Summer of Horror, Part 3: 50’s Sci-Fi

Deciding on the films to watch for the 50’s Sci-Fi chapter of Summer of Horror was kind of tough. Classic science fiction has always been a glaring hole in my knowledge of film, but there was a question of what counts as “horror”, and what is just straight sci-fi. For the three films below, I deferred to IMDb, and if “horror” was listed as a genre in that film’s entry, it was fair game. That means movies like The Time Machine and The Day the Earth Stood Still didn’t make the cut.

Since the 1950’s was the era of the “B-movie”, I feel this is the decade where horror started getting fun. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

 

invasion_of_the_body_snatchers

 

The first film I watched under this category was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and within 4 minutes I could tell that the 50’s would prove to be a very distinct era for horror films. Think about the first Back to the Future movie – those clichés were based on reality, and Invasion is so chock full of them that I had to keep a list going on my phone.

It’s all here. We’ve got pointy brassieres on women and fedoras on men. Kids are named Jimmy. The opening credits tout, “Based on the Collier’s magazine serial!” and “Filmed in Superscope!”. There are obvious green screened car driving scenes, where the actor driving makes constant back and forth steering motions even though the car appears to be going straight.

Full service gas stations. The last name “Driscoll”. Smoking and drinking at completely inappropriate times. And my favorite of all the 50’s-isms: Atomic panic.

The real horror of the day was the invention and threat of the atomic bomb, something people back then could hardly comprehend. Hence, the monsters that inhabited the horror movies of the 50’s tended to be either aliens from another planet or some product of nuclear testing and radiation. In this movie, it’s kind of both.

One day, out of the blue people start reporting that their friends and family members don’t seem like themselves, for reasons no one can really pinpoint. It turns out that some very vaguely explained entities have been replicating townspeople and replacing them with the copies. You might say the real humans are having their bodies…. I don’t know, stolen. I can’t quite draw the word I’m thinking of to describe what is being done to the bodies.

Anyway, we discover that the human copies are being produced by giant plant-like pods that start appearing all over town, and it’s up to a handsome young, pomade-haired, tweed suit-wearing doctor and his main squeeze to stop the menace.

As stated above, the movie hints that the pods are either a by-product of nuclear testing or something from outer space (“another world”, as they like to say). Once you are replaced, your copy looks and acts exactly like you, but is driven only by the one singular goal to copy and replace more and more people via pod. That gives it sort of a cautionary vibe about the extremes of conformity, which is kind of a twist on a big 50’s-ism. Generally, 50’s society discouraged being an outlier.

The movie ends with an odd gimmick I’ve started to notice more in old movies – breaking the fourth wall for a final scare. The doctor – now pretty much the only normal human left in town – hysterically runs through the streets trying to warn people, and then looks directly into the camera yelling “they’ll come for YOU! And YOU! And YOU!” This sort of tongue-in-cheek attempt to put a real-world spin on such an obvious work of fiction reminds me a bit of the found footage genre. That little dash of “this actually happened in real life” that makes the movie stick with you after you walk out of the theater. Kind of funny.

The Thing from Another World (1951)

 

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Here’s the thing about The Thing: I’m well familiar with the better-known John Carpenter version from 1982, which is special effects-driven, taut, well acted, and has an original villain. This Thing, on the other hand, is a pretty run of the mill sci-fi story and is plagued by slow pace, too much dialogue, and a creature that never seems all that threatening and is rarely even encountered.

Still, it’s a very famous film, and before remaking it Carpenter featured it in his own Halloween – it’s the movie the kids are watching on TV. Naturally, we only see the best scenes played in Halloween. We see the awesome title sequence, in which a black background gradually melts away, forming the words “The Thing” through rays of light (A sequence Carpenter recreated perfectly in the remake). We also see the final 5 minutes in which we finally get some good humans-versus-alien action. And a flamethrower.

In between, it’s a lot of planning, debating, and standing around. In my reviews of 1930’s Universal classics I noted the pattern of “monster scene, people talking in a room, repeat”. It appears that by the 1950’s most filmmakers hadn’t yet moved on from that structure. It’s in full force here, and in the next film I watched.

Unlike the ’82 version, the alien in this movie is not an organism that mimics other creatures – unless you want to argue that it replicated a Frankenstein monster off-screen, because that’s what it looks like.

Haters gonna hate...
Haters gonna hate…

I didn’t get a lot of 50’s-isms from The Thing, probably due mainly to the Arctic setting. I didn’t remember a lot of inappropriate smoking or drinking, and the creature was most explicitly alien – at no point does anyone suggest atomic radiation created it. On the other hand, flying saucers and creatures from “another world” are undeniably 50’s.

There’s also another distinct 50’s-ism that didn’t occur to me until I’d watched all three films – the final warning. Invasion of the Body Snatchers had it (yelled directly at the viewer, no less), and this film ends with a character getting on the radio to warn the military to “keep watching the skies”. I never knew this was where that phrase came from.

Them! (1954)

 

them!

By sheer coincidence a few people have recently asked me about the old horror movies I’m watching. When I mention Them!, most will ask me what it’s about.

Ants. Them! is about ants.

So yeah, they’re giant ants created by (what else?) atomic radiation. The great thing about Them! is that they spared no expense on making the creatures, and they’re brilliant. They are shown on screen pretty early and often, and exude a note-perfect 50’s B-movie charm. The only practical downside is that we are told the colony of giant ants likely numbers in the thousands, but we never see more than four on screen at once. Sadly, they likely lacked the time and resources to build and animate more than a handful of 8-foot long ants.

The film stars James Whitmore, best known as Brooks from Shawshank Redemption, as a young man, and Edmund Gwenn from Miracle on 34th Street as not-Santa Claus.  There’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from an unrecognizable Leonard Nimoy.

While this movie definitely falls into the aforementioned old movie pattern, it still manages to be very entertaining and fun. They included just enough giant ant carnage scenes to keep your attention from drifting during the ubiquitous “let’s talk about what to do next” scenes. I found myself cheering every time one of Them grasped a human being in their pincers.

There’s also a nice helping of 50’s-isms. In no particular order:

  • Atomic panic
  • Detectives in pinstripe suits and fedoras
  • Hats on everybody
  • Psychological “mumbo jumbo”
  • Flying saucers
  • Inappropriate smoking
  • A man’s inability to accept a female doctor telling him what to do
  • Young couple in a convertible “parking”
  • A black shoe shine boy
  • A malt shop

And lest I forget, we get an ending warning. The Edmund Gwenn character closes out the film by saying, “When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, no one can predict.”

I might argue that there’s nothing more indicative of 50’s horror than that monologue.

 

Next on the docket: I don’t know! Ghost stories? Monster movies? Demonic possession? It’s just too hard to decide.

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