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Creepy Movie Creatures of the 1950’s

While “War of the Worlds” is the movie scaring the wits out of kids in the summer of 2005, fifty years ago kids flocked to the air conditioned relief of movie theatres to bask in terror at the ghastly sight of “The Tarantula” only breathing a collective sigh of relief when the creature was finally burned to death by a napalm bomb. (Two years earlier, in 1953, theatres had shown the original “War of the Worlds” film, based on the tale by H.G. Wells.)

Monster and creature movies were big in the 1950’s. With their familiar “no-it-can’t-be” beginnings to the “now everyone believes me” endings, these films culled their material from the 50’s preoccupation with science, space, and the communist threat.

In the 1953 film “It Came from Outer Space” (based on a Ray Bradbury story and with a film score by the uncredited Henry Mancini), a couple sees a fireball that turns out to be an alien starship. Another foray into the creatures-from-outer-space genre, “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), ends with ultra high-frequency weapons saving the earth. By 1957, the teen-age horror flick was coming of age; “Invasion of the Saucermen” begins with a young couple parked in the woods; they run over the hand of what turns out to be a re-generated alien.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) terrified audiences and also warned that our bodies could be taken over by aliens (or perhaps by alien political systems, like, say communism).

Not all creatures in 1950’s movies came from space, however. In the Japanese film, “Rodan, the Flying Monster” (1957), a village is overtaken by enormous caterpillars, and, when the villagers find the caterpillars’ underground home, they also find a monstrous flying creature sort of like a pterodactyl. When the creature’s twin appears, the two of them begin to destroy Japan, which is saved only by the eruption of a volcano.

Another in the “they-came-from-under-the-ground” movies is the 1954 entry “Them!” In this film, the nuclear weapons tests in the desert have produced incredibly large mutant ants. Similarly, “Godzilla” the Japanese movie from the same year attests to the same testing resulting in a ferocious dinosaur-like creature.

Then, of course, there was the tremendously popular, “The Fly” (1958) starring that veritable fixture of the horror genre, Vincent Price. In the film a scientist, who conducts experiments on transferring matter, accidentally replaces one of his arms as well as his head with those of a fly. His end comes only after he’s crushed in a hydraulic press—and eaten by a spider!

1950’s film creatures popped up in a myriad of places: Scientists doing research on the Amazon River find what turns out to be “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954). The ‘50’s also gave us “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla,” “The Beast of Hollow Mountain (who succumbs to quicksand),” “Monster from the Ocean Floor,” and beasts from many other locations.

The popularity of these creature features from the 1950’s is evident in both the ease with which we can find them today on videotape and DVD—and in the fact that so many directors have chosen to reincarnate them into more modern versions.

I’m waiting for the twenty-first century version of a personal favorite from 1958; I can’t wait to see whom they’ll cast in the lead role of the remake of “Attack of the 50-foot Woman.”

Peggy Epstein is a retired English teacher and a free-lance writer. Her book "Great Ideas for Grandkids" was published last year by McGraw-Hill. Her articles have appeared in the Kansas City Star, College Bound, Footsteps, Grit, Teaching Tolerance, and others.





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