Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1950s

Post-World War II, American tried desperately to return to normal. The problem was, 1940 was ten years ago, before the atomic bomb, secret Communists teenagers running amok, and science greatly overstepping its bounds. The artifice of the 1950s can be seen in popular culture, at every level from newspapers and magazines on up to radio and television. The military-industrial complex seamlessly transitioned from ammunition to space-age toasters, and thanks to the G.I. Bill, everyone could afford a house and get cracking on the business of having a job, having kids, hosting cook outs, and living that American Dream.

It was all weapons grade baloney, of course. In the midst of all this prosperity, the threat of encroaching Communism was portrayed as very real and something to fear. This was the time of the Hollywood Blacklists, the start of the Cold War, and real-life Cat and Mouse games with Russian spies.

Is this one hell of a metaphor, or what?

And let’s not forget the emergence of youth culture, too: rock and roll became big business, thanks to Elvis Presley kicking the door down for everyone that followed. Teenagers suddenly mattered, and that was terrifying to the establishment. Why, they’d only recently gotten control of juvenile delinquency by publicly “encouraging” (by way of televised Senate Sub-Committee hearings) the comic book companies to self-regulate, thus putting an end to crime and horror comics, presumably forever.

It’s no wonder that pop culture pushed back. The fifties saw the rise of counterculture, the codification of what would become known as Film Noir, and the popularity of darkly pessimistic (if not outright nihilistic) novel writing, in particular hard-boiled crime novels from authors such as Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, and James M. Cain.

I don’t think anyone was really buying what America was selling, but the mindset was one of wanting to conform, to belong, to fit in, even if you don’t feel like you do. Horror movies moved from the gothic into the modern age, and made scientists and generals the patsies and the fools who usually exacerbated, if not outright caused, the monsters to roam free.

5. Dementia (1955)

A young woman wakes up in a seedy motel room, afraid and disoriented after a nightmare. She explores the room as if she’s never seen it before, and then ventures out into the streets of Los Angeles at night, and enters a seedy underworld of pimps, prostitutes and nightclubs. There is no dialogue; only eerie music and ambient sound effects, which gives the movie a phantasmagorical feel. Dreams or memories keep intruding on her journey, along with assaults, police chases, brutal beatings and murder. Is she the psychotic killer the newspapers are talking about? Or is she suffering from…Dementia?

One of the most unsettling movies of this or any other decade, Dementia is a Film Noir fever dream that comes by its cult reputation earnestly. Shot in black and white on a shoestring budget and written, produced and directed by John Parker, Dementia is a study in excess; sweat, paranoia, sexual energy, you name it. The original music score gets into your head, and the lack of dialogue and the non sequitur scenes all mimic the sensation of an unsettling nightmare. When it was first released, no one quite knew what to do with it; they thought it was too experimental, too Avant-Garde, so they wrote some voice-over narration to help explain the imagery, delivered in the movie by Ed McMahon, I shit you not. That version of the film was released as Daughter of Horror.

This movie is a complete and total rejection of the normalcy of the 1950s; a perverted underworld that no “decent” or “respectable” type would want to exist within. Dementia is a peek behind that sideshow tent flap through the eyes of our heroine, “the gamin,” which is a strange word for a naughty street urchin, played by Adrienne Barrett. Her reactions to what going on around her are mercurial; one minute, she’s afraid for her life, and the next, she’s laughing cruelly at a beating. She seems completely disgusted by what’s going on around her, and also tacitly accepting of it. The men don’t stare so much as they leer, the masculine energy in the film is an angry, callus bombardment that pushes the young woman along, and when she finally reacts to it, it’s violent and terrible. There’s a lot of subtext to unpack, and watching Dementia, it’s fun to speculate what other auteurs (Polanski? Scorsese? Lynch? Russ Meyer?) watched Dementia or Daughter of Horror and thought, “Oh, hell, I can do that.”

4. The Fly (1958)

It’s a case of murder most strange; André Delambre, a respected scientist and loving family man, is seemingly murdered by his wife, who crushed his head and his arm in a mechanical press and now seems touched in the head. Her brother-in-law, played by Vincent Price, and a police inspector (not a detective; they are in Canada), try to get to the bottom of the baffling crime, and she eventually unpacks it for them. Her husband made scientific history by successfully inventing teleportation technology—excuse me, make that, “a disintegrator-integrator.” It worked, naturally, but when he tried it on himself, a common house fly snuck into the cabinet and when he popped out on the other side, he had the head and left arm of the fly, and the fly had his head and left arm. What happens next is the kind of dodgy science fiction that could only come from the 1950s, but what makes The Fly more effective than other mad-science films of this type is the family tragedy involving the wife and their young son. It personalizes the struggle in a way that a giant tarantula in the desert never could.

Based on the short story of the same name by George Langelaan and starring Vincent Price, this is a classic of the “Science Runs Amok” genre that was so popular in this decade. The screenplay was written by James (Shogun) Clavell, and was successful enough to hatch two sequels and a remake by David Cronenberg in the 1980s (which also spawned a sequel). That’s a lot of film hours to squeeze out of a single short story. Price is memorable in the movie because he’s in the framing sequence, and he even gets the last word in a kind of modified Greek Chorus, providing the audience with the final thought, but the whole cast is very strong and they make the most of the material. Other the years, the sillier sequels have become conflated with the original film, and the fly head, a dark and menacing special effect in the first movie, became larger and sillier in subsequent films. The original film, however, is creepy and effective and 98% less grotesque than Cronenberg’s late 1980s sequel. Cronenberg chose to focus on the transformation itself, because that’s his schtick, but character actor Al Hedison and Patricia Owens focus on their marriage and Andre’s rapidly dwindling humanity. The special effects give out at the end, but as an audience member, you get what they were trying to do and the point of the story hits the target, if not the bullseye.

3. The Fiend Without a Face (1958)

An American air force base, stationed in the Canadian wilderness, is trying to augment its radar-tracking capabilities using nuclear power. When one of the locals disappears in the woods, the townsfolk are convinced that the nuclear power plant is leaking. After all, why else would the cows refuse to eat? When his body is found, the authorities take one look at the missing brain and spinal column and declare, “mental vampires.” It’s the only description that fits, after all. Sure. The locals, though, aren’t having any, and with tensions ratcheting up, an Air Force Major, with all the tact of Michael Scott is assigned to the case, and he immediately pivots to the elderly scientist, professor Walgate, who retired to the village several years ago after working on a bunch of psychokinetic experiments that led to his nervous collapse. Major Jeff finds time to flirt with Walgate’s pretty assistant as the body count piles up and Jeff is nearly killed getting sealed in a tomb. But when the invisible monsters are finally revealed, all hell breaks loose and everyone has to band together to survive the night.

That’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? Especially for a movie of this size and budget, but Fiend Without a Face manages to overcome its limitations by sheer force of will and be effectively creepy in the process. The screenplay was based on a short story by Amelia Reynolds Long called “The Thought Monster” that ran in Weird Tales magazine in 1930. The film was made in Great Britain but set in Canada so they could release it in both the US and the UK. The producers used up every bit of their budget and threw as much as they could into the film, and the results are impressive. The sounds of the invisible fiends attacking are nerve-wracking and the frenzied performances of the actors really sell the gag when they are invisible. But when the radiation is cranked up any they become visible, these brain and spine monsters become stop-motion nightmares and gonzo practical effects. The finished special effects were deemed so gory that the British censors were outraged and slapped an X rating on the film. If that doesn’t make you want to see it, I don’t know what will.

Fiend Without a Face takes equal potshots at the small-town population and the arrogant military, and throws science under the bus for good measure. No one has pure motives, except maybe Jeff, the Major that’s doing the investigation, and those give out as soon as he meets the pretty lab assistant, Barbara. Thankfully, he keeps the bigger picture in mind when chasing after the mystery, or the movie might have been called Jeff and Barbara Leave Just When the Action Heats Up. As it stands, the insanity of the last fifteen minutes of the movie is a cinematic payoff that must be seen to be appreciated.

2. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

The first manned rocket into space crashes in a field in the English countryside. The only living crew member stumbles out of the wreak and gasps, “help me,” before passing out. He’s brought in for medical treatment, but no one knows what’s wrong with him. The scientist behind the rocket, Dr. Bernard Quatermass, observes the mutations taking place within the astronaut and is eager to solve the mystery so as not to panic the general population. However, the mutated astronaut breaks free and roams the countryside, absorbing nutrients (by killing people, of course) and getting more and more monstrous with each victim. He eventually makes his way to the zoo, where he’s able to gorge himself fully. Quatermass and his assistant Marsh race to intercept before the mutant multiplies and destroys civilization as we know it.

A classic of science fiction with an emphasis on atmosphere and suspense and a liberal sprinkling of cosmic horror,  not as well-known as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) or The Horror of Dracula (1958), the Quatermass Xperiment is nevertheless the first horror film from legendary Hammer Studios. While it doesn’t share the thematic elements of their later Post-Gothic horror films, it was very effective in scaring British (and later, American) audiences with a downbeat script and a clipped, police procedural-style narrative. The deliberately misspelled word “experiment” was a lean-in to the X-rating the censors gave the film, which was a heavily and loosely based adaptation of the television serial of the same name. Science Fiction in Great Britain was considered kiddie fare, but this movie is definitely not for kids. Well, not for normal kids.

Quatermass the scientist is brusque, ill-tempered, and anxious all throughout the movie and as the scientist responsible for the whole mess, he’s less concerned about contrition and more preoccupied with containment and clean-up. At the end of the movie, he makes it clear that no hiccup like an alien space bug is going to keep him from his work. Quatermass isn’t quite an anti-hero, but he’s easily one of the most irritating assholes to bear the mantle of scientist in the 1950s. The film was cut for American audiences and released in a shorter, less satisfying version as The Creeping Unknown.

Much has been made about the cosmic horror elements in the movie, and with good reason; the astronaut Carroon mutates into a blob-like tentacled thing that leaves a slime trail, and the urgency in tracking it down comes from the idea that it plans to release spores that will infect the rest of the population and turn them into blobs as well. These sequences work, I suspect, because the exposition is drier than day-old toast, and also exceedingly British in delivery. It’s the contrast between the men of science and the monster from the void of space that keeps you engaged. The zoo sequence is a stand-out scene, raising the tension with effective camera work and editing. The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the best examples of this type of movie.

1. The Thing From Another World (1951)

You know the story by now, surely: a group of scientists and military men discover a thing buried in the Antarctic ice and they blast it free. It’s a UFO, and there’s something embedded in a block of ice. Naturally they bring this back to the base, and accidentally thaw the creature out. First the dogs, and later the people start turning up dead, and the manhunt is on, with the military men, led by Captain Hendry, trying to destroy it and the scientist, Dr. Carrington, trying to save it for posterity.

The Thing From Another World is one of the all-time great movies about paranoia based on a short story about paranoia, and remade into a modern horror classic about paranoia. John W. Campbell wrote the story, “Who Goes There?” which was published in August 1938 in Astounding Science Fiction. Weirdly, a controversy has been fomented about who directed the film; the credited director, Christian Nyby, or the producer, Howard Hawks. Anyone who’s ever seen a Howard Hawks movie can answer this with certainty; either Hawks directed the film and put Nyby’s name on the credits so he would qualify for admission into the Director’s Guild (the reigning theory), or Nyby decided to imitate every single aspect of Hawks’ directing style right up to and including the rapid-fire overlapping dialogue as a gesture of respect to the man. Personally, I like Door Number One better, but the point is largely moot in the 21st century.

Nick Schanger reviewed the film in 2003 and made this incisive observation:

An early remark by one military official concerning the burgeoning Soviet presence in the North Pole reinforces the Thing’s allegorical status as communist “other” (one can deduce that Hendry fears the creature not only because it’s emotionless and sexless, but also godless). The conflict between Hendry and Carrington is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study.

Granted, the themes in this version of the story aren’t as pointed as John Carpenter’s legendary remake of the movie in 1982, but Schanger’s analysis does hold up. The monster in the story was modified heavily for the movie (played by James Arness) from an outer space doppelganger into a blood-drinking vegetable, and as such, was wisely withheld until the last possible moment in the film. Only when it’s clear that the being will take over the Earth do they band together to try and stop it. The tag line and the end of the film makes it clear: “Keep watching the skies!” For UFOs. Or Soviet spy planes. You know, whichever.

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