Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 4: The 1950s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

39. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954- dir. Jack Arnold)

By the 1950s, Gothic horror had been all but stamped out in America. The increasingly schlocky films being churned out of Universal, as well as “poverty row” studios such as Monogram and Republic, have a certain charm but don’t compare to their ‘30s predecessors. World War II had left most folks with enough real horror to last their lifetimes. The ‘50s began with a gasp (“Good lord!”) as E.C. Comics seemed ripe to pick up where cinema left off with its beloved horror titles: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. Upping the level of gore and delicious bad taste of cinematic horror, these comics were squelched almost as soon as they were born during the absurdly alarmist hearings by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. With mounting fears about nuclear war, Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster started to seem as non-threatening as Abbott and Costello. This did not mean that the public had its fill of monsters; it just meant the new monsters were of a different sort than the Universal creeps of old, and the films they populated were not considered “horror” but “science fiction.” Ants and spiders made monstrous by atomic energy (“Good lord!!”) were the latest purveyors of nightmares, though they hardly possessed the personalities or appeal of the humanoid monsters they replaced. Universal still had one more two-legged monster in its menagerie. Enter the Gill Man, not a product of the nuclear age, but an ancient evolutionary false start, a mutant missing link between fish and humans. Despite the creature’s scientific, rather than supernatural, origin, he’s as sympathetic and tragic as the Im-Ho-Tep or Larry Talbot. He’s perfectly content swimming around in his lagoon, minding his own business, and being gruesome. Then a boatload of meddling scientists come along, flick their cigarette butts into his home, and scheme to drag him out of the Amazon and off to a lab in the States. Revisionist critics often read The Creature from the Black Lagoon as an ecological statement, although it’s pretty unlikely that Arnold wanted to do anything but scare the dungarees off matinee audiences in glorious 3-D. Hans Salter’s score is grating, but the deadly Amazon, where everything is a “killer”, is a setting every bit as atmospheric as the Gothic castles in the Universal pictures of yore. The underwater photography is as gorgeous as Millicent Patrick’s creature design is dazzling.

40. Gojira (1954- dir. Ishiro Honda)

While the Gill Man was terrorizing American kids, a bigger, badder scaly menace was rising from the waves off the Japanese coast. The monsters incubator was Toho, a production company thats previous film was Akira Kurosawas The Seven Samurai. Tojos latest picture would almost instantly make it as synonymous with awful beasts as Universal. Unlike the Gill Man, Gojira—or Godzilla, as the Yanks renamed him—was a product of nuclear energy, specifically the hydrogen bomb tests that awoke him from hibernation in the depths of the Pacific. Anyone who grew up with the full-color schlock fests in which Godzilla stomped Tokyo while wrestling giant moths and super turtles will be shocked by his eponymous debut. This is a moody, black and white requiem that draws some pretty explicit correlations between the horrible destruction 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 overshadowed by an endless string of silly sequels. The original is a sad and angry invective hailing from a country that still had much to be sad and angry about. Gojira was recut for the American market with Raymond Burr awkwardly edited into the picture and the tragic implications muted. The original cut is the only way to view the film that established Japan as a new titan on the Monster movie battlefield.

41. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955- dir. Val Guest)

Great Britain would never be known as a major exporter of science fiction cinema. BBC TV was a different story. Pioneering future favorites such as Dr. Who, The Prisoner, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Torchwood was The Quatermass Experiment. The six-episode serial used the British space programme as a launching pad for a tale of an alien that infiltrates a crashed rocket. Professor Bernard Quatermass leads the search for runaway astronaut Carroon, who is possessed by an alien bent on spewing spores into the atmosphere capable of exterminating all life on Earth. The show was a big hit in 1953, so two years later a British studio known for its cheap “quota quickies” brought the series to the big screen in a bid for quick cash. Hammer Studios took its first major step into the supernatural with The Quatermass Xperiment, so retitled to exploit the X-rating the film earned for its shocking level of gore. Indeed it is more gruesome than anything that would appear in America prior to splatter-king Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast in 1963. Carroon leaves a trail of mutilated corpses as he lumbers to Westminster Abbey where he will complete his transformation into a giant octopus monster and unleash his deadly spores. The Quatermass Xperiment is technically science fiction, with its rockets, astronauts, space programmes, and aliens. The E.C.-style gore, Carroon’s monstrous deeds, and his increasingly monstrous appearance are pure horror. His encounter with a girl played by a very young Jane Asher is an obvious nod to Frankenstein, as his ultimate destination of a major landmark is a cap-tip to King Kong. The Quatermass Xperiment is a thrilling and smart flick that should appeal to sci-fi and horror freaks alike, but its historical value is monumental, prepping Hammer’s coming domination of horror cinema, as well as bracing viewers for all the blood and entrails the studio would soon show them in ghastly full color.

42. The Night of the Hunter (1955- dir. Charles Laughton)

The Night of the Hunter is indicative of how American cinema assimilated non-sci-fi horror during the ‘50s. This is not a traditional supernatural horror film, although it is hardly realistic. It isn’t a precursor to the serial killer films Psycho would soon spark, although the villain is a serial killer. Scares are not its sole aim, although it is scary and in a variety of ways, discharging creepy suspense, threats of violence, startling shocks, and quietly haunting images that likely inspired their share of nightmares. If there is a precursor to this thoroughly unique film it is the grim fairy tales some parents unwisely tell their children at bedtime. Young Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce are Hansel and Gretel, orphaned siblings adrift in nature, hunted by Robert Mitchum’s Big Bad Wolf. Lillian Gish is Mother Goose, swooping in to protect the children beneath her guiding wings. Director Charles Laughton makes these connections explicit when having Mitchum howl like an animal after Gish wounds him and showing geese trail after Gish when we first meet her. Like “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Hansel and Gretel”, and the rest, The Night of the Hunter may disturb children, but it will also enchant them with its moments of fairy tale innocence, particularly the famed riverboat-escape sequence, which may be cinema’s most magical. Because The Night of the Hunter is such a jarring union of childlike wonder and adult themes—Mitchum’s Henry Powell is a preacher driven to murder women by his sexual disgust—it had trouble pleasing critics and finding audiences. Further trouble arrived when officious religious groups protested the film because of its depiction of a killer preacher, while completely ignoring the fact that the film’s heroine is a saintly Bible quoter. Perhaps such groups did not appreciate the complexity of Gish’s Rachel Cooper, who does not castigate her oldest charge after discovering she’s been sneaking out to fool around with men but responds with understanding and sympathy. Whatever the reason, a minority of viewers appreciated The Night of the Hunter during its initial run. Time, of course, has been gracious to Laughton’s film and it is now regarded as an absolute classic. That he never directed another film makes it all the more precious.

43. Revenge of the Creature (1955- dir. Jack Arnold)

Just when the Universal horror tradition seemed dead in the ground after ten years of spoofy, schlocky sequels and monster rallies (albeit absurdly fun spoofy, schlocky sequels and monster rallies), a new monster came lurching from the depths to give it a last gasp. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was so successful because it conflated the horror tropes of old (sympathetic, romantic, iconic monster doomed by small-minded, selfish humans) with the new brand of sci-fi (non-Gothic setting; non-supernatural explanation for the creature’s existence). Because the Gill Man is so much worthier of our care than all the aliens and giant bugs of his generation, audiences wanted to reconnect with him after his— no hyperbole here— tragic death at the end of Black Lagoon. Of course, no bankable monster is ever really dead, and just one year later we learned the Gill Man had survived his first adventure and was now ready to star in his second. Coupled with its predecessor, Revenge of the Creature plays a bit like a remake of King Kong. Black Lagoon updates Kong’s Skull Island sequence; Revenge puts a new twist on the amok-in-Manhattan portion. The Gill Man wouldn’t have much to do in the big city, so he is relocated from his Amazonian home to a Florida marine park instead. There he is shackled, gawked at, and zapped with an electrified prodder to keep him in line. Like Kong, the Gill Man makes off with the human object of his desire (Lori Nelson subbing for Julia Adams) and meets his (temporary) end in time for the final credits. Along with the chance to spend more time with one of our favorite monsters, Revenge of the Creature provides the pleasure of seeing him raise hell in a totally new environment. ‘50s movie goers got the additional thrill of seeing him do his thing in 3-D, though the picture is probably a lot more enjoyable without having to endure the eye strain and headaches that come with that format. A few decades later, Revenge of the Creature would basically be remade as Jaws 3-D, highlighting the importance of a charismatic monster.

44. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956- dir. Don Siegel)

The same year The Quatermass Xperiment was taking over movie theaters, Jack Finney published The Body Snatchers, another tale of outer-space invaders bent on taking over the Earth by taking over human bodies. The scares in Quatermass are firmly rooted in the shocking monster movie tradition. As realized for the screen as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Finney’s story plays harder on the psyche. This is the ultimate paranoiac thriller. Coming during an era of intense fear on both ends of the political spectrum, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its alien pod people were inevitably viewed as metaphors for both communism and Joseph McCarthy’s crazed actions to root out communists in the U.S. By all accounts, neither Finney nor director Don Siegel had any such ideas when making the film, which works perfectly without a political agenda. The dead-eyed replicas are considerably more frightening than any of the decade’s more monstrous creations. One would never expect to meet anything as outlandish as Godzilla or the Gill Man in real life, but seeing the husk of a loved one flushed of all free will, consciousness, and humanity is not completely beyond possibility, and therefore, far more disturbing. Siegel orchestrates the tempo masterfully, building to the frenzied climax in which the formerly composed Dr. Bennell rushes through traffic shouting at motorists—and most terrifyingly, at the audience directly —“You’re next! You’re next!” This tragic finale is made more tragic by Allied Artists Picture’s insistence on a tacked-on epilogue that undercuts the more powerful, pessimistic ending Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring intended. Do yourself a favor and turn off the film as soon as Bennell tells you you’re next. Though that unfortunate addition weakens Invasion of the Body Snatchers, nothing can diminish its influence on the similar flights of paranoia that emerged in its wake, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Stepford Wives to The Omen to its own inferior remakes.

45. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957- dir. Terence Fisher)

The Quatermass Xperiment was successful, but it wasn’t the film that made Hammer synonymous with horror. Almost two years of non-horror fare passed before that landmark film arrived. Like Quatermass, Hammer’s reimagining of Frankenstein put more bloody flesh on the screen than audiences were used to at the time, but it did so without masquerading as science fiction and in shocking full color. The Curse of Frankenstein is capital-H Horror. It also fully established the conventions fans would soon associate with Hammer: excessive blood, sleazy sex, and source material with roots in Universal horror. Terence Fisher’s remake arrived just a few months shy of the 25th anniversary of Whale’s original, but the new film could hardly be called a respectful homage. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster makes his film great by jettisoning much of what made Whale’s great. Frankenstein was a poetic, deeply humane portrait of a monstrous innocent driven to horrendous acts after being abandoned by his equally sympathetic creator. The Curse of Frankenstein is a portrait of cruelty. Focus shifts away from the Monster and onto the doctor, who is more villainous than any horror character since Mamoulian’s Hyde, and like Hyde, he is not without his charms because he is played with electrifying gusto. Peter Cushing is great in the title role, magnetic even as he murders a kindly house guest, launches into megalomaniacal rants, or torments the maid with whom he’s having an affair. Christopher Lee makes a lesser impact as the Monster because Fisher gives him a minimum of screen time and doesn’t bother imbuing him with any of the complexities Whale and Karloff gave theirs. Humanity and complexity are not on the agenda here. Its utter cynicism, undiluted by an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style disclaimer, can be felt in many horror films to follow. Typical of a Hammer Horror, critics loathed The Curse of Frankenstein but audiences loved it, and its international success confirmed the studio as the new generation’s Universal and Cushing and Lee as its Karloff and Lugosi.

46. Night of the Demon (1957- dir. Jacques Tourneur)

Jacques Tourneur drifts the dark shadows that distinguished his work with Val Lewton over Night of the Demon. This British creep show is one of the earliest to touch on the touchy subject of Satanism, and it differs from the documentary Häxan and thrillers such as The Black Cat and Lewton’s own The Seventh Victim by presenting the subject matter as unambiguously supernatural. This isn’t a bad thing, but the demon studio execs insisted on showcasing is a phony looking prop resembling the offspring of King Kong and King Ghidorah. The creature is much more effective in its incarnation as a flying ball of smoke. Mercifully, it receives little screen time, and Tourneur executes the plot sandwiched between the demon’s two appearances superbly. American Dr. Holden arrives in Britain for a conference to discover his colleague has been killed, which leads him to the insidious yet winsome Karswell, who entertains children as a clown-faced magician and whips up an impromptu windstorm for kicks. Karswell flares the suspense level when he tells Dr. Holden the exact time of his death— which will come to pass unless he calls off his investigation into his colleague’s death. Atmospheric, inventive, and entertaining, Night of the Demon is a neat missing link between Lewton’s subtle horrors and the more monstrous movies lurching out of Hammer studios. But beware Curse of the Demon, the U.S. drive-in edit that loses fourteen essential minutes, including Holden’s chilling meeting with a clan of farm folk and portions of a bizarre séance.

47. Dracula (1958- dir. Terence Fisher)

The suits at Hammer must have taken all of three seconds to decide upon the follow up to 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. Just as Universal knew Frankenstein was the natural follow up to their Dracula, Hammer recognized the reverse would work equally well. One can recognize Dracula as a Terence Fisher/Hammer production even before the opening credits are complete: we zoom into a crypt and focus on a casket dripped with vivid red-paint blood. As was the case with Curse, subtlety was not much concern in Dracula. Unlike that film, we are presented with a hero of the highest moral character. Deliciously, Van Helsing is played by the actor who brought such immoral menace to the earlier film. Peter Cushing proves he is just as affecting as the good guy as he was as the bad, bringing much zest and charm and heroic confidence to Van Helsing. Once again, Christopher Lee is somewhat underused as the monster, although his commanding presence and rich baritone are put to much better use as Count Dracula then they were as Frankenstein’s wobbly creature. His greatest scenes are reserved for the beginning of the film. About halfway though, he is reduced to the speechless, leering thing he’d reprise in countless Dracula sequels. Fisher’s film also differs from Stoker and Browning by jumbling character relationships, having Jonathan Harker turn into a vampire and get staked early in the picture, and—most egregious of all—losing Renfield. Yet, Dracula (or Horror of Dracula, as it was titled in the U.S. so not to be mistaken for Tod Browning’s film) is the jewel in Hammer’s crown because of the sumptuous visuals Fisher lays out like a decadent, aristocratic banquet: the costumes, the colors, the castles, the wind-blown leaves, the creepy woods— what an invitingly Gothic landscape! Significantly, Hammer’s two big monster movies contributed to a burgeoning monster revival sweeping kid culture in the late ‘50s. The films coincided with the launch of the syndicated “Shock Theater” package that gave a new generation of TV viewers its first taste of Universal’s classic horror. Forrest J. Ackerman capitalized on the craze and fueled it further with his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Like The Mummy, the iconic monsters had laid dormant for a long spell, but a few conjuring words from Forry, horror hosts such as Zacherley and Vampira, and Hammer’s chief screenwriter Jimmy Sangster were enough to bring them back from the dead. Their young legion of followers, now known affectionately as “Monster Kids,” guaranteed these creeps would never be out of the pop cultural floodlights again.

48. The Fly (1958- dir. Kurt Neumann)

Back in the States, science fiction continued to reign as a more acceptable alternative to Gothic or supernatural horror. Yet some sci-fi started resembling the horror films of old. The Fly is essentially an old-fashioned mad scientist picture not too far removed from Frankenstein, although it may not have had such high production values had it slipped out without its sci-fi designation. Director Kurt Neumann’s use of Cinemascope and Color by Deluxe makes most other sci-fi thrillers look cheap. The Fly is as lush as a Douglas Sirk film, and its melodramatic, tragic take on romance, as well as its tiered structure, also suggest a monster movie made by the king of “women’s pictures.” Screenwriter James Clavell develops George Langelaan’s original short story into a clever three-act play: Act I is a murder mystery, Act II a passage of sci-fi techno-drama, and Act III a scary monster movie. Its structure saves The Fly, which is talky and short on creature screen time, from ever feeling static. The search for a mysterious white-headed fly tethers the film together and sets up the infamously terrifying denouement. Neumann and his fine cast wring real emotion out of the search, though everyone seems unaffected by the tragic events they experienced in the strangely cheerful epilogue. American horror still had a way to go before becoming as steely as its British counterpart.

49. House on Haunted Hill (1959- dir. William Castle)

In the final year of the ‘50s, major Hollywood studios still seemed convinced pure horror was dead. With the continued reign of science fiction, they were perfectly happy to leave the monsters and mausoleums to the Brits and Z-grade American studios. Such blinkered attitudes meant the big studios were missing out on the new horror fascination spreading amongst kids hooked on Famous Monsters and “Shock Theater”. The Monster Kids were eager to spend their quarters on anything remotely resembling the old movies they’d been catching on late-night TV, and if the majors weren’t going to capitalize on that interest, then low-budget entrepreneurs like Samuel Z. Arkoff, Roger Corman, and the former William Schloss were more than happy to. Translating his last name from the German “Schloss” into English, William Castle might have seemed the most exploitative of the new B-horror kings. The flimsy plastic skeletons and grue make-up proliferating his movies weren’t nearly as flimsy as the gimmicks he employed to sell them. To publicize his Macabre, Castle took out an alleged $1,000 life insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London in the event any kiddies dropped dead of fright while watching the less-than-frightening flick. For his next picture he developed the exotic sounding effect “Emergo”— an inflatable skeleton dangled over the audience during a key point in House on Haunted Hill. Did the kids in the audience feel cheated by the effect’s lameness? Adults witnessing them tossing their popcorn boxes at the crappy skeleton probably would have said, “Yes.” But those kids were having a ball. Castle’s gimmicks were silly (even as the later “Percepto” and “Illusion-O” did indicate greater levels of ambition and imagination), yet they helped drum up interest and engage audiences in movies that were pretty damn interesting and engaging already. House on Haunted Hill is Castle’s best: corny (the “spend a night in a haunted house to win a fortune” plot), visually inventive (Elisha Cook’s floating-head prologue; the “living rope” sequence), and effectively scary (the classic “hag on roller skates” shocker). Most of all House on Haunted Hill is great fun. The memorability of Castle’s gimmicks is a testament to his abilities as a showman; the film itself is a testament to his abilities as a B-movie craftsman. None of this was lost on Alfred Hitchcock when he started crafting the horror movie that would define the next decade.

50. The Mummy (1959- dir. Terence Fisher)

Hammer stuck close to formula with its final horror of the ‘50s by remaking Universal’s successor to Dracula and Frankenstein. Cushing, Lee, Sangster, and Fisher all return for The Mummy, which actually has more in common with the mediocre sequel The Mummy’s Tomb than the 1932 Karloff vehicle. This is not one of Sangster’s cleverest scripts, but Lee gets to upstage costar Cushing for the first time. Spending much of the movie wrapped in dirty bandages, his face caked in Egyptian mud, Lee is still more sympathetic as lovelorn Kharis than he was in his earlier monster roles. He also gets some quality face time and dialogue during a lavish, 13-minute sequence reimagining the mummification scene from the original Mummy, though without reaching similar heights of claustrophobia-inducing terror. The greatest triumph of The Mummy is that of Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, and their brilliant art department. The team’s use of colored lights, painted backdrops, spectacular costumes and props, and sets cluttered with detail make the whole picture look like a canvass thick with rich oils. The Mummy was Hammer’s first horror film to receive some positive critical notices, but its appeal was certainly most obvious to young monster enthusiasts. The horror genre, however, was about to grow up during a decade of near constant upheaval and violence.

Creep on to the '60s...

Flee back to the ‘40s...
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