A claustrophobic, cynical and ambitious Sci Fi tale
Score 8/10 - Recommended
Posted by Kevin Nickelson | September 27th, 2022
"Six days and seven nights I mourned over him, and I would not allow him to be buried until a maggot fell out of his nose. I was terrified. I began to fear death, and so roam the wilderness." - Gilgamesh 1
The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Akkadian poem on the life of the Sumerian king of Uruku, a city in ancient Mesopotamia (somewhere between 2800 and 2500 B.C.), is among the earliest recorded documentations of humankind’s obsession with immortality. Throughout the centuries since, the pursuit has grown in both the worlds of fact (science) and fiction. In science, it has been stream- lined into the search for ways to prolong life. The studies of anti-aging drugs on lab animals, notably the Caloric Restriction Diet, proposes to have life extended through the added use or
restriction of chemicals.
The above diet purports that the reduction of calorie intake, essentially a
readjustment of the body energy metabolism, delays the aging process (at least is recorded doing so in tests on flies, yeast and laboratory rodents). 2 Other experiments and research into life extension range from cloning to the rather dubiously effective Cryonics (the slow freezing of human corpses).
A rather intriguing possibility is one that the United States Department of Defense became interested enough in to actually form an agency to study the potential some 12 years ago. The Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, or AFIRM, was created in 2008 to study the use of stem cell research and the reconstruction of tissue, muscles and tendons (even ears and noses) in laboratory mice. A budget of $250 million was set aside for it and the participation of Rutgers, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh universities was sought.
The world of fiction usually plays up two basic angles of this subject: the loneliness attributed to living forever or the soul. The latter makes for a tidy, ready-to-order package for a B horror movie entry. In the 1950s, when the need for quick-churned product was still being somewhat matched by a desire for imagination in story (unlike cinema today, where mass production of sameness does more to guarantee profit), the theme of mad doctors and diabolical wealthy people lured by this prospect of age defiance through whatever means necessary was rather popular.
The world of fiction usually plays up two basic angles of this subject: the loneliness attributed to living forever or the soul.
Whether it be Lee Sholem’s The Pharaoh’s Curse (about an ageless mummy terrorizing a group) or Terry Fisher’s take on Barré Lyndon’s The Man in Half Moon Street for Hammer titled The Man Who Could Cheat Death (centering on a man who murders every ten years for parathyroid gland transplants that retard aging for him), extreme methodology for remaining young was quite the rage plot device at the time. So it was no surprise that prolific, and ever enterprising, producer Sam Katzman would seize on the idea for his bosses at Columbia Pictures
with the 1957 programmer The Man Who Turned to Stone (aka: The Petrified Man), a nimbly-crafted entry that works as long as you do not spend much time in plot scrutiny.
A pair of social workers find that women in a reform home are guinea pigs of the doctors in charge, who’ve developed a way to siphon life energy from their victims to maintain immortality. The head of the mad medico group is not Ponce de Leon (nor are any fountains in sight) but the nutty as can be Dr. Murdock, played steel-eyed somber by the wonderful character actor Victor Jory. Production began October 15, 1956 with László Kardos helming. Ann Doran lends a cool, detached presence as Murdock’s partner-in-crime Mrs. Ford (channeling her best Gale
One can forgive the rather ripe dialogue offered up by blacklisted screenwriter Bernard Gordon (using the pseudonym here of Raymond T. Marcus) as just typical campiness for a 50s second tier show. I suppressed a bit of a chuckle when one of the inmates (Marge), who witnessed hearing one of the victims scream before being killed in what is proclaimed a suicide, queries to the investigating social workers “Who screams before committing suicide?" Or this juicy bit from Paul Cavanaugh’s Cooper, "The more guilt-ridden of the baddies: years is too long for any man to live. After a time, you think you're more than a
man, you think you can make life… and take life."
As with many a Katzman production, special effects are often hokey and quite on the minimalist side. The most effective being the simple use of some theatrical makeup to emphasize hollow cheeks for a cadaverous look combined with the physical attributes of tall, lanky Friedrich Von Ledebur as Murdock’s assistant Eric. The perfect embodiment of Rondo Hatton’s the Creeper character from a decade prior. The same pasty-skin appearance shows again to a certain mildly creepy effect in Cooper’s petrification. Variety, in its review February 15, 1957, summed up the picture as passable fare. “Call it adequate to intentions as lower half to an ‘exploitation’ bill.”
They also noted Kardos’ direction as competent while not rising above the material. “Leslie(László) Kardos’ direction is all that the script demands but, while there’s very little payoff in thrills, he does steer the cast by plot holes for generally ok performances.” Benjamin Kline’s camera work and lighting should be singled out as particularly moody, with excellent use of shadow and the odd angle for impact belying a modest budget.
That the movie may not be as highly regarded or well-known as other drive-in fodder from the same period (a fair amount of Roger Corman pics come immediately to mind), it may be due to Katzman’s throw it all against the wall and see what sticks schizoid attitude toward filmmaking. This was the guy who’d produced The Werewolf, executive produced the sci-fi classic Earth vs.
The Flying Saucers (both ‘56) and introduced the first rock and roll movie Rock Around the Clock (with Bill Haley and the Comets). To make what may have been the first gothic horror-juvenile delinquent flick hybrid would seem no stretch for Sam.
Benjamin Kline’s camera work and lighting should be singled out as particularly moody, with excellent use of shadow and the odd angle for impact belying a modest budget.
Even more of a no-brainer considering the target teen audience studios were craving at the time. Katzman was, first and foremost, a moneymaker. That is how he approached the creation of his motion pictures. The odd subject matters (and combination thereof) did not matter so much as the number of tickets sold. That he could do it while having a certain amount of fun at it was just icing on the cake. Films From Beyond the Time Barrier summed it best in its 2013 review: “The Man, with its unique blend of 200-year-old mad scientists and gum-cracking female delinquents, seems to want to appeal to every demographic, and can't quite decide if it's a creepy gothic horror from the 1940s or an up-to-date (for the times) reform school exploitation pic.
But then, who am I to question (especially at this late date) the judgment of Sam Katzman, the legendary B movie producer who started out in the film business at the age of 13 as a prop boy, and who by this time had literally hundreds of titles under his belt in every genre (the one common denominator-- they were
cheap). Like the Energizer Bunny, Sam kept going and going, producing movies right up to his death in 1973.”
The Man Who Turned to Stone is that obscurity you come across while in the search for a way to live for thousands of years: that prime example of entertainment fun that works because of, as opposed to in spite of, its flaws. The happy gem of a bottom filler that presumes to be nothing more than goofy, implausible fun wrapped within an eternal ideal. Just think of all the time you’ll have to ponder every angle of it. A thousand years, give or take, means a lot of dvd playback. Or, maybe, streaming directly to the brain will be the new tech by then.