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24 May, 2008

When Science Attacks—The Sci-Fi Horror of the 1950’s



Every decade has its defining horror themes. In the early days of the genre, it was the German expressionists who dominated the imagery of horror, with films by directors such as Wiene, Murnau, and Lang setting the tone, and providing influences that would last well into the ‘40’s.

The ‘60’s were defined at the very beginning, by an oedipal peeping-tom in an out of the way motel, and a murder in a shower unlike anything Hollywood had put to film before. The movie was, of course, PSYCHO, and Hitchcock’s masterpiece began a movement towards a new realism in horror. This was marked by a willingness to explore heretofore taboo subjects in Horror Films, with graphic depictions of blood, gore, nudity, sex, and of course, violence, driving these explorations. The decade that began with PSYCHO ended with films such as ROSEMARY’S BABY, TARGETS, and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and along the way, horror grew up.

And what, you may ask, defined Horror during the decade of the 1950’s? Simple… Science defined horror during the ‘50’s. Science was the threat, and science was the savior.

Perhaps this was a natural reaction, considering that we were barely five years removed from World War II when the 1950’s began, a war that was the first in which science and technology played an overwhelming role in securing victory. From Radar, to Jet engines, to the Atomic bombs that ended the war, never had there been such technological growth in so short a span of time. The war that began with Polish Lancers making cavalry charges gave way to ballistic missiles falling on London.

These memories were still fresh in the minds of movie going audiences as the decade began, and though science had undoubtedly contributed to the Allied victory, the other side, in the form of Stalin’s Soviet Union, had much the same technology. In 1949, the Soviets detonated their first Atomic weapon, and the Cold War began in earnest. This provided filmmakers with the pervasive subtext of the decade, Us versus Them.

Whether the threat was an invading alien, a mutated insect, or an evil scientist, the threat struck at the American way of life, embodied in a variety of forms. The location might be in an arctic research station, the New Mexico desert, or a Coney Island amusement park, but it was Americana under attack, and the indomitable American spirit was always equal to the challenge.

The first great movie of the decade was the Howard Hawk / Christian Nyby film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. The prototype of the Alien Invasion genre, THE THING… is a claustrophobic film, with nearly all the action contained within the station itself. This aids in building the feeling of the Threat from outside, so common to the films of the ‘50’s.

In addition, the pacing is very rapid, grabbing hold of the viewer and dragging him along to the fantastic conclusion, which sees the invader destroyed by good, old-fashioned American courage and ingenuity. This combination of factors pulls the viewer into the film, heightening the sense of “Us vs. Them”.

Another film that even more dramatically illustrated that theme was 1956’s INVASION OF THE BODY-SNATCHERS, directed by Don Siegel. Produced at the height of the McCarthy hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee, it reflected perfectly the fears and suspicions of the time. Here, the horror was more subtle, but far more pronounced. The enemy wasn’t simply an invader from another world; it was us, and all we had to do to lose the fight was to fall asleep. The thought of falling asleep as an individual, thinking, feeling human being, and awakening as something else, a robotic, emotionless member of a collective, was anathema to the American spirit, and was directly analogous to life under Communism.

But most films of the period weren’t quite that direct, nor was the Communist “Red Menace” the only threat facing movie-going Americans. Another great Alien Invasion film found the entire world involved in a war against our nearest neighbor, Mars. The movie was, of course, George Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS, one of the first of the big-budget Special Effects blockbusters.

Based on H. G. Wells’ novel but without the political angst that tinged the book, this same story caused a nationwide panic in October 1938, as Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater staged a dramatic radio play, set in Grover’s Mills, New Jersey. Despite repeated disclaimers that this was a fictional account, thousands of listeners were convinced that Martians were invading New Jersey… as if they’d want it. The movie, released in 1953, was equally effective, if not as panic-inducing, as the radio program of fifteen years previously. The vision of Martian war machines hovering over the battlefield, impervious even to the biggest stick in the scientist’s arsenal, the atomic bomb, is one of the best images of the decade.

In addition, The “Bomb”, the device that won the war against Japan, and maintained the delicate balance of peace between East and West, was itself a threat. If not directly, when dropped from Soviet bombers, then certainly in its by-product—Radiation.

Radiation was responsible for a host of terrors visited upon fictional populaces in the 1950’s. From giant ants, to shrinking men, to fire-breathing prehistoric beasts, radiation ran rampant, churning out mutants by the score.

The first, and the best, (though not my personal favorite…) of the Giant Bug sub-genre of movies was the superb 1954 film THEM! The story of giant ants loose, first in New Mexico, then in Los Angeles, was connected directly to the earliest Atomic tests in Alamogordo. Nor were ants the only insects affected by radiation. TARANTULA was the result of a radioactive growth serum, and the giant grasshoppers in BEGINNING OF THE END owed their physiques to irradiated vegetables.

Higher orders of life weren’t safe from being horribly mutated, either… including man himself. Being caught in a nuclear blast caused Col. Glen Manning to grow into the Amazing Colossal Man, and another radioactive cloud shrinks Scott Carey down to the size of a microbe. Prehistoric creatures of all types found themselves reanimated, including the King of the Monsters himself, Godzilla.

Originally released in Japan in 1954 as GOJIRA, Godzilla was by far the greatest of the Monsters created in the 1950’s, and is still one of the most recognized. In it’s original form, it’s much more of an indictment of nuclear weapons and the destruction they bring; not totally unexpected from the only nation to suffer nuclear attack, but unlikely to play well to 1950’s U.S. audiences. The original’s a tremendously powerful and effective film, but even watered down for release here as GODZILLA—KING OF THE MONSTERS, it retains enough of that power to have remained a fan favorite for fifty years.

And let’s not forget the ‘classic’ monsters, the vampires, werewolves, and the like, who weren’t immune to the predations of the mad scientist, either. While the first two-thirds of the decade were essentially devoid of the traditional monsters so popular in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, by 1956 Hollywood was once more interested in them, albeit with a science-based twist. In films such as THE WEREWOLF, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, BLOOD OF DRACULA, and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, supernatural origins were cast aside in favor of scientific manipulation. Whether by a serum made from wolf hormones, chemically altered theatrical make-up, or microscopic organisms from a coelacanth’s bite, science was responsible for visiting these horrors on an unsuspecting populace.

Then there is the most iconic of American Monster-movies of the decade, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. In a direct confrontation between science and nature, Man invades the peaceful sheltered habitat of the Gill-Man, irrevocably changing his existence in the effort to capture him for scientific study. The Gill-Man, Universal’s most sympathetic monster, was also the most victimized creature of the ‘50’s. Scientists hunted him in the first CREATURE film; caught him and transported him to a foreign land in the second; and surgically altered his very physiology in the final installment of the series. Where’s the ASPCA when you need them?

However, as the decade of the ‘50’s neared its close, traditional horror, ‘Classic’ horror, began to reassert itself in the genre. Thanks to a small, low-budget studio in Great Britain, which had been noted primarily for its crime pictures, great franchises such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy were resurrected to tremendous success. That studio was, of course, Hammer Films, and starting with 1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, they single-handedly made Classic Horror popular again.

The rise of Hammer didn’t end Science’s role as the primary Protagonist / Antagonist of genre films, but it did mark the beginning of the shift to that “new realism” of which I spoke earlier. As standards eased and filmmakers explored expanded boundaries, films such as NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, PSYCHO, and CAPE FEAR became the driving force of the genre.

These literate, innovative, genuinely frightening films spawned hordes of imitators, most of which relied on increasing amounts of blood, gore, and nudity to make up for the lack of quality writing, directing or acting. By the midpoint of the ‘60’s, the heyday of the Mad Scientist had come to an end, and with it the horror cinema’s age of innocence.

Though I love all eras of the Horror Film, especially the Golden age of the ‘30’s through the mid-‘40’s, the years between 1950 and 1960 are perhaps the most fun. Yes, the movies are cheesy, the plots are simplistic, and the dialogue is straight from Leave It to Beaver; at least, in most cases.

But they also remind me of a time when it was ok to root for the good guy, and, more importantly, root against the bad; a time when things were simpler, even if only on the surface. They remind me of a time when “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” was something the public believed in, and something that Hollywood espoused… even if their collective fingers were crossed behind them.



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