Written by hoaxter parapsychologist Thelma Moss & released on a double bill with something called The Space Children, you’d be forgiven for assuming that The Colossus of New York was an unworthy throwaway sci-fi picture only notable because it somehow wasn’t featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’d be wrong, though. Although the film is only a breezy 70min long, pads itself out with a little airport stock footage and is undeniably goofy in some of its special effects details, The Colossus of New York deserves way more respect than you might expect from its drive-in schlock pedigree. Unexpectedly serving as a bridge between Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein & Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, I found the film far more inventive & thematically well-considered than I would have initially assumed. It looks from the outside to be just one of many cheap 1950s Frankenstein bastardizations, but the film pushes way past a simple brain transplant horror story into something that feels anachronistically forward-thinking. A lot of The Colossus of New York‘s initial appeal rests in its drive-in era charm & unique creature design, but it somehow amounts to far more than the sum of its parts.
The film starts with two sibling scientists watching footage of automated assembly line technology that the far more successful of the pair is pioneering. His jealous brother, tired of competing for their father’s praise, jokes that the invention will “put the human race out of business.” After hearing his father brag to the press that his son is one of the all-time great human minds, comparable to the likes of Einstein & Darwin, we watch the scientist die in a horrific car accident while retrieving his child’s toy airplane. The father is driven mad by this “foolish, wasteful” death and starts raving about the shame of the human body’s inferiority to the power of the mind and some slippery slope philosophy about the brain vs the soul. Long story short, the father resurrects his favorite son by implanting his brain in a more durable cyborg body, while the lesser, more alive brother starts making moves on the scientist’s widow. The experiment works at first, with the scientist’s new cyborg body finally matching the immense power of his mind. He’s essentially a gigantic, metal version of Frankenstein’s monster, with the added bonus of light-up eyes that shoot deadly lasers. Of course, the father’s meddling with the laws of God & Nature means that the creation’s temporary success doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the titular cyborg colossus uses his newfound strength to exact his brutal revenge, first on his wife-stealing brother and then on the world at large.
What’s most striking about The Colossus of New York is what happens when it ventures into the uncanny. Most drive-in schlock would’ve stopped at the Metal Frankenstein aspect of the premise, but this film pushes itself into much stranger, more adventurous territory. When the colossus is first switched on, we see the world through his POV, a television static-inspired technique that recalls the similarly shot birth of RoboCop. When he first sees himself in the mirror as a cyborg he squeals in horror, pleading to his father, “You want to help me? Then destroy me,” in a pathetic mechanical voice. He curses his “flesh that cannot feel,” pines to reconnect with his wife (who the father initially reports to be dead), and repeatedly visits the grave for his old human body. Things get even stranger from there as the scientist’s mind begins to push beyond normal human capacity. He’s tortured by “meaningless images,” visions that are later revealed to be premonitions of future events. He also becomes more erratic in his thoughts by the day, even discovering a new talent for hypnotism, which he immediately employs for evil. This escalates to the once great, humanitarian mind declaring the poor & hungry to be “human trash” and deciding to wage a one-cyborg war on world peace, starting with a massacre at a UN conference. What was once a standard black & white horror cheapie starts to feel much stranger, much more special, and by the end The Colossus of New York starts to feel like a long buried gem.
Even if my praise of the film’s adventurous sci-fi themes sounds a little hyperbolic, I believe it’s a work that could easily be enjoyed for the simple pleasures of its sights & sounds. Lack of facial expressiveness is usually not a plus in a monster movie mask, but the cyborg colossus uses that awkward stoicism quite well as an essential part of his self-tortured inhumanity. The movie also pulls a lot of great visual play out of terrified victims being lit solely by the monster’s light-up brain & eyes in the moment before he zaps them to death. Besides boasting a cool-looking monster who eats up a lot of screentime in a refreshing change from the genre’s status quo, the film also employs a minimalist piano score from frequent Twilight Zone musician Van Cleave that affords it a classic silent horror vibe in its simplicity. If you’re ever in the mood for a Universal Monster-type classic, but you’re feeling exhausted with endless rewatches of Frankenstein or The Black Cat, I highly recommend giving The Colossus of New York a shot. It just might surprise you.