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The Golem of Gotham:
Notes on the Scariest Movie Ever Made!

3,634 words

The Colossus of New York (1958)
1958 / B&W / 1:78 enhanced widescreen / 70 min.
Producer: William Alland
Director: Eugène Lourié
Cast: Ross Martin, Otto Kruger, John Baragrey, Mala Powers and Charles Herbert.


The Colossus of New York! No, not that piece of green junk in the harbor. And it’s not Donald Trump.[1] Although in some ways, it’s Hillary – the Colossus of Chapaqua?[2]

Everyone, at least those not raised Amish or in hippie commune, recalls movies that scared the pants off them when seen on TV some Saturday afternoon or late night.[3] Usually, what one recalls are movies so cheesy only a five year old would be scared, providing some amused nostalgia.

But there are others.

Usually, these films continue to, well, scare the pants off you through accidental factors; the combination of low budget effects and cheap photography, amplified by the decaying prints still in circulation on local TV, creates a new layer of creepiness over and above anything intended by the cast and crew.[4]

Now, Constant Readers will recall that NYC’s public cable channel likes to dig up old movies filmed in the city, equally low budget and poorly preserved.[5] Recently, they scraped the barrel low enough to dredge up some first-class nightmare fuel: The Colossus of New York.

Here’s a synopsis, which only begins to give clues to how damned creepy this is:

Shortly after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end World hunger, doting husband and father, Jeremy Spensser (Martin), is struck down and killed by a car. Jeremy’s father, noted brain surgeon William Spensser (Kruger), is distressed that his son’s gifts will be denied to Mankind and rescues his brain from burial, keeping it ‘alive’ in a bubbling jar of liquid (don’t try this at home) with a view to ensuring his ideas and imagination can continue to flourish, even after death. Transplanting the brain into a specially contracted giant robotic body, he enlists Jeremy’s brother, Henry, to help keep the project secret. The huge shell is mechanically unreliable and combined with the lack of human contact and affection, Jeremy slowly starts to go mad, gaining immense strength and developing the ability to harness power and unleash it in the form of death rays from his eyes. The madness builds until The Colossus goes on the rampage in New York, culminating in a stand-off at the United Nations where only his young son can save humanity. (Horrorpedia)

And you can watch it here, in a surprisingly good print (of which more anon).  Or at least, you used to be able to watch it. Actually, during the writing of this very review, Paramount seems to have noticed and had it taken down. Here’s their preview clip.  You can also take in a colorized, ten-minute digest of the film here, with subtitles identifying supposed “transhumanist” motifs (of which more anon as well). There’s also now a DVD and even a Blu-ray release; the latter gives me a chance to prove I’m not the only one this film affects strangely, courtesy of this reviewer:

[Do] you notice how many reviews of this film (and as of now, there are only a total of about 25) MANY people use the terms ‘Atmospheric’, ‘Eerie’, ‘Creepy’, etc… Well, I have to add my complete agreement with that. Most of the Sci Fi films of that decade could be quite hokey in their low-budgetedness (?) But, there was just something to this one which carried a much heavier weight and mood than most. I don’t know exactly what it was, but there was an unusual ‘earnestness’ or ‘gravitas’ that somehow created a much stronger atmosphere and very serious mood for the film. I mean, even with it’s very low budget and fairly common theme, there was just some magical element in the direction, acting, and especially the bloody MOOD of the dang thing that conveyed a LOT more impact than the sum of its familiar parts can quite explain.

I had never seen this film before; and to be honest, I was fully expecting a REAL corny 1950’s Sci Fi film. But, there was just SOMETHING that kept me riveted to the screen and much more emotionally involved than I EVER would have expected with a film of this nature and from this time period.[6]

As if they’ve promised us a creepfest, and by jiminy they mean to give us one, the effect starts right from the first frame. Want a pictorial background to your opening credits, rather than drab white letters on black? Just slap a postcard up there! Hey, greetings from NYC![7] Look, it’s the UN!

Oh, and Plot Point! This scrappy little narrative wastes no time getting round to the fundamentals of screenplay writing.

And the … music. A piano duet, sounding like some kind of High Romantic/academic atonal mash-up. Surely that’s just the overture, right? Nope, it’s gonna continue right to the last of the 69 minutes here.

It’s instructive, though, that while when Ed Wood tried to save money by reusing the soundtrack to another film by the same producers, the now totally inappropriate flamenco guitar ostinato at best suggested an alienation effect,[8] here the bare bones music works perfectly, whether we’re outdoors on an estate in Westchester County or walking under the Hudson River (I’ll get back to that in a bit).[9]

I had assumed that, as in Wood’s case, this was a low budget strategy (hence, they got Van Cleave, not Van Cliburn) but apparently “a musicians’ strike early in 1958 had studios recording film scores overseas and in some cases doing without them altogether.”[10]

The part(s) that really freaked me out, and still do, are two scenes where the Colossus walks under the river, along the riverbed, to get to his murderous rendezvouses.[11]

These excursions nicely illustrate the Theory of Creepy. This is real bargain basement (no pun) filmmaking at its finest. The Colossus strides along in front of some kind of aquarium or swimming pool window, totally oblivious to any waves, debris, without even a drop on him, like Diver Dan’s old TV show. And yet, precisely for that reason – though for some reason unlike Diver Dan – it’s scary as all Hell.

It also illustrates another important factor: your mileage may vary. Cinematic Catharsis says that “Shots of the errant robot …walking underwater possess a dreamlike quality,” while Glenn Erickson, who says that “I was too young to see this one personally in a theater,” cruelly speculates that “Kids… giggled to see him striding calmly up the bottom of New York’s East River.”[12]

Hey, this is an art, not a science. Perhaps you need to have seen it first with the innocent eyes of childhood. In fact, Erickson perhaps reveals the cynical adult filmgoer behind that comment when he adds:

Every time I see the soggy Colossus stepping up those stairs out of the river, I think of James Stewart carrying Kim Novak up a set of similar waterside steps on another Paramount sound stage.[13]

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?[14] Here we see the fallacy exposed by Colin Wilson in his collection of music criticism, Brandy of the Damned[15] — the error of thinking that art, like science, “progresses” by leaving behind false or inferior theories. Works of art are windows on the good and beautiful, and to close one is not to grow and “move beyond” but to suffer the loss of an outlet. One gains nothing by “moving on” from Sibelius, or from the Colossus; knowledge of one film should enhance, not occlude, enjoyment of another.

Erickson and I also disagree on the scenes where the Colossus attempts to interact with his little boy. Again, supposedly “kids” would have “got a good laugh from the robot’s mock-paternal voice when talking to Billy;” not this one, buddy!

Nevertheless, some elements do take on new or additional nuances as time passes. The scenes with Billy, for instance, may be uncomfortable today for other reasons – don’t tell your mother about the Iron Giant you talk with in the forest, it’s our secret, Billy.  Right. And again, the hyper-efficient screenplay inserts a key Plot Point here which sounds again rather uncomfortable, as the Colossus reveals to us his hidden on/off switch: “Don’t touch me there!”

Still, better that than “the robot’s plaintive, screeching wail, which follows his initial activation.  It’s nothing short of nightmare fuel.”[16]

Another touch, no doubt intended to suggest irony, carries a different charge today.[17] Jeremy, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his discovery of instant food (or something), becomes the Colossus who takes fascistic delight in destroying useless eaters.[18] Although I suppose he could have walked across the Atlantic to attack Sweden, he instead chooses a nearer target of opportunity: the UN. (Hence, bookending the post card beginning).

Yet less than two decades later the Prize would be awarded to such mass murderers as Henry Kissinger and Menachem Begin; and what about laureate Barack Obama, with his promises of “hope and change”? How many did he kill, figuratively sitting at the video-game controls of his own mechanical golems, the drones?[19]

This “bizarre ending” as Erickson calls it appropriately sums up all the virtues of low-budget filmmaking; as Erickson describes it:

Art director John Goodman sketches the UN with minimal sets built around a broad checkerboard floor and a large plaque bearing a pacifist credo.[20] Restricted camera angles lend this final scene a dreamlike quality, as does Eugène Lourié’s bizarre direction: the various U.N. dignitaries stand in place, waiting patiently to be fried by the cyborg’s death rays. An electronic sound effect from The War of the Worlds is repurposed for the occasion, and optical artist John P. Fulton animates the deadly ray blasts. Editor Floyd Knutson must have been left with no options for cutaways, because he’s forced to use a shot out of order and continuity: before the first female victim is zapped by a death ray, we see her already lying in place on the shiny U.N. floor. Adding to the dreamlike weirdness, nobody comes to the aid of this woman or any of the other the fallen dignitaries. (Italics mine)[21]

Quite different, and much more terrifying, than something like Hitchcock’s smooth Technicolor UN. To this triumph of low-budget art, we can only add a note about the interesting detail of the checkerboard floor – quite prominent in the downward camera angle – on which the delegates stand motionless, waiting for death; it is, of course, the universal symbol of the warp of and woof from which the material universe is woven, as we’ve explored before.[22]

The capper on all this is how, after all the death and destruction, having converted his son’s admittedly tragic death into a complete international catastrophe – and think of the subsequent media firestorm – Doc Spensser just shrugs his shoulders and walks away. The End.

Producer William Alland (March 4, 1916 – November 11, 1997)  was behind lots of the 50s horror/sci-fi/monster films, including This Island EarthIt Came From Outer SpaceTarantulaThe Deadly MantisThe Mole PeopleThe Colossus of New YorkThe Space ChildrenThe Creature from the Black Lagoon and its two sequels.[23] Director Lourié seems to have kinda specialized in the “X challenges mankind” genre, or to have at least helmed a couple more famous ones, like Beast from 20,000 Fathoms – whose Harryhausen stop-action monster attacks New York from the sea, predating Godzilla, inspiring all the rest of the 50s atomic mutant monster films, and earning a homage in Cloverfield – and, just to switch things up a bit, Gorgo, where the titular sea monster attacks London, although with less impressive results.[24]

With such creators, it’s no surprise that Colossus obviously riffs on several film/book classics, such as Frankenstein and perhaps Metropolis. Its most obvious debt, however, is to the mediaeval Jewish legend of the Golem (Hebrew: גולם), as well as later novel and film versions such as Gustav Meyrink‘s 1914 novel Der Golem and especially Paul Wegener’s 1921 film (actually a trilogy, of which only the first part survives); the “robot” here closely resembles Wegener’s clay figure.[25]

The latter feature is indeed a puzzle. Frankenstein built his creature from human parts but had to work on a large scale due its prototype status; on the other hand the robot Maria is Rottweg’s attempt to resurrect his dead, lost love Hel, and even today its lithe form has a certain cyborg-ish  eroticism,[26] but Rottweg is as much an alchemist as a scientist, so I suppose even a postwar, vaguely Germanic scientist like Jeremy’s father (Otto Kruger) still might not have the technology available to make a human-scale robot. Operation Paperclip, Schmaperclip![27]

But still, why give him such a horrific visage, sure to scare anyone away, except a child – his son – who can be convinced he’s a fairy tale giant. Dr. Spensser has clearly modelled the head on cinematic representations of the Golem. Is this decision deliberate, or some kind of racial memory (or perhaps morphic resonance)?

What’s really new about Colossus is the way it explores – if you can call a nightmare an “exploration” – the idea of what today might be called transhumanism[28]. And thus it looks forward to Robocop, Ghost in the Shell, and perhaps Blade Runner,[29] films which, perhaps because of their (relatively) big budgets, and despite their undoubted merits, fail to capture the claustrophobic nightmare of post-mortem cyborg existence quite like this queer, quirky little quickie.


[1] Known to Jim Kunstler, if no one else, as “The Golden Golem of Greatness.”

[2] You might recall that during the late campaign much was made of Hillary’s propensity to fall, fainting spells, blood clots on the brain, etc. There was even speculation that she had died already from one or another of these things and been replaced by a double, or perhaps an android, which in turn accounted for her odd behavior. Her curious affect and her daughter living in a retro-fitted medical clinic added to the speculation.

[3] Count Scary was a horror-movie host in Detroit back in the 80s (and apparently still going strong) whose act was basically a rip-off from (or homage to) SCTV’s Count Floyd, himself, of course, already a parody of local horror-hosts like Detroit’s Sir Graves Ghastly (I’m not sure if the opening of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is a deliberate homage) or Boston’s Morgus. Both Counts specialized in dull, inane movies that they would try to hype hysterically during the breaks, although Scary’s movies were real. Now that’s really scary! While Floyd would threaten to scare the pants off you, Count Scary would sometimes literally have his pants scared off. MST3k was conceived as another homage to the vanishing world of local horror hosts.

[4] Thus, I’m not talking about cheap, black and white movies of the same time period that deliberately seek out such effects, such as The Hypnotic Eye (1960), in which a sadistic nightclub hypnotist programs his female victims to mutilate themselves in a variety of horrifying yet everyday ways (hot showers, anyone?), which I can’t look at yet doesn’t really haunt one’s memory. These films never rise above the level of Grande Guignol; I can’t understand the cult appeal of, for example, Herschel Gordon Lewis.

[5] See “A Pattern Begins to Emerge: Thoughts on Rod Serling’s Patterns,” here.

[6]An unusually atmospheric Sci Fi film for the time… Blu-ray: AWESOME A:9 V:10” by lathe-of-heaven;, 8 June 2014, here.

[7] Of a similar effect at the start of an Ed Wood film, one of the MST3k crew observed: “New York, the city that never moves.” By contrast, when Bert I. Gordon has “giant” grasshoppers crawl up a postcard of the Chicago skyline in the contemporaneous Beginning of the End (1957), it’s just stupid.

[8] “The music consists of flamenco guitar and piano riffs, in vaguely free-form jazz cues which, although hauntingly beautiful, evoke no excitement or dramatic tension whatsoever. The mournful, almost avant-garde music emphasizes the alien texture of the film, and makes the most dramatic and tense scenes seem dreamy and unreal, in effect a modern incarnation of the “melancholy chants” used in the Osiris death ritual. Jail Bait’s opening titles roll as a Nash police cruiser prowls a busy Alhambra, California, street at night, while dreamy jazz music plays, setting the stage not for a gripping crime melodrama, but a weird spiritual tale in some modern purgatory.” Rob Craig, Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009); see my review here.

[9] “The piano score by Van Cleave is both unusual and haunting, especially during the tense scenes between creation and creator/father.” DVD Review. “Van Cleave’s subdued piano-based score contributes to an overwhelming sense of dread.” Cinematic Catharsis. “The Colossus of New York is one of the stranger entries into the 1950’s and 60’s wave of films with monsters and aliens on the rampage, with a distinctly serious, almost pious tone, due in no small part by the unique score by noted television composer Van Cleave, harking back to the silent era with solo piano creating the mood and tension without the histrionics of wailing theremins and huge fruity string sections. Horrorpedia, op. cit.

[10] Blu-ray review by Glenn Erickson, Turner Classic Movies, now online here.

[11] Given the geography, I assume one is the Hudson River, the other the East River, but as we’ll see it’s just the same tank anyway.

[12] Erickson, op. cit.

[13] One might also note the prominence of the UN, as in another Hitchcock film, next year’s North by Northwest. Oddly enough, the UN wouldn’t let Hitch film there, so his UN is a combination of “rogue” shooting (when the goons pull up outside in their cab) without permission, and Hollywood sets, just like Colossus with a bigger budget.

[14] T. S. Eliot, “Gerontion.”

[15] 1964; later expanded and reprinted in the USA as Chords and Discords/Colin Wilson on Music, in which see pp. 12-12.

[16] Cinematic Catharsis, op. cit.

[17] “The bizarre ending carries an uncomfortable subversive charge: a philanthropic recipient of the Peace Prize commits a massacre at the United Nations.” –Erickson, op. cit.

[18] “The Colossus also has political leanings; he loses interest in his humanitarian mission to feed the world, declaring, “Why create food for the maimed, the useless and the sick? Why should we work to preserve the slum people of the world? Isn’t it simpler and wiser to get rid of them instead?” He adds: “We must eliminate the idealists.” Horropedia, op. cit.

[19] Watch Obama joke about droning some folks here.

[20] “The Colossus stands before an even larger mural with the inscription from the Book of Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Horrorpedia)

[21] Erickson, op. cit.

[22] See René Guénon, The Multiple States of the Being and The Symbolism of the Cross. Neville: “Think of the vertical line of the cross as the line of being upon which there are unnumbered levels of awareness” and “The Bible’s teaching is one of rising higher and higher in consciousness until rebirth occurs. There is but one purpose in life, and that is to rise higher and higher on the vertical bar of the cross.” (op. cit.).  See also my discussion of the checkerboard floor in Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” in “The Corner at the Center of the World” in The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014) and the pigeon-holes in Fred Hoyle’s October the First is Too Late(reviewed here).

[23] “Alland is also remembered for his acting role as reporter Thompson who investigates the meaning of “Rosebud” in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941).  In addition to his role as Thompson in Citizen Kane, Alland announces the “News on the March” newsreel segment, a spoof of the then-popular March of Time newsreels. In later years, Alland twice provided voiceovers for pastiches of this News on the March segment: once for the 1974 Orson Welles film F for Fake and again for a 1991 Arena documentary for the BBC titled The Complete Citizen Kane.” (Wikipedia)

[24] Gorgo is so dire it earned the MST3k treatment, though mainly for being so bloody British about things. It also had the misfortune to “star” the infamous William Sylvester, an American “actor” who specialized in playing Americans in Brit movies; so great is his transatlantic blanditude that no less than two others of his films earned the same treatment: Riding with Death (two episodes of a failed TV series slapped together for theatrical release) and most notably, Devil Doll, where he is out-acted by the title character. Of course, blandness was exactly what Stanley Kubrick was after, and I like to imagine a rainy London afternoon screening of Devil Doll in which, near the end, Kubrick leaps up and shouts “Heywood Floyd and Bowman’s father – the cast of 2001 is complete!”

[25] Cinematic Catharsis has a nice, recent review here.

[26] “And of course, Metropolis’s robot is irresistibly seductive, with her sashaying hips and art deco fetish-gear bodywork.” Steve Rose, “Ex Machina and sci-fi’s obsession with sexy female robots,” The Guardian, 15 Jan. 2015, here.

[27] See Jason Reza Jorjani’s “Black Sunrise” in his Lovers of Sophia (Manticore, 2017). The Colossus’ development of extra-sensory perception and death rays also speaks to Jorjani’s interests.

[28] And like everything else, there’s a YouTube video, as previously noted.

[29] See Trevor Lynch on Blade Runner here. Gregory Hood suggests the recent Lone Ranger remake is a take on Robocop here. I thought that Jason Reza Jorjani discusses Ghost in the Shell in his Prometheus and Atlas (London: Arktos, 2016), but I can’t find it in his chapter on Japan and anime, though his conclusion that “It is in Japan where, unburdened by the Judeo-Christian heritage, visionary artists have best crystallized transformative images of the coming metamorphosis of the merely human being into a  more diabolically daring and dynamic superhuman race, destined to liberate a capriciously ruled cosmos and conquer the inner space of latent psychic powers” is a pretty good summary of what Jeremy’s surgeon father and robotics expert brother have in mind.

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  1. rhondda
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Uneasy is an understatement. On my newsfeed at face book a story came through about some guy attempting a head transplant. No follow up though. Is your being in the body or the brain or both? Another one was about artifical wombs and the guy who posted it was ecstatic. I am reminded of a book published in 1970 by Shulamith Firestone: the case for a feminist revolution. She totally advocated artificial wombs, collective raising of kids and loved the idea of cybernetics. I wonder if she would wear a pussy hat or a vagina costume? I find it funny that this man today (on fb) advocates what a feminist advocated in the 70’s. What will the male to female trans do now? I wonder if the baby will bond to the box it is born from? Or want to return to it? Is there an ethical question here?

    • Sandy
      Posted January 24, 2018 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Hans Reuch in The Naked Empress or the Great Medical Fraud which was published in 1982 featured a Dr Robert White of Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio who conducted head transplants on monkeys and in 1977 announced that he was ready to transplant a human head. The man is probably retired by now but the university still has its medical school if you know of anybody that needs a new head.

  2. NoddingHead
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    The Ring is the best scary movie made in the last 30 years, by far imo. I will check out this recommendation, but usually 1950s movies just don’t scare me very much at all. Probably more about production technique and soundtrack than anything else.

  3. NoddingHead
    Posted January 24, 2018 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    All good horror movies have all white casts. Also, i’ve noticed that in every single good horror movie there is an obvious Christian motif – there is almost always a crucifix present in the scene before the evil violent thing happens. Never a Star of David or any other religious symbology. What would happen if every single horror movie had Star of David or other Jewish symbolism? Never happens so we’ll never know.

  4. NoddingHead
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    The Departed, maybe Scorcese’s best. Mark Wahlberg was amazing as usual.

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