-ly in her curvaceous anti-radiation jumpsuit (spoiler:  she’s actually a secret agent too).

Since Van Ness has developed this modern metropolis, he is thus quite concerned that his citizenry is turning into overpaid ballast.  The jewel in the crown of the professor’s “city” is a 1950s phenomenon christened NOVAC (that’s with a “C,” not the Vertigo one).  NOVAC is a mega-computer that controls the woiks.  The revelation that the numerous functions achieved by this block-long marvel of tubes and flashing lights can currently be controlled via the programs in my cellphone is immaterial.  What is fascinating is the counter-productive concept of computer hacking; yup, someone has hacked into NOVAC, and that’s what’s causing these lethal accidents.

How GOG deals with this revolutionary idea is but one of several theorems set forth throughout the narrative.  Cryogenics is another (the successful Haagen-Dazserie of Pepe the monkey that opens the picture).  The most eyebrow-raising factor of GOG is its idea of solar power via satellite.  Indeed, the harnessing of the sun’s rays (what the movie terms Helio-Engineering) is discussed and even demonstrated.  They’ve got the science right – but for all the wrong reasons.  The solar power is not even considered to be a useful tool for clean energy, but rather a nefarious weapon to obliterate cities and countries, burning them to a crisp.  Of course, one can rationalize this insanity, being that it’s from a low-budget science-fiction movie, filmed in 1953.  What is disturbing is that its paranoid fear (albeit in a reverse effect) is virtually identical to an incident which occurred just last year in North Carolina, when the entire populace denied the zoning permits for solar farms due to their belief that it would suck the energy from the sun (the dire consequences of exposing climate change deniers to the Ice Age franchise).

In GOG, the paranoia is intentional; I mean, it’s 1953, and, in actuality, someone is screwing around with these geniuses.  In true Republic serial style, the “hacking” is not being achieved by a rival computer, but from an unidentified jet, shooting rays into the vicinity of the NOVAC locale.  No foreign enemy name blame is given to this sinister warship, but I bet ya rubles to blintzes that their flight plan is in Cyrillic.

Then there are the scientists themselves, who, hunky and luscious, must investigate (since one might be the saboteur), and they’re a hoot.  There’s middle-aged couple Dr. and Mme. Elzevir (Phillip Van Zandt and Valerie Vernon), the hubby half of whom is a womanizing perv, frequently sneaking away to watch the outer space aerobics heart-acceleration tests by pinup-worthy astronaut Beverly Jocher.  There’s affable William Schallert as Engle, whose loyalty becomes a non-issue once he’s transformed into robot kibble.  Can’t forget Dr. Zeitman (John Wengraf), the cold, calculating prototype of all those ex-Nazi scientists we couldn’t wait to import over here by the bushel-load after the war.

But, finally, there’s GOG and MAGOG – the real reason we worship this movie (and portrayed by little-person actor Billy Curtis).  Resembling embryonic versions of the Daleks, G & M swirl around, flail their metal-clawed arm (-atures) and, once hacked into killer mode, effortlessly crush windpipes like so much baked ziti.

There’s a remarkable equality vibe in GOG.  The male and female prodigies are evenly matched and use only their titles and surnames (“In space there is no thing as a weaker sex…This is why I like it here.”).  It’s refreshing to see the women in a Fifties sci-fi not stopping to split the atom in order to make coffee.  Of course, before I out-and-out call this a feminist-themed Eisenhower Era entry, I’ll have to see their paychecks.  That said, GOG and MAGOG definitely do not gender discriminate and will snuff anybody.

I can’t praise Kino-Lorber and the 3D Film Archive enough for the work they have done in restoring this movie beyond its original glory.  I say beyond, because my research indicates that the picture languished on the UA shelf for nearly a year, and ultimately was only released “flat,” and not in 3D.  3D was, by 1954, already on its way out, and a minor entry like GOG (shot in 15 days at the Hal Roach Studio) would have been, lab-wise, a major consideration to distribute stereo-optically (double the print costs for left and right projection).

The funny thing is that, like House of Wax’s Andre de Toth, GOG‘s director/editor Herbert L. Strock had vision problems and couldn’t properly gauge the 3D effects required.  The bulk of the visual load was extensively handled by Natural Vision co-creator Julian Gunzberg, who supervised all the 3D/F/X sequences.

How good are the effects in GOG?  Well, honestly, there’s nothing of the caliber of Wax or Dial “M” For Murder.  As with many 3D flicks, it’s the throwaway stuff that works and carries quite a punch.  While POV GOG and MAGOG on the attack is okay, it’s the quietly framed images of the actors working behind shelves of test tubes and electrical equipment that (to use pure Fifties speak) is nothing short of  “boss” and “neato.”  Also the prerequisite library footage of the Air Force in action (once the enemy plane is identified) is equally halved stock footage and Strock footage, and I must say that the specially shot 3D prep of our modern jets taking off is totally cool.

Flat or 3D, the movie generally got tepid reviews from the 1950s press, which essentially labelled it as GOG-wash (The NY Times, which, surprisingly saw fit to screen it, called the picture “utter nonsense.”).

As my fellow Boomers can attest, the 1960s and onward showcased GOG at its worst.  Filmed in a cheap pigmentation Eastman process (Color Corp. of America), UA only provided murky black-and-white prints to TV stations well into the Watergate decade.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that I discovered that the movie was shot in color.  When I told this to my fellow GOG-enthusiast Ric Menello, he reacted with a stunned “Oh my GOG!,” followed by an understandable gasp.  When I was later passed on the enlightened information that it was also in 3D, he practically plotzed “No f#$%ing way!”  And then, “Any price.”

Indeed, when Menello and I cowrote scripts or treatments, and occasionally got stuck for a line or situation, we would sit silently on my couch before one of us would simply turn to the other and say “GOG” to which the other would reply “MAGOG.”  Don’t know why, but, damn it, the temporary writer’s block was lifted.  The incantation of “GOG” and “MAGOG” likewise solved problems when, during our mammoth movie marathons, we became hard-pressed to choose a print (from the 16MM days), then laserdiscs and, at last, DVDs and Blu-Rays for weekend screenings.  To quote the song, “Ho, ho, ho – it’s magic.”

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of GOG is amazing.  The pristine 35MM widescreen restored color elements (as lensed by Lothrop B. Worth) display a muted, but accurate rendition of enamel metallica and acceptable-plus flesh tones.

The 3D is, natch, another purchase incentive.  While the backgrounds tend to slightly bleed, the main action (and actors) is (are) in perfect three-dimensional synch.  It’s good to know that even in Natural Vision, you still can’t discern Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg.  On the other eye, the process does contain one of the most scarifyin’ moments in any 3D movie – the in-your-face vein in the center of John Wengraf’s forehead.

The disc states that it’s in mono, but I swear there were surround-esque effects when the robots went about their inappropriate business. And the score, by noted mini-budget composer Harry Sukman, is just right (and left).

If one still remains in doubt to rationalize acquiring GOG for their collection, I must point out the many groovy extras, including audio commentary by Tom Weaver and Bob (3D Film Archive) Furmanek, plus a 2003 interview with director Strock.

I close with a bittersweet personal touch, for, as I watched GOG play out in all its 3D swagger, I swear I could feel the jubilant presence of Menello in the room, nodding approvingly and having the time of his (after) life.

GOG.  Color.  Widescreen (1.66:1; 1080p High Definition); 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  3D (also includes standard “flat” version).  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios/3D Film Archive.  CAT # K17592.  SRP:  $34.95.



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