Just ran across this piece I wrote in 1995. A bit of distraction from the apocalypse!
When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door into a new world. What we will eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict. — Edmund Gwenn as Dr. Medford in “Them!”
The Kid Show
We were wandering the moors with dense fog hanging in the air thank god for dry ice, and we saw a dark metal ship embedded in the weasel grasses, remember it was dark and terrifying, why would anybody wander around in the fog? but we were looking for the alien, the blankfaced hairless alien, his fishbowl head, probably as shitfaced scared of us as we were of him…he was the Man from Planet X, and I was so scared I almost wouldn’t go see him. Saturday morning, though, and everybody else was going, and my brother had been on my case all weak bugging me to go, don’t be a chicken, you’ll really like it. I drank the obnoxious milk, more palatable with Hershey’s chocolate syrup to sweeten it, so that I’d drained my Gandy’s half-gallon milk carton, which was admission to the kid show, and I wandered into the dark mystery of the Ritz Theatre with a dozen raucous kids. Though I was scared my bro reminded me that I could hide my eyes if it got to weird, which of course it didn’t. Robert Clarke on the moors, later he’d be the Hideous Sun Demon, and by then I was immune, having been inoculated one Saturday morning with the special virus that would open my head to the Famous Monsters of Filmland. And though later I became initimate with Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, the old pharts of the monster trade, the very best monsters I knew were spawned in Hollywood of the fifties, a strange era — we were just beginning to know the terrors of science and cold war and postmodern fragmentation, and we somehow found community in those grimy theatres where we escaped the horrors of the world outside to embrace the monsters from the id.
This was my strange childhood. After “The Man from Planet X,” I was batshit crazy over science fiction, horror, fantasy, any tale with a weird setting or a monster on the loose. And just in time, Famous Monsters of Filmland appeared, edited by Forrest J. (Forry) Ackerman: the perfect zine for whacked-out kids who wanted to stew in the fantastic juices of sf/horror fandom. Efjay the Ackermonster an incurable punster and the world’s greatest SF fan, downloaded the parameters for contemporary imaginos to thousands of young middle-class minds. He taught the art of the creepy pun and laid the groundwork for trash sensibility. His head was always on summer vacation, and he appreciated our company on the trip.
We waited forever for each issue of Famous Monsters, a quarterly publication (three months is an eternity in kid time). We also skimmed the movie listings, watching for films that Forry forecast, fast becoming connoisseurs of plastic fantastic art. We sucked subversive meme from Mad and a zillion comix…but Famous Monsters was at the top of the list. Ackerman’s imagination and enthusiasm, combined with his fannish innocence, defeated the malaise of our mundane smalltown existence.
The Demon Gate
If you figure the fifties as the pivotal era for postmodern transition from religion to science as mythic fundament, “science” fiction monster films of that decade can be seen as a passing of the key to the demon gate from one kind of priesthood to another, from the church to the scientific establishment.
Consider “Forbidden Planet’s neofreudian “monsters from the id” device. The supreme rationalist, Morbius, like the super-rational Krell before him, forgot that beneath surface civility lurks creatures borne of original sin, manifestations of rational man’s primitive nature, red-eyed dawgs ready to bite the jugular of the unsuspecting highly evolved technonerd. Dig it, this is your heritage, son….
So civilization’s still struggling with demons throughout the fifties, but they’re demons that we think we can explain, they represent fears that we articulate through our priesthood, the scientific establishment, which has rational answers for nagging questions like the Problem of Evil and the Ultimate Meaning of Life.
You May Be A Lover But You Ain’t No Dancer
Ha! Look where we are now! We’re cyberpunks, we have massive number crunchers spewing more info than we can ever hope to handle, and we’ve learned that WE DON’T HAVE THE FUCKING ANSWERS! The universe is beyond us, we can’t even unlock the secrets of our hearts, and MAYBE WE DON’T CARE! Well, gee, this may have been the message we were getting all along, the subtext of these flix: I’m looking at my top ten list (okay, okay, we’ll get to it in a minute), and I’m realizing that nobody ever really had the answers. In “The Thing from Another World,” for instance, there was a whole passel o’ scientists, and (more like real life) they couldn’t agree about shit! It was the (surprisingly laid back) military guys, none of ’em especially bright, who saved the day. Some amazingly clueless scientists, led by Dr. Carrington, wanted to TALK to the monster, to LEARN from him (while he was zapping their blood to grow miniature Things). What was that about? The triumph of good common sense over scienterrific method? Scientists are depicted as technically proficient but philosophically clueless throughout these films.
But I digress. Here’s the list, in no particular order, of the top ten creature features circa 195*. Most of these are probably available on video, and you can take ’em several ways. You can deconstruct ’em, as I’ve been doing here (when will I stop!?), or you can laugh at the stuffy clothes & boxy cars and wonder if scientists REALLY wore ties to th’ lab back then….or you can pretend they’re true, and that every horror story has a happy ending….comforting, especially if you live somewhere like Houston or L.A, or if you’ve been hearing bits and pieces about the wonderful work at Los Alamos….
1) The Thing from Another World
Released in 1951, the very beginning of the postwar era: optimism was high that we could lick any beast alive, ’cause we’d wiped the Axis. This film was nominally directed by Christian Nyby, but heavily influenced by producer Howard Hawks. Its message: if you encounter the apocalypse with professionalism and the right sense o’ humor, you just might survive!
Based on “Who Goes There?,” a classic “golden age” sf story by Don A. Stuart (nom de plume for influential sf editor John W. Campbell), which was much scarier than the film. The 80s version of “The Thing” directed by John Carpenter, with Kurt Russell, is much closer to the original, but the ’51 film is a fast-paced action adventure, and you can’t help but dig the extremely likeable characters, especially Ken Tobey (who later showed up on television’s popular syndicated series, “Whirlybirds”). As Captain Hendry, he is none too bright but knows how to delegate. James Arness, Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke,” portrays the monster, an ambulatory vegetable with a very bad attitude.
2) This Island Earth
One of a series of sf films made by Universal in the fifties. All had decent budgets, but “This Island Earth” was downright expensive, and, so the blurb goes, 2 1/2 years in the making! Rex Reason stars as a scientist who’s approached by Jeff Morrow as Exeter, agent for a mysterious zaibatsu that proves to be a front for the planet Metaluna, which is engaged in war with the planet Zahgon. They’re recruiting scientists from earth because their own best minds have been offed by the enemy. (You won’t believe this, but one and only one of the scientists recruited is a regular pinup girl!) Great scenes in transit to and from Metaluna, especially the return trip with a runaway mutant on board. Trivia: you’ll recognize the Monitor of Metaluna as Douglas Spencer, the actor who played Scott the intrepid reporter in “The Thing.”
Another big-budget SF flick, this one from Warner Brothers. Nuclear tests fuck with ant chromosomes in the New Mexico desert, evolving a mutant species of bugs each of which is the size of a long black Cadillac! Truly spooky opening: a little girl is wandering alone in the desert clutching her stuffed toy, staring into space. Her family’s disappeared, their trailer home torn open from the outside. Doctors discover that she’s frozen with shock, but she freaks out when she smells eau de pismire, formic acid. “Them!” she screams.
Once we’ve learned the nature of the beasts, we see a partnership form, including one of the New Mexico highway patrolmen who found the wandering child (James Whitmore), an FBI agent (James Arness, Mr. Dillon again), and a crotchety old scientist. Dr. Medford (Edmund Gwenn, Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street”). You won’t believe this, but the old guy brings his daughter, also a scientist, along, and she’s a, er, regular pinup girl. A pattern seems to be forming here.
Our heroes blast the ant bed, once they’ve found it, but they’re too late, a couple of queens have escaped. They hafta track ’em down, which leads to an eerie battle in drainage tunnels beneath L.A. (In today’s reality, street gangs woulda carved the que en before she thought to lay her first egg…time to shoot the remake?)
4) Forbidden Planet
Futuristic retelling of Shakespeare’s Tempest, with Freudian overtones. Robby the Robot is a tin-can Ariel, and the Monster from the Id, a bit like the Tasmanian Devil, is Caliban. Esteemed, sometimes over-the-top actor Walter Pidgeon plays Morbius, survivor of the Bellerophon expedition to Altair 4…its members, excepting Morbius and his significant other, were torn limb from limb. Kinda makes you wonder, right? Morbius lives with his daughter Alta (Anne Francis — remember the reference in “Rocky Horror”?), who reeks of pent-up (Penthouse?) eroticism. She’s never seen a man other than her father, hmmmmm.
Leslie Nielsen, beginning his career as a serious actor, never dreaming that he’d be doing self-parody one day, shows up with his crew to do follow-up on the Bellerophon mission’s colonization effort. Next thing y’know, he’s got a nightmare in his backyard. The source? Morbius, eaten up with the Oedipal thing. On the surface, the Morb reasonably assumes that Alta will want to go to earth someday, meet a guy, do the usual (wild) thing…but beneath the surface, he hates the idea, he’s seething. Turns out he’s hacked the technology that destroyed the Krell race, Altair 4’s original inhabitants. They had learned to manifest thought as matter, and damn if they didn’t have a few wicked primitive thoughts buried in their triangular heads, sufficient to wipe out the entire race. So you can just imagine what Morbius is into with the Krell brain-booster….
Meanwhile Cookie (Earl Holliman) is getting stinking drunk on 180 proof space whiskey Robby has somehow produced, a real miracle of technology!
Full color, Cinemascope, stereo sound, art by Chesley Bonestell…a classy production, great fun especially if you can view a restored print in a decent theatre!
More giant bugs, this time of the arachnid variety… caused not by radiation, but by a ribofunk hack. Absent-minded scientist Leo G. Carroll wants only to feed the world (reminiscent of H. G. Wells’ “Food of the Gods”), but the experiment backfires when his assistant, crazy and deformed from drug-induced acromegaly (a pituitary malfunction associated with overproduction of growth hormone) wrecks the lab, freeing the experimental tarantula, which is about the size of a go kart, but growing FAST. John Agar, a genre veteran (sf films and westerns, both) is the puzzled hero…what coulda stripped all the meat off a herd o’ horses? Heh.
Agar’s working with Mara Corday, who, er, looks like a pinup girl…gee, there seems to be one of these in every film! She’s a scientist, of course…we learn from these films that incredibly foxy ladies can find careers in science, an early concession to women’s lib. Or could it be a cynical chauvinistic attempt to sell sex as part of the package? Naw.
Best scene: Agar and Corday are standing near a desert hill, trying to figure out what’s happening, when there’s a rock slide…what we can see and they can’t is that the rock side is caused by the tarantula crawling along, absolutely filling the other side of the hill. Creepy!
6) Creature from the Black Lagoon
Actually a trilogy, with sequels “Revenge of the Creature” and “The Creature Walks Among Us.” Pretty convincing creature suit worn (imagine the discomfort) by underwater stunt man Ricou Browning. The original “Creature” starred Richard Carlson and Richard Denning as a scientist and his financial backer, who happen to be natural competitors, with Carlson holding the high moral ground…and the girl, Julie Adams, who’s best seen swimming through the (unpolluted?) lagoon with the creature, a kind of prehistoric missing link, an amphibious man, swimming parallel below her. Filmed in 3D, and featuring Whit Bissell, who later did a turn as the mad scientist in American-International’s cheapo “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” (“Speak! I know you’ve got a tongue, I sewed it in there myself!”).
7) 20 Million Miles from Earth
A spaceship returning from a mission to Venus crashes near Sicily, and a canister containing a weird jelly egg washes ashore, found by a precocious, somewhat hyper Sicilian boy who doesn’t quite know what he’s getting into. The sole survivor of the crash is William Hopper, son of columnist Hedda Hopper and a regular on the original Perry Mason series. He’s one irritable son of a bitch, and he’s determined to find that egg. Too late: it’s been sold by the kid to an old professor who travels the area with his daughter (a pinup, sigh). It hatches an ymir about a foot tall. What’s an ymir? It’s a creature from Venus, animated by stop-motion special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen…and it grows and grows and grows. Harryhausen, onetime assistant to King Kong animator Willis O’Brien, creates amazing scenes, including a battle between the ymir and a huge elephant in the streets of Rome. I saw this film a dozen times when it came out, munching out on about fifty boxes of Milk Duds, a seminal and quite tasty experience for this boy….
8) Invaders from Mars
Every kid’s nightmare: your parents are no longer your parents, their souls have been zapped by demons or, in this case, martian invaders who’ve descended to earth during a rainstorm and burrowed into the ground at a quarry behind your house! A nightmare it is, and though the story’s fairly corny, it works thanks to the eerie techicolor William Cameron Menzies design and the strange vocal chorus that throbs whenever the martians are onscreen. The martians are bug-eyed frog-looking creatures carrying their honcho’s turbaned head in a fishbowl. They gain control of decent citizens by planting strange devices at the bases of their brains. They almost succeed, but little Jimmy Hunt notices what’s going on and finds a sympathetic scientist (Arthur Franz).
A few years ago Tobe Hooper remade this film with Karen Black in the Arthur Franz role (??). A pretty good remake, though not quite faithful to the dreamy quality of the original.
9) War of the Worlds
Not exactly H.G. Wells. Produced by fantasy filmmaker George Pal, this is a contemporary retelling of Wells’ story, set in California. Gene Barry is scientist Clayton Forrestor, who happens to be fishing nearby when the first meteor/ship strikes near a small town. He flies his private plane to the scene, where he meets the local preacher and his daughter (not quite a pinup, working on her PhD, a real science groupie!). The aliens make their first strike while the townspeople, with Barry as their guest, are having a square dance. Is this dated or what?
The spaceship and heat-ray effects in this film set a standard often copped by the Japanese for the sf epics (e.g. “The Mysterians”). You only get one brief glimpse of a tripodal martian, but their ships are what’s happening, anyway.
10) Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Pretty faithful to Jack Finney’s book, though even more sinister. A local doctor (Kevin McCarthy) finds that several of his patients report the eerie feeling that their friends and loved ones are not who they say they are. At first he thinks it’s mass hysteria, but then his best friend (King Donovan) finds a body that is like his own, but not quite fully-formed. Too weird — this scene gave us the willies! Turns out that seed pods from outer space have drifted to earth, and they grow a perfect likeness of a body, which they replace (though it wasn’t quite clear what happened to the original). Extremely paranoid, this film was the perfect metaphor for alienation in suburban America. Once replaced by a pod, a person behaves more and more like a Newt Gingrich…argh! And by the way, director Don Siegel went on to make “Dirty Harry” with Clint Eastwood (who was, we might add, one of the pilots who bombed “Tarantula”).
This “Top Ten” just scratches the surface, I could go for Honorable Mentions. Producer William Castle is noteworthy for the gimmicks he employed, gimmicks that delighted his natural audience of twelve-year-olds. In fact, Joe Dante’s recent film “Matinee” pays homage to William Castle with John Goodman’s portrayal of a producer who employs a whole spate of technical tricks to jazz theatre patrons. Castle’s best trick, in my opinion, was the buzzer installed beneath some of the theatre seats for “The Tingler.” The fantasy was that some persons had a tingler, a spine-crushing parasite activated by fear…so at scarier moments in the film, in which Vincent Price tries to wipe his spouse by activating her tingler, the buzzers planted throughout the theatre would fire. You’d be watching the film, and suddenly folks all around you would shriek and jump from their seats. Once we discovered the buzzers, which were mundane boxes wired under the seats, we would take turns tingling. For another film, “House on Haunted Hill,” again starring Vincent Price, a dangling skeleton would emerge from a shroud near the screen and glide over the audience.
There were also a whole mess of American-International cheapos, many directed by Roger Corman, which are impossible to find on the tube these days (perhaps they’ll turn up on Mystery Science Theatre 3000). A couple of my favorites: “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” in which giant radioactive crabs bit the heads offa cast members and absorbed their intelligence, which practically speaking meant that they could send telepathic messages that mimicked the voices of their victims. “Invasion of the Saucer Men,” another favorite, had smalltown backroad teenagers chasing space creatures that were about four feet tall, with heads like cabbages. The aliens protruded little needles from their fingertips through which they could inject alcohol…if they didn’t kill you, they’d leave you too drunk to care.
A good historian could do a better job linking these films to the postwar postmodern radioactive fifties mentality, but I’m against interpretation at the moment, preferring to revisit my innocence in the willing suspension of disbelief. Just think of these films as icons of an era, and these weird creatures as totems for the atomic age.
A much shorter version of this piece appeared in bOING-bOING Number 11.