There are so many great sci-fi/horror movies from the 1950s that I’ve decided to bundle a few here and there into single posts (much to husband D’s chagrin; he could write pages on each of them!). I just think I’ll cover more ground quicker if do quick pieces on one or two at a time.
(I also have to confess that K’s very existence is owed, in part, to D’s desire to have a kid sandwiched between us, with a big bowl of popcorn and some Mug Root Beer, watching what was called, in the Bay Area, “Creature Features,” on Saturday nights. It was a tradition in his family, and also in mine, and early on in our married life, D felt the addition of a kid to the mix was necessary. I said, “Ok.”*)
While some of the films from this period are viewed as “cult classics” and perhaps a little kitschy (they pretty much fall under the “B movie” rubric, and B-movies generally get short shrift), these films stand up today as involving, thought-provoking and even a little spine-tingling because they were well-crafted and well thought-out. They often played on very real fears of the time, about nuclear war and the “Red menace" (communism, for you youngsters), about the rapid advent of technology and new science ... a sort of unspoken, intangible fear that our glorious, apple pie-scented, U.S. of A. might wake up one morning only to find everything had changed and there was no going back.
The very idea of alien beings landing on your neighbors’ farm, or people being “replaced” by replicants, or shapeless monsters coming in the night, can still be extremely entertaining for kids and adults alike. But, with these older films, you pretty much know you’re free of worrying about the kinds of things that color so many sci-fi and horror films today.
Ok, you’re sort of free.
This is why I’m here, to help guide you!
I’ll open this whole can of worms with a recommendation of sorts (it comes with an age caveat), and look at another film that represents the kinds of surprises you may encounter in work from this era. Doing your own homework (on titles you can’t find here on KidsFlix) will help you out, of course, as it does with every other genre.
As I mentioned before, we made the mistake of watching the fantastic 1954 film, THEM!, when K was just a bit young for it. He was about eight or nine years old, and our own memories of the giant, mutant ants (they were, of course, a result of radioactive fallout from bomb tests) were that they were a bit silly and the entire movie was just oodles of fun. Well, we were part right: the movie was oodles of fun, and the ants were actually cooler than we remembered – but what freaked K out at the tender age of “under 10” was a scene neither of us thought much of when we all watched it. But K lost sleep that night. And the next. And the next.
It was a scene (or two) of a young girl, in shock, traumatized by what she had seen when the ants descended on her town (of course, the implied carnage – implied – may have been a bit much for a young kid, too). The girl was fair haired and delicate looking, and walked as if in a trance ... her eyes were deep wells of emptiness.
Who knew this image would give K nightmares for a few nights? I’m sure some kids who are exposed to more mature themes than K was at that age might not have been bothered by anything in this movie. (You know your kids best, etc.) But I feel more comfortable saying that THEM! is probably fine viewing for kids 10 and older.
The other film was one that just caught us off-guard. It came from the 1950’s horror film calendar hanging in our kitchen; the calendar features 12 B-movie classics, and we’ve tried to see each month’s featured film. (I’ll be doing posts on the titles we found that were successful, and skip the titles that didn’t fly so well.)
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1959) was, to our surprise, pretty risqué and a bit more terrifying than the calendar artwork and any IMDB notes would have us think. But I blame D for this goof; a look at the user reviews on Netflix would have steered us away from this one (“I highly recommend it, especially for the mid-movie catfight between strippers [in all their 1950s pinup glory] and the evil head.”) Ooops. (Note: we never found the head to be all that evil.)
In this movie, our mad doctor/protagonist saves the severed head of his girlfriend, who died in a car crash, and sets about finding the perfect body for her. As you might imagine, this opens up all kinds of opportunities for injecting a bit of sexploitation into the mix, including the aforementioned wrestling match/cat fight between two scantily clad women, grappling and pulling each other's hair on a nightclub dressing room floor. Yes. We watched strippers wrestle, with our 11-year-old son. (You’re not calling the authorities, are you?)
As if that weren’t bad enough, there was a mutant creature hidden away in a closet that became more monstrous as the film went on; the thing is never on camera, and so of course one’s imagination takes flight, and it becomes as hideous as one can imagine. The creature’s tortured existence leads him to violence and revenge in the end, and for a ‘50s flick, it was a bit more intense than we had anticipated.
A couple of years in age can make a huge difference, though, and K didn’t seem much phased by any of it. His mom and dad were the ones wringing their hands through the whole movie.
So, if you’re interested in this genre – and perhaps in a range of B-movies from this era – stay tuned and I’ll help you figure out which ones might not scare the bejeesus out of the kids, or have them asking, “Mom, why is that woman in a restaurant in her underwear?”
I'll also write up a few great movies for Halloween season in the coming days.
*Ok, there was a little more involved in the decision-making process than this.