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03 July, 2010

1957—Horror’s Greatest Year

[Ed. Note:  This is a reprint of an article I wrote several years ago, as such, some references may be out of date.]

As with almost everything else under the sun, the cinema’s love affair with Horror movies runs in cycles, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Currently, I feel that we’ve been in a very “up” cycle for several years, with no real sign of a downturn yet.

There have been other “up” cycles, of course… The early thirties, Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of Horror; the early forties, the heyday of Universal’s franchise horror; the late sixties-early seventies, as two dying venues, the Drive-In and the Grindhouse converged to funnel grittingly realistic, spectacularly gory, deliciously exploitative fare directly to eager movie-goers. But in terms of a single year, one 12-month period when the Horror gods truly smiled, I don’t think there’s ever been one as good as 1957.

There are those who would argue that 1931 was the greatest year for Horror. They would have a valid argument that it was certainly the most significant, with the premiere of Browning’s DRACULA in February; the greatest Horror Film of all, James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, in November; and Rueben Mamoulian’s definitive version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1931.

Others might lean towards 1968, when one low-budget movie became the demarcation line to show when Modern Horror began. George Romero’s landmark NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was, without a doubt, a seminal moment in the history of the Horror cinema, but it was far from the only one that year. From Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, to Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, there’s no doubt that 1968 was a tremendously important year for Horror.

But in terms of sheer volume and enjoyability, it’s difficult to deny 1957 its place in the Horror Hall of Fame. Here’s just a partial listing of the titles that premiered that year: 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH; THE BLACK SCORPION; THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; THE DEADLY MANTIS; I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF; and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. Are these great movies? No, not for the most part. But they’re fun movies; the kind of movies that kids my age grew up watching on the various Hosted Horror shows that were hallmarks of our youth.

20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH? A Ray Harryhausen triumph of Special Effects Animation, it stands perhaps as his third best work, eclipsed only by THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN must certainly be considered one of the most significant films of the 1950’s, as the one that began Hammer Films climb to the top, as well as serving to introduce American audiences to Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the greatest Horror Icons of their generation.

Though not as popular or as well received as some other Giant Bug movies, such as THEM! or TARANTULA, THE DEADLY MANTIS is in my opinion the best of them all. It has all the elements that make the Sci-Fi horrors of the 1950’s so much fun… The monster, one of the best looking creature designs of the period; decent acting; strong heroes; good plot; the “American people bonding together in times of adversity” attitude; and the generous use of stock footage. All of these factors combine to make one of the most enjoyable movies of the ‘50’s.

And of course, I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF (along with it’s less well-known companion piece I WAS A TEEN-AGE FRANKENSTEIN…) was the movie that established American Independent Productions, the brainchild of producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson, as a major player in genre films of the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and early ‘70’s. It also launched the career of Michael “Little Joe Cartwright” Landon.

All of these movies have two things in common… they are some of the most fondly remembered classics of that era, and they all premiered in 1957. Why was this year such a remarkable one for Genre films?

We were a prosperous, happy nation in 1957. We had just re-elected a popular President; we were at peace; the Baby Boom was well underway; more people than ever before owned their own homes, sent their kids to college, started their own businesses.

However, there was an undercurrent of dread all the same… fear of Atomic War, which seemed a constant presence in the American psyche of the time. The same people who had finally purchased a home of their own soon were improving on it, with a bomb shelter in the basement or backyard. Along with readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic, schoolchildren were also learning to “Duck and Cover…” at the first sign of a thermonuclear flash. And Iodine tablets, to prevent uptake of radioactive isotopes in the event of fallout, soon found their way into American medicine cabinets, right next to the aspirins and Bromo-Seltzer. This level of, well… not paranoia, for after all there was a real, distinct possibility of such an event… perhaps awareness might be the best way to describe it, had to be reflected in the popular culture and art of the time. Moreover, nowhere was it better represented than in the Horror & Sci-Fi films so popular at this time.

Perhaps this convergence of prosperity, contentment, and the overhanging sense of impending peril combined to create a perfect climate for these movies. Perhaps the public was just in the right mood for some simple scares. Or perhaps the pendulum of cinematic trends was just swinging back in the direction of Genre movies, after reaching a low point in the years immediately following the end of World War II.

But, as we begin to celebrate the fiftieth anniversaries of these wonderful films, we can be grateful that, for whatever the reason, 1957 remains one of the greatest years in Horror.

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