The 1950s were a decade of fear and paranoia. Schoolkids learned to duck and cover and at night, dreamed of mushroom clouds. Grownups were spooked by Commies hiding behind every bush and screenplay. They built fallout shelters in their back yards. Congress held hearings and inquisitions. They had lists. Not only were spies giving our secrets to the Rooskies, but comic books were debauching our youth. Armed soldiers accompanied little girls to school, defending them from angry, fearful mobs.
It’s all there to see in our movies. It was a decade of noir, a decade of “psychological” Westerns. But most of all, it was the decade of crummy science fiction. In those films the shadows that frightened us were allowed out of their cages. There be dragons.
Godzilla was really only the most overt of those films, but the message was everywhere. If it wasn’t about nuclear bombs reawakening prehistoric beasts, as in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or The Giant Behemoth (can there be a small behemoth?), then it was about our fear of Cold War Communists: The subtext of Invaders From Mars — one of the creepiest movies ever — was that aliens could infiltrate our comfortable suburban lives and we wouldn’t even know it. It was a nightmare of true paranoia. It was there in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, too: People weren’t who we thought they were and we couldn’t trust anyone.
Subtext was king.
There were few sci-fi films from the time that didn’t bear this extra freight, from Them! (not us) and its giant ants in the LA sewers to The Thing and its call to “keep watching the skies.”
Certainly the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds carried this Cold War message. We were at risk of invasion from aliens, and whether they were from Mars or the Soviet Union hardly mattered.
The narration made this explicit, describing the course of the 20th century from World War I — “nations combined to fight against nations using the crude weapons of those days” — through World War II — with “new devices of warfare which reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction” — to the next war, “fought with the terrible weapons of superscience, menacing all mankind and every creature on Earth.”
This was a movie about the fears we felt in the 1950s.
And it is why those wretched movies, made on a shoestring with cardboard sets and vacuum-tube control boards, can stick in our memories like some pop tune. There is the power of dream and nightmare underneath the aluminum spray paint and prehistoric iguanas.
Star Wars? Star Snores.
Can’t compare with Devil Girl From Mars. There is a unacknowledged fear of a rising feminism. Same for Cat Women of the Moon or Queen of Outer Space.
Those of us who grew up on the real thing know that if you want the bona fides, you must find them not in the Technicolor epics, but in the mustier corners of your video store or the back channels of your basic cable.
For the kind of sci-fi that sticks to your frontal lobe for a lifetime, you must look to something a lot less classy than George Lucas’ New Age Wookiee-fest.
You’re talking the 1950s. The decade was to science fiction what the 1930s were to screwball comedies, or the 1940s to war movies.
The production of that single decade is astounding. There are hundreds of them, really cheesy space monster movies, made with the collective budget of a middle-size Levittown, N.Y., household. During Lent.
Those films, from Rocketship X-M in 1950 to Teenagers From Outer Space in 1959, outlined a genre. Even today’s most up-to-the-state-of-the-art FXtravaganza will manage to pay homage to those cheese-athons of yore.
You know the drill: An elderly scientist with a beautiful daughter discovers a new planet or an underground civilization that will destroy the world, or at least dent a small out-of-the-way English coastal village. All the best World War II stock footage of tanks and cannon cannot gun down the menace until our hero invents a new ray or oxygen destroyer that manages to vaporize the menace or at least cause it to doze off, meanwhile winning the daughter, whose name, by the way, is always a transgender name like Chris or Pat. (The hero has to be surprised at the beginning that the elderly scientist’s assistant is a ”girl.”)
And at the end she hugs her man, who is usually dressed in a leather flight jacket, and they stare off into the empty ocean and she asks him if the danger is over, if the flying saucer/interplanetary dinosaur/giant centipede will ever come back, and he looks pensive and says: ”Keep watching the skies.”
How can Star Wars compete with that?
And the acting in these low-budget classics is sometimes mind-blowing. Hollywood didn’t put its Gary Coopers and Cary Grants in cheap genre flicks. No, it drew from the shallow end of the pool of talent that included such luminaries as William Lundigan and Lyle Talbot. Most of them made Al Gore look as animated as Roger Rabbit.
I mean, let’s face it: Mark Hamill may be a lousy actor, but he’s no Sonny Tufts.
What is so surprising about those awful films is just how much affection we feel for them when they show up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or during a baseball rain delay.
Actually, there are two types of affection we feel for them. For there are two different ways they stand out.
First, there is the movie that is so bad, it is fun to watch.
Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) is the archetype for this. Director Ed Wood has often been credited with making the worst movie ever. But this is calumny. There is something naively loopy about Plan 9 that makes us cherish its every goofy blunder.
And the dialogue: ”Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”
Now, that’s writing!
And: ”Explode the sunlight here, gentlemen, and you explode the universe.”
Audiences howl with laughter all the way through the movie. Nobody could have made anything so cheesy on purpose.
But Ed Wood wasn’t alone. There are plenty of bad movies, with plywood sets, paper-plate flying saucers and cardboard acting.
But there is another sort of film that we love, too. In those, a miserable script and lumpy acting are somehow saved by either a director who makes more of it all than you have any right to expect, or by an idea or image that sticks in the mind like a dream.
What alien is more inexpressibly “other” than the glass-helmeted homunculus from The Man From Planet X (1951)? And what planet is more memorably odd than the partly solarized, red-colored landscape from Angry Red Planet (1959)?
And there is a subgenre in this, in which such moviemakers as Ivan Tors tried naively but sincerely to show what space travel or robots would be like. Destination Moon (1950), or Gog (1954), for instance.
The movies are not actually good, but they have good hearts.
The ’50s had its share of larger budget sci-fi, too. Some of them are classics, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). They transcended their genre.
Some people consider Forbidden Planet (1956) to be a minor masterpiece.
But it is those benighted films such as Robot Monster (1953), with its man in a gorilla suit and a diving helmet, or Killers from Space (1954), with its out-of-shape zombies dressed in spandex with fried eggs for eyes, that truly deserve worship.
Unfortunately, with the advent of the 1960s, science fiction took a turn and not for the better. What had been naive attempts at entertainment in the previous decade took on the more ominous tone of exploitation. Producers aimed their films at the teenage market, and the gore level rose. The monsters had faces like used chewing gum and they oozed slime.
And worse, it was all caught on really bad, underlit color film.
The flatly lit black and white film of the ’50s was a signature style. You could tell instantly what you were in for. Flood lamps illuminated the scene evenly and spread twin shadows to the right and left of everything. But the bad lighting of the ’60s couldn’t help the goo-faced monsters. There was a failure of sincerity.
We can recognize that in retrospect, looking back through an age that imitated the loopiness of the earlier films. But it doesn’t matter if you call your film Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity (1987), these made-for-cable cheesers are way too self-conscious.
We can never regain our innocence. And as for our paranoia? Welcome to the post-Sept. 11 world. You can now see the same subtext showing up once more. Not only in the many Middle-Eastern villains in our superhero movies, but in our science fiction once again.
And Steven Spielberg’s new take on War of the Worlds is fairly marinated in it. It oozes everywhere.
The new film has a different shadow villain: “Is it the terrorists?” little Rachel asks when things start blowing up.
Although Spielberg never undercuts the sheer velocity of his thriller with academic discourse, he fills his movie with striking imagery that makes the subtext clear: An airplane crashes into a building, posters stapled to walls with pictures of missing people, debris falling from the sky.
These are the images of our current fears. Older movies reveal our former fears.
The newer subtext is terrorism, which even comes out in the comic relief.
When Tom Cruise is trying to escape the destruction of the aliens with his two children, they ask him about the fearful strikes of lightning that have prefigured the chaos. This wasn’t ordinary lightning, he tells them, “It came from somewhere else.”
“Like Europe?” his teenage son asks.
“No, Robbie, not like Europe,” he replies. And we recognize, someplace non-European, where people have different clothing and different beliefs, somewhere utterly alien to most Americans.
It isn’t that Spielberg’s film is about 9/11, but that some of the emotion and fear we feel watching it is recalled from having seen the real event. It sets up a resonance: You can’t see the one without thinking of the other.
This is subtext speaking.
Cheesy Sci-Fi movies from the 1950s
10. Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) – Our astronauts, led by Sonny Tufts, reach
the moon only to find a cave full of exotic dancers in black cat suits. There
is also a giant spider. Similar plots show up in Missile to the Moon (1959)
and Fire Maidens From Outer Space (1954), but neither can top the original.
9. Angry Red Planet (1959) – An American space team lands on Mars and is eaten
by giant spiders with rat faces. Only the ”girl” survives. The acting is
rudimentary, but the visuals are unforgettable, even in their cheesiness.
8. The Crawling Eye (1958) – Forrest Tucker acts his heart out in this tale of
giant eyeballs with tentacles that live in frozen radioactive clouds above a
Swiss village and communicate psychically with a young woman.
7. Invaders From Mars (1953) – This is almost a work of genius. Despite
vestigial special effects, no movie has ever portrayed childhood paranoia
better than this. A boy suspects his parents have been made into zombies by
the buried flying saucer. No one believes him.
6. Kronos (1957) – A giant cube from outer space eats energy and gets bigger.
So, what does the army do? Try to kill it with an A-bomb. ”You Earth people
are stupid! Stupid! Stupid!,” as Eros says in Plan 9. The sight of a
building-size monster moving across the landscape is eerie.
5. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) – Sometimes called ”the worst movie ever
made,” Plan 9 nevertheless has a loopy genuineness to it, an almost
soft-hearted pacifist message at its core, as zombies raised from the dead by
aliens are meant to take over the Earth. This movie is a party waiting for you
to invite your friends to.
4. Riders to the Stars (1954) – One of the rare color films from this age of
black and white, Riders is a straightforward, even humorless attempt to
explain the travails of space travel, with lots of centrifuge scenes and a
love triangle. Little excitement, but lots of sincerity.
3. Gog (1954) – This is Ivan Tors at his best, telling a story about how man’s
development of technology can come back to harm him. Gog and its twin, Magog,
are among the best robots ever put on film. They are not humanoid but look
more like what we see in industrial robots today.
2. The Queen of Outer Space (1958) – This may have been Zsa Zsa Gabor’s best
role. She plays a kind of Hungarian freedom fighter rebelling against a masked
evil queen of the universe and saving the lives of the American space men.
This is actually a fourth version of Cat Women of the Moon, but it is even
campier. Its silliness unfortunately forecasts the doom of the naive space
1. The Man From Planet X (1951) – Shot for less than $50,000 in six days by
low-budget genius Edgar G. Ulmer, this film manages to make a virtue of every
budget shortcut he was forced to take. The atmospheric sets, supposedly
English moors, are foggy to hide their phoniness. But the imaginative
spacecraft – a sort of upside down aluminum ice-cream cone – and
pathos-evoking blank-face alien are unforgettable. So is villain William
Schallert, before he became Dobie Gillis’ teacher, Mr. Pomfritt. This film is
a minor classic and shows how you can do a great deal on a shoestring and an
idea. And a scientist with a lovely daughter.
SCI-FI OF THE ’50s
Angry Red Planet, 1959
The Astounding She-Monster, 1957
The Atomic Man, 1956
Attack From Space, 1959 (Japanese)
Attack of the 50-foot Woman, 1958
Attack of the Puppet People, 1958
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 1953
The Blob, 1958
Cat-Women of the Moon, 1953
Conquest of Space, 1955
The Cosmic Man, 1959
The Cosmic Monsters, 1958
The Crawling Eye, 1958
The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951
The Day the World Ended, 1956
The Deadly Mantis, 1957
Destination Moon, 1950
Devil Girl From Mars, 1954
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 1956
Earth vs. the Spider, 1958
The Electronic Monster, 1958
Enemy From Space, 1957
The Evil Brain From Outer Space, 1956
Fiend Without a Face, 1957
Fire Maidens From Outer Space, 1954
First Man into Space, 1959
Flight to Mars, 1951
The Flying Saucer, 1950
Forbidden Moon, 1956
Forbidden Planet, 1956
The 4-D Man, 1959
From the Earth to the Moon, 1958
The Gamma People, 1956
The Giant Behemoth, 1959 (and try to imagine a tiny behemoth)
The Giant Claw, 1957
The Giant Gila Monster, 1959
Godzilla, King of the Monsters, 1956
The H-Man, 1958
I Married a Monster From Outer Space, 1958
The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957
Invaders From Mars, 1953
Invaders From Space, 1959
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956
Invasion of the Saucer Men, 1957
It Came From Beneath the Sea, 1955
It Came From Outer Space, 1953
It Conquered the World, 1956
It! The Terror From Beyond Space, 1958
Killers From Space, 1954
King Dinosaur, 1955
The Lost Missile, 1958
The Lost Planet, 1953
The Magnetic Monster, 1953
Man Beast, 1956
Manhunt in Space, 1956
The Man From Planet X, 1951
Menace From Outer Space, 1956
Mesa of Lost Women, 1953
Meteor Monster, 1957
Missile to the Moon, 1959
The Mole People, 1956
The Monolith Monsters, 1957
Monster From Green Hell, 1957
Monster From the Ocean Floor, 1954
The Monster that Challenged the World, 1957
The Mysterians, 1957
Phantom From Space, 1953
Plan 9 From Outer Space, 1958
Project Moonbase, 1953
Queen of Outer Space, 1958
Radar Men From the Moon, 1952
Riders to the Stars, 1954
Robot Monster, 1953
Rocket Attack, U.S.A., 1958
Rocketship X-M, 1950
Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, 1954-55
Stranger From Venus, 1954
Target Earth, 1954
Teenagers From Outer Space, 1959
Terror From the Year 5000, 1958
The Thing, 1951
This Island Earth, 1954
Tobor the Great, 1954
20 Million Miles to Earth, 1957
The 27th Day, 1957
Untamed Women, 1952
Warning From Space, 1956
War of the Colossal Beast, 1958
War of the Worlds, 1953
When Worlds Collide, 1951
The Wild Women of Wongo, 1958
X The Unknown, 1956
Zombies of the Stratosphere, 1952