< Horror Film History — Horror Films in the 1950s

Horror movies in the 1950s: 1) Creature Features, 2 )Stranded At The Drive-In, 3)They Came From Outer Space

Creature Features

It is hard to grasp the changes that took place in popular consciousness between 1940 and 1950. In ten short years the concept of a horrific monster had altered irrevocably. Whereas Lon Chaney, Jr in a fine covering of yak's hair had once served as a powerful envoy from the dark side, now there were more recognisably human faces attached to evil. Faces who had fought on both sides in WW2, the developers of the atom bomb and the death camp, mad scientists indeed whose activities would have unnerved even Victor Frankenstein or Dr Moreau.

The military action of WW2 had left over 40 million dead, and millions more exposed to the full spectrum of man's inhumanity to man. Homecoming soldiers and bereaved widows had too many horror stories of their own to appreciate fantasies on the big screen, and much preferred the silliness of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein et al. The world could never be the same again, and the dawning of post-war posterity in America brought with it a new breed of monsters, adapted specifically for survival in the second half of the twentieth century.

After WW2, no nation could be seen to seek out-and-out conflict with another. This did not stop the 'low-key' operations in Asia (Korea, then Vietnam) and the spiralling standoff of the Cold War. People lived with the fear of war, which became more unnerving than war itself. The messages from WW2 were clear: no matter how heroic your men, how skilled your generals, how staunch your supporters on the Home Front, at the end of the day it was technology that counted. Bigger. Better. Deadlier. Like the atom bomb. The more advanced the technology, the more powerful the nation. It wasn't just human technology that impinged on public consciousness - the first recorded sighting of a flying saucer occurred in 1947, followed a few months later by the infamous Roswell Incident. The horror films of the 1950s are about science and technology run riot, an accurate enough reflection of reality for a confused populace, wary of the pace of technological change.

The 1950s are also the era when horror films get relegated well and truly to the B-movie category. The studios were too busy incorporating technical changes such as widespread colour production and trying to meet the challenge posed by TV to have much truck with making quality horror pictures. Big stars were reserved for epics and musicals while the Universal era icons were either dead, dead-in-the-water (Lugosi was reduced to an impoverished caricature of his former self) or moved on (Karloff had diversified into TV & theatre and was still working). The main audiences for horror movies were teenagers, who ensured that the genre remained very profitable. They flocked to the drive-ins in hordes, not caring too much about character development, plot integrity or production values. Some of these B-movies are, frankly, ludicrous, in the way they require the audience to suspend disbelief. The aim of the game was thrills, thrills and more thrills, and these monsters, whilst perhaps more terrifying in conception than execution, never fail to deliver on the action front. Nonetheless, they are highly entertaining, and provide a crude, technicolour snapshot of the way America desperately didn't want itself to be.

Mutant Madness

Mutation on existing themes provided the inspiration for countless 1950s MONSTERS. Radiation (or other unspecified scientific processes) could either enlarge (Godzilla, Them!, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) or shrink (The Fly, The Incredible Shrinking Man) existing life-forms. Existing life-forms made better monsters, as they could be photographed using blue-screen techniques, or recreated in model form and stop-motion animation used to bring them to life. Otherwise, the old standby of a man in a suit (still used by James Cameron in Aliens in 1986) worked well enough if seen from a distance.

Early attempts at these sorts of special effects work well in King Kong (1933) and Devil Dolls (1936), but really become widespread during this era. The onscreen monsters represented the cutting edge of movie technology and their novelty was seen as a good way of drawing audiences away from TV. Ray Harryhausen was the star practitioner, and his work can be seen on a wide range of films, from the epic set in the ancient world, Jason & the Argonauts (1963), to It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) where a mutant octopus attacks San Francisco. These monsters are usually spurred into a destructive rampage by the actions of a foolish few disobeying the rules, and can only be stopped through the actions of a resourceful hero. These movies particularly manifest society's mistrust of the intellectual, in the form of the mad scientist, who must often have his destructive creations negated by "ordinary" citizens.

This era's obsession with the monster movie stems from the fears generated by co-existence with the atom bomb. America had to deal with the mass trauma over using a nuclear weapon on another nation, and also the perpetual fear of future apocalypse. Monster movies offered a vision of destruction created by non-humans; instead of generating chaos and disaster, humans represent a force for good, often manifested in a yearning for peace as nations and organisations unite against the common threat, thus providing a cathartic couple of hours' escapism from the realities of the Cold War.

These monster movies of the 1950s were also the first blockbusters (a term first used in a 1951 Variety review of Quo Vadis), opening in US theatres coast-to-coast amidst a marketing storm of advertising and merchandise. They used the new medium of TV advertising to reach suburban and teenage audiences, and stunts involving giant dinosaurs and ants to reach the newspaper front pages. The idea was not to promote quality performances, but a big movie-going experience, and lines around the block rewarded this strategy, twenty years before Jaws. Individual monster movies may now have been largely forgotten, and only appeal to cultists prepared to forgive their creaky dialogue and now-clumsy SFX, but their collective memory is still cherished, and has had an influence on many recent movies (Eight Legged Freaks, The Day After Tomorrow, Evolution to name but three).

Further Reading

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

"they couldn't escape the terror and neither will you"

Based on a Ray Bradbury short story (The Foghorn), this involves the accidental awakening of a "King Kong with fins" (a rhedosaurus) by atomic testing in the Arctic. The Beast heads for New York, its former hunting ground, devastating everything in its way, before being defeated by "good radioactivity". This was one of the top-grossing movies of 1953 ($5 million from a budget of $250,000), and encouraged the studios to invest in further monster pics.

The Wasp Woman (1960)

Vincent Price starrer, The Fly, has an intelligent script, suspenseful action, and tells the story of a scientist who, in trying to teleport solid matter, mixed his own particles up with that of a fly and... well... No one can forget the horrific ending ("Help me! Help me!"). The Wasp Woman was Roger Corman's attempt at the same story - the mixing of human and insect "bits". Cosmetics Company chief Jan Starlin has fallen on hard times, and is desperate for a new product that will reverse the ageing process on her face and similarly rejuvenate her company's fortunes. She meets Zinthrop, who has been experimenting with wasp royal jelly, rather than the bee kind, and decides she will become the first human test subject for his anti-ageing serum. So far so good, especially when, desperate for results, she injects herself with a superdose of the serum and emerges the next morning looking 18 – count them! – years younger.

In accordance with conventions, it all goes badly wrong. Starlin and her scientist friend must be punished for their presumption. Zinthrop is knocked over by a truck and ends up in hospital, in a coma, unable to monitor his experiment. Starlin's secretary and friends start snooping around, suspicious that Zinthrop is trying to rip her off. She alas, has developed a taste for ripping off the heads of hapless snoopers, as, rather unfortunately, the high doses of wasp jelly intermittently turn her into a Wasp Woman.

Rather disappointingly, production values mean that Wasp Woman does not look like the picture on the poster (left), but in fact consists of the head of a wasp on the body of a woman. Well, something furry with peculiar eyes on the body of a woman. Corman handles the subject matter with his usual panache, and puts an interesting spin on the werewolf theme by having a female protagonist, but the special effects are a serious let down. However, given the budget (churned out for just $50,000), it successfully manages to gratify the drive-in crowd, and is fairly typical of B-movie pics of the time.

These mutant monsters had neither the dignity nor intelligence of those gracing the screens during the 1930s, but they made up for that with sheer battlepower. And these scientific disasters are oddly pitiful, nearly always condemned to die an agonising death in the final reel. Despite the frequent victory of common sense and decent values over depraved science, many of these films are not exactly optimistic about the human race's chances.

Stranded at the Drive-in: JDs, Sleaze & AIP

Horror movies in the 1950s were dominated by the 'B' picture. Stephen King attributes the budget B-movie company, American International Pictures with single handedly saving the horror genre. In 1956 James H Nicholson & Samuel Z Arkoff decided that there was money to be made in supplying the bottom end of the cinema market with two-for-the-price-of-one movies. The B-picture was thought to be dead, the two-picture moviegoing experience usurped by television. However, Arkoff and Nicholson had a very specific audience in mind - one that enjoyed NOT sitting in the living room surrounded by close family members. And they knew what teenagers wanted.

“What elements made these AIP films shlock classics? They were simple, shot in a hurry, and so amateurish that one can sometimes see the shadow of a boom mike in the shot or catch the gleam of an air tank inside the monster suit of an underwater creature (as in The Attack of the Giant Leeches). Arkoff himself recalls that they rarely began with a completed script or even a coherent screen treatment, often money was committed to projects on the basis of a title that sounded commercial, such as Terror from the Year 5000 or The Brain Eaters, something that would make an eye-catching poster.”— Stephen King, Danse Macabre, p46

With titles like The Ghost In The Invisible Bikini (show me a teenager who doesn't want to see THAT!!), and a willingness to experiment and move on, AIP produced a range of horror B-movies which sewed up the drive-in market. Perhaps the most famous is I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, directed squarely at the teen drive-in audience squirming on the seats of their cars.

Further Reading

Trick or Treat?

The 1950s saw a number of technical innovations in the cinema; CinemaScope, Cinerama, Stereophonic sound, 3-D and even Smell-O-Vision (!), all designed to lure the audience away from their TV sets. Whilst big-budget, full-technicolour Hollywood epics offered a real 'big screen' alternative, lower budget movies needed extra gimmicks to pull in the punters. One ex-music hall impresario, William Castle, understood what it took to get the audience actively involved in the horror experience, and, with his production company Castle Pictures, launched a series of gimmicks to draw the crowds.

The devices added to the fun of the horror movie experience, audiences screamed as much with laughter as anything else. This is the sort of shared experience delighted in by regular Saturday night viewers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and is a concept deftly explored in the 1991 movie Popcorn (Tagline = Buy it in a box. Go home in a bag). Castle also toured the country exhibiting his movies, fully understanding that he could sell them by hyping them into events.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Another low budget shocker starring Vincent Price: an eccentric millionaire entices five unlucky souls into his haunted mansion with the promise of a cash prize if they can survive the night. It's based in principle, if not in detail, on Shirley Jackson's highly successful novel, The Haunting of Hill House (which Robert Wise turned into the classic The Haunting four years later). Naturally, notorious penny-pincher Castle wasn't about to pay for the rights.

Whilst the original has a cast of paranormal investigators seriously intrigued by the vibrations of a haunted property, this version is all about the quick shock and overnight survival of the fittest. Price presides over a veritable fun house of shock and startle. But not all the surprises are on screen. Castle rigged a device called the Emergo, in selected cinemas, a glowing skeleton which, at a certain point in the film screeched out over the heads of the audience causing them to screech in delight.

The Tingler (1959)

Grossing over $2million off a $400,000 budget, The Tingler was another success for Castle, and is an object lesson in marketing hype. The story is, in the main, misogynistic melodrama, and the solitary insectoid monster that appears onscreen is just over a foot long. However, Castle's showmanship and Vincent Price's performance bring it to another level, and it is considered a classic of its kind.

In the second of two movies Price made with Castle that year, he plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a gentleman-scientist fascinated by the concept of fear. While autopsying the bodies of executed prisoners he has observed that the vertebrae crack at the moment of execution, as though under some immense pressure which has nothing to do with the electrocution. He believes that there is some kind of fear-generated force which occupies a space at the base of the human spine, and becomes obsessed with proving its physical existence. He dubs that force 'the Tingler'.

However the latent menace of the era could not be so easily negated. As well as the Cold War and perils of the atomic age, a new danger was appearing on the horizon - quite literally. The time had come to watch the skies.

They Came From Outer Space

"That unidentified flying objects have been present since the dawn of man is an undeniable fact. They are not only described repeatedly in the Bible, but were also the subject of cave paintings made thousands of years before the Bible was written. And a strange procession of weird entities and flying creatures has been with us just as long. When you view the ancient references you are obnliged to conclude that the presence of these objects and beings is a normal condition for this planet. These things, these other intelligences, or OINTS as Ivan Sanderson has labelled them, either reside here but somehow remain concealed from us, or they do not exist at all, and are actually special aberrations of the human mind - tulpas, hallucinations, psychological constructs, momentary realisations of energy from that dimension beyond the reach of our senses and even beyond the reach of our scientific instruments. They are not from outer space. There is no need for them to be. They have always been here."

From "The Mothman Prophecies" by John A. Keel (1975)

" I saw what I saw. And no one can change my mind."

Kenneth Arnold, first documented sighting of an Unidentified Flying Object, 1947

On 24 June 1947, "businessman-pilot" Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine strange, reflective objects as he flew his plane over Mt Rainier one clear summer evening (coining the term "flying saucer"). The US government denied all knowledge or responsibility and showed little interest in Arnold's report, thus generating a million and one conspiracy theories. This, coupled with the infamous Roswell Incident, meant that by the end of the year the very real possibility that we were under observation by OINTs was part of public consciousness. The Unidentified Flying Object phenomenon was born. And horror had a new set of monsters.

Keep Watching The Skies

With flying saucers firmly ensconced on newspaper front pages and radio talk shows, it wasn't long before the movie world appropriated their drivers as a new cast of villains. Science Fiction had long made use of aliens as a threat, as reflected in the so-called 'Golden Age' of SciFi, running from the late 1930s to the 1950s. However, this golden sci-fi was restricted to the printed page - either pulp novel or comic book - as the movie-making technology simply wasn't there to transfer the horrors from page to screen. However, technological advances, coupled with wild public interest, and the economic need to drag teens into the drive-ins, meant that by the mid-1950s, alien monsters were looming large on the silver screen. Technology, instead of being offscreen, in the form of lights, cameras etc, was firmly onscreen, in the form of shimmering space ships and deadly ray guns.

There is a strong crossover – as there is in the 1980s – during the 1950s between horror and science fiction. Horror, as suggested earlier, had shot itself in the foot by lampooning its great icons at the end of the 1940s. By uniting with science fiction, by wholeheartedly embracing the Atomic Age, there were the beginnings of a rebirth of credibility. As in the 1980s, horror embraced sci-fi in the 1950s as a way of critiquing society, of tellingly darkly allegorical tales where the threatening elements in society were given, not the faces of mad scientists or supernatural monsters, but Creatures From Outer Space. Aliens, having no real form or particular set of characteristics, could represent anything a film-maker wanted them to.

Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers (1956)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Don Siegel
Kevin McCarthy,
Dana Wynter,
Larry Gates

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers represents aliens as... well, human beings. Not just any human beings but next door neighbours, the kid down the street, the people of whom the fabric of your daily life consists. Based on the 1955 novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, it posits a very simple, very terrifying theory: THEY have taken over. THEY look just like you. THEY have total control. THEY want to take you over now, and THEY are coming to get you. Often seen as a parable about communism in the McCarthy era, Invasion... works on a much deeper level than petty politics. The central discussion at the heart of the film revolves around the difference between a real human and a pod human "He looks just like uncle Joe, and he acts just like uncle Joe, but he ain't Uncle Joe".

The film tries to pin down what it is to be human, and the answer is a vague indefineable 'something' that only humans can recognise and pod aliens can't replicate. The pod-humans are scary enough, bland, placid creatures that, let's face it, wouldn't actually raise much of an eyebrow if you met them on a street in small-town America. The pods are scarier still - oozing and throbbing in a greenhouse. At least Miles can deal with them using a gardening tool, which is more than can be said for the deep feeling of paranoia the film leaves you with.This is a giant of a movie in both the sci-fi and horror genres. The low budget is spent wisely - special effects are minimal, yet chilling and the performances are fine. It's stands in movie history as one of the best horror/sci-fi films of the 1950s, and has been much discussed, both as an early example of Don Siegel's work (he went on to direct Dirty Harry and many other movies starring Clint Eastwood) and as a political allegory. Much has been made of the brainwashing theme and its relationship to both McCarthyism and the Red Peril.

Finney's original story is so powerful it has been made into several different movie versions (of varying quality). It was remade in 1978 starring Donald Sutherland, as Body Snatchers(1993) (directed by Abel Ferrara) and, rather lamentably, as The Invasion in 2007 starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman in the main roles.

  • Filmsite.org
  • GadFly online - another critique, this one discussing the dehumanising effect of the atomic bomb and how this is manifested in the movie

Plan 9 From Outer Space

At the other end of anyone's scale, but made in the same year, Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space deals with the same themes. Kind of. Aliens are hovering above Los Angeles, and are reanimating the 'recently dead' in order to form an army to bring down the governments of the world, who ignore the aliens' presence, and persist in their blind development of destructive weaponry. Dubbed The Worst Film Ever Made, Plan 9... demonstrates how easy it was to go wrong with the sci-fi/horror crossover - if you didn't have the budget for the special effects, or the sense (as Don Siegel had) to stay away from them as much as possible.

Originally titled "Grave Robbers From Outer Space" Bela Lugosi was slated to star - but he died 5 months before filming was due to begin. Undeterred, Ed Wood left Lugosi's name in the credits and got a local chiropractor to play the part (with a cloak over his face). Lugosi appears briefly at the beginning of the film, as Wood used up some random footage he had shot of the actor a year or so previously. The rest of the film is a similar ragbag - long philosophical speeches from "aliens" (although suspiciously humanoid ones) about the essentially destructive nature of huamns, dodgy flying saucers wobbling around on the end of strings, Vampira (who had been sacked from her TV presenting job for suspected communism) lurching around in a graveyard of cardboard tombstones, the "army" of three reanimated zombies, the interior of the alien space ship which manages to put corners in a saucer... the list goes on.

The film's production values are breathlessly low, but Wood's personal hedonism (he was said to type faster drunk than he did sober) and love for moviemaking shine through. This is D-movie stuff, but it has endured as a cult classic and as a perfect example of how NOT to make a movie.