[Horror History] Creature Features (The 1950’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 5 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. Be sure to read Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 as well.

If cinema of the late 1940’s, was typified by the high contrast black-and-white of film noir, with shadows like pools of ink and protagonists slipping into insanity, the dominant tone of the early 1950’s was semi-documentary gray, with heroes so relentlessly everyday and average that contemporary audiences tend to take them for seed-pods from outer space (and as most films would later reveal, some of them were).

As in the case of the devilish handsome Metaluna Monster from This Island Earth. Total hunk.

The 1950’s presented an image of back-to-business normality. Finned cars stocked suburban garages. New labor-saving devices were being fitted to every gleaming home. And yet, this was also the decade of the Cold War’s birth, Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, rampant fear of nuclear warfare, “juvenile delinquency,” and rock’n’roll. When the decade began, horror was most certainly out of fashion, and it’s not hard to imagine why. The Nazis and the Soviets had altered the public perception of what a true monster really was. Gone were the days when Lon Chaney, Jr. could don a bit of yak’s hair and pass as a reputable envoy of the dark side. No, now there were human faces attached to evil. Faces who had fought on both sides in a disastrous and brutal global conflict. Faces who had developed things like the atom bomb and the death camp, mad scientists whose atrocities against humankind would have unnerved even Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau. A lone count from Transylvania did not pose much of a threat now.

Military action alone left 40 million dead at the conclusion of World War II, and millions more exposed to the full, sickening spectrum of man’s inhumanity towards man. Homecoming heroes and bereaved widows had too many horror stories of their own to desire or appreciate big screen fantasies. The world would not and could not ever be the same again. And with the dawning of postwar posterity in the United States, a new breed of monsters, dressed to suit the new era and adapted specifically for survival in the second half of the twentieth century, emerged.

You can gauge how influential The Thing From Another World (1951) was based on subsequent science-fiction monster movies by looking at Edgar C. Ulmer’s The Man From Planet X (1951), produced as a “spoiler” for the higher profile film and rushed to beat it into the cinemas. This means that, uniquely, Ulmer’s movie is a 50’s alien invasion film not made in imitation of Christian Nyby’s soon-to-be-classic The Thing From Another World. Without any pre-existing model for a tale of a helmeted dwarf from outer space, Ulmer’s film opts to look like an old Universal classic. The setting is an isolated, fogbound island inhabited by an odd-looking scientist, played by William Schallert, who makes first contact with an imp-like alien. When things get out of hand, obviously, the villagers pick up their various agricultural implements and flaming torches and harry the monster in exactly the same way earlier and more convincing mobs pursued the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. Ulmer, who also directed The Black Cat (1943), was a diehard Poverty Row Expressionist. His films from the 50’s look like something from decades prior.

He may have been from Planet X, but he was hoping that Earth was Planet XXX

The Thing From Another World knows it’s in the line of noble descent from Universal’s classic monsters. It’s alien-vegetable biped resembles a balding Frankenstein Monster in some sort of strange boiler suit and has the Dracula-like habit of drinking human blood for sustenance. The film also invented a number of soon-to-be-clichés, much as its Universal predecessors did. In place of an angry mob, we have a coalition of quick-thinking, good-humored, professional men and one token, spunky woman by the name of Nikki (Margaret Sheridan). Together, they show only sensible fear and treat the monster as a problem to be solved. As in The Man From Planet X, a weirdo scientist with a beard (Robert Carrington) wants to communicate with the implacable enemy from the stars rather than exterminate it–but even he isn’t a madman in the purist sense, just a “fellow traveler.” For five years after The Thing From Another World, almost every alien, dinosaur, or radioactive mutant on the rampage would be dealt with by the kind of straight-arrowed characters found in that darkened Arctic basement. Kenneth Tobey, the lead, would go on to join the oh-so-exclusive ranks of 1950’s monster fighters with John Agar and Richard Carlson. All this, and the matter-of-fact semi-documentary tone of the film, would be copied, often less aptly, by many, many B movie quickies.

Space ships alone were not enough to carry the 1950’s sci-fi/horror hybrid. Almost every major motion picture at the time included a monster that threatened the peace and stability of earth, whether it was the tall, enormously powerful robot Gort from the intelligent and elegant The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or giant squid from the adventurous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Most of the monsters were otherworldly terrors, like the bug-eyed, exposed-brain Metaluna Monster from space opera This Island Earth (1955) or the roaring, invisible Monster From the Id from the philosophical Forbidden Planet (1956), but even films like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) remembered to have its miniature hero menaced by a gigantic cat and a ferocious spider.

In terms of monster creation, one can look at the era as a time of great innovation and creativity, or a period constrained by the shift in studio support, a time when the horror film was relegated well and truly to the B-movie category. This was in large part due to the fact that the major studios were attempting widespread technological overhauls like universal color production, Cinemascope, Stereoptic sound, and 3-D to keep audiences going to the movies rather than sitting at home and watching TV, a habit that was now on the rise. Big stars became reserved for epic dramas and musicals, films sure to draw big, sophisticated, middle-class crowds. As such, the main audience for horror films became teenagers. They flocked to the drive-in, not caring all that much for production value, plot integrity, or character development. They just wanted to see two movies for the price of one in “double creature features.” And they always got their wish.

“Gee golly this movie is scary! Let’s make out to keep safe”

Radiation played a part in almost every major sci-fi/horror film of the decade, either enlarging lifeforms as in Them! (1954), Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), or Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), or shrinking them as in The Fly (1958) and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Existing life forms made better monsters, as they could be photographed using bluescreen techniques, or recreated in model form and brought to life with stop-motion animation. Otherwise, the tried and true method of a man in a suit–which was still used by James Cameron for Aliens (1986)–worked well enough if seen from a distance. Though schlocky by today’s standards, these onscreen monsters were viewed as the cutting edge of movie technology at the time and their novelty was seen as a viable strategy from drawing audiences away from their TV sets. Newcomer and star practitioner Ray Harryhausen was the superior animator of the time. For The Beast From 40,000 Fathoms (1953), he crafted a radioactive dinosaur that gets thawed out by a bomb test in the North Pole. Gojira (1954), the Japanese semi-remake of the film, founded an entire genre of daikaiju (giant monsters) that lasted decades before falling out of favor and recently being resurrected thanks to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) and Legendary’s MonsterVerse series of films.

Lone troublemakers like the Thing, the Beast, and Godzilla were also quite common in the 50’s, as in Phantom From Space (1953) and Devil Girl From Mars (1955). This was primarily due to budgetary constraints, though every once in awhile mass invasions would occur, as when H.G. Wells’ Martians arrive in sleek, aerodynamic murder machines to terrorize Earth in War of the Worlds (1953) or when giant ants descended from the first ants irradiated by the initial atomic bomb wreck havoc in Them! But soon enough, in the spirit of Jekyll and Hyde, human mutations were resulting from atomic-era mad science, as in The Neanderthal Man (1953), The Fly, Monster on the Campus (1958), and The Hideous Sun Demon (1959). This helped mask-makers and stuntmen get back into the business, including Lon Chaney, Jr., who goes on a rampage in The Indestructible Man (1956).

Universal, now Universal-International, once again found themselves at the forefront of the horror genre. With producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold teamed together the studio made an alien-visitor spectacle, It Came From Outer Space (1953) and a giant bug movie, Tarantula (1955), that enjoyed respectable success. Alland also produced Jack Sherwood’s The Monolith Monsters (1957), one of several disaster movies that inflate natural phenomena into threats worthy of the “monster” tag. The Alland-Arnold team’s most significant collaboration, however, was The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), which features a fish-human hybrid described as a “living fossil.” The Gill Man became the final addition to Universal’s pantheon of copyrighted and franchised monsters. The Creature returned in two sequels (because how could it not?), Arnold’s Revenge of the Creature (1955) and Sherwood’s The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), and its gill-filled visage can be found on merchandise to this day. Arnold’s best films depict a tension between the clipped, grey flannel, matter-of-fact style of science fiction and the poetic, lurid, sexualized, perverse feel of a classic monster movie. This is epitomized best in the masterful sequence in which the sinuous Creature swims just underneath the alluring heroine (Julia Adams) as she does the backstroke on the surface of the Black Lagoon, whose depths represent the unconscious mind as much as they do prehistory.

The shape of this water is…sexy!

Then, a noticeable shift hit horror films in the middle of the decade. This occurred right around the time genre films were almost exclusively being churned out by smaller, grindhouse studios like American International Pictures (whom, fun fact, Stephen King credits the survival of horror as a genre to), and targeting a completely teenage audience. To kids, heroes in uniforms like Kenneth Tobey seemed square. As such, you start to see films like Invasion of the Saucer Men (1958) and The Blob (1958) in which grown-ups are useless and only misunderstood teens know how to combat the menace of bug-eyed monsters and all-consuming red jelly, respectively. While the rare Universal effort like The Deadly Mantis (1957) concerned itself with some sort of plausibility, AIP took the opposite path, unleashing the imagination of young producer-director Roger Corman onto the big screen with unabashedly lurid, unashamedly entertaining and surprisingly quick-witted projects like It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), and Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). And while Corman’s early films often had trouble living up to the promise of their posters, they were far better paced and more engaging than almost all of their contemporaries int he latter half of the 1950’s.

The shift from military men and scientific experts to the home front in the second half of the decade helped pave the way for Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), one of the most influential films in the history of horror cinema. Both Invaders From Mars (1953) and It Came From Outer Space had played with the nightmare potential of parents and authority figures mind-controlled by Martians or replaced by malign xenomorphs, but it took Body Snatchers to lift this concept to the status of sub-genre. Set in a small town where people come down with an epidemic of unusual delusion–that their friends and relations have somehow “changed”–the film has been read as both a vision of Senator McCarthy’s ravings of Communist infiltration into the heartland and an allegory of the way witch-hunting Red-baiters turned America against itself. Both are valid readings, and there are deep psychological waves emanating from the film. The Body Snatchers, grown from seed, owe a little to old stories of doppelgängers and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” and the film adaptations The Student of Prague (1913, 1926, 1935). There are also undertones to the Snatchers that code as vampirism or demonic possession. Regardless, the film set a modern myth, which has proved indispensable to the horror genre ever since. The depiction of a small American town, ripe for a real estate ad, harboring nasty secrets, that is simultaneously penetrated from without and eaten alive from within by the monstrous is a trope that has surfaced time and again in horror from Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine to Twin Peaks, Washington to Midnight Mass’s (2021) Crockett Island.

Certain viewpoints hold that traditional gothic horror was dead after House of Dracula (1945), and that it was not resurrected until The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), having been obliterated by Abbott and Costello and the creature feature. And yet, there is a tentative return to the gothic as early as 1951 with Son of Dr. Jekyll. Universal also signed Boris Karloff back on their payroll for minion roles in The Strange Door (1951) and The Black Castle (1951), which was a rerun of The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Andre de Toth’s House of Wax (1953), a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), also played with the gothic by pushing the contemporary setting of the original back to the 1890’s. The film set a new style using full color, stereoptic sound, and eye-popping 3D. But its can-can girls and starchy colors were all just window dressing for star Vincent Price, who had flirted with horror as early as The Invisible Man Returns (1940). Price soon found himself elevated to full genre stardom after his role as the mad sculptor. In House of Wax, he comes off charming and benign in his wheelchair, handing out flowers to a terrified patron, a slightly more deliberate self-mocking comedy than Karloff or Lugosi would have liked.

You’re looking a little stiff there, my dear

There were other 3D horrors, of course. Price returned as The Mad Magician (1954), another old war horse was trotted out for Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954), and William Cameron Menzies’s The Maze (1953) is considered remarkable even by modern standards. But the craze came and went quickly. Much like when the genre leaned towards specifically supernatural horror after the nine-days wonder that was the Bridey Murphy case, in which a hypnotist claimed he could regress an American housewife to her previous life as an Irish servant girl. The story was directly adapted as The Search for Bridey Murphy (1956), but also inspired pulpier efforts like The She-Creature (1957), Corman’s The Undead (1956), and The Bride and the Beast (1958).

Universal started to add some old-style monsters to their roster, as well. The snake-woman picture Cult of the Cobra (1955) reminded audiences that a creature didn’t have to be atomic to be worth making a movie about. Faith Domergue’s avenging Cobra Woman pioneered a minor trend of pin-up mutants, followed by Maria English as the modern incarnation of the She-Creature and middle-aged matrons desperate for a return to youth (and damn all the side effects) in The Leech Woman (1958) and The Wasp Woman (1959). But relics of earlier decades still needed work, as Edward D. Wood found when he signed Bela Lugosi for his own odd science-fiction/horror/melodrama/autobiography films. Their partnership would result in what is considered the worst movie ever made, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), though Lugosi died at the start of production and his presence in the film suggested by a Dracula-look-alike. The last grasp at the gothic style, which was about to get a shot in the arm from England, were a series of quickies showcasing old stars (Lugosi, Chaney Jr., Carradine, Karloff) and using the old throughlines (19th century mad science, voodoo, mummies). They were either directed by Reginald LeBorg or produced by Howard W. Koch, who helmed The Black Sleep (1956), Voodoo Island (1957), Frankenstein 1970 (1958), and Pharaoh’s Curse (1958).

Across the pond, Britain’s small-scale studio Hammer Films had made forays into horror as early as the Lugosi vehicle Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1936) and the Jack the Ripper drama Room to Let (1949). Hammer became the first British studio to essay American-style sci-fi/horror with Terence Fisher’s Spaceways (1953) and Four-Sided Triangle (1953). Their breakout hit, however, was Val Guest’s The Quartermass Xperiment (1955), adapted from a BBC TV series and featuring Richard Wordsworth dragging himself over London waste grounds as an astronaut painfully transforming into a cactus-tripe-squid creature which threatens to absorb all life on Earth, now considered a bonafide horror classic. The film was successful enough to produce both sequels (Quartermass 2, 1957) and imitations (X: The Unknown, 1958; The Abominable Snowman, 1959). Other U.K. producers got in on the act by adapting ITV serials made in competition with the BBC’s Quartermass franchise, The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and Strange World of Planet X (1958) being the most well known.

My God, he’s being pickled alive!

American producer and monster fan Milton Subotsky pitched Hammer Films the idea of remaking Frankenstein (1931) in color, preferably with Boris Karloff in the lead. Hammer paid him off then took the project in another direction. Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein, scripted by Jimmy Sangster, is constructed, probably on legal advice, to be as little like Universal’s original classic as possible. The film established its own approach to familiar material and devised a look and feel that would soon become a style all its own. At the time, most attention was paid to the colorful gore, a new ingredient of the genre. Severed limbs and brains in tanks had been seen before, but the blood spurts had not looked as red or the gray matter so pink as it did now. Curse also stressed quality in art direction, costumes, cinematography, supporting cast, and music. Perhaps most importantly, though, the film produced two new horror stars: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing carried the film with his incisive, amoral, chilly yet charming performance as Victor Frankenstein, an aristocratic bastard who lets nothing get in his way. Lee, cast as the Monster mainly because other actors demanded more money, brought a remarkably wounded animal presence to the character. Both men would come to be indispensable in the future of horror cinema.

With Frankenstein’s Monster practically coining money, it was inevitably the Count would return as well. Horror of Dracula (1958) saw all of the creatives come back, with Cushing again in the lead as a businesslike Van Helsing and Lee with eight minutes of screen time and no dialogue after his first scene as the black-cloaked, hissing king of the vampires. Lee used his performance to redefine Dracula as a far more dynamic, sexual being than the stolid Lugosi. Lust was almost as important with Hammer as gore, and so there were plenty of plunging necklines and women awaiting the Count with open negligees to be found. Bosomy continental starlets and ex-models recur in British horror, the competition of the tight-sweatered rock’n’rollers and white-swimsuited lady scientists of the American creature feature. After the Monster and Dracula soared on their comebacks, Hammer went on a remake craze that soon felt like jet lag: Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), The Mummy (1959), The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), The Curse of the Werewolf (1960), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), and Kiss of the Vampire (1964), a film peddled as an original but that is actually a rewrite of The Black Cat (1934) with vampires instead of Satanists.

Hammer’s gothic revival was quickly imitated by filmmakers who hadn’t taken the time to study the style and so resorted to earlier models or their own creativity. Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster dashed off Blood of the Vampire (1958) and Jack the Ripper (1959) for producers Monty Baker and Robert Berman, but these blood-bolstered, theatrical melodramas rang more of Tod Slaughter than Peter Cushing. When Baker and Berman signed Cushing for John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends (1958), Gilling remade a script he had written for a Slaughter movie, The Greed of William Hart (1948). Producer Richard Gordon, who had come to Britain to make mock-American sci-fi films like Fiend Without a Face (1958) and the Quartermass knock-off The First Man in Space (1959), also looked to the Slaughter style. Gordon signed Boris Karloff for a few Victorian horror melodramas, namely Grip of the Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1958). He also found room for rising star Lee to play a body snatcher in the latter film. Meanwhile, Jacques Tourneur was in the U.K. after his post-Val Lewton career had fizzled and ended up directing Night of the Demon (1957), a busy yet massively influential film for the genre.

Time to send Gandalf to stake this fool

Over at AIP, producer Herman Cohen saw potential for combining the teen-focused atomic age horrors with the classic monster revival and managed two respectable efforts, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1958). Cohen then hopped over to Anglo-Amalgamated in Britain. They were a new outfit wanting to get in on the horror genre, so Cohen hired Michael Gough, a dreary hero from Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, and cast him in Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). Gough’s character, a limping, impotent misogynist who is meant to be read as slightly gay and sadistic, is a megalomaniac crime writer who happens to have Dr. Jekyll’s old potion lying around his house for whatever reason. Black Museum was one of the first true extreme horrors. The opening scene features a girl receiving a pair of trick binoculars that sprout eye-gouging spikes when the focus is adjusted. Cohen and Gough would continue their depredations in Konga (1961) and Black Zoo (1963) while Anglo developed more mutilation with Anton Diffring wielding a scalpel in Circus of Horrors (1960). They also backed Michael Powell’s jolting and still unnerving essay in psychosis, Peeping Tom (1960).

Stateside, the teenage-monster boom continued in full force. Edgar C. Ulmer made Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), Richard Culna contributed Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958), Herman Cohen bowed to the inevitable and did a teenage vampire in Blood of Dracula (1958) and the low-rent Jerry Warren cobbled together Teenage Zombies (1960). Universal noticed that their properties were back in business and cashed in with the low-key, contemporary-set Return of Dracula (1958), starring Francis Lederer as a vampire with a cloak-like coat thrown over his shoulders. Essentially a remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Return of Dracula was the first film to bring Transylvania to small town America, but certainly not the last. Universal even tried a vampire Western, Curse of the Undead (1958), but the trend didn’t catch on. Much more distinctive were the films of producer-director William Castle, famed for cementing Vincent Price’s status as a genre star and capturing the cynical, blackly comic tone of EC horror comics in House on Haunted Hill (1958) and The Tingler (1959). Castle would stick with the genre but arguably never trumped the centipede creature from The Tingler, one of the strangest beasts in the genre.

The return of Dracula & co. was noted both in Hollywood and abroad. After the 1920’s, “foreign” horror had been a matter of occasional one-offs like Dane Carl Dryer’s artsy Vampyr (1932) or Frenchman Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diabolique (1955), a phenomenal film that helped inspire Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Now, horror was truly becoming an international field. In Mexico, Germane Robles played a Dracula lookalike in The Vampire (1957), which seemed a south-of-the-border Son of Dracula (1943) in its monochrome Universal style. Robles’s film led to far wilder Mexican efforts featuring Aztec mummies, brain-sucking alchemists, and masked, monster-fighting wrestlers like El Santo and Blue Demon. In Italy, Riccardo Freda helmed I Vampiri (1956), which features another matron who kills to enjoy renewed youth, and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959), in which an all-consuming blob crawls out of a Mayan temple. In France, Georges Franju, perhaps influenced by I Vampiri (which is set in Paris), directed Eyes Without a Face (1959), a mix of pulp and poetry featuring a mad plastic surgeon trying to give his daughter a new face. In the Philippines, Wells’s Dr. Moreau inspired Gerardo de Leon’s Terror is a Man (1959), which would trigger the “Blood Island” cycle a decade later. In Germany, mad science and cheesecake met with The Head (1959) and Horrors of Spider Island (1960), and Dr. Mabuse was on the brink of a major comeback. Much like the genre itself.

Because at the end of the 1950’s, horror was everywhere.

And you ain’t SEEN nothing yet

Next we move into the 1960’s, where the eye of horror turned from external threats to internal during a decade of rapid change and revolution

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

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