Horror movies in the 1950s (1): Godzilla, The Beast from 10,000 Fathoms, The Wasp Woman, Them!, Ray Harryhausen, monster movies
It is hard to grasp the changes that took place in popular consciousness between 1940 and 1950. In ten short years the concept of a horrific monster had altered irrevocably. Whereas Lon Chaney, Jr in a fine covering of yak's hair had once served as a powerful envoy from the dark side, now there were more recognisably human faces attached to evil. Faces who had fought on both sides in WW2, the developers of the atom bomb and the death camp, mad scientists indeed whose activities would have unnerved even Victor Frankenstein or Dr Moreau.
The military action of WW2 had left over 40 million dead, and millions more exposed to the full spectrum of man's inhumanity to man. Homecoming soldiers and bereaved widows had too many horror stories of their own to appreciate fantasies on the big screen, and much preferred the silliness of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein et al. The world could never be the same again, and the dawning of post-war posterity in America brought with it a new breed of monsters, adapted specifically for survival in the second half of the twentieth century.
After WW2, no nation could be seen to seek out-and-out conflict with another. This did not stop the 'low-key' operations in Asia (Korea, then Vietnam) and the spiralling standoff of the Cold War. People lived with the fear of war, which became more unnerving than war itself. The messages from WW2 were clear: no matter how heroic your men, how skilled your generals, how staunch your supporters on the Home Front, at the end of the day it was technology that counted. Bigger. Better. Deadlier. Like the atom bomb. The more advanced the technology, the more powerful the nation. It wasn't just human technology that impinged on public consciousness - the first recorded sighting of a flying saucer occurred in 1947, followed a few months later by the infamous Roswell Incident. The horror films of the 1950s are about science and technology run riot, an accurate enough reflection of reality for a confused populace, wary of the pace of technological change.
The 1950s are also the era when horror films get relegated
well and truly to the B-movie category. The studios were too busy incorporating
technical changes such as widespread colour production and trying to meet
the challenge posed by TV to have much truck with making quality horror
pictures. Big stars were reserved for epics and musicals while the Universal
era icons were either dead, dead-in-the-water (Lugosi was reduced to an
impoverished caricature of his former self) or moved on (Karloff had diversified
into TV & theatre and was still working). The main audiences for horror
movies were teenagers, who ensured that the genre remained very profitable.
They flocked to the drive-ins in hordes, not caring too much about character
development, plot integrity or production values. Some of these B-movies
are, frankly, ludicrous, in the way they require the audience to suspend
disbelief. The aim of the game was thrills, thrills and more thrills,
and these monsters, whilst perhaps more terrifying in conception than
execution, never fail to deliver on the action front. Nonetheless, they
are highly entertaining, and provide a crude, technicolour snapshot of
the way America desperately didn't want itself to be.
Mutation on existing themes provided the inspiration for countless 1950s MONSTERS. Radiation (or other unspecified scientific processes) could either enlarge (Godzilla, Them!, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) or shrink (The Fly, The Incredible Shrinking Man) existing life-forms. Existing life-forms made better monsters, as they could be photographed using blue-screen techniques, or recreated in model form and stop-motion animation used to bring them to life. Otherwise, the old standby of a man in a suit (still used by James Cameron in Aliens in 1986) worked well enough if seen from a distance.
Early attempts at these sorts of special effects work well in King Kong (1933) and Devil Dolls (1936), but really become widespread during this era. The onscreen monsters represented the cutting edge of movie technology and their novelty was seen as a good way of drawing audiences away from TV. Ray Harryhausen was the star practitioner, and his work can be seen on a wide range of films, from the epic set in the ancient world, Jason & the Argonauts (1963), to It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) where a mutant octopus attacks San Francisco. These monsters are usually spurred into a destructive rampage by the actions of a foolish few disobeying the rules, and can only be stopped through the actions of a resourceful hero. These movies particularly manifest society's mistrust of the intellectual, in the form of the mad scientist, who must often have his destructive creations negated by "ordinary" citizens.
This era's obsession with the monster movie stems from the fears generated by co-existence with the atom bomb. America had to deal with the mass trauma over using a nuclear weapon on another nation, and also the perpetual fear of future apocalypse. Monster movies offered a vision of destruction created by non-humans; instead of generating chaos and disaster, humans represent a force for good, often manifested in a yearning for peace as nations and organisations unite against the common threat, thus providing a cathartic couple of hours' escapism from the realities of the Cold War.
These monster movies of the 1950s were also the first blockbusters (a term first used in a 1951 Variety review of Quo Vadis), opening in US theatres coast-to-coast amidst a marketing storm of advertising and merchandise. They used the new medium of TV advertising to reach suburban and teenage audiences, and stunts involving giant dinosaurs and ants to reach the newspaper front pages. The idea was not to promote quality performances, but a big movie-going experience, and lines around the block rewarded this strategy, twenty years before Jaws. Individual monster movies may now have been largely forgotten, and only appeal to cultists prepared to forgive their creaky dialogue and now-clumsy SFX, but their collective memory is still cherished, and has had an influence on many recent movies (Eight Legged Freaks, The Day After Tomorrow, Evolution to name but three).
- The Imagination of Disaster (essay) Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation (NY, Picador, 1966). Summary online.
- The 50s B Movie - introductory examination of the discourse (Marxist, Jungian) surrounding the growth of the genre in the 50s
- Debunking The Jaws Myth - Dade Hayes & Jonathan Bing (Variety article on 1950s blockbuster marketing)
- Don't Step On It!: Killer Bugs, Babes and Beasts in 1950s Drive-in Cinema - Bright Lights Film Journal
- The Astounding B Monster - comprehensive site devoted to all monsters B
- The Biology of B Movie Monsters - excellent assessment from a biologist of what really happens when creatures are scaled up and down in size
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
"they couldn't escape the terror and neither will you"
Based on a Ray Bradbury short story (The Foghorn), this involves the accidental awakening of a "King Kong with fins" (a rhedosaurus) by atomic testing in the Arctic. The Beast heads for New York, its former hunting ground, devastating everything in its way, before being defeated by "good radioactivity". This was one of the top-grossing movies of 1953 ($5 million from a budget of $250,000), and encouraged the studios to invest in further monster pics.
The Wasp Woman (1960)
Vincent Price starrer, The Fly, has an intelligent script, suspenseful action, and tells the story of a scientist who, in trying to teleport solid matter, mixed his own particles up with that of a fly and... well... No one can forget the horrific ending ("Help me! Help me!"). The Wasp Woman was Roger Corman's attempt at the same story - the mixing of human and insect "bits". Cosmetics Company chief Jan Starlin has fallen on hard times, and is desperate for a new product that will reverse the ageing process on her face and similarly rejuvenate her company's fortunes. She meets Zinthrop, who has been experimenting with wasp royal jelly, rather than the bee kind, and decides she will become the first human test subject for his anti-ageing serum. So far so good, especially when, desperate for results, she injects herself with a superdose of the serum and emerges the next morning looking 18 - count them! - years younger.
In accordance with conventions, it all goes badly wrong. Starlin and her scientist friend must be punished for their presumption. Zinthrop is knocked over by a truck and ends up in hospital, in a coma, unable to monitor his experiment. Starlin's secretary and friends start snooping around, suspicious that Zinthrop is trying to rip her off. She alas, has developed a taste for ripping off the heads of hapless snoopers, as, rather unfortunately, the high doses of wasp jelly intermittently turn her into a Wasp Woman.
Rather disappointingly, production values mean that Wasp Woman does not look like the picture on the poster (left), but in fact consists of the head of a wasp on the body of a woman. Well, something furry with peculiar eyes on the body of a woman. Corman handles the subject matter with his usual panache, and puts an interesting spin on the werewolf theme by having a female protagonist, but the special effects are a serious let down. However, given the budget (churned out for just $50,000), it successfully manages to gratify the drive-in crowd, and is fairly typical of B-movie pics of the time.
- Bmoviecentral on The Wasp Woman
- The Leech Woman's Revenge - on the Dread of Ageing in a Low Budget Horror film: A re-reading of the movie as the mirror of female desire and male fear of ageing women.
These mutant monsters had neither the dignity nor intelligence of those gracing the screens during the 1930s, but they made up for that with sheer battlepower. And these scientific disasters are oddly pitiful, nearly always condemned to die an agonising death in the final reel. Despite the frequent victory of common sense and decent values over depraved science, many of these films are not exactly optimistic about the human race's chances.