Wednesday, October 26, 2011

HORROR HARVEST: Part Five: Atomic Age monsters

After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, where could horror film go? The unbelievable terrors that mankind unleashed upon itself during the Second World War dwarfed anything a storyteller could conceive.

After this, two distinct paths diverge from each other in horror cinema. One continues frighten through metaphor and suggestion. The other starts down the ever-escalating process of providing more and more graphic gore, trying somehow to come to terms with the frightening capabilities people proved could come from them.

The film industry began to loosen it s taboos at the same time. The inroads television made on film audiences meant that movies had to provide something you couldn’t get from staying home and watching the boob tube. That meant epics, super- wide-screen and 3-D screenings; more sex, more violence, and controversial topics; the incursion of more broad-ranging foreign and “art” films; that meant throwing the Motion Picture Production Code out the window.

It’s a delicate balancing act from this point on. Does graphic depiction of the forbidden, or relentless assault on a viewer’s sensibilities, mean that the film is without merit? It’s a subject we’ll examine in much greater detail in later chapters.

As it stood, a flood of horror hit the screens in the decade following the end of the war. In a new development, it cross-pollinated strongly with the science-fiction genre – one that had primarily focused on flights of fantasy (“Die Frau im der Mond,” Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, “Things to Come,” “Destination Moon”) rather than monsters and death. The opening of the Space Age filled people with curiosity and an appetite for speculative fiction on the subject. There was a whole new realm of which to be afraid.

Now the horror/sci-fi rush broke down roughly into three categories: man’s scientific experiments (usually atomic) creates/awakens non-human, giant monster, or causes Earth’s destruction; alien creatures invade, seeking to subdue/enslave/consume/erase mankind; or tampering with things better left alone creates an altered self – a shrinking/colossal/transparent/all-seeing man, warped out of shape and usually out of his mind as well.

By and large, the effects were cheap and cheesy, but it didn’t bother moviegoers one bit. They gave themselves eagerly to the premises these films worked from. The monsters lost their pathos, became reptilian and insectoid – things to be squashed, exploded, stomped (only Godzilla wound up as a kind of de facto defender of Earth). 

Science’s individual victims became hostile, aggressive, resentful, alienated – there was no way to reintegrate them into society. And the aliens, like Communism, were an amoral force that sought to take over our souls and destroy our treasured way of life. They deserved no mercy. (Only in one film, 1953's “It Came from Outer Space,” do we find out that the benign visitors are just here to put their ship up on the rack and tweak its interstellar carburetor – Ray Bradbury supplied the non-traditional script.)

Mankind usually triumphs. However, we begin to see a lack of complete resolution. In “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” an “everything is under control” ending was forced on director Don Siegel and tacked awkwardly on the end; in other films, a familiar “The End?” would be seen, leaving room for doubt if not for a sequel.

At the conclusion of Val Guest’s 1961 “The Day the Earth Caught Fire,” nuclear detonations are made to drive an off-course Earth back into its normal orbit. In a newspaper office, two front-page headlines are prepared: “WORLD SAVED” and “WORLD DOOMED.” For those of us who grew up in during the Cold War, under the direct daily threat of atomic annihilation, it was a scenario with which we were all-too-comfortable.


The Thing from Another World
Christian Nyby
1951


The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
Eugene Lourie
1953

Invaders from Mars
William Cameron Menzies
1953


The Magnetic Monster
Curt Siodmak
1953

Donovan’s Brain
Felix E. Feist
1953

Them!
Gordon Douglas
1954


Creature from the Black Lagoon
Jack Arnold
1954


Killers from Space
W. Lee Wilder
1954


Godzilla
Ishiro Honda
1954


The Beast with a Million Eyes
David Kramarsky
1955

It Came from Beneath the Sea
Robert Gordon
1955

Tarantula
Jack Arnold
1955

It Conquered the World
Roger Corman
1956

The Quatermass Xperiment
Val Guest
1956


Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Don Siegel
1956


X the Unknown
Leslie Norman
1956


Attack of the Crab Monsters
Roger Corman
1957


The Amazing Colossal Man
Bert I. Gordon
1957

Not of This Earth
Roger Corman
1957

Beginning of the End
Bert I. Gordon
1957

Monster from Green Hell
Kenneth G. Crane
1957

Quatermass 2
Val Guest
1957


The Incredible Shrinking Man
Jack Arnold
1957


Night of the Blood Beast
Bernard L. Kowalski
1958

The Fly
Kurt Neumann
1958

It! The Terror from Beyond Space
Edward L. Cahn
1958

War of the Colossal Beast
Bert I. Gordon
1958

The Hideous Sun Demon
Robert Clarke
1959

The Amazing Transparent Man
Edgar Ulmer
1960


The Day the Earth Caught Fire
Val Guest
1961


Reptilicus
Poul Bang
1961

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die
Joseph Green
1962


The Attack of the Mushroom People
Ishiro Honda
1963


X the Man with the X-Ray Eyes
Roger Corman
1963


The Birds
Alfred Hitchcock
1963


Crack in the World
Andrew Marton
1965


Destroy All Monsters
Ishiro Honda
1968

NEXT UP: The bloody success of Hammer horror