The low-budget sci-fi thriller “Monsters,” which opened Friday in New York and Los Angeles, is just the latest in the never-ending line of alien and monsters flicks that have been popular for decades. Directed by Gareth Edwards, the movie revolves around a news photographer and his boss’ daughter who must travel through an “infected zone” in Mexico filled with aliens to reach the U.S. border. Though the film concentrates more on the budding romance between the characters than the massive creepy crawlies, it does recall the classic creature features from the 1950s — a decade obsessed with alien encounters and fears of nuclear war. What follows is a look back at some of the best of the genre from that decade.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) Science fiction always has been a perfect lens for authors and filmmakers to examine the ills of the world, and this seminal sci-fi thriller directed by Robert Wise explored the collective fear of nuclear war. (It also features one of the most famous phrases in sci-fi film history: “Klaatu barada nikto.”) Michael Rennie plays Klaatu, a handsome alien who arrives in Washington, D.C., with his forceful robot Gort on a mission to tell humanity to end its warring ways or risk destruction. Patricia Neal, Billy Gray, Hugh Marlowe and Sam Jaffe also star, with Bernard Herrmann supplying the evocative score. Let us not speak of the 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves as Klaatu.
“The Thing from Another World” (1951) This classic movie inspired John Carpenter’s beloved 1982 remake, “The Thing,” but the original spine-tingling production won a rave review from the New York Times: “Not since Dr. Frankenstein wrought his mechanical monster has the screen had such a good time dabbling in science fiction….” Actor Kenneth Tobey plays an Air Force captain who travels with his crew to the Arctic to check out reports of a mysterious craft that has crashed there. A scientific expedition already in the area also is trying to find the site. They eventually discover a spaceship buried in the ice; enter James Arness (who would become a TV superstar four years later on CBS’ long-running series “Gunsmoke“) as the memorable, hulking alien.
“The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) There’s nothing like a monster emerging from the sea to wreak havoc on land. And in this thrill ride featuring the visual effects of legendary stop-motion special-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, a hibernating dinosaur is awakened by a centuries-long slumber by an atomic bomb test in the Arctic Circle.
“Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) In this landmark 3-D thriller, which was actually based on a Mexican folk tale, the monster is an amphibious humanoid who has been living in the murky waters of the Amazon. When a fossil-hunting expedition steams down the river, Gill-man begins a reign of terror on the boat and kidnaps the sole woman on board (Julie Adams). Champion swimmer Ricou Browning did all the underwater Gill-man shots, and stuntman Ben Chapman played the creature out of the water.
“Them!” (1954) Insects of enormous size were a 1950s creature feature staple, and the granddaddy of these films is this thriller about giant ants invading Los Angeles, starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn (who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Kris Kringle for 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street”) and a pre-”Davy Crockett” Fess Parker. Arness is also featured in the cast — and even Leonard Nimoy has a tiny role. Of course, one of the biggest rampaging beasties of all time made his cinematic debut in his native Japan the same year as those oversize ants: “Godzilla,” the gigantic scaly beast born from nuclear explosions. The film was re-edited with new footage starring Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin and released in the U.S. in 1956 to huge box-office receipts.
“Tarantula” (1955) Creature feature favorite John Agar was married to Shirley Temple for a few years in the late 1940s before becoming the go-to guy in any number of low-budget horror flicks. One of his best is this chiller in which a spider escapes from a lab into the desert and grows and grows and grows, stomping on anybody and anything in its path. Look for a young Clint Eastwood as a pilot.
“Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956) Harryhausen created the flying saucers for this sci-fi outing in which the world is invaded by conquering aliens. Unfortunately, not as much care was given to the alien creatures, played by actors in lumpy, unconvincing suits. Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor star.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) Just as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was a plea for world peace, this 1956 masterwork directed by Don Siegel was a cautionary tale about the ills of the McCarthy communist witch hunts in the U.S. Alien “pods” arrive from outer space and transform anyone who comes into contact with them into an emotionless automaton. Kevin McCarthy stars as a local doctor who keeps hearing from his patients that their loved ones are impostors; they all look the same but they seem to have lost their souls. Dana Wynter and King Donovan also star. The ending, of course, is a real corker. In 1978, Philip Kaufman directed a remake with Donald Sutherland and Nimoy.
– Susan King
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