“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 Remakes. Volume 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.