Howard Hawks’ production The Thing from Another World is a towering heavyweight within the landscape of 1950’s science-fiction. Its status as such is in fact highly contestable however because this was the first notable occasion that the tropes of the horror genre were melded seamlessly with that of science-fiction. Like the alien creature that terrorises the isolated Arctic outpost this is a product of hybridity, an example of generic interbreeding that evolved a new form. For this to succeed one requires generic expertise, and none were more savvy at delivering assured genre pieces than producer/director Howard Hawks. The notion of an alien invader intent on the destruction of the human race is now riddled with cliché, but in 1951 this was a narrative innovation for cinematic sci-fi/horror. Hundreds of invasion narratives ebbed and flowed from this one important example, their attitude and politics may have differed, but the template remained unshakeable. The source material came from acclaimed sci-fi writer John W. Campbell Jr. whose short story Who Goes There? first appeared in the August 1938 edition of Astounding Stories. It might be a surprise to some how little Charles Lederer’s screenplay resembles the story, preferring as it does to just adopt the basic premise. For a more rigorous and authentic adaptation one should look no further than John Carpenter’s 1982 remake.
Day the World Ended was Roger Corman’s third official film as a director and his first major foray into the realm of science-fiction. Corman has quite rightly become a cult hero, the messiah of low budget guerrilla filmmaking. But I’m under no illusion that his greatest contribution to cinema came as a producer. There is an easy temptation to be overly generous towards Corman’s 1950’s productions because of the esteem that enthusiasts of genre cinema hold him in. This is often the same attitude taken toward AIP, the production company to which Corman had an intimate relationship. Whereas most directors would be pilloried for amateurishness, Corman’s brand of amateur filmmaking is celebrated. But in the case of Day the World Ended the incompetence of the novice filmmaker is not alleviated by an intelligent screenplay, nor is it saved by an enthusiastic tone - the film is actually incredibly ponderous and suffers from a solemnity that becomes quite irritating at times. I understand that the end of the world is a serious matter, but Lou Rusoff’s screenplay makes no effort to lighten a leaden tone. One would imagine that working within such a sombre and ominous framework the film would be afforded the philosophical and metaphysical insights of serious drama. Instead it opts for the sensational and ultimately comes across as a stupid and empty rip off of Arch Oboler’s far superior Five (1951).
The Monster that Challenged the World is a curious little film from 1957 that is very undeserving of the relative obscurity it has endured. The essential premise borrows liberally from the giants of atomic age science-fiction, but presents the material in a charming and self-effacing spirit made all the more enjoyable by the likeable characters. The story was written by David Duncan who had put his name to such productions as The Black Scorpion (1957), Monster on Campus (1958), The Leech Woman (1960) and most notably of all The Time Machine (1960). Although the film expresses anxieties towards radiation and secret scientific endeavour, the threat to civilisation is never implicitly linked to the effects of atomic testing. Instead an earthquake on the Californian coast creates a fissure in the depths of the Salton Sea which releases an army of enlarged blood sucking molluscs. This exactly mirrors the erupting volcano that creates an opening in the earth to release the giant scorpions of Duncan’s earlier The Black Scorpion. In both of these films the natural world has a destructive capability that matches anything the scientists can conjure up in their laboratories. The Black Scorpion was refreshingly bereft of atom age paranoia, but with its naval base setting The Monster is unable to avoid getting tied up in tensions between science and military. However this remains a subtext here, what emerges as the strongest element of this narrative is professionalism, collusion, respect, and a communal sense of pulling together for the greater good.
AKA: Six Inches Tall I Was a Teenage Doll The Fantastic Puppet People
It was very difficult for me to resist a film with the title Attack of the Puppet People, but I wish I had. This flimsy waste of celluloid was created entirely to cash in on the success of Universal-International’s intelligent and philosophical The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). The perpetrators of this mindless travesty were AIP, an independent production/distribution company I have a love/hate relationship with. At times I think AIP are treated a bit too charitably, and while they did produce some worthy additions to popular American genres, this particular movie is one I could have done without. The paper thin screenplay was concocted by sci-fi stalwarts George Worthing Yates and Bert I. Gordon. Yates had shown some flair and intelligence with the writing of Them! (1954) and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), unfortunately flair and intelligence are in very short supply with this movie. Perhaps the fault rests more with Wisconsin born director/writer/producer Bert I. Gordon. This was his fifth feature film and the previous four King Dinosaur (1955), Beginning of the End (1957), The Cyclops (1957) and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) were only distinguishable for their special effects and perhaps their stupidity. Gordon’s films however possess a charm that is highly infectious, which makes Puppet People’s hollowness all the more surprising.
The Black Scorpion is a mundane pillar of unimaginative derivation. It efficiently sweeps through the landscape of convention in a desperate bid to resurrect the insectoid nightmare of the far superior Them! (1954). But if one digs around determinedly in the generic soil, one discovers that The Black Scorpion still manages to possess an historical importance. The meta-narrative (apologies for the academic jargon) of 1950’s mutant monster movies is one which explores the perils of atomic radiation, the side-effects of H-bomb tests, and the misuse of a science and technology that has been appropriated by the military. In a novel twist The Black Scorpion opts to entirely do away with this angle. There isn’t a single mention of radiation in this film, and the gigantic scorpions that terrorise the Mexican countryside and eventually the nation’s capital are freed from the bowels of the earth by a catastrophic volcanic eruption. For once mankind is not to blame for the ensuing chaos, but is instead at the mercy of a natural disaster, and at the mercy of creatures that have evolved in secrecy in a vast underground cavern. As a result the sheer monstrousness of the adversary can be combated without the lingering sense that perhaps mankind is getting what it deserves for meddling in the animal kingdom. There is no guilt complex here, and no return of the repressed. The Black Scorpion becomes one of the purest and most straightforward of all 1950’s ‘Creature Features’, it is divested of the extraneous baggage that slows down its contemporaries, its simplicity is a major asset.
It Came from Beneath the Sea marked the first occasion that producer Charles H. Schneer and visual effects wizard Ray Harryhausen collaborated. The two filmmakers would establish a partnership that would survive throughout the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s finally coming to rest with Clash of the Titans (1981). This alone provides the movie with historical importance, even if the content was highly derivative and presented in a somewhat staid and lifeless fashion. Harryhausen’s art was still very much in its infancy at this point, the animated effects he provided for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) marked him out as a rare and special talent, and here he gets an opportunity too expand his scope with the creation of a giant Octopus. The earlier film is an important reference point because Beneath the Sea is virtually a carbon copy, and adds very little to what was presented in 20,000 Fathoms. It also lacks the charm and dynamism of the earlier picture and a comparison between the two sees Beneath the Sea come off significantly worse. It is possible the film was also influenced by the success of Gojira (1954), itself hugely indebted to 20,000 Fathoms, but important for continuing to prove their was an eager market for giant radioactive creatures from the ocean depths.
Writer/producer/director Curt Siodmak was an instrumental figure in establishing the cross pollination of horror and science-fiction in the 1940’s and 1950’s. This émigré filmmaker who hailed from Dresden in Germany, wrote key screenplays for Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941), the Val Lewton produced I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and the brilliant Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956). But his most celebrated work was his 1942 novel Donovan’s Brain. It immediately proved a durable and adaptable narrative with an early film version appearing under the title The Lady and the Monster in 1943. In 1944 no less a talent than Orson Welles was suitably impressed by the pulp premise that he commissioned a two part radio production. In 1962 an Anglo/German production entitled The Brain directed by Freddie Francis appeared, but it is the 1953 version featuring Lew Ayers and Gene Evans that remains the most fondly remembered. The premise might be utterly ludicrous, but the notion of disembodied brain’s controlling and dominating susceptible minds became a remarkably pervasive science-fiction staple. From low grade imitations like The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962), and the slightly more impressive Fiend Without a Face (1958) to the Steve Martin vehicle The Man with Two Brains (1982), Siodmak’s influence has resonated down the decades.
The following is a chronological guide to science-fiction in the 1950s, a shopping list for those just starting out on this fantastic odyssey. Those titles highlighted in blue indicate films that I consider important, either for reasons of influence and generic development, commercial succcess, or sheer entertainment value. As with any list of this nature there may be some titles I have overlooked. If this is the case I'd like to call on the limitless knowledge of my esteemed readership to let me know, and I will be only too glad to add the titles. Also if there are films that are not highlighted that you believe deserve recognition, please feel free to leave a comment briefly explaining why, and I'll be sure to make the change.
Destination Moon (Irving Picher, USA)
Flying Saucer, The (Mikel Conrad, USA)
Prehistoric Women (Gregg G. Tallas, USA)
Rocketship X-M (Kurt Neumann, USA)
Day the Earth Stood Still, The (Robert Wise, USA) Five (Arch Oboler, USA) Flight to Mars (Lesley Selander, USA) Lost Continent (Sam Newfield, USA) Lost Planet Airmen (Fred C. Brannon, USA) Man from Planet X, The (Edgar G. Ulmer, USA) Thing from Another World, The (Christian Nyby, USA) Two Lost Worlds (Norman Dawn, USA) Unknown World (Terry O. Morse, USA) When Worlds Collide (Rudolph Maté, USA)
Captive Women (Stuart Gilmore, USA) Red Planet Mars (Harry Horner, USA) Untamed Women (W. Merle Connell, USA)
A myriad of influences and pressures, both external and internal to the American film industry, coalesced in the early 1950’s to create a habitat in which the science-fiction film could thrive. The 1950’s became a golden age for the genre on the cinema screens and the moment at which science-fiction established itself as a major commercial draw. During World War Two and in its aftermath American cinema had expressed cultural fears and anxieties through the paranoid lens of film noir. The horror film by the mid 1940’s (with the exception of the Val Lewton productions for RKO) had degenerated into parody and self mockery. But whilst film noir could explore fears on the ground within the embryonic clutches of suburbia, there was no outlet for American cinema to explore questions of science and technology. The science-fiction film provided this, and it also gave filmmakers an opportunity to take the tropes of the horror genre and reconstitute them within a technological framework.