Sunday, July 25, 2010

April 2, 2009: A Peachy Keen Look at the Sci-Fi ’50s

Without a doubt, the 1930s was the Golden Age of the horror movie. The ‘40s were short on classics at the level of Bride of Frankenstein or Rupert Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but Universal managed to turn out another masterpiece in the form of The Wolf Man, while Val Lewton was producing some of the classiest chillers ever made over at RKO. However, the genre was (temporarily) on its way to the mausoleum by the 1950s. With atom age panic reaching a fever after the Soviets obtained the A-bomb, Joseph McCarthy further stirring the cauldron of paranoia with his anti-communist investigations, and the first widely-reported UFO sighting by the pilot Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947, the prevailing fascination of the ‘50s was shaping up to be the science fiction picture. Sci-fi would soon develop a cult following possibly even more rabid than that of horror. Still, for many, no amount of giant ants or 50-foot women could replace the Gothic atmosphere and iconography of Dracula or Frankenstein. Horror fans would have much to celebrate toward the end of the decade when Hammer Studios in England rescued the genre, but before then they’d have to make due with big bugs and big-headed aliens.

As a monster movie geek, I’ve sat through many of the sci-fi flicks of the ‘50s, but I have to admit that most don’t do much for me. I appreciate films like Them, Tarantula, and The Thing from Another World more than I love them. However, there are a few sci-fi films from the ‘50s that I do love— films that not only stand as great sci-fi movies, but great movies in any genre.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) One might be hard pressed to find a distinguishing thread running through the numerous films Robert Wise directed aside from the fact that many of them were genre masterpieces. Wise crafted brilliant crime thrillers (Born to Kill), musicals (West Side Story), horror films (The Haunting), dark fantasies (The Curse of the Cat People), and sci-fi pictures. The finest alien invasion flick of the ‘50s was Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, which was novel in that the interplanetary visitors weren’t hell bent on annihilating Earth—the general modus operandi of aliens ever since H.G. Wells’s penned The War of the Worlds. Naturally, the American military assumes the worst and is ready with the tanks and the mortars. When spaceketeer Klaatu (Michael Rennie, although Wise wanted Claude Raines to play the role) steps off his UFO and declares that he has come in peace, one of the soldiers shoots him. Typical. Like many of the best sci-fi and horror films, the real monsters of The Day the Earth Stood Still are human beings. This is a thoughtful, well-acted film that totally outclasses the big screen adaptation of The War of the Worlds that would appear two years later. The heroes take refuge in a church, pray to God, and suddenly the hostile Martians begin dying off? Lame!

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) Straddling the border between sci-fi and horror, Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon starred the last of Universal’s iconic monsters: the Gill Man. Pseudo-science is provided by the explanation that the creature is a missing link between fish and man (and I always thought that was Don Knotts). Otherwise, this is a straight up horror film with the creature lumbering around and doling out the heart-sick pathos like Frankenstein’s Monster. The deadly Amazon, where everything is a “killer”, proves to be a setting every bit as atmospheric as the creepy castles in the Universal pictures of yore. As nasty a customer as the Gil Man is, the humans are once again the real villains of the film, scheming to drag him back to civilization and polluting his lagoon with their cigarette butts. Some revisionist critics read the film as an ecological statement, although it’s pretty unlikely that Arnold wanted to do anything but scare the pants off the audience. To enhance the terror, the film was shot in 3-D, although old-fashioned 3-D never worked very well. Fortunately, the film remains a genre classic on its 2-D merits. The music is fucking irritating, though.

Gojira (1954) The same year that the Gil Man established himself as one of the last classic monsters, another scaly, green menace was doing the very same thing over in Japan. Gojira—or Godzilla, as the western world translated it—is a towering, prehistoric creature reawakened from the depths of the Pacific by hydrogen bomb tests. The film draws some pretty explicit correlations between the horrible destruction that Gojira wreaks on Odo Island and the horrible destruction America rained down on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade earlier. The victims of Gojira’s radiation breath are shown reeling on row after row of hospital cots in a scene directly inspired by the aftermath of the hydrogen bomb detonation that ended World War II. Gojira is by far the most depressing classic sci-fi film, a reality that has been greatly muted by an endless string of silly sequels in which the monster does battle with giant moths and super-turtles. The original is a sad and angry masterpiece hailing from a country that still had much to be sad and angry about. Famously, Gojira was recut for the American market with Raymond Burr awkwardly edited into the picture and the tragic implications muted.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Quite unlike the meditative The Day the Earth Stood Still, the fun Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the elegiac Gojira was Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which pulled off the neatest trick of all by actually being scary. The film stands up even today due to the universality of its premise. What is more frightening than the slow, churning realization that everyone you love has been replaced by malevolent entities and that “you’re next!”? The terror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers lays in its threats of loneliness and the inevitability of death. That is why it doesn’t feel like some dated anti-communist screed, which is how many have read the film. In fact, producer Walter Mortimer Mirisch, star Kevin McCarthy, and Jack Finney, who wrote The Body Snatchers (the novel upon which the film is based), all insisted that the film had no political agenda at all. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is better viewed with that in mind. It is also most effective if the viewer walks out while McCarthy is still running around like a maniac, screaming “You’re next!”, which was just how the filmmakers intended the picture to end. Tragically, the Powers That Be at Allied Artists Pictures insisted on a tacked-on happy ending that pisses on one of the scariest would-be finales ever filmed.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) In The Incredible Shrinking Man, Jack Arnold fashioned an environment that was even more harrowing than the Amazonian jungle of Creature from the Black Lagoon. The idealization of ‘50s domesticity gets a severe kick in the nuts when a suburban home becomes a terrain of terror after Scott Carey (Grant Williams) begins shrinking as a result of exposure to some sort of mutant insecticide. Suddenly, a minor basement flood becomes a whirlpool of death and the family cat is a monstrosity every bit as menacing as Gojira. In terms of special effects and sheer thrills, The Incredible Shrinking Man stands up proudly against any adventure film made during any era. The elliptical conclusion skirts the traditional happy ending even as Carey’s closing philosophical musings keep it from being a necessarily unhappy one. While most ‘50s sci-fi films were aimed straight at the kiddie matinee crowd, The Incredible Shrinking Man was a thoughtful, strikingly mature work. Chances are the same will not be able to be said about an upcoming remake starring Eddie Murphy. Gag.

The Fly (1958) While many of the technology-gone-mad films of the ‘50s pivot on grand scale scientific fuck-ups, Dr. Andre Delambre’s mishap in The Fly only manages to fuck up Dr. Andre Delambre. In a plot device that now seems older than the hills, Delambre (David Hedison) merges himself with a housefly while experimenting with a teleportation device. Now he must track down the rogue fly so he can reclaim his human head. While schlocky and absurd (if he has a giant fly head, wouldn’t he also have a giant fly brain and be more concerned with eating poo than anything else?) The Fly is fairly moving, due to Delambre’s plight, and the ending is as unsettlingly creepy as it is famous (although Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall apparently found it so hilarious that the scene required multiple takes before they were able to keep their faces straight). David Cronenberg’s superior remake released in 1986 upped the poignancy and the horror, but nothing in that film was as indelible as the ending of Kurt Neumann’s original.

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