By Ryan Fleming
On 15th August 1945 the surrender of the Empire of Japan was announced by Emperor Hirohito, in effect bringing the Second World War to an end. The Emperor had personally ordered the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War to accept the terms set down by the Allies for ending the War. The intervention came after Nagasaki became the second Japanese city to be struck by an American nuclear weapon on 9th August, the first being Hiroshima on 6th August. The two bombings remain the only use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict and had many effects on subsequent world history and popular culture. One minor effect being the direction horror films in the United States and elsewhere during the 1950s.
By the early 1950s, horror films were out of fashion. To be specific, the popular Gothic horror films of the 1930s and 1940s had fallen out of fashion. They petered out the 1940s resorting to crossovers and self-parody in a desperate attempt to recapture success. This was true outside of film as well, on radio many horror anthology series had ended as the 1940s wound down, only to be replaced by similar science fiction series. On the newsstands, pulp magazines covering every genre began competing for space with specific genre focused science fiction literary magazines.
World War II acted as a catalyst to speed up scientific development in any field that could be useful to the waging of war. Science had led to the nuclear bombs that had ended the War. Where there was an interest in the real thing, there was an interest in the fictional version too. No longer did science fiction, horror, fantasy, and thriller rub shoulders on the pages of the same publication or act as a relay team in a radio anthology. For the first time in mass produced popular genre fiction, one genre could stand alone. As ever, no popular culture trend is born of a vacuum, and the roots of the new number one genre stretched back and entwined with horror as the latter struggled to keep its niche.
Giant monsters were nothing new by the 1950s. A 1908 story by the writer Georges Dupuy published in Je sais tout in France and The Strand Magazine in the UK describes an encounter he had with two men that allegedly ran afoul with a Ceratosaurus in the Yukon territory of Canada, The Monster of “Partridge Creek”. Much like Orson Welles and the Martians a generation later, there were some who took the story as nonfiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would use a similar notion of living dinosaurs in a remote part of the world in 1912 as The Lost World, and it is the 1925 film adaptation of his work that would prove influential to giant monsters on film.
Stop motion, the physical manipulation of objects between individually photographed frames to show animation, technically pre-dates film as a concept though it was only with the advent of film that is possibility was truly realised. There were many pioneers of the technique around the globe, who used it for varied purposes as creating trick films and planning ballet performances, some of whom were also pioneers of what we now know as animated films. When it came to giant monsters created by stop motion, one name that stands out is Willis O’Brien who had been making stop motion films featuring dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties since 1915. The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918) was a collaboration between O’Brien and Herbert M. Dawley combining live action and animated dinosaurs. The feature was cut from 45 minutes to 12 and Dawley tried to claim full credit for O’Brien’s work.
O’Brien would later provide the visual effects for The Lost World and, continually improving on the technique, would realise the most famous American giant movie monster of them all. King Kong was born of several different trends in films of the early 1930s. Co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, both aviators during the First World War, had success during the 1920s with the silent film Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, a sort of quasi-documentary ethnofiction film that was a distinct genre during the silent era. These films were sensationalised and would stage scenes to the extent of killing live animals wherever filming was done. This reached a crescendo with Ingagi, a film which stole footage from earlier documentaries, attached false wings to a turtle as a purportedly new animal, and relied heavily on nudity and the suggestion of bestiality. All new material was filmed in Los Angeles and was so openly racist that it did not even go unremarked upon in 1930. Schoedsack and Cooper had already been trying to get King Kong made when Ingagi was released, but the success of the exploitation film convinced RKO studio heads that women-in-peril plus apes made for box office success.
King Kong was rushed into production as Cooper and Schoedsack were finishing their adaptation of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. It inherited two actors from that production: Noble Johnson, who would play the native chief, and Fay Wray, who would play the young woman kidnapped by the monster. Willis O’Brien was brought on board to handle the special effects for Kong and the plethora of prehistoric creatures on Skull Island. Beyond the immediate descendants of the title character, such as the video game Donkey Kong, one monster movie staple that might have been otherwise if RKO had their way is holding off on revealing the monster until partway into the film. RKO studio executives wanted the film to open with Kong, Cooper wanted to open with the human characters to allow them and the mood of the film to develop.
The film was so successful a sequel, was rushed into production and released nine months after the original release, appropriately for such a gestation period named The Son of Kong. This was long before sequels were anywhere near normal in the film industry, and before even Universal had made sequels to Dracula and Frankenstein. O’Brien returned to do the visual effects for the sequel, and a few years later was introduced to a young man that had been so inspired by King Kong that he had started making his own stop motion. He encouraged the enthusiast to take classes in art direction and sculpting to take his skills to the next level. After the Second World War, O’Brien would reunite with the same young man to do the special effects on another giant ape picture: Mighty Joe Young.
Ray Harryhausen would go on to become so synonymous with stop motion that many of the films utilising his techniques are said to be Harryhausen films more than that of the director or producers or stars – because the stop motion so often was the star. The first film with Harryhausen entirely in charge of special effects was 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. A blatantly modern set tale adapted from a Ray Bradbury short story about a dinosaur (the fictitious Rhedosaurus) that is awaken from frozen hibernation in the Arctic by the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Like his hominid older cousin from Skull Island the Rhedosaurus finds himself in New York City, though he meets his end in the Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn instead of atop the Empire State Building, presumably having been put off by the prices in Manhattan.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms proved successful in the United States as well as overseas. One country in particular, where a 1952 re-release of King Kong had earned more money than any of its prior releases, was about to see its own giant monster with an origin ripped from the headlines. March of 1954 saw the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) encountered fallout from the US Castle Bravo nuclear test on Bikini Atoll. The entire crew fell ill from acute radiation syndrome, with one eventually dying that September. The controversial incident reinvigorated nuclear fears in Japan, as once again Japanese civilians were being hurt by American nuclear weapons. From this: Godzilla.
Godzilla was directed and co-written by Ishirō Honda and the special effects were by Eiji Tsuburaya. Unliked the earlier American films, stop motion was not used for effects. Instead, Tsuburaya pioneered a new technique, called in English suitmation, where stunt performers in elaborate creature suits interacted with miniature sets. Interestingly, the original idea for the monster as pitched by Tsuburaya was a giant octopus. Some earlier designs also made the allegory for nuclear weapons all the more blatant by shaping the head like a mushroom cloud. In the end, various elements of dinosaurs were combined to create the most famous giant monster in film.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Godzilla represent an interesting comparison given their similar plots of dinosaurs awakened by nuclear weapons testing, posing a hazard to shipping, and then going on a rampage in the largest city of the country where each are set. The latter film covers themes on the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons that, when the film was re-cut with additional footage for American audiences in 1956, were omitted entirely. This can also be seen with the giant ants in Them!, who are explicitly stated to have mutated as a result of the Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico but only as a matter of fact. Regardless, the original film fared better with US critics than those in Japan, with director Honda ironically noting Japanese critics only began liking the film after the American critics began praising it.
Godzilla kicked off a film franchise that continues to this day. As of 2023 original studio Toho have released 32 Godzilla films with a 33rd on the way. Since the original film the title character has been joined by a stable of other monsters, some of whom debuted in otherwise unrelated films, long before the cinematic crossover had become vogue. These include the insectoid Mothra, the pterodactyl-like Rodan, the three-headed dragon King Ghidorah, and King Kong himself in the appropriately titled King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). The longevity of the Godzilla series, as well as imitators from other Japanese studios such as Daiei Film’s Gamera, has made the giant monster a recognised Japanese genre to where the closest thing there is to a term covering all giant monster films is taken from the Japanese – kaiju. Perhaps in a world where The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms ushered in its own series of sequels Godzilla would face competition in the US and become less synonymous globally with the trend that it did historically.
Instead of sequels, Ray Harryhausen would dabble in further science fiction creature features throughout the 1950s including It Came from Beneath the Sea, seeing a giant octopus attacking San Francisco, and 20 Million Miles from Earth, where an alien egg brought back from Venus by a US spaceship hatches into a fast-growing creature that is soon rampaging across Italy to Rome. Perhaps in another universe, these beasties are battling the Rhedosaurus in crossover pictures. If giant monsters were one direction Hollywood horror films went in the 1950s for a more science fiction bent, alien invaders were the other.
Since H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds in 1898 extra-terrestrial invaders have been used as a stand-in to provide commentary on the society portrayed. The onset of the Cold War brought on fears of a new conflict with memories of the last one still fresh, and with all new terrible technologies to bring harm, along with the paranoia of infiltration or the very real fear of that paranoia leading to something far worse. These all translated into science fiction horror during the 1950s, through many different portrayals but always using one element, invasions of things from other worlds beyond space.
Of the many different portrayals of aliens during the 1950s, one stands out as showing the direct influence of earlier Gothic horror films on the new science fiction horror: The Thing from Another World. In the short story from where the film is adapted (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell), the alien is capable of perfectly replicating and replacing any living thing it touches. However, the alien in the 1951 film adaptation owes a lot to Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the Frankenstein monster. There’s even a similarity in appearance with the flattop head and heavy brow. The title character is played by Western actor Will Arness, a few years before he would begin playing Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke for 20 years. Arness has a bit more deliberation in his movements than Karloff or any of the other actors to play the monster in the Universal films, but retains the same lumbering gait and inarticulate grunting.
Another similarity with the Universal Frankenstein series has The Thing from Another World also carries a warning about science going too far. The scientific leader of the US Arctic expedition makes frequent attempts to study and make peace with the alien, to the detriment and death of his colleagues and the exasperation of the All-American Air Force contingent. A curious ethical standpoint that the men who built the bomb are not to be trusted, but the men who dropped it are implicitly. Usually thought of as a Cold War allegory, it is ironic that producer Howard Hawks changed the original form of the creature used in the short story. The theme of infiltration and paranoia is a lot riper for allegory than the “super-carrot” they went with in the end.
That would be seen in 1956 when Don Siegel’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, retitled Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was released. This film has been conflictingly referred to as an allegory of the dangers of McCarthyite paranoia, of bland conformity in the modern US, or of the loss of individualism under a communist government. The conflicting interpretations may have been due to a studio-imposed happy (well, happier) ending on the film. The original ending (and the one people remember) had Kevin McCarthy’s town doctor stumble into traffic screaming about the oncoming invasion but being ignored by motorists. The revised cut opens with the character having been picked up by the police and interviewed by a psychiatrist, with the main narrative told in flashback. After the original ending, there is a short epilogue where his story is confirmed and the brave, heroic FBI called in. One view sees that the change in ending alters the film from anti-McCarthyite to anti-communist. All the filmmakers have denied there was a specific political intent to the film, but they must have done something right if both ends of the spectrum claim it validates their own view.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be remade several times, most famously in 1978 where the 1950s McCarthy-era backdrop is updated for a 1970s post-Watergate world. It also invited a slew of parodies from Looney Tunes to The Simpsons to Spongebob Squarepants to Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s 2013 comedy The World’s End. The phrase ‘pod people’ has entered the popular lexicon since the late 20th century to refer to the emotionless duplicates that feature as the villains of the film. It also represents an interesting intersection of styles and themes, since the science fiction plot is filmed in the film noir style. Given how much film noir owes to German expressionism, this brings Hollywood horror back to its visual roots pioneered by the likes of Karl Freund.
Other innovative alien concepts of 1950s science fiction horror films include the invisible monster in Forbidden Planet. Though recognised as almost entirely science fiction as opposed to horror, the film still features a large monster stalking the crew visiting the title planet. The brief glimpses of the monster were created by animation, specifically veteran animator Joshua Meador on loan to MGM from Disney. Forbidden Planet would prove influential on later television science fiction, with most of its props winding up used on The Twilight Zone and being one of Gene Rodenberry’s inspirations for Star Treks. Similarly, though neither the creature design nor the film It! The Terror from Beyond Space are well-remembered, the notion of an alien monster stowing away on a ship which then picks off the crew after they take off from a planet would be an inspiration for Dan O’Bannon’s script for Alien. Similarly, the infiltration of the creatures nest in the sequel, Aliens, would be inspired from the trip into the ants nest in Them!
Before the 1950s science fiction horror films, alien creatures were usually just humanoid as per the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. There were a few exceptions, but by and large aliens were just people. That changed and alien life in film began to show the same diversity of lifeforms possible in science and reflected on the pages of pulp and science fiction magazines. Without the boom in creature features that came from the intermingling of science fiction and horror of 1950s then the alien as a science fiction stock character in film may have never branches out into infinite possibility.
One such variety, legendarily a gelatinous substance sometimes found on vegetation is in fact left over from a meteor shower, would inspire a film targeted at a very specific demographic after a large disk of the substance was found in Philadelphia. The 1950s saw the emergence of teenagers as an age-defined market in the US and in other countries such as the United Kingdom. This was reflected in advertising and products marketed directly to the demographic, including clothing, music, and films. The same decade saw car culture take off, and drive-in theatres began popping up throughout the United States. Horror and science fiction were very popular on the drive-in circuit, especially amongst teenagers.
In 1958 teenagers might have pulled up in drive-ins across the US to see The Molten Meteor had the producers not heard scribe Kay Linaker refer to it by the nickname she had developed. Instead, audiences were greeted with The Blob. The independent production was filmed in and around Phoenixville, Pennsylvania with the direct intention of selling and marketing it as a drive-in film. After Paramount bought the film, for almost three times the budget, they paired it with I Married a Monster from Outer Space, an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers rehash. The Blob was the first starring role for Steve McQueen, who just two years later would be upstaging Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven. The tongue in cheek title song was written by Burt Bacharach, albeit not with his later famous song writing partner Hal David, but rather with David’s brother Mack.
The Blob proved successful with its target demographic. The original release saw it as the B feature under I Married a Monster from Outer Space, but before long it was moved up to main feature. It was an important step in the careers of two future stars, and stands out as one of the better remembered drive-in features. Ironically for a modern audience, the film ends with the frozen alien being transported by the Air Force to the Arctic, since they could only stop it instead of kill it. As one of the characters remarks, they’ll be safe “as long as the Arctic stays cold”. Hollywood should be ashamed of themselves for not dusting this property off in the era of constant reboots and climate change.
Whilst The Blob was an entirely independent production, there were some smaller companies that specialised in films for the teenage market. Foremost among them was American International Pictures. Formed in 1954, their first release was atypical to what would come later, a documentary on UK forces during the Malayan Emergency. Under the direction of producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, the company would focus all their efforts on the teenage market after their first few efforts failed to earn a profit. This included the then new idea of focus groups, taking direction directly from US teens. This led to many peculiar results including Arkoff’s eponymous formula and the strategy whereby process of elimination it was determined to catch their greatest audience they would zero in on the 19-year-old male.
Perhaps recognising how much the younger demographic was keeping the Universal films alive on television where they had been packaged as Shock Theater, AIP would release in 1958 I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Blood of Dracula on a double-feature. Albeit that particular double feature was at the specific request of a horror themed package to follow up 1957’s successful I Was a Teenage Werewolf and the films bear little resemblance to their literary forebearers. AIP would be producing horror films of the sort no one really was in the late 1950s. These included films no one had ever done before such as Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood. As much comedy and horror, it sees Dick Miller’s dim-witted busboy become acclaimed as a brilliant sculptor after accidentally killing his landlady’s cat and casing the body in clay to hide the evidence. The beatnik crowd at his place of employment become enamoured by the work and under pressure to commit more becomes a serial killer.
The 1950s were an era of cinematic gimmickry to keep audiences coming back to theatres and not watching television at home. Gimmicks such as 3D, which Hollywood would resurrect again briefly in the 1980s when they were again threatened by home video, and since the late 2000s with the rise of streaming. There was also Cinerama, featuring three projectors all projecting onto the same ultrawide curved screen. That and experiments in releasing odours during films such as AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision failed to catch on. One producer who specialised at gimmickry, albeit on a far smaller, more mundane scale, was William Castle.
Castle started making horror films after seeing the 1955 French horror thriller Les Diaboliques. His first effort was Macabre (1958), where each cinema patron was given a $1,000 life insurance policy in case they died of fright. This was accompanied by nurses being stationed in the lobby and hearses parked outside. House on Haunted Hill followed in the next year, where the end of the film would bring forth a skeleton with glowing red eyes over the heads of the audience. Most notoriously, The Tingler ended on Vincent Price warning the audience that one of the titular creatures was loose in the theatre. Castle had a crew wire some seats in the theatre with airplane wing de-icers that would then vibrate and cause some patrons to jump up from their seats. Though Castle’s efforts and the aforementioned experiments would not leave much of a mainstream impact on film they would prove influential to a young John Waters. The transgressive cult filmmaker included a scratch-and-sniff scent card in his 1981 film Polyester and counts himself as a William Castle fan.
If the start of the 1950s was marked by horror being out of fashion in favour of science fiction, then the end of that decade marked a resurgence. That was seen in the renewed efforts at horror filmmaking targeting a young demographic from the likes of AIP and William Castle, as well as imports to the US from overseas. Without the emphasis on teenage marketing for horror in the 1950s subsequent decades may have looked very different with horror looking for other demographics, particularly the 1980s and 1990s. The resurgence also meant that horror and science fiction were becoming more driven apart than ever before.
On the pages of pulp magazines, on the radio and on film before the 1950s horror and science fiction were largely treated as one and the same. Creatures of science like the Frankenstein Monster and the Invisible Man could rub shoulders with creatures of folklore like Dracula and the Wolf Man. Much like the Cold War, if the lines were drawn in the 1940s and early 1950s the Wall was going up by the early 1960s. Form then on out, science fiction and horror were largely treated as separate genres. You could have science fiction horror, you could have horror science fiction, but science fiction and horror had become distinct from each other. Maybe with scientific and technological progress such a sundering might have been inevitable.
If horror was out of fashion on film, radio, and the pages of magazines in the 1950s it certainly wasn’t out of fashion on the pages of comic books where it enjoyed its largest popularity in that medium. Many of those same fans who read the pages of Tales from the Crypt or The Vault of Horror from EC Comics in the early 1950s would have been pulling into the drive-in by the end of the decade to see The Blob. However, that popularity invited jealousy from some companies, and efforts were made to run the horror comics out of business. That shall be the subject of our next article.
As we will see in a later look at the horror film, Gothic horror was coming back in a big way as the 1950s became the 1960s. It was not efforts from Hollywood that would prove the most popular, but rather the lush technicolour efforts from a small UK studio based in Berkshire. Their relationship with the US market and studios would be a tumultuous one, but for a few brief years they were so successful that the UK media forgot about their usual histrionic reactions to horror fiction as the studio received the Queen’s Award to Industry. The next time we look at film we shall take a look at the house of Hammer and their competitors in the heyday of Kensington gore.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP