Tag 50s Sci-Fi

It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

IT CRUSHES! KILLS! DESTROYS!

A nuclear submarine on its maiden voyage is attacked by a mysterious object from the depths. A large chunk of rubbery tissue is pulled from one of the vessel’s propellers and examined by two marine biologists, who conclude that it came from an enormous octopus. The military dismiss their findings, until the creature begins sinking ships and making its way toward the west coast of the United States.

 

Well in 1950s America, a giant radioactive monster wouldn’t go anywhere else, would it? (Well, maybe except for Godzilla!) This was a decade dominated by ants, locusts, grasshoppers, spiders, scorpions and space monsters all growing to enormous size and attacking America. The nuclear monster era was here, in a time dominated by the very real threat and fear of atomic bombs being used by the Soviet Union. Capitalising on this fear and paranoia, cinema churned out a ridiculous number of varying quality B-movies during this decade, spanning the likes of Earth Vs The Spider, The Black Scorpion, Beginning of the End, Them! And The Deadly Mantis to name but a select few entries. Devastating attacks on mankind weren’t just confined to the land and air though and It Came From Beneath the Sea stands up in the corner of the sea monsters to make a name for itself.

Cult stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen had made his first solo effects feature film two years earlier with classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the earliest of the 1950s atomic monster B-movies. Seeing how popular these films had become, he jumped at the chance to make another one when approached by producer Charles H. Schneer. This was Harryhausen’s first collaboration with Schneer and it was to be the making of a fantastic partnership which would change the way cinema looked at special effects, with the two men pioneering work in classics such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts within the next ten years. Schneer was fully supportive of Harryhausen’s talents, often exceeding budgets in order for the maestro to finish his work to the best possible standards – you just wouldn’t get that level of trust in today’s film market.

With only one man producing the special effects, it was clear that the octopus wasn’t going to be on screen for a lot of the time and so other filler was needed to keep audiences hooked. Sadly, It Came From Beneath the Sea fails to engage the viewer when the monster isn’t around. There’s a really awkward romantic love triangle sub-plot between the main characters and it’s so tedious that you don’t care who gets who by the end. The usual military types spend plenty of the film bickering about the best course of action to prevent disaster from happening and there’s a team of scientists racing to find a way to stop the monster before it’s too late. I’m all for a bit of plot development but seeing the same faces standing around talking isn’t a great use of time. The addition of a news reporter-style narration to proceedings adds nothing to the film except a few extra minutes of running time and a cheap way to provide the exposition that the boring dialogue fails to get across.

When the scenes of destruction arrive, they are pretty good but are over far too quickly. The octopus only has six tentacles (an infamous fact down to Harryhausen not having time or money to animate eight) but this doesn’t stop it from doing some damage, taking out ships before arriving in San Francisco for a very famous attack on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s more action than the majority of the aforementioned giant monster movies provided but still seems somewhat lacking. Sadly the final confrontation with the octopus doesn’t deliver a knock-out blow when it needs to and the film ends on a rather a weak note.

Kenneth Tobey was a familiar sight in the 50s, starring in two of the decades greatest sci-fi films in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and The Thing From Another World and lends his usual gung-ho schtick to the military role he is required to play again. Co-star Donald Curtis also popped up in another Harryhausen film a few years later, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and portrays the same military role. You’d think that everyone back in the 50s was in the army with the way they get all of the main roles in these films! They’re both bland in parts that require nothing more of them but to regurgitate military mumbo jumbo to each other.

 

It Came From Beneath the Sea is never built up as one of Harryhausen’s best and there’s a good reason for that – it’s not. Whilst the animation is excellent, the excitement is lacking and there’s not enough action to keep the film from sinking. However, it was another learning curve for Harryhausen and another showcase to craft his art, which he would refine over the coming years.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Thing From Another World, The (1951)

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Where Did It Come From? How Did It Get Here? WHAT IS IT?

Scientists at an Arctic research station discover an alien space ship buried in the ice along with its frozen pilot. They take the body back to the base but when it thaws, the crew find themselves struggling for survival against not only a massive alien life-form hungry for human blood, but the science department who insist that the creature must not be harmed so that they can study it.

 

One of the earliest and most influential science fiction films to come out of the 1950s, The Thing From Another World is the one that most critics credit for the rise of the ‘alien invasion’ flicks that were to follow in number. It’s the prototype for the ‘base under siege’ formula that has been replicated so often in films since. Not only that but it’s a damned fine film on its own merits, forgetting the legacy that it has built for itself in the meantime. In a paranoid era of Cold War and the worries over nuclear weapons, the film taps into this vein of unease and plays off it. The final lines of dialogue “Watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking, keep watching the skies” are a chilling reminder of the 50s and of the fear that people had. What would come out of the sky? Nuclear missiles? UFOs? Giant monsters?

Based on the classic novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, The Thing From Another World is light years ahead of its 50s compatriots. Coming before the slew of sci-fi films that were to follow gives this an original slant and it isn’t bogged down by clichés. In fact rather the opposite as the film establishes many genre staples that we’ve come to know and love (or hate) today. You’ve got to remember that science fiction as we take for granted today was still in its infancy during this era. Whilst horror dominated the 30s and 40s, science fiction took off after the Second World War and never looked back. The Thing From Another World laid down an early benchmark for the genre to follow. We’ve obviously got the ‘base under siege’ plot and alien invasion theme with isolation being a key factor, right down to the meddling scientists who believe that they can reason with or understand the creatures they come across (before meeting a horrible demise).

One of the most positive aspects to The Thing From Another World is how pacey is it. This is spot on and the film is tightly edited, flows smoothly and contains enough peaks and troughs to put people through the emotional ringer. It doesn’t really waste too much of its screen time trying to explain anything or do anything which doesn’t further the story or add some tension. I’ve only got to rack my mind at a handful of other 50s sci-fi films to remember how slow, drawn-out and sluggish they were, taking a lifetime to get to where they needed to be.

Despite being based on the novella, the film ditches most of the material, keeping only the wintry setting and the idea of a crashed spaceship (John Carpenter’s later remake was much more faithful to the source material with its assimilations and overt paranoia). I can understand the cost necessities of trying to create a complex film like that back in the 80s but they could have done a bit better than their eventual output: a big stuntman with a boiler suit and a large head piece. Still, the sets used for the Arctic are quite convincing and it’s good to see the film actually shoot some footage ‘outside’ as opposed to many other films at the time which just kept its horror based indoors. Though they’re still on a soundstage, at least some of the shots look like they were filmed in the snow.

The most disappointing aspect of the film is the alien itself. Special effects (and budgets) in the 1950s would never have allowed for the film to stay faithful to the source material, portraying the alien as a shape-shifting assimilator with all of the gooey transformations and absorptions that followed. So what we eventually get is just a big guy in a suit. It’s a tad feeble at first but once the initial disappointment has been overcome, the director (be it the credited Christian Nyby or Howard Hawks, the producer whom everyone thinks really directed this because it has plenty of his style in it) certainly does his best to create the illusion of an alien life form. The first glimpse we see of the creature tossing the huskies away during a snowstorm is chilling and there’s another infamous shot of the creature when it bursts through a door and is set on fire by the crew, all set within a dark environment and only illuminated by the raging fire which is engulfing it. Keeping it relegated to the shadows is a smart move because it does make the creature all the more scary when it eventually attacks. Of course when the creature is seen in close-up, you’ve just got to laugh a little bit – and the notion that this is a killer vegetable that craves human blood is also a bit comical. Credit to the film for making this idea pan out with deadly serious consequences.

On a final note, that title intro is still fantastically creepy to this day.

 

It might seem harmless and hokey nowadays and its shock value had diminished greatly over time, but The Thing from Another World is a landmark science fiction film which is perfectly accessible for any generation of science fiction fans and a completely different type of film from it’s superior remake in 1981.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

It’s coming for YOU from Space to wipe all living things from the face of the Earth! CAN IT BE STOPPED?

A experimental space rocket, designed and launched by Professor Quatermass and his team, crash lands back to Earth. However two out of the three crew members have mysteriously vanished during the mission and the surviving member, Victor Carroon, is in bad shape and taken to a local hospital. As Quatermass and his team try to fathom out what happened to the rocket, Carroon slowly undergoes a horrible metamorphosis. Quatermass realises that he has been taken over by an alien being which absorbs everything is touches and increases itself in mass.

 

Greatness has to start somewhere and here we are with the true birth of the Hammer Films studio. Hammer, which became synonymous with horror and would reinvent the genre in the late 50s with a series of groundbreaking films, had been making film noir since the early 50s. The Quatermass Xperiment was their first major breakthrough in horror and science fiction and was seen as a gamble by the studio at the time. Originally a serialised TV play shown by the BBC in 1953, the story caught public attention and the rights to a cinematic adaptation were soon snapped up by Hammer. The film received the dreaded X certificate by the BBFC and Hammer slightly re-worked the title to play on that fact (hence the Xperiment bit). The film was a resounding success at the box office and established Hammer as a big player. It proved that there was an appetite for horror from the British cinema goers, an appetite that Hammer would satisfy two years later in The Curse of Frankenstein.

That’s not to say that The Quatermass Xperiment is an outright horror film. The science fiction elements dominate this one and though it may be a landmark British film, time has not been too kind to it from the horror viewpoint. Looking rather quaint and antiquated nowadays, it’s rather difficult to identify just what caused the BBFC to give it the X rating. Carroon’s mutated hand and the eventual appearance of the alien at the end look rather tame today but I guess back in the 50s when fear of the A-bomb and Cold War paranoia was running high, the more psychological elements may have hit a raw nerve. Looking at it now, everything happens in a rather procedural fashion, evidential of Hammer’s earlier film noir output, and it plays out more like a crime thriller for the first half.

Given the slew of sci-fi monster movies being churned out in America during the 50s, one would have expected The Quatermass Xperiment to go down the same route and the change of approach comes as a bit of a shock. But legendary screen writer Nigel Kneale, who was one of the finest sci-fi writers ever to pen a script, made his name with the BBC television play. The adaptation by Val Guest pays faithful attention to that, expanding the scope of the play for feature film length and, in turn, crafting a more thoughtful, haunting film instead of the generic gung-ho popcorn filler than the Americans were making in the same era. This is “thinking man’s science fiction” which, in some quarters, can mean that the film is rather slow. It is, there’s no question of that. The slow, methodical build-up to the finale does plod along merrily in old school British fashion. But Guest’s intelligent script keeps the mystery level high (Kneale had no involvement in the cinematic version) and, as he also directs, he’s in full control of the interesting direction that the film takes.

This is down, in no small part, to the great performance by Richard Wordsworth who plays doomed astronaut Victor Carroon. Wordsworth, who I’ve only just found out was the grandson of the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth, makes for a sympathetic and tragic character, almost Frankenstein-like in his silent portrayal (he even encounters a little girl and everything goes wrong from then onwards). We know that something is seriously wrong with Carroon but we don’t know what. The blank expressions and pain-stricken eyes hide something deadly and the film takes its time to drip-feed the audience hints as to what that could be. It’s not pleasant, that’s for sure.

Brian Donlevy seemed like a rather awkward choice to play the lead role. Donlevy was an Irish-American actor who was cast in the role in an attempt to breakthrough into the US market but in his later years he was known for his alcoholism and was troublesome to work with. Ironically it’s these qualities that make his Professor Quatermass click. Donlevy plays the role with a gruff, no-nonsense approach and turns his Quatermass into an arrogant, obnoxious, single-minded character. Given the nature of Quatermass’ almost-obsessive determination to succeed, Donlevy makes the right call to play him this way. His lack of compassion in the face of such tragedy is uncannily realistic.

It’s of no surprise to see that the finale is the part of the film which hasn’t aged well. The appearance of the rubbery alien in Westminster Abbey gets decent build-up and would have looked alright back in the 50s. But nowadays it’s a bit of a dud creation and the finale is a let-down given the build-up it had received. The alien worked so much better in the human guise of Carroon but the story dictated that the it reveal itself at the end. If it had done so earlier on, I wonder how many people would have kept watching. The finale doesn’t really spoil the rest of the film but it feels like a waste. Hammer’s budget wouldn’t stretch too far and the special effects are adequate but unconvincing.

 

The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the most influential genre films ever made and definitely one of the UK’s most important contributions to cinema. Without this film’s success and the identification of a niche market for horror in the UK, Hammer may never have decided to make The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, two landmark films which changed the horror genre as we know it forever. Though some of its elements lack the impact they most undoubtedly did upon its original release, The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the most intelligent and ambitious science fiction films of its era, ambitions that were challenged further in its two sequels Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit, both of which (in my opinion) are far superior. I would have loved to have seen what else Hammer could have done in the science fiction genre but they chose to focus their efforts on the horror market. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Target Earth (1954)

Target Earth (1954)

You’ll be paralyzed with fear!

A young woman who attempted to take her life with an overdose of sleeping pills wakes up the next day to find that the city in which she lives, Chicago, is deserted. The streets are empty. Cars won’t start. Electricity is off. And there are people lying dead all around. She encounters three other survivors who have no idea what is going on and decided to stick together in order to get out of the city. But their plans are thrown into disarray when they come across the reason why Chicago is deserted – killer robots from outer space have landed and commenced an invasion of Earth.

 

Made on a shoestring budget in the midst of the “alien invasion” films of the 50s, Target Earth is a film where the premise is actually a lot scarier and more effective than the eventual execution. Who wouldn’t be more than a little concerned and afraid to wake up one day and suddenly find that everyone in your town or city was gone? And even worse at the fact there are killer robots roaming the streets hunting down human survivors. It’s a scarier thought than it is realised in this middling sci-fi film. But I can’t go too hard on it. After all, this was a decade in which anything and everything from outer space decided to land and have a go, with varying quality and budgets. It will have worked back in the 50s, not in the 2010s.

Target Earth starts with great mystery – the eerie shots of a deserted Chicago will have you thinking of the likes of later films The Omega Man, Day of the Dead, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and many more. Clearly some inspiration has been drawn from Target Earth in this respect. As the young woman, Nora, explores the city and eventually finds fellow survivors Frank, Vicki and Jim, the film keeps up its level of mystery. We know something has happened. We know something is loose in the city. But we’re not quite sure of what. Being out in the streets, we get the feeling that they are only one block away from finding out. So the film manages to keep its audience on edge, makes guesses about what has happened.

Unfortunately the whole film then crashes into the wall once the alien invaders are revealed to be killer robots and the first robot is first shown. More about that later but it’s at this point where the film sheds its mystery and paranoia. The characters then settle down into a hotel to wait it out for a bit and see what happens. And that’s pretty much where they spend the rest of the film. No searching the streets. No attempting to piece together what has happened. They just take refuge in the hotel, encounter a murderer and then the robot appears again. If one major criticism can be levelled at Target Earth is that it’s just too sparse. Hardly anything happens, though when it does it offers promise that the film could have been a whole lot better with a bit more action or problem-solving.

A secondary plot thread runs alongside the main one from the half-way mark, featuring a bunch of scientists and army guys trying to figure out how to stop the robots and conducting tests and experiments. It’s dull, adds little to the narrative and is only included to pad out the running time (and provide a suitably convenient ending for the film). Like most of these 50s sci-fi films, these scenes are so uninvolving and distracting, taking you out of the fantasy elements of the monsters and aliens and transplanting you into boring melodrama.

The budget would only stretch to building one robot and so you’ve got to suspend your disbelief and assume that this is just one of a massive invasion force. At its first appearance, the robot looks rather laughable – well basically any appearance, let alone the first. But there’s something unsettling about it – with no real ‘face’ to speak of, little in the way of clanking when it moves and a single-minded determination to hunt down the survivors. The robot is really only in two scenes but makes an impression in them both. I guess the film tries anything to keep itself away from showing us the robot. The addition of the scared Otis, who panics, cries doom and then inevitably is the first on-screen casualty, and then later the killer, Davis, who adds a cartoony villain presence and meets a fitting end, serve as nothing more than temporary stop-gaps to pad out the human-human conflict.

In the mid 60s, long-time horror director Terence Fisher would make a very similar-themed film in The Earth Dies Screaming which featured a post-apocalyptic England being overrun by killer robots. It’s the better film of the two but there are so many similarities between the two, it’s obvious that whoever wrote it had seen Target Earth.

 

Like many a 50s science fiction flick, Target Earth saw its best days many decades ago but that doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t some merit still lurking around. Though the story is a little threadbare and is pushed about as far as it can go without a bigger budget, there is still enjoyment to be had in a “pretty much nothing exciting happens” sort of way.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Tarantula (1955)

Tarantula (1955)

Even Science was stunned!

A tarantula, which has been injected with experimental growth hormones, escapes the secret laboratory and grows to enormous size, causing havoc across the Arizona desert.

 

Tarantula is one of the 50s giant monster movies more famous entries and is not to be confused with the later 50s film, Earth Vs The Spider, also about a giant spider on the rampage in a desert town. But whereas that was attracted by rock and roll music, the spider in this one is simply hungry. Jack Arnold, fresh off legendary status with Creature from the Black Lagoon, brings his considerable talent to the table but unfortunately ends up with a throwaway science fiction movie which just so happens to have a giant spider running amok in.

Tarantula runs according to the well-embedded 50s atomic monster formula but a formula done reasonably effectively when the film wants to put the effort in. In this case the cause of the problem isn’t atomic radiation but an early form of genetic experimentation. It matters little in the long run though – either way there is a huge hungry spider on the loose. The film runs almost entirely without the spider as the plot regarding the scientists and the experiments takes the majority of the screen time. It’s a race against time for Professor Deemer to find a cure for his acromegaly which killed his partner and is now starting to kill him. It’s nowhere near as exciting as it sounds, if it sounds exciting anyway. At least there is some decent make-up effects on both characters as the slow effects of the syndrome begin to take their toll.

But we didn’t come for guys in make-up, we came for giant spiders. Tarantula is dreadfully dull. It’s almost fifty minutes into the film before you get a look at the giant spider. That said, the first shot of it climbing over the hill in silhouette form is pretty spine-tingling and there is another awesome shot of it slowly creeping up behind a couple of prospectors sitting by a dawn campfire. I may have lambasted special effects in similar 50s giant bug movies but here they look like they’ve had some time and effort devoted to them. The spider even casts a shadow across the background that it’s been superimposed onto. I mean its hardly groundbreaking stuff but the effects at least manage to make the spider look like its real, even if it seems that plenty of the shots are re-used. I just wish they’d have made more use of the spider instead of relegating it to background duty.

The spider doesn’t do an awful lot except toddle around the desert. Many shots of it walking across highways, climbing over rocks or traversing hills are inter-cut with the rest of the film. Nothing flash, just a ten second clip of it walking around to make you remember that it’s still out there. It doesn’t really get well fed (if you don’t take into consideration a herd of horses that it snacks upon) but then it hasn’t really done much to get its appetite worked up. When it does get around to attacking people, it’s the same scenario over and over: close-up of the spider bearing its fangs and going in for the kill and then a zoom-in shot of the unlucky victims(s) covering helplessly on the floor with some super-imposed legs either side of them. Hardly the most exciting attack scenes you’ll see.

On a final note, Clint Eastwood makes an uncredited appearance as one of the pilots who bomb the spider in the finale. Well, even greatness had to start somewhere.

 

Tarantula gets way more acclaim than it deserves but is still a fair way to spend time. There are far superior examples of the 50s monster movies but when this film wants to show off, it does so in style with some excellent special effects.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Beginning of the End (1957)

Beginning of the End (1957)

Filmed in New Horrorscope!

As the remains of a crushed car are found with no sign of the occupants, the police also receive a report that the nearby town of Ludlow has been completely destroyed. Reporter Audrey Ames is driving through that part of the country when she reaches an army road block which prevents her from going to Ludlow, or where she thinks it still is. Sensing a big story, she decides to investigate further and finds out that radioactive material at a nearby government testing station has caused vegetables to grow to enormous proportions – and the local locust population has been feasting upon it, in turn making them grow to gigantic proportions.

 

Bert I. Gordon, famous for some atrocious (some would consider cult) sci-fi films he made in the 50s (The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel War of the Colossal Beast, Earth Vs The Spider) and then later in the 70s (Empire of the Ants, The Food of the Gods), is the man at the helm of this one, a late and wholly feeble entry into the 50s ‘atomic monster’ movies. They were all the rage back in the decade, as fears of atomic testing and what damage radiation could do to our planet were the talking point on everyone’s lips.

After the success of Them! in 1954 with it’s giant ants, everyone quickly tried to find the next best thing: scorpions (The Black Scorpion), spiders (Tarantula, Earth Vs The Spider), praying mantis (erm, The Preying Mantis), molluscs (The Monster That Challenged the World) and wasps (Monster from Green Hell). Yeah granted molluscs was pushing it a bit, though to be fair the film did a reasonable job of turning them into a threat. Perhaps the least frightening of the lot is the sound of a horde of giant grasshoppers which, let’s face it, sound about as scary as a giant mushroom.

Gordon does little to convince the audience that these grasshoppers exist in the same universe as everyone else, let alone turn them into some sort of threat. His notoriously appalling special effects are in abundance here (he does them himself) and the sad thing is that over the years with his later films, they never really got better either. The grasshoppers consist of a copious amount of magnified stock footage clips and some lousy low-budget rear projection. This is all fine and good when the stock footage army is trying to destroy them in the middle part of the film (even this gets boring because there’s no interaction between either humans or bugs at any point). But when the grasshoppers finally get stuck into Chicago, the special effects consist of little more than real grasshoppers crawling over photos of the Windy City! You heard that right – photos! The effect is as terrible as it sounds. Gordon couldn’t even be bothered to make a model of anything to allow his grasshoppers to crawl over.

Having said all of this, dialogue is the most devastating weapon that Beginning of the End has in its arsenal. Instead of showing things like the destruction of Ludlow for instance, the film resorts to dialogue and the shocked reactions of the actors to convey what it is happening. At first, you think that the whole film could end up going this direction and not show anything at all but thankfully (or maybe not considering the quality of the special effects) the grasshoppers do eventually show up and at least the pace is picked up after a dreadful opening. Beginning of the End fails to grab hold of your attention at any point, monotonously trotting out the usual array of scientific jargon, forced love interests between hero and heroine and lots of military guys running around telling people what to do.

Peter Graves, who would later go on to find fame in the TV series of Mission: Impossible and even greater fame as Captain Oveur in Airplane!, plays it deadly serious as the scientist. In fact Graves’ stern delivery makes everything else seem all the more silly. He’s not alone in this respect. Try and keep a straight face when regular rent-a-general Morris Ankrum suggests that the only solution to the crisis is to drop an atomic bomb onto Chicago. Talk about over-reacting!

 

I shouldn’t feel aggrieved about watching a film with giant grasshoppers that features special effects as bad as this – some would say I get what I deserve and that is correct. Beginning of the End is a low budget Z-film which clearly and ineptly cashes in on the atomic monster craze of the 50s. Maybe if you have a grasshopper fetish or want to see how not to create special effects, there might be something of interest here otherwise you’re better off sticking with the more famous 50s monster movies.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The (1953)

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

You’ll see it tear a city apart!

A prehistoric monster is thawed out of its frozen state by atomic testing in the Arctic and then proceeds to go on a destructive rampage in New York.

 

The first of the wave of 1950s ‘atomic monster’ movies which featured radiated monsters going on destructive rampages throughout various cities across the world, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a landmark film in the genre. Marshalling the paranoia about atomic weapons that had festered itself in society since the end of the Second World War, the film goes about setting up a series of tropes which would become the norm by the end of the decade.

Thinking about the rest of this genre, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms would have just been another generic 50s B-movie if it weren’t for the superb stop-motion effects by the maestro of modelling, Ray Harryhausen. The film plods along quite slowly and follows the usual structure to the letter: a few small incidents and reports about a monster; scientists sent in to investigate; monster reveals itself; army is called in to try and stop it; scientists struggle to come up with alternative as monster arrives in populated areas; monster caused chaos; leading to the final confrontation between science and nature.

It seems to take ages to go anywhere but at least the monster is revealed almost straight away so there’s no partial reveal or slow burn. There’s too much padding and character development and the scenes of characters discussing and arguing about the monster are drawn out for way longer than they need be. After all, we’ve come to see the giant monster on the poster, not hear about how Scientist A is falling in love with Scientist B. The whole thing didn’t cost too much money to make and Harryhausen’s techniques were notorious for taking a while to finish (not his fault, just the way stop-motion worked) so the film needs to pad itself out as much as it can without showing anything expensive.

But back to the special effects since they are what this film is more famous for than anything else. This was Harryhausen’s first solo film so he’s a little rusty here but the monster is one of his most memorable (and he would base the dragon from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad upon the model he made here). He conjures up some fantastic images of the monster, particularly a great silhouetted shot of the creature as it destroys a lighthouse. The monster’s rampage through New York in the finale and then the final showdown inside an amusement park are sterling work. Black and white really gives the creature a film noir vibe and use of lighting and shadow inside the park at the end is a real testament to the genius that was Harryhausen. The scene where it attacks the rollercoaster still looks great to this day.

Like the other 50s monster movies, the cast matters little to the eventual outcome as the scientists are old actors, the males are square-jawed heroes, the females are there to fall in love with the hero and give us a tepid romantic sub-plot, and the military guys are there to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s the standard make-up of characters that would become the staple of this genre for years to come. Here, main actor Paul Hubschmid is a Swiss actor speaking English so his delivery is garbled at the best of times. Keep watching out for a young Lee Van Cleef as an army sharpshooter.

Director Eugène Lourié would visit the giant monster movie well a few more times in later years, bringing the world Gorgo and The Giant Behemoth, virtually the same film as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms only set in England. But this is his best work.

 

The special effects are the sole reason why The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has become such a ground-breaking film. Still, it’ classic monster movie making at its 50s finest and Harryhausen would go on to bigger and better things in the field of special effects.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

Massive Blood Sucking Monsters!

Alcoholic trapper Lem Sawyer sees a creature in the swamps but no one will believe him. That is until people start disappearing and local game warden Steve Benton gets involved. He searches the swamps and finds it inhabited by giant leeches, mutated by the local radiation at Cape Canaveral, and hungry for the taste of human blood.

 

Limping along in the doldrums of the ‘atomic monster’ movie decade, Attack of the Giant Leeches is a late entry into the field but is rightfully never even mentioned in the same breath as Them!, Tarantula or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Even though the title monsters are hardly the size of houses like the aforementioned critters, they’re still a by-product of atomic radiation even if the film borrows more from Creature from the Black Lagoon than anything else. Produced by Roger Corman’s lesser known brother Gene and featuring some of the worst production values I’ve ever seen, Attack of the Giant Leeches sucks in more ways than one.

With horrendous underwater photography – the kind where someone shoots footage from behind a glass panel in swimming pool – and perpetually murky cinematography above ground, one of the first things that will grind on you is just how you’re meant to see anything here. A crackly soundtrack and plenty of scenes where no one actually says anything will have you checking your volume settings to make sure all of your speakers are plugged in. It is almost as if they dunked the microphones underwater with the cameras. I can understand that the production was a ‘lowest price possible’ sort of venture but still, there are certain levels of production that any film should have before they’re even considered for release. When visuals and audio aren’t up to scratch, it doesn’t bode well for anything else.

Maybe it’s best that you don’t see everything as well as you’d have liked. The title monsters look like stuntmen wrapped in bin bags with suckers taped to their faces. I don’t know whether the intention was to make them humanoid in appearance but that’s how they turned out, especially during a hilarious blood sucking scene in their cave domain. Hardly scary back in the 50s I’m sure, they look even more ridiculous in the 21st century. The leeches work slightly better when they’re partially concealed by the water but even this requires a fair dollop of disbelief.

The leeches never venture out of the swamp to attack so you won’t find any city-invasions or even threats to small towns like the rest of this sub-genre. In fact pretty much the entire film is based at the swamp – I counted a sum total of about three different sets used across the film. At a very slender sixty-two minutes, the film is almost over before it has chance to begin which is probably a relief more then anything – the leeches don’t even get called that until about three quarters of the way. The same characters seem to pass through the same bits of the swamp in a never ending circle. Above all the film is just so uninteresting and bland because there’s nothing to keep your attention. The countless scenes without dialogue and loads of characters on-screen who look and sound the same as each other mean you won’t have a clue what is going on for the best part and when you do, you won’t care. This is with the exception of the purposefully-slutty Yvette Vickers, starring in a rather suggestive role for 1959.

 

Attack of the Giant Leeches is wretched. Just plain and simply one of the worst films ever made. Even genre fans who like to punish themselves by subjecting them to the worst material available will be hard-pressed to find anything of enjoyment here.

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Them! (1954)

Them! (1954)

FANTASTIC MONSTERS ATTACK EARTH!

Atomic testing in New Mexico causes normal ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters. Tracking the queens, a team of scientists discover that the ants are nesting in the sewer system of Los Angeles and with the way they are multiplying in number, could threaten the world within weeks.

 

One of the earliest of the 50s ‘atomic monster’ movies, Them! was the first one to feature mutated insects as its main threat which would become the genre norm in the years following (with the world having survived the onslaught of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 and Godzilla in 1954).Spiders, a giant mantis, locusts and giant antimatter space buzzards would all start to terrorise the world throughout the rest of the decade but it is with Them! that the roots of the genre are sown. The first one is also the best one by a country mile.

Them! is rightfully heralded as a sci-fi classic and it’s easy to see why. Director Gordon Douglas creates a suspenseful film in which its success is based upon how well you stomach the notion of giant mutated ants running amok in the desert. Thankfully the first-rate script does a fantastic job of building everything up nicely throughout the opening half: the appearance of the traumatised girl, a local store found destroyed, giant footprints in the sand, a state trooper goes missing off-screen. It all gives credible evidence to a serious threat and the ants are nowhere to be seen – but at least heard. The ants are given an effectively eerie high pitch shrieking noise which indicates their presence even if they aren’t sighted. And that they won’t be for a good portion of the film. This can get dialogue-heavy at times but that doesn’t detract from the quality on show.

It is the film’s cast of characters that have to keep driving the film forward and with the strong cast, they do just that. James Whitmore and James Arness make for likeable leads with Edmund Gwenn providing the scientific jargon with his elderly scientist. Gwenn steals the show with some seriously downbeat lines but he’s also there to throw in some minor comic relief from time to time. Watching him boss about the two younger men during action sequences is quite funny with the doddery old Gwenn leaving the physical side of the film to his co-stars. Also of note is Joan Wheldon who plays what would be considered the female love interest although the film is less concerned with providing a soppy romantic sub-plot than it is having Wheldon’s character at least attempt to portray some intelligence and self-control.

Finally when the ants do appear, all of the talk, the jargon and the plot hints have been building up nicely so that their impact is immediate. The ants are brought to life through the use of giant mechanical creations and although they may look a little dated nowadays, they still cause quite a stir whenever they’re on screen because at least there’s a physical presence for the actors to interact with, fending off mandibles and claws in desperation. Even then, Douglas tries to mask the failings of the ants, hiding them in the dark for the finale or battering the camera with sandstorms in a bid to cover everything up.

The final climax in the storm sewers of Los Angeles is a barnstorming way to end the film. Using the cramped and dark location to good advantage, the cinematographer creates an ominous setting where it is literally a struggle for survival between the army and the ants. Whilst other films were content to show famous landmarks being destroyed above ground, Them! proves that it could portray such an out-of-sight struggle and still be as effective in delivering an exciting spectacle. This finale in particular seems to be a prototype for any number of modern classics where people go looking for monsters in dark, labyrinthian settings.

 

Them! is classic 50s sci-fi at its most thought-provoking and entertainingly ludicrous. Why settle for second best with The Giant Mantis or Tarantula?  Watch Them!, the pinnacle of 50s atomic monster movies and a real gem of a long-lost genre of cinema. Giant bug flicks should never be as good as this.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Trollenberg Terror, The (1958)

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

A man dissolves…and out of the oozing mist comes the hungry eye, slave to the demon brain!

A series of unexplained deaths in the Swiss Alps leads investigator Alan Brooks to the Trollenberg mountain where the nearby observatory has been tracking a strange radioactive cloud that doesn’t seem to move. Joining him in his travels to Trollenberg, a couple of English psychics claim to be mysteriously drawn to an alien presence on the mountain. It is revealed that aliens from a dying planet have made the icy cold peaks their new home but are now moving down the mountain towards the village.

 

Another of Britain’s entries in the 50s science fiction genre, The Trollenberg Terror isn’t one of it’s greatest but still manages to deliver some eerie goods. Jimmy Sangster, the man who penned some of Hammer’s finest films, was given the task of writing and, fresh off completing a similar sci-fi tale with X the Unknown, comes armed with a wealth of ideas that would make Quatermass happy. Back in these days, the stories had to be top notch because everyone knew that the special effects were never that convincing. A good story and solid build-up would alleviate many of the weaknesses of the special effects – if the film did such a good job of making you believe in the existence of aliens and the science around them, it hardly mattered what they looked like because you were already sold on the idea. Such is the case with The Trollenberg Terror. A good story, some eerie moments and a gradual sense of impending doom keep the film ticking over until the disappointing aliens are revealed.

The plot, adapted from a BBC serial a couple of years earlier, is your routine story about mysterious goings on in a small town. You know the sort of film I’m referring to and the set-up is formulaic. There’s the pre-credits victim. The opening scene is really good and because you don’t actually see what is happening with the person off-screen, it’s a lot more effective. Local people then try and deal with the situation themselves. More disappearances. The townspeople call in some external help since their local experts don’t know what the problem is. Eventually this leads to a pivotal ‘reveal’ moment mid-way through the film in which the threat is uncovered. It’s the same routine with the scientific ground that it tries to cover – aliens coming from another dying planet and choosing Earth to be their new home, etc. The Trollberg Terror adheres to this template to perfection, casually going about its business with the minimum of fuss. It’s never overly boring but there are many occasions where you wish the pace would pick up just a little bit.

One good point is the use of the radioactive cloud. Every time the monsters go to attack, the cloud moves position on the mountain. Earlier in the film, this is a useful tool to create a bit of mystery and suspense. You know something is inside the cloud but you’re not sure what is lurking there. I guess it’s the imagination kicking into overdrive thinking about all of the weird and wonderful (and deadly) things that could be lurking in there. Regrettably, the monsters massively disappoint when they get their big reveal about half-way through and it is at this point the film loses its mystery and suspense. With everyone trapped inside the observatory, you’d think there would be some Night of the Living Dead-style barricade where the survivors fight off the monsters. But that doesn’t happen and the finale is a bit of a damp squib, with the blame solely lying at the feet of the special effects.

The monster designs are very good so it is a pity that they’re unable to do much on-camera and make themselves look like a threat. The fact that the monsters are giant brains with a big eyeball is no secret due to the fact that they’re plastered all over the front cover. They get a great debut late on the film when a character opens up the door of the hotel to see one peering in. Sadly, whenever they’re required to move or attack, they look like the models being pulled across miniature sets that they are. The humans either have unconvincing fights with rubber tentacles that don’t move or the monsters simply attack clay figures on the model sets. There’s a rather infamous attack during the observatory finale where one of the monsters grabs an unlucky chap by the throat and lifts him up off the floor – the following scene of a model man being pathetically hoisted up by the cheap monster makes me chuckle every time. At least they tried.

 

Typical of standard 50s sci-fi, The Trollenberg Terror isn’t anything special when you consider what else was out around the same period (I’m thinking of the Quatermass films here). It would have been better had the finale been more exciting and the special effects been more convincing. Even the Japanese were managing to do decent miniature work at this time with Godzilla and his giant monster friends.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆