Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Atomic Fear: The 13 Greatest Horror Films Of The 1950s

The end of World War Two saw the end of the gothic horror era that began in the silent era and expanded throughout the Universal years. By 1948, the classic monsters were seen as virtually passe' and horror took a hiatus for a few years, in a drought very similiar to what had occured in the late 30s. However, the splitting of the atom and the widespread speculation about UFOs and travel to space, brought on whole new horrors and with that fear came ne monsters, beginning with the seminal, The Thing in 1951, which set the standard for all alien invasion films afterwards. Borrowing a Frankenstein-design for the monster, this creature feature echoed the classic horror of the past, while anticipating it's future. This led to many ripoffs throughout the decade, all varying in quality.
As television emerged, new problems arrived for the major studios which led to many gimmicks to get theatergoers back, including 3-D and drive-in theaters, both of which were pivotal to the horror film. The first 3-D feature film, House of Wax(1953), a remake of the 1933, Mystery of the Wax Museum, was not just an excellent horror picture, but also was the film that made Vincent Price a horror star. The following year, as the 3-D phase came to a close, Universal unveiled it's final great monster, and the best of the decade, with The Creature From The Black Lagoon.
Towards the close of the decade, television saw a revived interest in the Universal monsters, and this brought on a new life for monsters such as Frankenstein and Dracula. Hammer studios would change the genre forever with effective, low budget thrillers that revamped the classic stories in color and with an emphasis on blood and sex. The first of these, Curse of Frankenstein(1957), was a landmark film that introduced the world Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who would soon become horror superstars, as well as a new adult approach to terror.

The majority of the great horror, at least in the first half of the decade, were science fiction related. The contemporary fears addressed within, still hold interest today, as many were intelligently presented and if not wholly plausible, at least seemed so. The following list covers the most outstanding films from the decade,and while many favorites are left on the side(The Blob, The Fly) I think that what is represented is first class horror and are genuine essentials that deserve to be be examined again.
So without further ado...

1. Night Of The Demon(1958)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cast: Dana Andrews, Niall MacGinnis,Peggy Cummings

Night of the Demon(also called Curse of the Demon, stateside) is the best Val Lewton movie that Lewton never made. A haunting, supremely scary film, based off of the excellent short story by M.R. James, "Casting the Runes", Night of the Demon is one of the best classic horror films of all time.
Dana Andrews portrays a scientist that is trying to debunk myths surrounding witchcraft, but encounters the real thing in Nial MacGinnis, who gives one of the great horror film performances as Karswell, a magician who dabbles in the black arts. He has Andrews marked for death, by passing on a parchment that will lure a terrifying demon to take him to Hell.
What makes this so scary and effective is that we know that Andrews is wrong the entire thing, after the wonderfully frightening opening segment where the demon claims a victim of Karswell, we know that Andrews may meet the same fate. His relucatnce to accept the possibility of the supernatural actually increases the suspense.
Tourneur was a master at subtlety, displaying the same genius he had at RKO with Val Lewton, in establishing mood through suggestion and minimal effects. While, the title demon was not intended to be shown by the director, it turned out to be one of the most effectively frightening monsters ever to grace the screen, and has since been used to illustrate many a volume on cinematic horror.
Not just does this film represent the very best of 1950s horror, it also qualifies as one of the ten greatest in genre history.

2. Horror of Dracula(1958)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough

The greatest Hammer horror of them all! Horror of Dracula is one of those groundbreakers, a film that effectively changed the genre forever by introducing several adult elements not present in the original story. Where the 1931 version was more concerned with castles and cobwebs, with a mystical side to the portrayal of the Count, this version opts for more heightened sexuality and a more human, and therefore, more physical interpretation.
Christopher Lee secures his position in film history as one of the great screen Draculas, despite limited screen time and little dialogue, makes the most out of his Count, which he was set to reprise six more times for Hammer. Peter Cushing is the definitive vampire hunter, bringing stern authority and conviction to the role of Van Helsing, a part he made his own.
Fisher's direction perfectly captures the gothic atmosphere of the story and the suppressed sexual anxiety of the original narrative, which explodes in near orgasmic glory during several grisly highlights, including some brutal vampire deaths.
The conclusion is one of the very best in genre history, as Cushing and Lee engage in mortal combat, with Cushing ultimately dispatching the vampire with the morning sun and a clever use of two candlesticks.
Horror of Dracula changed genre convention, even beating Psycho, by killing off it's protagonist within the first half hour, along with setting the bar for onscreen gore allowed at that time. Vampire films would borrow much from this picture, particularly the sexuality, which would become increasingly important in the following decade's reinterpretation of the character.
With the exception of Murnau's Nosferatu, this is the finest Dracula film of them all.

3. The Thing From Another World(1951)
Director: Christian Nyby
Cast: Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite

Definitive alien invader movie that started the whole trend in homicidal spacemen movies is also one of the scariest and best written. The Thing was adapted from the John W. Campbell short story, "Who Goes There?", which dealt with an Antarctic base that was threatened by a shape changing alien invader. That idea was later recycled for the John Carpenter version from 1982, while this adaption opted instead for a more low tech approach, with no less paranoia.
The Thing benefits greatly from a tight script and great acting from a cast of largely unknowns, who create a likeable ensemble, that few monster movies were able to recreate. There is no black and white positions in the film, as both the military and scientists work together to destroy and understand the menace at hand. The best moments are often on speculatuion of the thing's abilities and what it plans on doing next.
James Arness(later Marshall Dillon on Gunsmoke) is imposing, but has very minimal makeup, and is wisely kept in the shadows for most of the time. This heightens the tension an adds to the mood, culminating in several memorable moments including the various means the group take to dispatch the seemingly unkillable creature and a scene involving a door and a geiger counter that is likely not to be forgotten.
Howard Hawks produced the film, but it has his trademarks written all over it, leading many to suspect that he had more to do with the film's success.
While often imitated, The Thing has yet to be duplicated.

4. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers(1956)
Director: Don Siegal
Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynters, Larry Gates

Brilliant study in paranoia, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the perfect film for McCarthy America and the Red Scare. The theme of alien invasion being more internal and the distrust of society and government, would influence countless films and is a reason why this film has survived the 1950s. To put it simply, it's still very scary.
Kevin McCarthy is a small town doctor who returns to his small town and discovers that things have changed. At first he barely notices the changes in his neighbors, until he discovers that the town is slowly being taken over by seedpods as everybody sleeps!
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one incredibly tense film that does not let up for scarecly a second, right up to the unforgettable conclusion. Originally, the film was to end with McCarthy running onto the highway shouting, "You're next!", but the studio added a "happier" ending by having the FBI discovering a truck with the seedpods on them. If anything, it may be actually scarier, as we are left to worry if it's too late and what kind of war waits ahead.
Countless imitations have emerged throughout the years, including an excellent remake in 1977, but none come close to the white knuckle suspense of the original.

5. Them!(1954)
Director: Gordon Douglas
Cast: James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Gwenn

A wonderfully ambiguous title that manages to give chills to all who recognize it, Them! is a masterfully crafted monster movie that started the whole giant insect/animal film craze during the 50s. Unlike many of it's imitators, Them! is effective because it is handled with intelligence and seriousness, evoking a sense of dread and desperation that makes the film move with efficiency.
The plot revolves around how atomic bomb testing has caused mutations in New Mexico in the form of giant ants. Scientists and the military attempt to stop them before they can spread there terrible progency.
Them! is expertly directed, with a climax in the sewers that was widely imitated, notably by James Cameron in Aliens(1986). It also has a fine cast, including James Whitmore and Edmund Gwenn, and terrific special effects that are still startling today.
This is rightfully one of the best remembered films of the 1950s, but for the right reasons. It's still a thought provoking and exciting motion picture, decades after many poor imitations and ripoffs.

6. Eyes Without A Face(1959)
Director: George Franju
Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Edith Scob

Haunting, beautiful French horror film that anticipated many of the gorier and more gruesome horrors to follow. Pierre Brasseur is a brilliant surgeon who attempts to restore the beauty of his daughter's face, after she was scarred in an auto accident. His solution is to kidnap young girls and extract their faces and graft them onto his daughter(Edith Scob). The scenes of surgery are graphic and squirm-inducing, and are heightened by the stylized use of the black and white photography, which is very dreamlike and ethereal in effect.
This is not a typical horror picture, as the characters motivations are not evil or malicious. As sick as Brasseur's character can be, we sympathize with his plight and that of his daughter. Franju's images are among the most beautiful in horror cinema, including an ending with doves and silent Edith Scob walking off towards the forest at night, proving unforgettable.
Eyes Without A Face is a true arthouse horror picture, and not one for all tastes, but a wildly inventive and eerie film that stands alone as a unique piece of fantastic cinema.

7. The Creature From The Black Lagoon(1954)
Director: Jack Arnold
Cast: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning

Universal Studio's last great movie monster was the Gillman, who appeared in three films during the 1950s, emerging as the decade's most beloved monster. This first film was the best and most memorable, particularly to first-time viewers who saw this as it was initially presented in 3-D.
The Creature From The Black Lagoon sorta plays out like King Kong or The Lost World, with a small group of explorers searching for a fossil that could provide a missing link to man's evolution. What they find instead is the Gillman, who is residing in the upper reaches of the Amazon and has his eyes set on gorgeous Julie Adams, especially when she is clad in her one-piece bathing suit!
Jack Arnold proves his mettle as an effective genre director, handling the underwater scenes with a sense for atmosphere and beauty, including the underwater "ballet" of Adams and the Creature, which is one of the most eerie(and strangely beautiful) scenes in horror history.
Despite, so many ripoffs and several advances in makeup and effects, the Creature is still an impressive monster design and is easily the best of many memorable monsters spawned from the 1950s.

8. The Revenge Of Frankenstein(1958)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Michael Gwynne, Francis Matthews

Direct follow-up to The Curse of Frankenstein(1957), which had been the film that broke Hammer into the mainstream and established a new era of horror. This is actually a superior film and acts very much like James Whale's Frankenstein films for Universal, by playing as an extended second act of the first film.
Victor Frankenstein(Peter Cushing) survives his own execution and sets up private practice, where he finds a willing assistant(Francis Matthews) who hopes to learn his secret and help him perfect his reanimating technique. Frankenstein decides to practice brain transplants and builds a new body for his hunchbacked assistant. However, complications ensue that include the body returning to it's original crippled state, as well as a cannibalistic urge!
Cushing is even better here than he was in Curse, bringing a sardonic edge to the Baron, making him a more human character in the process. Gwynne was the best monster in the Hammer series, providing much sympathy, as well as giving a link to the original stage production with Hamilton Deane, which the makeup and costume resembles.
The conclusion is one of the best in any Hammer horror movie, complete with a surprise and a hint of perversity, right out of the cinema of Tod Browning. This is hands down, one of the best Hammer horror films.

9. The Curse of Frankenstein(1957)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court

Groundbreaking horror film that firmly established Hammer studios as the next generation horror filmmakers, while also bringing back the Gothic horror of yesterday in fabulous technicolor!
The Curse of Frankenstein retells the classic story with an emphasis on violence and perversion. Cushing brings a certain elevating madness to his portrayal of the Baron, who will let no one stand in his way from seeking the secret of creation. His ruthless interpretation of Frankenstein, was light years away from what Universal envisioned, as Hammer brought a much darker shade to the story.
Christopher Lee's Creature is much less the bewildered child of Karloff's Monster, but rather a brain damaged automaton with animal instincts. His makeup is also the most frightening and memorable of the post-Karloff Frankenstein monsters.
Director Fisher focuses on graphic(for the time) depictions of severed limbs, including eyeballs and hands, as well as an underlining of moral ambiguity, that firmly roots this in a more nihilistic direction than it's predecessors.
Downbeat and very adult in nature, The Curse of Frankenstein was a film very much ahead of it's time, setting a precedent for not just future Frankenstein films, but also the look of the genre forever.

10. The Quatermass Xperiment(1956)
Director: Val Guest
Cast: Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Richard Wordsworth

A very frightening and tense sci-fi/horror, this was Hammer studio's first foray into horror and the one that allowed the studio to go ahead with making their classic Gothic horrors. Inspired by American films like The Thing(1951), The Quatermass Xperiment( also known as The Creeping Unknown in the United States) is a similarly structured film, dealing with a returning space expedition and it's sole survivor(Richard Wordsworth) who is slowly transforming into a blood-drinking monster.
The film is shot like a noir with stark black and white, creating an atmosphere of dread and foreboding, unlike many genre pictures of the time. It's a fast-paced film with an ever mounting tension and a terrific payoff with a great climax. Donlevy is terrific as Prof. Quatermass, a role he would replay in Quatermass 2(1957). Richard Wordsworth is equally effective as the doomed astronaut who is succumbing to the space fungus that ultimately transforms him into a thing straight out of a H.P. Lovecraft story.
The Quatermass Xperiment is often seldom discussed among great sci-fi shockers of the period, but it is an essential nonetheless, and worthy of rediscovery.

11. House of Wax(1953)
Director: Andre De Toth
Cast: Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk

The first 3-D movie and also the one that established Vincent Price as a genre star, House of Wax is an excellent return to the classic horror of the 1930s. The film is a remake of the 1933 Lionel Atwill film, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and while it's difficult to recreate that early 30s atmosphere, especially with the old technicolor film stock that made the original doubly creepy, this film actually manages to outdo most of the original in thrills and chills, as well as excitement.
Vincent Price plays a sculptor who loses his wax museum in a fire to a greedy partner. Years later, disfigured from the fire and looking like Freddy Krueger's grandfather, he unleashes a reign of terror, killing several people and dipping them in wax, so that he can recreate his original museum,
House of Wax is a very fun film, complete with clever 3-D touches, including the paddle-ball man, who is a decidedly charming touch and must have great on the big screen. The film also contains some genuine scares, particularly the stalking of Phyllis Kirk at night across the foggy streets of New York, and even some subtle bits of eroticism, involving a nude Miss Kirk, writhing in a wooden coffin, about to get splattered by wax from above...yikes!
House of Wax is as historically important to the genre as it is enjoyable and remains one of the best loved films of the decade and one of Price's better roles.

12. The Mummy(1959)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux

Hammer's The Mummy is not so-much a remake of the Karloff film from 1932, but rather a hodge podge of  plot elements from the entire Universal series, kind of like a best-of. The result is a more frightening and aggressive mummy movie, that I describe as the Terminator in bandages.
Christopher Lee brings a physicality to the role of Kharis the mummy that leaves all earlier incarnations in the dust, proving to be both frightening and formidable. He even has some sympathy, expressed through his eyes  and bringing greater dimension to the role of the undead assassin.
Cushing is perfect as John Banning, whose father and uncle were slain by the monster after they had opened up the tomb of his princess. Cushing utilizes the same sort of athletic prowess that made his Van Helsing so popular, as he tries to survive against the unstoppable mummy, who takes everything from point blank shotgun blasts to arrows pierced straight through him!
Yvonne Furneaux is simply gorgeous as the wife of Banning, as well as the reincarnation of Kharis' lost love. George Pastell almost makes one forget George Zucco in the role of the High Priest who sends Kharis on his murderous missions.
While not always as well remembered as the Frankenstein and Dracula films, The Mummy is every bit as good, and outside of the 1932 original, is the best mummy film made.

13. The Flesh and the Fiends(1959)
Director: John Gilling
Cast: Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance, George Rose

Based off of the true story of Burke and Hare, the Scottish grave robbers who murdered for money, The Flesh and the Fiends is the best of the several adaptions of this story. Peter Cushing delivers one of his most brilliant performances as Dr. Knox, the infamous physician, who employed the two grave robbers, in an effort to obtain fresh specimens for experimental use. Cushing brings a coolness to his portrayal that is reminiscent of his Frankenstein, except ultimately this is a man misguided, and sympathy arrives towards the conclusion as he realizes the error of his ways and respects the humanity he has sworn to save.
Pleasance and Rose are likewise appropriately slimy and insidious as the two murderers, both bringing touches of humor and menace. This was one of Pleasance's first genre films and one of his better roles.
The film was made in an effort to cash in on the current success of Hammer films, and even pushes the envelope in some senses, offering some fairly graphic violence in the international version, along with mild nudity. The Flesh and the Fiends also shocks with the unexpected deaths of the young romantic couple, anticipating the darker horrors of the following decade.
This film is never as recognized as other genre films of the decade, but is deserving of acclaim, as it contains not just one of the genre's best loved actors in one of his finest roles, but because the moral lesson offered is one that has seldom aged and remains as relevant as ever. The Flesh and the Fiends is a genuine sleeper of the horror genre.

The 1950s was a decade of change, beginning with the atomic fears spawned by the close of the previous decade and ending with a return to the classics that had made the genre, two decades previous. It was a decade of monsters, ranging from all manners of aliens to giant insects and dinosaurs, including the arrival of the beloved Godzilla in 1954.
Most of these pictures, while charming and fun, lacked the atmosphere and intelligence that made the earlier horrors so captivating. The genre was in need of maturity and Hammer studios from England delivered, introducing doses of gore and sexuality that would forever change the look of the horror film.
In many ways, this could be seen as a positive and a negative, for while the Hammer films had a certain measure of class, later filmmakers would skip any subtleties and nuance and opt instead for the most e exploitative element, as evidenced in the following decade. The 50s would see the end of innocence in the horror film as the genre would increasingly become a meaner and darker place, fueled by societal changes and political unrest, as the 50s gave way to one of the most artistically inventive decades since the roaring 20s. Where the monsters of the 50s were spawned from outer space, radiation or from the upper reaches of the Amazon, the monsters of the next decade would be found residing right next door.

Keep watching the skies...


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