Hungarian-born producer and screenwriter Ivan Tors is perhaps one of the less recognized names in the pantheon of ‘50s sci-fi cinema, maybe because his work was more concerned with factual science than campy depictions of aliens or atomic age monsters. Gog, the final film in his “Office of Scientific Investigation” trilogy after The Magnetic Monster (1953) and Riders to the Stars (1954), is certainly not as pulpy as you would maybe expect (or hope), but it’s a fascinating look at Cold War paranoia fueled through a surprisingly realistic tale of mystery and espionage. Kino Lorber have recently rescued it from oblivion and released it on Blu-ray with a new restoration in both HD and 3-D.
At a secret laboratory in the New Mexican desert, a series of malfunctions leads to the deaths of a few scientists. As a precautionary measure, the government sends in undercover security agents to investigate. The lead agent, Dr. David Sheppard (Richard Egan), learns that the scientists are creating a space station with the help of a supercomputer known as NOVAC (Nuclear Operative Variable Automatic Computer), which it seems someone has been intentionally sabotaging. Agent Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling), who has already spent some time at the plant building up her cover, attempts to help Sheppard, and clues lead them to two powerful robots called Gog and Magog.
After Ivan Tors emigrated from Hungary to the US to escape the spreading Nazi menace, he joined up with the OSS — the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA — where he served as an agent during WWII. Perhaps it is this background that instilled his script for Gog with just as many suspense and espionage elements as sci-fi or horror. Frequently deliberately paced and talkie, the film takes itself refreshingly seriously compared to some of the campier sci-fi films from the period, though it does include genre staples like paranoid scientists, murderous robots, and the threat of imminent atomic terror.
If you’re expecting a killer robot version of Godzilla, this is definitely not going to be the film for you, as it’s essentially a murder mystery with science trappings and most of the plot revolves around the two central undercover agents to figure out why scientists are dropping like flies. There’s a surprisingly high body count, though very little actual violence. The titular robot, Gog, and his companion, Magog, are responsible for a fair bit of devastation (much of it implied) — they ultimately try to destroy the underground lab with an atomic explosion — and their names are sourced from the Book of Revelation, among other places in the Old Testament. “Gog and Magog” are generally taken to be the names of two nations that side with Satan in the end times’ war against God; in this case, they represent a thinly veiled reference to the USSR.
To the film’s credit, it is one of the few from the period that expresses a genuine interest in science, rather than weaving a wildly implausible science fiction tale, and goes quite out of its way to explain the purpose of the scientific base, plans for the secret space station, the scientists’ experiments, and even how the enemy is able to sabotage the base (with a plane cleverly immune to radar). Despite some cheapie effects and plenty of military stock footage, there are some impressive laboratory sets that impart a sense of gravity (pun intended) to the proceedings. This was shot at the end of the ‘50s 3-D craze, but nothing about the cinematography seemed overtly geared toward that, at least not in a noticeably schlocky way.
Gog is rounded out by some decent performances, particularly from one-legged British stalwart Herbert Marshall (The Letter, Foreign Correspondent), though Viennese actor John Wengraf (Judgement at Nuremberg) — who was in Hollywood because, like Tors, he fled Austria in the late ‘30s to escape the Nazis — steals the film away from second-tier leading man Richard Egan (Pollyanna, Esther and the King). Constance Dowling (Black Angel) is memorable as the female lead, though she retired from acting soon after to marry Tors.
One a final note, Gog has some curious gender politics, particularly for a ‘50s sci-fi film. Of course, this is a film that has to end in a romance between its two leads — and my favorite ‘50s/‘60s trope, where a woman has to be slapped out of a hysterical fit, is featured — but there is a surprising balance between male and female characters in the science lab. There are a number of women working in the lab, including some high ranking scientists, and Joanna, the female agent, is given near equal footing to her male coworker. She’s even allowed to help save the day at the end of the film and miraculously avoids dying of radiation poisoning.
Kino have included a decent amount of extras, really quite a lot considering the relative obscurity of Gog. There’s a fun, informative commentary track from horror scholar Tom Weaver, writer and archivist Bob Furmanek, and writer David Schecter, one definitely worth listening to if you’re at all interested in the history of ‘50s sci-fi horror. There are also a number of short featurettes, including a short restoration demo, an eight-minute interview with director Herbert L. Strock, and a lengthier interview with cinematographer Lothorp Worth about his career in effects and 3D film, as well as a theatrical trailer.
Gog will be a pleasant surprise for viewers tired of silly ‘50s sci-fi films, but will disappoint anyone hoping to find only goofy effects and campy dialogue. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a great introduction to this obscure, unusual film, and thanks to the fun special features, it’s well worth checking out. I can’t wait to see the rest of the Office of Scientific Investigation trilogy receive the same treatment, which I believe is planned for later this year.