Field Trip! Yes, that’s right, class. Today we’re stepping out of this drafty, dank and dark classroom and we’re going down to The Museum of Monstrosities. If you are under eighteen I will need a permission slip signed by your legal guardian and if you are unable to provide this, tag along anyway! It’ll be our little secret.
You’ll all find this place to be above the bar when it comes to the gold standard of horror and while there are endless displays and artifacts, today I would like you to focus on the Horror Cinema in the 1950s installation. After all, that is what this chapter the course is all about. I’m positive you’ll find it absolutely paranoia-inducing. So gather your things and follow me to the parking lot where our hearse is waiting to take us on our journey into the frightful fifties!
Horror Gets An Upgrade
As the 1940s and the post-war era came to a close there was a shift in the horror subgenre continuum. The twenty or so years of gothic horror gave way to a more modern sensibility when it came to the things that made audiences squirm in their seats. The world had changed having gone through two world wars and a massive depression plus audiences tiring of the same rehashed literary adaptation year after year. Plus their naiveté of film-going crowds wasn’t nearly as simple as it used to be and Hollywood would have to take new approaches to get them screaming again.
Enter: The Doomsday Film. While the name of this new breed of horror film may seem very dire, these films all had the surprisingly positive theme of humanity overcoming. If we could beat threats from other planets or our own man-made monsters, we could beat anything.
These new “modern” films would play on the paranoia and fears of the time, a time when worries over alien invasions, both domestic and intergalactic, a brewing Cold War, and the growing nuclear arms race played an almost daily role in most people’s lives. It was these concerns that Hollywood wanted to exploit and exploit them, they did!
Invasion of the Body Snatcher (1956), The Thing From Another World (1951), War of the Worlds (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) all fed off of the anxieties people had about the UFO phenomena that ran rampant during the decade. And ever since the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the world witnessed the massive power these bombs held, the fear of nuclear annihilation has been present but in the 1950s, it was on a whole other level. Movies about mutation due to nuclear radiation began to surface with films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Blob (1958), Them! (1954), The Fly (1958) and perhaps the most famous and enduring of them all, Godzilla (1954).
The Television-O-Vison Experience
The 1950s introduced a new gadget that movies studios probably weren’t too pleased about, the television. This box, which transmitted picture and sound into your own living room revolutionized the entertainment and media industry forever. No longer did one have to rely on a newspaper to get their news, now they could tune into the “TV” set and see what’s happening in the world in mere minutes. And the entertainment value was huge. New “shows” were being broadcast giving theatrically run movies a run for their money. Hollywood knew it was going to have to up its game if cinemas were going to survive.
The response was every bit as gimmicky and contrived as any television show. Theaters started using gimmicks and tricks to enhance the audiences theatre-going experience and the more immersive, the better.
One of the groundbreakers of the movie gimmick was William Castle, a movie director who wanted audiences to really experience his films. The Tingler (1959) was one of those films where the trick was to lightly shock audience member’s seats every time someone on screen would scream. This would trigger the seat to shock the audience causing them to scream as well. Macabre (1958) had a unique ploy where Castle had a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London for each customer should they die of fright during the film. Castle even stationed nurses in theater lobbies and parked hearses outside. House on Haunted Hill (1959), the Vincent Price vehicle, featured skeleton with red eyes that lit up attached to a wire. It floated over the audience in the film’s finale. It would parallel an onscreen skeleton as it rises from a vat of acid and chases the film’s villain.
Most of these gimmicks, while novel, didn’t last long. Most were gone the way of the dodo-bird by the end of the decade except for one. Three-dimensional movies. Yes, that’s right. 3-D. While there were a few 3-D movies in earlier years (L’Arrivée du Train 1895, Power of Love 1922, Zowie 1925) the “Golden Era” didn’t arrive until the ’50s thanks to films like House of Wax (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954) and Revenge of the Creature (1955). There would be a resurgence of the craft later on in the 1980s and again in the early 2000s.
Creature Features and Incredible Shrinking Giants
Giant, mutated monsters? Giant, mutated insects? Giant, mutated people? The horror films of the 1950s had them all and then some. Creature features weren’t new to this decade but they certainly were at their most popular. Films like It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) featured a colossal cephalopod, Tarantula (1955) highlighted, you guessed it, a tremendous tarantula, and The Giant Behemoth (1959) starred a stupendous sea monster, a ticked off Nessie if you will.
Other notables include The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) where a dinosaur brought back from extinction runs amok ’cause he’s cranky about being brought back from the dead, Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) shows a group of nuclear scientists studying the effects of radiation on a small remote island when they are suddenly attacked by a cluster of cantankerously huge crustaceans and Beginning of the End (1957) which tells the tale of a scientist who (for some weird reason) successfully grows food using radiation. Well, a plague of locusts flies into town and stops for lunch at the scientist’s farm. Next thing you know, everyone is running from giant flying grasshoppers!
But animals and insects weren’t the only ones going through some unwanted changes during this crazy time, people were in on the act as well. The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) is exactly that after some dude gets caught in, you guessed it again, a nuclear accident, while Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) is pretty much the exact same movie but featuring a woman as the giant. War of the Colossal Beast (1958) is the sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man where the long thought dead giant from the first film comes back to wreak more havoc on those that wronged him.
But the threats on humanity weren’t always massive goliaths on a rampage, sometimes the real horror came in small packages. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) showed audiences that boating near nuclear test sites isn’t the best idea and Attack of the Puppet People (1958) reminds us that puppeteers are not trustworthy people especially when you realize that some of them make their puppets out of people! Either gigantic or miniature, the ’50s had some messed up problems.
Stop! Hammer Time
Also in the 1950s, the UK started to emerge as a major player in the horror cinema world with the first films from the Hammer Company being released. The company drew from the 1930s and ’40s success model that Universal used and released versions of both Dracula (1958) and Frankenstein with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), both of which starred Christopher Lee, a Hammer mainstay. Other ’50s Hammer Horrors include; The Quatermass Experiment (1955), The Mummy (1959) X The Unknown (1956), The Abominable Snowman (1957), Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and numerous Frankenstein and Dracula sequels.
Of Hammer’s Dracula remake starring Lee, academic and British Pop Culturist, Christopher Frayling wrote of the film, “Dracula introduced fangs, red contact lenses, décolletage, ready-prepared wooden stakes and – in the celebrated credits sequence – blood being spattered from off-screen over the Count’s coffin.” But blood and fangs weren’t the only things this version of the classic literary character had. Lee also brought what British historian Tim Stanley stated as a “…[sensuality]… subversive in that it hinted that women might quite like having their neck chewed on by a stud”.
Lee wasn’t the only star to rise from the celluloid that Hammer released to the world. Peter Cushing (The Revenge of Frankenstein 1958), Peter van Eyck (The Snorkel 1958), Hazel Court (The Man Who Could Cheat Death 1959), and Vera Day (Quartermass 2 1958) all graced the screens via Hammer productions.
Fun Fact: The Curse of Frankenstein is considered by many to be the first truly gory horror film, showing full-color blood and guts on screen for the first time.
Clearly, television shows in the Nifty Fifties wanted to portray a wholesome, innocent time where decency and hard work paid off with a lovely home, a quaint family and a little piece of the American dream. But the films of that time show something quite different. They show a time wrought with suspicion, fear, and post-war angst. They portray a time when the certainty of the future was as uncertain as uncertainty could get and a time when disobedience and being yourself could result in catastrophic repercussions. Definitely not the Leave it to Beaver world people were led to believe existed.
That’s our time, fellow brats. I hope you found our little outing educational and informative. I’m glad to see some of you decided to represent the school in proper form. To those that decided to set fire to the Carrie gymnasium exhibit to “enhance the experience,” I am particularly proud of you. All others take note, that is what going above and beyond is all about.
I would ask you to do your required reading at our Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and Facebook pages but you weren’t going to do it anyway. I mean, rebels like all of you don’t need required reading. Cool kids such as yourselves are too cool for all of that horror knowledge, right? Nobody really needs to pass this class. No one needs to get their horror degree, so you know what? Just skip the required reading. It’s only a bunch of brilliantly written pieces on anything and everything horror. It’s merely the hottest horror news, reviews, recommendations and more that the internet has to offer, but again, you savages don’t need that, amirite?