Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Fungus Films: Oh, the inhumanity!

“Dave, make ‘em listen to me!  There is a monster!
We saw it again in dad’s store—and it’s bigger now!”
Steve McQueen, The Blob (1958)

Unremarked upon outside science fiction fandom (and hardly there) is the golden age of theatrical “fungus films.”  No, wait!  The golden age of fungi on film was the only age of fungi on film.  It began in 1955 and for all intents and purposes ended almost where it began, with a 1988 remake of its iconic 1958 predecessor.  The fungi film was probably doomed because audiences generally would rather watch characters matching wits with other bipeds or darned smart aliens rather than unthinking globs of protoplasm.  Moreover, there’s something inherently revolting about death by blob.

Let’s explore this phenomenon whose heyday really concluded in 1972.  “The Golden Age of Science Fiction Films” (see Multimedia Blog, March, 2013) began in 1950 and ended in 1956.  This period coincided with Cold War paranoia, and many science fiction films of the period had a Cold War subtext often discovered in retrospect.  In The Thing from Another World (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), It Conquered the World (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), for instance, humans are either killed for blood, implanted with mind-control devices, or mysteriously transformed into soul-less pods.  The analogy is with totalitarian communism, a convenient bogeyman for politicians stoking fear among the citizenry in the West.  In these scenarios the human body remains essentially intact.  Not so with fungus films.  The entire body is consumed, almost always from the outside, often as a result of one touch to the alien entity.  It seems a stretch then to analyze these science fiction movies from a Cold War perspective.  The human mind is of no concern to the (mostly) mindless goo, liquid, slime, mold, gelatin or crusty substance thrust upon the human.

The first fungus film was in many respects the best:  The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), released in 1956 in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown.  The well-respected writer Nigel Kneale’s stories of Professor Quatermass had originally been made for British TV and were mightily popular.  The film version of what would become a trilogy did what a number of Brit films would do to increase worldwide, specifically U.S., profits:  casting one or more American “names,” in this case the venerable character actor Brian Donlevy as an irascible Quatermass.  (Dana Andrews was enlisted for Night of the Demon, Gene Evans for The Giant Behemoth and Forrest Tucker for The Abominable Snowman.)  Generally considered miscast by highbrows (tell that to impressionable youth!), Donlevy provided a certain gravitas in this and its sequel.  In the film, a British rocket crash lands on earth.  There had been three crew members, now there is only one.  What happened to the other two?  Examination of the rocket’s interior reveals a strange organic substance behind the bulkheads.  This material apparently consumed the missing crew members, and the mute survivor is undergoing his own horrible metamorphosis.

On the heels of The Quatermass Xperiment came another British film, X the Unknown (1956).  Here again, an American actor starred.  Dean Jagger even had a Supporting Actor Academy Award to his credit for Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and was then and is now remembered for playing the general for whom Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye put on the show in 1954’s White Christmas.  In X the Unknown, British soldiers come upon a gravel pit spewing radiation.  Dr. Royston (Jagger) hypothesizes that intelligent beings developed in subterranean caverns and periodically make their way to the surface.  What with humans now experimenting with radiation, these creatures have deadly interest in us.  In Keep Watching the Skies! , Bill Warren described the creature as “a tremendous sheet of radioactive living mud.”  Similarities with The Quatermass Xperiment are rife.  Jagger is another incarnation of Quatermass, the film is in black and white, and the cinematography suitable for noir or in in this instance horrible, mostly unseen monsters.

The sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment was released in 1957:  Quatermass 2, aka Enemy from Space.  This time out Quatermass (once again the brusque and demanding Donlevy) discovers an alien plot to invade earth after creating masses of “food” in gigantic vats at Wynerton Flats, a secret government facility.  As with The Quatermass Xperiment, director Val Guest filmed in semi-documentary fashion.  In fact, this film looks like it was made a decade previously.

The subterranean gunk of X the Unknown was joined by another under-earth goo in 1957’s The Unknown Terror.  This grows in a Latin American “Cave of the Dead,” where an American doctor facilitates its development.  The subtext here is actually Mala Powers’ negligee, which in time-honored horror film style she wears while naturally wandering into the nighttime jungle searching for…raggedly men covered in what critics derisively termed “soap bubbles.”

Chronologically, Japan was next up with a fungus film.  The H-Man (Bijo to Ekotai Ningen) was released there in June, 1958, in the U.S. in May, 1959.  Again, humans create and facilitate the menace.  Radioactivity turns Japanese fishermen into nebulous creatures that can devolve into a rapidly moving, deadly goo.  Don’t dare touch it!

Space Master X-7 (1958) features the intriguingly named “blood rust,” an outer space fungus unknowingly spread on earth by a woman believing the authorities are pursuing her for murdering the scientist who in reality succumbed to the alien entity.  A nationwide hunt is undertaken to find the woman, whose possessions contain fungal spores.  Here, as in The Quatermass Xperiment, a semi-documentary approach lends verisimilitude to the proceedings.

Equally dangerous is The Blob (1958), still the most famous of fungi films.  Outer space is again the source.  When a meteorite is cracked open, its gooey innards flow up a stick and onto the human inspecting this visitor from space.  In due course it consumes his body and crawling around the small town by night increases its size with every human it envelops.  Steve McQueen’s warning (“Listen!  Listen to me!  Now listen to me, everybody!  This town is in danger.  Now several people have been killed already.  Now, now we had to make this noise, we had to make it so you’d listen to us, so we could warn you.”) fell on deaf ears until in the film’s most famous scene the blob invades Phoenixville, PA’s Colonial Theater, prompting the audience to flee into the street.  The mystique of The Blob is such that the Colonial sponsors an annual Blob Fest that attracts visitors from across the country for a screening and a “run-out” mimicking that in the film.  There is a Cold War element when an old coot hearing sirens retrieves from his closet his Civil Defense helmet.  He is obviously preparing for incoming missiles from the Reds, not a terrifying and deadly mass from space.

First Man Into Space (1959) sounds like a documentary, but of course it was an attempt to make hay from the space race.  (Russia’s Sputnik satellite began orbiting earth in 1957.)  Naturally drama becomes melodrama.  This first American spacefarer is infected after his vehicle courses through a strange cloud.  Encrusted like his capsule, his oxygen-starved body requires copious amounts of blood only obtainable (in the movies) via a killing spree.  But who can forget the poor soul’s final comment, “Sorry things had to happen this way, but I just had to be the first man into space” or Dr. Van Essen’s proclamation that “The conquest of new worlds always makes demands on human life, and there will always be men who will accept the risk.”

Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959) climbs from a Mayan pool in this Italian/French co-production co-directed by budding horror maestro Mario Bava (Black Sunday).  Whereas cold foiled the Blob, flame put the kibosh on Caltiki.

Mutiny in Outer Space (1965) covered an expedition into our moon’s caves.  Back on their space station, the explorers soon learn that the deadly fungus found beneath the moon’s surface loves heat and seems intent on finding earth.  Hopefully they can freeze it first.

Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth, 1967) was the third of the Professor Quatermass feature films.   However, although there was a pit and a spaceship inside it, its alien creators were not fungi, rather ancient Martians resembling giant locusts or grasshoppers.

The Japanese got into the act again with The Green Slime (1968).  The title is misleading as the slime quickly metamorphoses into ridiculous tentacled monstrosities.  Once again American actors are front and center.  Robert Horton and Richard Jaeckel are joined by bond girl Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball).

Beware!  The Blob (aka Son of Blob, 1972) is a mix of comedy and drama that sometimes gells into an entertaining film, e.g., the dude raising a crucifix to ward off the oncoming mass, the sheriff looking down at the gunk crawling up his boot and asking, “What?”

The Incredible Melting Man (1977) features the title character returned from Saturn with an infection that melts skin and naturally sends him on a flesh-eating spree.

The Stuff (1985) is a seriocomic satire of rampant consumerism in which people eat a substance that returns the favor by ingesting them from the inside out.

The Blob (1988) is a serviceable but now largely forgotten remake of the iconic 1958 film and in essence brought the fungus film subgenre full circle.

Note:  The Slime People (1963) are not slimy, rather crusty and intelligent spear-carrying bipeds that emerge from beneath Los Angeles and encase the city in an impenetrable fog.  The Creeping Terror (1964) is a distinctly low-budget effort with a troubled production that saw it released as a TV movie.



Hardy, Phil.  The Overlook Film Encyclopedia:  Science Fiction Film.  Overlook Press, 1995, c1984.

Holston, Kim, and Winchester, Tom.  Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Sequels, Series and RemakesVolume I:  1931-1995.  McFarland & Co., 1997.

Warren, Bill.  Keep Watching the Skies!  American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties.  Volume I:  1950-1957.  Volume II:  1958-1962.  McFarland & Co., 1982, 1986.

By Kim

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Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: The Only Science Fiction Comedy-Drama?

Recently watching this 2003 film for the first time, I made an odd comparison, not with T3’s Thousand Clownstwo predecessors but with the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns. What could these two seemingly disparate movies have in common? One is of the Science Fiction genre, the other of the Comedy genre. But not quite. Both share membership in a small but venerable cinematic subgenre: Comedy-Drama.

Besides A Thousand Clowns, typical examples of successful Comedy-Drama are Soldier in the Rain (1963), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), Dear Heart (1964), The Americanization of Emily (1964), The World of Henry Orient (1964), A Fine Madness (1966), The Graduate (1967), and Popi (1969). The 1960s seem in retrospect a Comedy-Drama heyday, its end perhaps forecast by 1970’s The Landlord, which concluded with a potentially grim future for its protagonist. A number of more recent films should be designated Comedy-Drama, but studios seem shy of labeling Drama films that possess even a modicum of humor.   Dramas aren’t perceived as having as much sales potential. BrazilThus The Family Stone and Bridesmaids are advertised as pure, rollicking comedies.

Comedy-Drama is hard to balance but Terminator 3 executes this task, juxtaposing the humorous episodes and lines with the jitters felt by the human characters facing an impending apocalypse. T3 may be the only sci-fi movie to claim membership in this subgenre. It is not strictly black (Dr. Strangelove), satirical (Brazil) or camp (Barbarella).

The first two Terminator films are famous for pithy one-liners uttered with stone-faced aplomb by Arnold Schwarzenegger (“I’ll be back,” “Hasta la vista, baby.”) and with fervor by Linda Hamilton (best not Terminator3repeated here).   T3 features variations on these: Schwarzenegger’s “She’ll be back” referring to his female nemesis thrown down an elevator shaft and “Talk to the hand” when a convenience store clerk asks payment for the snacks this mysterious man in black has been stuffing into his basket, and Claire Danes channeling Hamilton with a less nasty “You are terminated!” The film also has several laugh-out loud sequences. These include the T-101 rejecting a male stripper’s macho man shades and later acquiring his iconic black ones off a store rack, emerging from a mausoleum holding aloft a coffin in his left arm while blowing apart police cars with his super machine gun with his right, driving a hearse underneath a truck and slicing off its roof, and in a restroom fracas with the T-X (Kristanna Loken) smashing a urinal over her back and dunking her head in a toilet. Also riotous is Danes bouncing around in the back of her animal clinic vehicle during a gasp-inducing van/mobile crane/motorcycle chase and her expression of incredulity when Nick Stahl tells her that their driver is not a lunatic but a robot from the future.

By Kim

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The Best Worst Science Fiction Movies, 1953-1971

What did it take to become a lovable turkey, or in more modern parlance, a “guilty pleasure” of a science fiction film? Actors whose characters took the story seriously, playing it straight (not obvious camp, if there was camp at that time); sublime lines; weird science; and, perhaps, a charming innocence. The saving grace of these films was that they were “so bad they’re good,” i.e., funny and not boring. TV’s Mystery Science Theatre made hay with many of them.

These very low-budget and outrageous items were released concurrently with the acknowledged classics that made 1950 to the-brain-that-wouldn-t-die-19621956 the golden age of the science fiction film, but they continued into the early 70s. Nineteen-fifty-three itself witnessed the release of three grotesque entries: Robot Monster, Mesa of Lost Women, and Catwomen of the Moon. In Robot Monster, the alien “Ro-Man” is a guy in a gorilla suit, a space or diving helmet encasing his head. In Mesa of Lost Women, Jackie Coogan, a famous child actor, World War II vet, and later Uncle Fester of TV’s The Addams Family, portrayed Dr. Aranya. His lab is a true lair—an unsanitary Mexican cave in which his nefarious experiments were conducted. As the typical mad scientist, he eagerly explained his rationale, “If we are successful I shall have a super female spider with a thinking and reasoning brain, a creature that someday may control the world—subject to my will.” In such films, whatever creatures came to fruition were always to be subject to the megalomaniac’s whims. In an irony of cinema history, in Catwomen of the Moon, the infamous movie villain Victor Jory (the slave taskmaster in Gone With The Wind) plays Lt. Kip Reisler, the romantic lead! “It’s hooey. You can’t turn love on and off like a faucet. Believe me baby if I ever fall in love with you I’d chase you across the world, around the moon, and all the way stations in between.”

In 1955’s King Dinosaur a new planet careens into our solar system. A space ship is sent to reconnoiter. The fauna is primitive, hearkening back to our prehistoric past. Both dinosaurs and mammoths co-exist. (The dinosaurs are, however, merely photographically enlarged lizards, as any youthful viewer could see.) The humans decide that the lifeforms and planet must cease to exist. Conveniently, Bill Bryant proclaims, “I brought the atom bomb. I think it’s a good time to use it.”

Director Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958) is often reckoned the worst movie ever made, but Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1956) was equally crazy. The former Dracula, Bela Lugosi, appears as Dr. Vornoff, conducting his experiments in some “jungle hell.” He is distressed that having escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, the West itself is not eager to grant him kudos for his achievements in creating atomic supermen. After all, to Vornoff it is “no laughing matter!” He meets his end at the tentacles of a very large land…octopus!

The Astounding She-Monster (1957) mixes gangsters and aliens, who come together at a forest ranger station. Why oh why do the besieged secure the door and barricade one window but not another? The alien she-monster in some pre-spandex bodysuit never speaks but continually walks semi-seductively toward her victims.

In Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958) two monstrosities roam around a the suburban community wherein Dr. Frank conducts his mad experiments: a now deranged but once beautiful young woman and the title character whose disfigured, bandaged head seems more that of a son than a daughter. The best line comes from Robert Dix as Detective Dillon: “A monster in a bathing suit?” (On a video version promoted by Elvira, that Mistress of the Dark offers the soundtrack for sale. She is so good at her pitch one believes it actually exists.)

The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962) starred Virginia Leith. For some reason, the attractive, husky-voiced Leith, who’d been feminine lead in six 20th Century-Fox films between 1954 and 1956, including A Kiss Before Dying, White Feather and Violent Saturday, is reduced to playing the title character. That speaking head alone might have been enough to engage our interest but there was a mutant humanoid in the closet. She is its friend, “whatever you are.” Perhaps Jason Evers as Dr. Bitt Cortner has the best line: “But you can’t hide yourself away here forever. Posing bare in front of a bunch of neurotics.”

The Slime People (1963) are not slimy, rather scaly. These underground creatures create an impenetrable fog around Los Angeles. Those humans imprisoned within fight back but have time for introspection, as U.S. Marine Calvin Johnson (William Boyce) tells the young lady he’s become enamored of, “Gee whiz. Ya know, as long as you’re settin’ here I, I don’t even wanna think about slime people.” Check out leading lady Susan Hart, who once told me a laundromat owner financed the film. Pursued by a slime person, she runs over hill and dale in spike heels toting a super big pocketbook.

A turkey that had it all was The Horror of Party Beach (1964). It begins at the New England shore. The local motorcycle gang toughs even kick sand on our Ivy League hero. His wild flame, Tina (Marilyn Clarke), decides she wants more action than this square can provide: “Okay, okay, no more lectures. We’re not even talking the same language anymore. All right, if that’s the way you want it, then you just go on your way and I’ll go mine. We’ll see who gets the most out of life. Oh brother, you ain’t seen livin’ till you’ve seen Tina swing!” She doesn’t swing long. The monsters take her as she lounges on a jetty. Later they invade a pajama party. They spook a caricature of a housekeeper, who mumbles about voodoo. Dr. Gavin (Allan Laurel) wonders, “If a human body—a drowned person—were attacked by tiny sea plants which became parasites and completely infiltrated that human body before it had a chance to decompose, would the body be considered dead or alive?” How to stop them? The hero drives to the big city, obtains a canister of sodium (salt) and returns in time to toss it onto the creatures threatening his girlfriend (not Tina), her foot caught in a crevice. The monsters more or less explode.

A year later the Old West found itself inheritor of Continental scientists of a sort. Jesse James Meets Frankenstien’s Daughter (1965) features John Lupton, the Tom Jeffords of TV’s Cochise, as the famous outlaw. His nemesis is Maria Frankenstein (actually Dr. Frankenstein’s granddaughter) played by the healthy specimen known as Narda Onyx: “You see, the duothermic impulsator must also be attached to a living brain to transmit living vibrations to the artificial brain.”

John Carradine plays Dr. DeMarco in 1968’s The Astro-Zombies (1968). His goal is to create astro-men. However, they turn murderous from, yes, malfunctioning brains. Enter Satana (Tura Satana from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), who aims to steal DeMarco’s secrets for her own nefarious ends.

A royal send-off for this age of really bad sci-fi films is Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), which gave various known quantities, including Lon Chaney Jr. and Russ Tamblyn, an opportunity to vent their spleen. J. Carrol Naish, veteran character actor of such high-class Hollywood productions as Beau Geste and Rio Grande, not to mention House of Frankenstein (1944), plays the nutty Dr. Durea, who retorts in Nietzschean fashion, “You don’t frighten me. I live beyond fear.” Better yet was Jim Davis’ detective inspector: “Nobody but nobody knows anything about the subconscious, Miss Fontaine, not even ourselves. Yeah, it’s a dark, dark world, Miss Fontaine.”

Viewers of a certain age wax nostalgic over these oddities. Their naivete, crackerjack dialogue, even incoherence give these movies a certain charm that can never be duplicated, especially by films that are expressly camp.

By Kim

Holston, Kim, and Winchester, Tom. Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Sequels, Series and Remakes. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1997.

Magnotta, Ernie. “The Astro-Zombies.” Space Monsters (October 2013).

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. Volume I: 1950-1957 (1982). Volume 2: 1958-1962 (1986). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction Movies, 1951-1956

The first years of new art forms and many other movements almost always contain the most significant incredible_shrinking_man_poster_02elements of those forms. So it was with the early years of what might be designated the modern science fiction cinema. Most of what would be repeated with bigger budgets and better special effects were born in the first half of the 1950s: rockets, flying saucers, radioactivity and mutation, mind/body control, alien invasion, robots, dinosaur resurrection, post-apocalyptic earth. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) was one of the few well-made, thought-provoking and novel science fiction films to appear after 1956. Sci-fi zombies appeared in the less than sterling Invisible Invaders (1959). Time travel came to the fore in 1960’s The Time Machine. On the whole, however, the heyday was over in 1956.

Other than the Frankenstein films of the 1930s with their visionary—but usually mad—scientists, true metropolisscience fiction movies before World War II were extremely rare. These included Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1916), Metropolis (1927), Just Imagine (1930), Doctor X (1932), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Invisible Ray (1936), Things to Come (1936), and Dr. Cyclops (1940). Sometimes a serum like juocane was the scientific element. It wasn’t until “the Bomb” of 1945 and ensuing atomic age that the cinematic genre of science fiction came into its own. Atomic and hydrogen bombs and radioactivity, mutations, jet planes, rockets, UFOs, medical breakthroughs—in short, science—became a hot topic. Still, it wasn’t until 1950 that Hollywood ran with the ball. The serious Destination Moon (1950) was the progenitor. Not exciting by today’s standards, it was nevertheless well crafted and reasonable. The promise of technology was on display. There were no aliens, nasty or otherwise.

In 1951 the floodgates opened and aliens appeared. The Man from Planet X (1951) featured a somewhat benevolent and diminutive humanoid visitor in a space suit. In Keep Watching the Skies! Bill Warren described this film as “the first science fiction gothic horror film.”

There were two better alien films that year, both with a flying saucer, which had captured the public’s imagination when on June 24, 1947, Air Force pilot Kenneth Arnold reported a UFO near Mt. Rainier. Curiously, one film story turned on a good alien, the other on a very bad one.

From 20th Century-Fox came The Day the Earth Stood StillThe Day the Earth Stood Still starring Michael Rennie, a Brit who had yet to become familiar to U.S. audiences and therefore made a good choice as the emissary Klaatu. Accompanied by his intergalactic robot policeman Gort, this visitor from space arrived with a message that if we earthlings extended our savage ways to other planets, we would be handled harshly: “It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.” Recalled by many was the all-purpose alien speak, “Klaatu birada nikto.” The theremin, a hands-free electronic musical device that created an otherworldly sound, was effectively incorporated into Bernard Herrmann’s score.

Less benevolent was the “thinking carrot” of RKO’s The Thing from Another World! The-Thing It didn’t look like a carrot, nor did it act like one, but the team terrorized by it on an arctic base pictured it that way. It was an intelligent humanoid vegetable, technologically sophisticated as evidenced by the spacecraft that crashed into the ice but went up in flames when the military’s thermite bomb started a fire. Only the pilot survived, frozen but not dead. To the consternation of the scientists and military personnel, the thawed-out creature sought human blood to regenerate its extremities, and its severed arm and shredded flesh began to grow future menaces . Like The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing concluded with another warning, the mantra of 50s sci-fi: “The flying saucer which landed here and its pilot have been destroyed, but not without casualties among our own meager forces. I would like to bring to the microphone some of the men responsible for our success, but as senior Air Force officer, Captain Hendry is attending to demands over and above the call of duty. Doctor Carrington, the leader of the scientific expedition, is recovering from wounds received in the battle. And now before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning. Every one of you listening to my voice. Tell the world. Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”

Nineteen-fifty-two did not continue the trend in excellence, but 1953 did. It Came from Outer Space witnessed another alien craft (crash) landing, this time in the Southwestern desert, that eerie, otherworldly landscape to become the setting for so many sci-fi cinema sagas. Perhaps the image of the scientist standing before the spherical craft is the iconic image of 50s movie sci-fi. The aliens here presented themselves as nebulous and one-eyed, but they were “multi-behavioral,” i.e., not especially anti-human, rather human themselves in their varied emotions. But they could and did take over and control humans.

Dinosaurs, so compelling in The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) made their comeback in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, based on Ray Bradbury’s “The Foghorn.” A rhedosaurus [fictional carnivorous dinosaur] unintentionally thawed from the polar ice cap via atomic testing, swims south to New York harbor, comes ashore and wreaks havoc. In the destruction within a city and at the Coney Island roller coaster, it seems inspirational for Japan’s Godzilla (1954). Ray Harryhausen created the marvelous stop-motion dinosaur.

Alien possession (more mind/body control) invaders from marswas featured in Invaders from Mars, whose story taken literally has been known to give some people stomach aches. It began with young David observing a flying saucer landing in a nearby sand pit. Or did he? Was it a dream, a nightmare? Various townsfolk, including his father, become tyrants. Large, bug-eyed men with ray guns cart off the lovely town doctor, Pat Blake, after she questions the town astronomer, “Mu-tants! What would they want here?” A tentacled head in a globe controls all and directs the impending inoculation of the physician. Again, eerie music (but not provided by the theremin) played its part in creating a creepy, otherworldly atmosphere.

More purposeful alien invasion was of war of the worldscourse the subject of The War of the Worlds. Based on H. G. Wells’ classic novel, it transferred the story from Victorian Britain to modern Los Angeles and employed hovering craft rather than the tripods of the book—and the Classic Comics version.

Oddly, 1953 was also witness to a quartet of sci-fi dreck that did not bode well for the future: Robot Monster, The Neanderthal Man, Mesa of Lost Women, and Catwomen of the Moon. The titles provide a sense of their nonsensical nature. The good news: they are “so bad they’re good.” Melodramatic but sublime dialogue was common: “If we are successful I shall have a super female spider with a thinking and reasoning brain, a creature that someday may control the world—subject to my will.” (Jackie Coogan as Dr. Aranya, Mesa of Lost Women) “Lunacy is it? In other words, you will never accept a new idea unless it is offered with proof. You have no vision, only sight. Small men, small views! You want proof, do you? Well, I’ll give ya proof!” (Robert Shayne as Professor Clifford Groves, The Neanderthal Man) “It’s hooey. You can’t turn love on and off like a faucet. Believe me baby if I ever fall in love with you I’d chase you across the world, around the moon, and—all the way stations in between.” (Victor Jory, Catwomen of the Moon)

Quality sci-fi picked up in 1954. 20000 leagues Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, like The War of the Worlds, was based on a classic fantastical adventure, this one by the co-creator with H. G. Wells of modern sci-fi literature, Jules Verne. It was Disney’s first feature-length, live-action drama. The cast was impressive: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre. Unlike 1953’s War of the Worlds, this adhered to the original period and was the better for it. Perhaps Captain Nemo’s undersea Nautilus was the most pleasing of all exotic craft that today might be labeled a steampunk inspiration. It was, after all, coursing through a foreign world beneath the waves.

Radioactivity came to the fore in Them!, the best of the big bug movies. Atomic testing in those Southwestern deserts mutated ants to the size of military tanks. A scary proposition: queens flying off to start new nests. The military raced to track them down. There were horrifying scenes aboard a ship at sea and a battle royal in the Los Angeles sewers in which, also shockingly, one of the policemen protagonists was killed in the jaws of a monster ant. And this was for kids?

Richard Carlson of It Came from Outer Space Creature_from_the_Black_Lagoon_posterwas back to find and study The Creature from the Black Lagoon. (Yes, there was a Devonian Age, Virginia.) A scaly, humanoid “gill-man” is found inhabiting a crystal-clear, jungle-bound lagoon in which Julie Adams swims on the surface while the admiring gill-man parallels her below. This was another iconic scene from 50s sci-fi films. The Gill-man returned in two lesser vehicles, Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. This solidified his status as one of Universal Studios’ signal monsters, joining the Frankenstein monster, the wolfman, the mummy and the invisible man.

In 1955, an alien civilization was visited by earthlings. In This Island Earth a man and woman were transported to the planet Metaluna, under attack by creatures from the planet Zahgon. The_Quatermass_XperimentThe humans cannot save Metaluna and their alien mentor Exeter returns them to Earth. But, mortally wounded, Exeter’s spacecraft crashes into the sea.

In 1956, Britain dramatically weighed in with Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Xperiment, known as The Creeping Unkown in the U.S. It became part of a trilogy, Enemy from Space appearing in 1957 and Quatermass and the Pit in (aka Five Million Years to Earth) in 1967. The first two were in black and white and filmed in semi-documentary fashion. In the first, the rancorous Professor Quatermass deals with the mystery of a rocket that returns from space missing some crewmembers. The lone survivor of the mission is uncommunicative and sports a hideously infected arm. He escapes the hospital and before long is transformed into something no longer human.

With Forbidden Planet, forbiddenplanetMGM entered the sci-fi sweepstakes. This was an outer space retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with state-of-the-arts special effects. United Planets cruiser C-57-D lands on Altair-4, hoping to find the crashed Bellerophon, and it does, with two survivors: Morbius and his daughter Altaira. Or were there three survivors, the third an invisible monster from the human Id? The monster, which can melt metal but can only be seen in its basic outline when breaking through a force field, traumatized a generation of young filmgoers. “The fool! The meddling idiot! As though his ape’s brain could contain the secrets of the Krel!” exclaimed Morbius. The famous Robby the Robot made his first appearance on screen.

Invasion of the Body Snatchershas come down to us as the ultimate alien possession film. But who’s doing the possessing? That is the subtext. Is it a metaphor for Communist brainwashing? Don Siegel, future director of Dirty Harry and other hard-boiled crime films, denied that subtext, maintaining the film wasn’t rightwing or leftwing, rather an indictment of soulless citizens (pods) of any stripe.
the blob
The second half of the 50s experienced a lull, or perhaps a devolution. Budgets for science fiction films were never that great but became even less. Even without big budgets a few gems were in the offing. It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), for which a convincing case can be made as the best “B” science fiction film of the fifties, inspired Alien (1979). That same year another alien appeared to take its place in the lore of cinematic sci-fi: The Blob.

Although the 1960s featured such good movie sci-fi as Britain’s2001 The Day the Earth Caught Fire, the low-budget but compelling Panic in Year Zero, and Fantastic Voyage, the decade was not full of innovation—until 1968. Makeup and special effects technology had improved dramatically as was manifestly evident in two big hits that year: Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But there was another lull till Star Wars (1977) and Star Trek (1978). The first was pure space opera, the second more hard-wired. Their descendants are with us today.

Further Reading: The bible of science fiction film books for the 1950s and early sixties is Bill Warren’s monumental Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (1982).

A beautifully conceived and informative survey of 50s sci-fi is Bruce Lanier Wright’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Golden Age of Science Fiction Movie Posters .

By Kim


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