The Atom Age of Science Fiction Films
1945 - 1964

INTRODUCTION

Its a curious thing that for five or six years following the end of the Second World War, both horror and science fiction genre films all but disappeared, except for some low-budget serials, campy science monster movies and weak variations on The Lost World - all escapist fodder. The Post War period seemed briefly to banish the Gothic horror from cinema in favor of the new cinema - film noir - a gritty, ultra-realistic dramatic style. Hard edged fantasy was not in vogue. However, the horrors of the Atomic Age would not be held in abeyance for long. The blast at Trinity test site in 1945, indeed the whole technological experience of the Second World War, in which every imagination of man was turned to unrestrained destruction, changed the world forever and ushered in a new consciousness of the real dangers of Science.

This uneasy relationship with science formed the subtext to countless Sci-Fi films of the late 1940s and 1950s. Science became both the author of monstrous power unleashed upon mankind and its salvation. In most of these films the scientist is the hero and atomic radiation is, often as not, the weapon that delivers us from the giant mutated horror created by that same atomic energy. The most prominent exception is Howard Hawk's The Thing from Another World, in which a reactionary military commander saves the day. A common theme of these films is that of the exterior threat. Although there is some introspection, a little wondering questioning of our endeavors, the films of this era are remarkably consistent in perceiving the threat as coming from without, rather than from within us. Generally, the threat is a some form of mutated or alien life, and its intentions toward humankind are unflinchingly hostile. These are the Creature Features, as much horror films for a scientific age as they are science fiction, yet those highlighted here rise above mere shock value to speak of less fantastic, but no less frightening, subjects.

In the age of the Cold War, Red scares and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, it should not be surprising that America (and Britain) adopted a similarly dogmatic and orthodox viewpoint with regard to science and its relation to society. Consequently, many of these films have been considered by some to be subconscious or metaphoric commentary on McCarthyism and the Cold War mentality. It would take a new generation for Sci-Fi to turn inward and find the monsters within society and within the mind of man, a generation turned on to psychedelic drugs and rock and roll and tuned out of mainstream America.

DESTINATION MOON
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1950
Produced by: George Pal
Directed by: Irving Pichel
Other: Novel by Robert A. Heinlein
Cast of Characters
John Archer Jim Barnes
Warner Anderson Dr. Charles Cargraves
Tom Powers General Thayer
Dick Wesson Joe Sweeney
Erin O'Brien-Moore Emily Cargraves
Synopsis and Commentary

An American venture capitalist sponsors a project to fly to the Moon in a race to beat the Russians. Based on Sci-Fi icon Robert A. Heinlein's novel Rocketship Galileo, Destination Moon is probably the first truly serious and credibly accurate depiction of space flight. It is also ironically prophetic of the contest that occurred after the shocking flight of Russia's Sputnik satellite in 1958. Some regard the B-film clone, Rocketship X-M, to be a more compelling tale because of its surprising denouement, albeit one told with much lower production values. Flight to Mars and The Angry Red Planet are more representative of space exploration films in this era: melodramatic and unrealistic. Destination Moon took the Academy Award for Best Special Effects, and was also nominated for the for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. This film launched George Pal on a short career as the premier epic science fiction filmmaker of his era. Director Irving Pichel played the malevolent servant Sandor in Dracula's Daughter.

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1951
Produced by: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Robert Wise
Other:
Cast of Characters
Michael Rennie Klaatu (aka "Carpenter")
Patricia Neal Helen Benson
Hugh Marlowe Tom Stevens
Sam Jaffe Prof. Jacob Barnhardt
Billy Gray Bobby Benson
Synopsis and Commentary

A spaceship lands on the Washington Mall, bringing a mysterious stranger who offers peace and a menacing robot that threatens destruction. 1951 was a very good year for science fiction. The Day the Earth Stood Still is probably the most poignant Sci-Fi film of the decade and one of the greatest films ever made - of any genre. Directed by the brilliant Robert Wise (later famous for The Sound of Music and West Side Story, but best known to genre fans for The Haunting, The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek - The Motion Picture), this film captures the madness of global relations, the insane paranoia of the Cold War (indeed of any era) and the primitive, unreasoning savagery lurking still within the breast of modern man beneath the trappings of civilization and science. Its overtly Christian symbology has suggested to some that it is an allegory for contemporary audiences, but I think that while that construction is plausible it is not the intent of the story, which works on a purely secular level as a sort of scientific, humanist cautionary tale with Christian cues, lest we fail to catch the point (and its rather singular benignant totalitarianism is far from Christian). The Day the Earth Stood Still is the very antitype of the other great alien encounter film of 1951, featured next.

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1951
Produced by: Howard Hawks
Directed by: Christian Nyby
Other: From a short story by
John W. Campbell
Cast of Characters
Kenneth Tobey Captain Patrick Hendry
Margaret Sheridan Nikki
Robert Cornthwaite Dr. Carrington
Douglas Spencer Ned "Scotty" Scott
James Young Lieutenant Eddie Dykes
John Dierkes Dr. Chapman
Eduard Franz Dr. Stern
William Self Corporal Barnes
James Arness The Thing (or " ? ")
Synopsis and Commentary

A team of scientists at an Air Force research outpost in the Arctic recovers a crashed flying disc ...and accidentally revives its weird otherworldly occupant. Based on the John W. Campbell short story, Who Goes There?, this is the quintessential Cold War Sci-Fi flick. In contrast with many 1950s Sci-Fi stories, this has a mistrust of science at its crux. Its heroes are the kind of no-nonsense regular guys who saved the world a few years back and they openly voice skepticism of the wonders and benefits of unrestrained scientific endeavor. Indeed, most of the drama centers on the conflict between an ideologically obsessed scientist and the pragmatic young officer. Politically incorrect by today's standards, The Thing from Another World is also a perfect metaphor of the paranoia of the Cold War era, from its icy setting down to its famous final words of warning: "Keep watching the skies". I first saw this as a child of 8 years on a dark and sullen winter's day and my terror was magnified by my Mother's warning about how it scared her as a young adult. She was right, and this has remained one of my most beloved films. I have seen it countless times and it never gets old. Genre auteur John Carpenter, who remade the film more along the lines of the short story in 1982 commented that "my film doesn't hold a candle to the original". I like both, but the original is best. Although Nyby is credited, the conventional wisdom and Hollywood scuttlebutt holds that it was producer Howard Hawks who actually directed most of this film. This film is for me the quintessence of 1950s Sci-Fi.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1951
Produced by: Paramount Pictures (George Pal)
Directed by: Rudolph Mate'
Other: Novel by Edwin Balmer
Cast of Characters
Richard Derr David Randall
Barbara Rush Joyce Hendron
Peter Hanson Dr. Tony Drake, MD
John Hoyt Sydney Stanton
Larry Keating Dr. Cole Hendron
Judith Ames Julie Cummings
Stephen Chase Dr. George Frye
Synopsis and Commentary

Astronomers discover a star on a collision course with Earth and desperately try to persuade governments to back a plan to save some of the human race from the planet's certain doom. This film is one of the high marks of Sci-Fi cinema. Both in its scientific apocalyptic story and its stark depiction of the extremes of human character, it is original, singular and poignant. Obvious analogy can be made to looming crises, from the end of oil to global climate change to a scenario not far removed from the one in this film. The scientific elements, while imperfect, are generally credible. One of the great moments for me is seeing the mechanical computer processing the data from the South African observatory. As with the previous year's effort, When Worlds Collide won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects.

BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1953
Produced by: Warner Brothers
Directed by: Eugene Lourie'
Other: Special Effects by
Ray Harryhausen
Cast of Characters
Paul Hubschmid Prof. Tom Nesbitt
Paula Raymond Lee Hunter
Cecil Kellaway Prof. Thurgood Ellson
Kenneth Tobey Col. Jack Evans
Lee Van Cleef Cpl. Stone
Synopsis and Commentary

Atomic testing in the Arctic revives a gigantic prehistoric reptile which journeys southward threatening ocean traffic and finally New York City. Loosely based on Ray Bradbury's short story, The Foghorn, this film was the first to bring acclaim to special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen and is one of his most beloved films. Originally the titular beast was intended to arise from 5000 fathoms, which is implausible enough for the North Atlantic, but the marketeers sought to capitalize on the success of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (already in production) and quadrupled the depth, never reckoning that this was four times the depth of the deepest trench! Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is perhaps the best example in the Fifties Sci-Fi era of atomic science first creating a disaster then coming to the rescue. It is also the original of what was to become a stock theme of a giant monster awakened or spawned by atomic testing. This film is particularly significant for its influence upon a Japanese filmmaker who wished to make a less optimistic film about atomic science and what would become an enduring monster -- Gojira (aka Godzilla). Cecil Kellaway is endearing as the addle-pated paleontologist, almost hypnotized with child-like fascination at the discovery of the revived Retisaurus. The character was so effective that it was recreated after a fashion for the later Creature Feature classic Them!. Kenneth Tobey turns in another convincing performance as a non-nonsense military officer (a full colonel now) and look for a young Lee Van Cleef as the sharpshooter at the finale.

INVADERS FROM MARS
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1953
Produced by: National Pictures Corp.
Directed by: William Cameron Menzies
Other: Music by Mort Glickman
Cast of Characters
Helena Carter Dr. Pat Blake
Arthur Franz Dr. Stuart Kelston
Jimmy Hunt David Maclean
Leif Erickson George Maclean
Hillary Brooke Mary Maclean
Morris Ankrum Col. Fielding
Synopsis and Commentary

A boy sees a flying saucer land in the dunes near his house, but no adults will believe him and many of them seem to be falling under the control of an alien power. Invaders from Mars inclusion in the canon of classic sci-fi is controversial. On the face of it, its a badly-produced B-movie with some of the most laughable aliens on film. But when you are aware that director William Cameron Menzies was an Oscar-winning art director and production designer, a man who work in art and production design, direction and film production includes Gone with the Wind, The Thief of Baghdad, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Duel in the Sun and other notable films, you are left to ponder why this film is so stark and spare. Is it deliberate? A great many viewers believe that Menzies made this film in exactly the way he did with careful deliberation. It is, after all, seen from the perspective of a young boy. It is his very personal nightmare. While I was put off by the less than effective Mutants in the climactic scenes, the early portion of the film, with its stylized walk just over the crest of the rise to the dunes, the unearthly score by Mort Glickman and the unknown thing that stirs beneath the sand all worked to leave a profound sense of unease last persists to this moment. Add to that the Kafkaesque atmosphere within the police station, indeed that between young David and adults generally, and you have a film that seems to operate on a metaphoric, dreamlike level, telling a story that has nothing to do with invasion by Martians rather something more to do with the intrinsic isolation of childhood, and more broadly with anyone who is the outsider. That film-makers including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and others point to the effect of Invaders from Mars on their childhood imagination is testament to its significance.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1953
Produced by: Universal International Pictures
(William Alland)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Other: Short Story by Ray Bradbury
Cast of Characters
Richard Carlson John Putnam
Barbara Rush Ellen Fields
Charles Drake Sheriff Matt Warren
Joe Sawyer Frank Daylon
Russell Johnson George
Synopsis and Commentary

An amateur astronomer and his girlfriend witness what appears to be a meteor crash in the desert, but begin to suspect that it was actually an alien spacecraft and that its inhabitants are controlling some of the locals for uncertain purposes. One of many alien invasion films during the 1950s, It Came from Outer Space is the first to truly marry the question of alien visitation with the peculiar paranoia of the Cold War. Where The Thing from Another World focused on moral ambiguities regarding science, this film turns on psychological and political motivations. The recurrent theme of witnesses who aren't believed and heeded by the authorities is first expressed here. This urgent need to convince others of an invisible peril can be seen as fear of both Communist and Anti-Communist forces in society and truly captures a desperation felt by all children, thus forming a primal and universal fear. Little wonder that it recurs so frequently in the genre. This film marked an early collaboration by William Alland and Jack Arnold, who would team again in the following year to create one of the great classics of the 1950s Creature Features (hint). Actor Russell Johnson was best known to my generation as The Professor on TV's Gilligan's Island, produced by Jack Arnold. The musical score by Henry Mancini and Herman Stein is memorable and effective.

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1954
Produced by: Buena Vista Pictures
(Walt Disney)
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Other: From the novel by
Jules Verne
Cast of Characters
James Mason Captain Nemo
Kirk Douglas Ned Land
Paul Lukas Prof. Arronax
Peter Lorre Conseil
Synopsis and Commentary

A French naturalist, his manservant and a master harpooner are taken prisoner aboard a fantastic submarine boat by a scientific genius obsessed with a mysterious and private vengeance against the world powers. Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is easily one of the top 10 greatest Sci-Fi films, as well as the best adaptation of any of Jules Verne's novels to film and one of the greatest films of all time. Combining the talents of James Mason and Kirk Douglas at the pinnacle of their careers, as well as worthy supporting performances, gorgeous color cinematography, a strong script and first rate production values, its a disgrace that it is ever dismissed as a children's film for being a Buena Vista production. That said, seeing this film was one of the most profound experiences of my childhood. I was overwhelmed by the story and the visuals. My fascination with science fiction dates to the 1971 theatrical re-release of this film (yes, I saw it on the big screen!) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea will always remain my favorite novel by Jules Verne, mainly due to my fondness for the Disney adaptation. Undeniably, the battle against the giant squid is the most dramatic and memorable moment and I have a morbid horror of giant squids to this day. Although unlike the depiction in Verne's novel, Disney's Gothic inspired conception of the Nautilus has held the imagination ever after in much the same way that Jack Pierce's makeup for Boris Karloff became the Frankenstein monster. And, despite worthy efforts and more authentic casting (Nemo is actually Indian), no one has ever bettered the haunted, tormented and driven characterization of James Mason.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1954
Produced by: Universal International Pictures (William Alland)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Other: Special makeup effects by Bud Westmore
Cast of Characters
Richard Carlson David Reed
Julia Adams Kay Lawrence
Richard Denning Mark Williams
Whit Bissell Dr. Thompson
Nestor Paiva Lucas
Antonio Moreno Carl Maia
Ricou Browning The Creature (underwater sequences)
Ben Chapman The Creature (land sequences)
Synopsis and Commentary

A paleontologist uncovers the fossilized claw of an unknown "missing link" between marine and terrestrial animals and brings a team of scientists to the Black Lagoon in the upper Amazon unknowingly into the lair of the living descendant of the fossil. This was my favorite monster as a kid. Being a scientifically minded lad as well as a romantic I really believed in the creature. Creature from the Black Lagoon was the archetypal film of what became termed the "Creature Features" of the 1950s: a perfect combination of science with fantasy with the all the mystery and scientific interest of a prehistoric survival into modern times as well as the element of an "alternative" line of human evolution. The Creature is not only the most lifelike monster of this era (right down to its bulging frog-like throat and flexing gills as it gulped air) but also the most compelling. Like Karloff's portrayal of the Creature of Frankenstein, the Creature of the Black Lagoon conveyed a pathos not generally observed in the other monsters of the Creature Features. More than intelligent and cunning, the Creature is sympathetic; we feel ultimately some outrage at the human intrusion into the primeval world of this last survivor of a vanished age and are relieved at the end that there is some ambiguity it its apparent demise. Stuntman swimmer Ricou Browning never received credit in any of the films although he deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance. There were no hidden air tanks in the suit he wore and he was required to hold his breath for up to four minutes in highly energetic underwater sequences. Added to this remarkable effort is the excellent job he and Ben Chapman do in bringing life to the "Gill Man". One simply doesn't think of it as a man in a rubber suit; its really alive. That is a tribute to their acting as surely as to Westmore's fantastic Creature makeup. Henry Mancini and Herman Stein worked on the classic musical score. Although the sequels Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) were far weaker than the original film (especially the latter), the Creature became an icon of 1950s Sci-Fi and American pop culture alongside all of the other classic Universal monsters. A remake has allegedly been in the works for a couple of years. Its hard to imagine how it could improve on the original.

GOJIRA
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1954 (US release 1956)
Produced by: Toho Film (Eiga) Co. Ltd.
Directed by: Ishiro Honda
Other:
Cast of Characters
Akira Takarada Hideto Ogata
Momoko Kochi Emiko Yamane
Akihiko Hirata Dr. Daisuke Serizawa
Takashi Shimura Prof. Kyohei Yamane
Synopsis and Commentary

A legendary sea monster inhabiting the depths near some South Pacific islands is mutated by US H-bomb testing into a gigantic monster with fiery radioactive breath, bent on destroying Tokyo. A mythic tale of the atomic age, Gojira is the most searching examination not merely of atomic power but of the heedless quest for scientific knowledge. Released as Godzilla - King of the Monsters in this country two years after its Japanese release, it was edited for content that the distributors feared would offend American audiences and in order to include some additional footage using Raymond Burr as a foreign correspondent. Its well worth your effort to see the original unexpurgated, unadulterated Japanese version with subtitles, but the American version is a good film anyway if you can ignore the clumsy insertions of the American footage. Dismissed by some for its special effects, this is a far better film than the sequels it spawned. The violence is never cartoonish, rather it is truly horrific; Gojira's attacks always occur in darkness lit only by fires, searchlights and his eerie radioactive luminesence. Inspired by the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the Japanese story doesn't resolve itself as neatly. The real drama in this story is in the conflict for the brilliant Japanese scientist, Dr. Serizawa, who must decide whether to reveal the existence of the terrible destructive discovery he has made in order to save Japan, at the risk of inaugurating a new era of scientific terror. The ramifications of his quandary are obvious and in this story his decision is uniquely Japanese and utterly opposed to the spirit of the times in the West. Whereas in Western science fiction films we sometimes questioned the wisdom of our pursuit of knowledge and the uses to which we put it, we never doubted the fundamental rightness of our motives and purpose. Gojira is not so self-acquitting, yet it is not a one-sided rant against the US testing of atomic weapons either (in fact no direct reference to the US is ever made). Like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Gojira is a story about the consequences of thoughtless creation, about man's responsibility toward the progeny of his imagination, and the high price of negligence. The resonance of this film like Shelley's masterpiece is as strong today as when first released (despite the string of comical sequels and the dismal attempted remake in recent years). It has just released in the US for the first time in its original form for the 50th anniversary, so check out the DVD!

THEM!
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1954
Produced by: Warner Brothers
Directed by: Gordon Douglas
Other:
Cast of Characters
James Whitmore Police Sergeant Ben Peterson
Edmund Gwynn Dr. Harold Medford
Joan Weldon Dr. Patricia Medford
James Arness Agent Robert Graham
Synopsis and Commentary

Atomic weapons testing in the New Mexico desert spawns a race of gigantic ants that threatens to spread throughout the Earth. Giant bug movies are regarded a unintended farce by contemporary audiences, but it must be appreciated that it was not obvious to anyone in the early years of radiological science that unrestrained growth could not happen. Recall that the military conducted experiments on volunteers, exposing them to radiation to see what would happen. We really did not know. More to the point, these films are simply a metaphor of the potential, unexpected consequences of atomic bomb testing. Edmund Gwynn's Dr. Medford is a shadow of Cecil Kellaway's lovable old professor from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, while former monster and soon to be TV western icon James Arness is the heroic lead and ostensible romantic interest, but I think James Whitmore is the standout in this lineup. While the special effects leave something to be desired, they are not bad (certainly better than the poster suggests). The best scene is early in the film when the scientists and the FBI agent locate the little girl, sole survivor of the mysterious attacks. Although I preferred The Deadly Mantis as a child, it is embarassingly absurd (watch what Mystery Science Theater 3000 did with it) whereas Them! has only one moment that overreaches (when Professor Medford predicts the end of mankind if the queen ants escape). Leonard Nimoy makes a brief uncredited appearance as an Air Force sergeant in an air defense installation.

IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1955
Produced by: Sam Katzman and Charles H. Schneer
Directed by: Robert Gordon
Other: Special Effects by Ray Harryhausen
Cast of Characters
Kenneth Tobey Commander Pete Mathews
Faith Domergue Prof. Lesley Joyce
Donald Curtis Prof. John Carter
Ian Keith Admiral Burns
Dean Maddux, Jr Admiral Norman
Synopsis and Commentary

H-Bomb testing in the South Pacific drives a gigantic octopus from the depths of the ocean abyss and it begins to prey on shipping, finally arriving with ocean currents at San Francisco Bay. This was Hollywood's answer to Gojira, and in an ironic (and maybe just a bit self-acquitting) departure from most of the films in this era it is not merely atomic science, but atomic weaponry, that saves the day. The female leads in the 50s Creature Features were almost invariably dark-haired beauties, counter to the trend of pop culture (blondes were victims or femme fatales); among these were Mara Corday, Dana Wynter, Barbara Rush and Faith Domergue. Capitalizing on past success, Kenneth Tobey is once again effectively cast as the cool and stoical military officer. This film is almost strictly an adventure story, unburdened by much philosophy, but I include it here primarily because it includes some of Ray Harryhausen's best early work. He relates that the budget for the special effects was insufficient to do all that he wanted, so they had to cut back on the animation to only six tentacles. This first collaboration between producer Charles H. Schneer and Ray Harryhausen would continue with increasing success to the end of Harryhausen's career in the early 1980s.

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1955
Produced by: Hammer Film Productions, Ltd.
Directed by: Val Guest
Other: From the BBC teleplay
by Nigel Kneale
Cast of Characters
Brian Donlevy Prof. Bernard Quatermass
Jack Warner Inspector Lomax
Richard Wordsworth Victor Caroon
Margia Dean Judith Caroon
Thora Hird Rosemary Elizabeth Rigly
David King-Wood Dr. Gordon Briscoe
Lionel Jeffries Blake
Synopsis and Commentary

The first interplanetary space voyage ends in disaster, and the sole survivor returns with a weird affliction that seems to be taking over his body. Before Dr. Who, there was Professor Bernard Quatermass, a brilliant and driven British defense scientist. Quatermass first appeared in a series of films on the BBC. This story, second in the series, was released in the US as The Creeping Unknown. American heavy, Brian Donlevy, plays the titular role with customary intensity and despite being from the wrong side of the pond (I don't know how the Brits reacted to his casting) carries the part well. His final words are a classic, giving Quatermass an anti-heroic complexity and making him an archetype of the reckless quest of science as an egoistic urge. I saw this film the first time very late at night and its one of my most vivid teenage memories of Sci-Fi cinema. The Quatermass Xperiment was followed by Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space in the US) and Quatermass and the Pit, my favorite of the series. The basic premise of this film was borrowed (after a fashion) in the 1970s for a B-movie called The Incredible Melting Man.

TARANTULA!
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1955
Produced by: Universal International
(William Alland)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Other:
Cast of Characters
John Agar Dr. Matt Hastings
Mara Corday Stephanie ("Steve") Clayton
Leo G. Carroll Prof. Gerald Deemer
Nestor Paiva Sheriff Jack Andrews
Synopsis and Commentary

A scientist working in the Arizona desert on an advanced growth serum inadvisedly administers it to several local species, including a tarantula.... In the long catalog of clasically bad decisions, the scientific curiosity of "what if?" goes as badly awry here as it possibly could. I don't have a lot of the giant bug films represented on this site, but Tarantula is a strong contender as the best of the lot. The reasons for this include the presence of Leo G. Carroll as the ill-fated scientist, production by 50s Sci-Fi golden boys William Alland and Jack Arnold, an excellent score by Henry Mancini and Herman Stein, makeup by Bud Westmore, and the decision (probably for purely practical reasons) to use an actual live tarantula to create the screen presence of the monster. You simply cannot, not even with today's best CGI, better the effect of the slow crawling of that black horror - because its real! The amazingly eerie sound of the monster is also unique and memorable (it was copied by an episode of Scooby-Doo, Where are You?). This film is, like Gojira, far more than a movie about a giant monster running amok. Tarantula is, in the best traditions of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (which is actually science fiction, but doomed to haunt the horror genre) and numerous novels by H. G. Wells (notably The Food of the Gods), a deceptively subtle challenge of the limits of prudent experimentation. We may laugh at the lunacy of giving super growth hormone to a spider, but has not science (and society) done as much? Are we not still doing these things? A young Clint Eastwood makes an uncredited appearance (behind oxygen mask) as an Air Force fighter pilot at the finale.

FORBIDDEN PLANET
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1956
Produced by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by: Fred M. Wilcox
Other:
Cast of Characters
Walter Pidgeon Dr. Edward Morbius
Leslie Nielsen Commander John J. Adams
Anne Frances Altaira Morbius
Warren Stevens Lt. 'Doc' Ostrow
Earl Holliman James Dirocco
Synopsis and Commentary

A starship investigates the fate of a research crew that landed on Altair 7 many years before, to be confronted by a deadly mystery and an imperious, forbidding scientist. This is the best space film of the atom age and it was a seminal influence on Gene Roddenberry when he created Star Trek and equally on Irwin Allen for Lost In Space, as will be immediately apparent. Combining an eerie and unusual soundtrack with literally out of this world set design and scientific concepts, it is truly original and brilliantly delivered on every level. Astute viewers will recognize that the basic premise of the story is adapted (very loosely) from Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest and it is a tale worthy of the Bard. This film is important not simply because of its ingenuity and influence on later films, but also for its distillation of the essential dilemma of scientific advancement examined by Sci-Fi in the post-war period. Walter Pidgeon is absolutely fabulous as the egoistic genius Morbius, who perfectly embodies this seemingly inherent fatal flaw of man. Ominously, Forbidden Planet does not answer this crucial question, and ends on a scene both tragic and hopeful. Modern audiences are more familiar with Leslie Nielsen as the anti-hero of outrageous spoofs, but here he is early in his career as the dashing and stalwart leading man opposite teen sensation Anne Frances. Robby the Robot was so impressive in this film that he became the star of his own (unrelated) film, The Invisible Boy and is an icon of the 1950s as well as the inspiration for Robot on Lost in Space. Some of you will remember Earl Holliman from The Rockford Files.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1956
Produced by: Allied Artists (Walter Wanger)
Directed by: Don Siegel
Other: From the serialized short
novel by Jack Finney
Cast of Characters
Kevin McCarthy Dr. Miles J. Bennell
Dana Wynter Becky Driscoll
Larry Gates Dr. Dan Kauffman
King Donovan Jack Belicec
Carolyn Jones Theodora Belicec
Whit Bissell Dr. Hill
Synopsis and Commentary

A rash of odd cases of hysteria and dementia all featuring the fixation that a loved one has changed and become an alien person lead a small town physician to suspect that something inexplicable, menacing and horrifying is happening. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is perhaps the quintessential Cold War paranoia film, yet I think it works brilliantly at face value. Its been remade twice and neither effort achieves the sense of palpable terror created by the 1956 original. The remakable thing is that it achieves this sense of terror without any real special effects. This film moves on a landscape that is almost entirely psychological. If there is a film that competes with my affections for the best of the 1950s Sci-Fi against The Thing from Another World, it is unquestionably Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I long ago lost count of how many times I have seen this film. Familiar faces include Carloyn Jones, better known as Morticia on The Addams Family, and Kenneth Patterson recognizable from the later Andy Griffith Show episodes. Soon to be film director Sam Peckinpah appears as the meter reader!

X - THE UNKNOWN
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1956
Produced by: Hammer Film Productions, Ltd.
(Michael Carreras & Anthony Hinds)
Directed by: Leslie Norman
Other: Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster
Cast of Characters
Dean Jagger Dr. Adam Royston
Edward Chapman John Elliott
Leo McKern Inspector McGill
Anthony Newley Lance Corporal "Spider" Webb
Michael Ripper Serjeant Harry Grimsdyke
Synopsis and Commentary

A fissure into the Earth's crust liberates a primordial ooze that absorbs energy with an insatiable appetite. This is one of my favorite British Sci-Fi films. Maybe I am just partial to blob-like monsters for their weird otherness, but the premise of this film is also quite innovative and it pre-dates The Blob by two years. What William Alland and Jack Arnold were to American Sci-Fi in the 1950s, Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds of Hammer Films were to horror and Sci-Fi in the UK. The early production efforts of Hammer were excellent, often featuring the superior screenplays of Jimmy Sangster and music work of James Bernard.

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1957
Produced by: Universal International
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Other: Novel & screenplay
by Richard Matheson
Cast of Characters
Grant Williams Scott Carey
Randy Stuart Louise Carey
April Kent Clarice
Raymond Bailey Dr. Thomas Silver
William Schallert Dr. Arthur Bramson
Synopsis and Commentary

Exposed to a strange mist during a day of boating at sea, a man begins a slow, irreversible process of shrinking. While it includes the customary terrors of miniature people films (especially the obligatory menace posed by the family cat), The Incredible Shrinking Man contrasts with films such as The Devil Doll and Dr. Cyclops in its poignant psychological treatment of the unprecedented malady that afflicts Scott Carey, beginning with the obvious (if obliquely treated) effect that it has on his sexual relationship with his wife and progressing through the stages of thought that accompany terminal cancer to the final, almost mystical transcendence that Carey achieves. While no explanation is ever offered, the mist is presumed to be a by-product of radioactive fallout from open air nuclear testing, making this another in the canon of atomic angst. While the cat is the featured threat, the one most remembered is the spider in the basement. Incidentally, "Orangey", the rather malevolent cat star of the film, also played a notable role in numerous other films, including This Island Earth and Breakfast at Tiffany's.

THE BLOB
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1958
Produced by: Jack H. Harris
Directed by: Irving S. Yeaworth, Jr.
Other:
Cast of Characters
Steve McQueen Steve Andrews
Aneta Corsaut Jane Martin
Earl Rowe Lt. Dave
Stephen Chase Dr. Hallen
John Benson Sgt. Bert
Olin Howlin Old Man
Synopsis and Commentary

A meteorite disgorges a weird mass of living protoplasm that voraciously assimilates flesh and grows continuously until it threatens a small Pennsylvania town, while a group of high school teens tries desperately to alert the authorities and the townspeople to the menace. One of the most under-rated science fiction films in this site, The Blob is, if taken seriously, among the most original, plausible and frightening films ever made. It is an Andromeda Syndrome ten years earlier. Some have argued that the performances are weak, but frankly I feel that they are, by virtue of their simplicity, more reflective of ordinary people in small town America. The Blob has been likened to a subliminal expression of fear against an insidious, spreading Red Threat, or conversely to a metaphor of the few voices of dissent and protest against the excesses of McCarthyism. I doubt if either of those ideas were in the minds of the film makers, but they demonstrate the richness of the story.

THE FLY
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1958
Produced by: 20th Century Fox (Kurt Neumann)
Directed by: Kurt Neumann
Other: Screenplay by James Clavell
Cast of Characters
Al Hedison Andre Delambre
Vincent Price Francois Delambre
Herbert Marshall Inspector Charas
Patricia Owens Helene Delambre
Charles Herbert Philippe Delambre
Synopsis and Commentary

A brilliant scientist develops the technology to transmit matter through space and unwisely attempts to transport himself, with horrifying consequences. Based on George Langelaan's short story, The Fly is one of the most memorable and poignant of the Sci-Fi films of this era. Its story of science gone awry is the very leitmotif for the Atom Age genre film. The dangers unleashed by the most well intentioned efforts are too horrific to be discounted would seem to be the message, yet the film concludes with Vincent Price telling the young son of the ill-fated hero that his father was "like an explorer in a unknown land" and that he died advancing science, to which the boy replies that when he grows up he wants to be like his father (which is exactly what happens in Return of the Fly!). So, for all its cautionary fear-mongering, this film still extolls the virtues of scientific exploration. Although a true Sci-Fi masterpiece, this film is also a horror classic (as are many of the Sci-Fi genre). Filmed in vivid color, it is shockingly gruesome for the era. Al, better known as David Hedison, went on to have a short career in Sci-Fi television as the commander of the U.S.S. Seaview on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but he was most recently seen as the character Felix Leiter in two James Bond films (the only actor ever to play that role twice). James Clavell, who penned the screenplay, became famous later for such novels as Tai-Pan and Shogun.

IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1958
Produced by: Vogue Pictures
Directed by: Edward L. Cahn
Other:
Cast of Characters
Marshall Thompson Col. Edward Carruthers
Shawn Smith Ann Anderson
Kim Spaulding Col. Van Heusen
Ann Doran Dr. Mary Royce
Dabbs Greer Eric Royce
Ray Corrigan It
Synopsis and Commentary

The sole survivor of a Mars exploration is accused of killing his fellow crew members after a crash landing - until the rescuers begin to die mysteriously and his tale of a monster acquires urgency. With a lurid title like this, and a gimmick "$50,000 Guaranteed... to the first person who can prove "It" is not on Mars now!", how could I seriously be including this schlock B-movie in the best Sci-Fi films? Well, because its a classic of the time and it is the model (in at least a couple of respects) for a very significant Sci-Fi film that was made 21 years later by Ridley Scott: Alien. While the science in this Creature Feature may be dodgy, the vampiric manner that It kills its victims provides interesting detail and shows some original thought. Hollywood stuntman Ray "Crash" Corrigan was the monster in the suit.

4D MAN
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1959
Produced by: Jack H. Harris
Directed by: Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
Other:
Cast of Characters
Robert Lansing Dr. Scott Nelson
Lee Meriwether Linda Davis
James Congdon Dr. Tony Nelson
Robert Strauss Roy Parker
Synopsis and Commentary

Two brothers performing defense research discover a means of shifting the structure of solid matter to enable solid objects to be superimposed and pass through one another. Coming just one year after The Fly, this film has some common elements but takes the idea of molecular transport in the temporal dimension in a unique direction (no pun intended). For that reason alone, and for the novelty of the side-effect, it deserves mention. I saw this film many years after The Projected Man (1967) starring Bryant Haliday, which is something of an amalgam of both this story and The Fly, and did not realize that it was derivative of an earlier (and better!) film. Although a B-film, 4D Man exhibits quality production and a fair cast, including Lee Meriwether and a young Patty Duke. Robert Lansing later appeared on a rather strange episode of Star Trek that was meant to be a pilot for his new TV show (with Teri Garr), but it wasn't pursued. Kolchak: The Night Stalker series producer Cy Chermak co-authored the screenplay.

THE H-MAN (Bijo to Ekitai-ningen)
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1959
Produced by: Toho Film (Eiga) Co. Ltd.
Directed by: Ishiro Honda
Other:
Cast of Characters
Yumi Shirakawa Chikako Arai
Kenji Sahara Dr. Masada
Akihiko Harata Inspector Tominaga
Koreya Senda Dr. Maki
Makoto Sato Uchida
Synopsis and Commentary

H-Bomb testing produces a mutated oozing colonial lifeform that dissolves human flesh and is expanding within the sewers of Tokyo as it assimilates the population. This little known film is a true cult classic among the cognoscenti of Japanese Sci-Fi. It is probably the best Japanese science fiction film ever made and maybe the scariest to come out of Japan until recent years. Most who watched it as a child (as I did) remark how it terrified them, haunting them with nightmares long afterward. I don't remember any nightmares, but even as a kid I knew that this film was head and shoulders above all the rest of the Japanese genre cinema for its realism and fright value. While it lacks the moral depth of Gojira, Honda's The H-Man explores the same fears of unknown nuclear consequences.

THE ANGRY RED PLANET
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1960
Produced by: American International Pictures
Directed by: Ib Melchior
Other:
Cast of Characters
Gerald Moore Colonel Thomas O'Bannion
Naura Hayden Dr. "Irish" Ryan
Les Tremayne Prof. Theodore Gettlell
Jack Kruschen CWO Sam Jacobs
Synopsis and Commentary

A Mars explorer probe returns with only two survivors, one critically injured and the other who recounts the tale of their ill-fated voyage. OK, this one is for nostalgia's sake. This is a B-film. No doubt about it, but its such a vivid part of my late night teenaged Sci-Fi movie experience, and has acquired such a cult following (among others of misspent youth), that it deserves mention. Yeah, the Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab is the supposed highlight and looks ridiculous, but the amoeba-like monstrosity at the end would not be that bad were it not for the whirling eye and the red filter effect for all the outdoor scenes on Mars is surprisingly effective (and covers a lot of cheap scenery). I watched a lot of really incredibly awful, cringeworthy space epics in my teen years: Battle Beyond the Sun, Flight to Mars, The Wizard of Mars, Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (directed by Peter Bogdanovich - I kid you not!); but The Angry Red Planet is the only one of these that I remember in any detail (most of these I watched in a sort of 2 AM hypnotic stupor) or that is still watchable as an adult.

THE TIME MACHINE
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1960
Produced by: George Pal /
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by: George Pal
Other: Novel by H. G. Wells
Cast of Characters
Rod Taylor George Wells
Yvette Mimieux Weena
Alan Young David Filby / James Filby
Sebastian Cabot Dr. Phillip Hillyer
Whit Bissell Walter Kemp
Synopsis and Commentary

A scientist invents a machine that enables him to travel through time and begins an adventurous quest to explore the bright future, but is hurled into a nightmarish world where humankind has evolved into childlike Eloi and troll-like Morlocks. Combining turn of the century Edwardian style with Cold War sensibilities, George Pal's classic adaptation of the novel by H. G. Wells largely overlooks the bitter social message of the story in favor of dire warnings about nuclear holocaust, while holding out a prospect for hope that Wells never proferred. I read the novel as a kid and I doubt if even today a major production could be started on such a bleak storyline.

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1960
Produced by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by: Wolf Rilla
Other: Novel by John Wyndham
Cast of Characters
George Sanders Prof. Gordon Zellaby
Barbara Shelley Anthea Zellaby
Martin Stephens David Zellaby
Michael Gwynn Major Alan Bernard
Laurence Naismith Dr. Willers
Synopsis and Commentary

A mysterious blackout in an English village is followed by the births of platinum blonde children who soon display extraordinary perceptions and capabilities. Based on brilliant British Sci-Fi novelist John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, this film showcases the talents of the inimitable George Sanders and British genre regular Barbara Shelley, as well as the remarkable presence of young Martin Stephens, whose portrayal of the leader of the children is crucial to the effect of the film (he starred the next year with Deborah Kerr in The Innocents). The conflict of the film is between Prof. Zellaby and his son David, as he strives to win the confidence and sympathy of this brilliant boy who clearly has domineering aspirations. There was a fairly competent sequel entitled Children of the Damned that seemed to be more of a remake than a follow-on story (no reference is made to the original film events). It was also remade in 1994 by John Carpenter, but the original is better than either of these.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1961
Produced by: Charles H. Schneer
Directed by: Cy Endfield
Other: Novel by Jules Verne
Cast of Characters
Michael Craig Captain Cyrus Harding
Joan Greenwood Lady Mary Fairchild
Michael Callan Herbert Brown
Gary Merrill Gideon Spilitt
Herbert Lom Captain Nemo
Beth Rogan Elena Fairchild
Percy Herbert Sergeant Pencroft
Dan Jackson Corporal Neb Nugent
Synopsis and Commentary

Union prisoners of war escape in an observation balloon and, along with a Confederate soldier and a war correspondent, are carried by storm winds to an uncharted volcanic island in the Mid-Atlantic where they are marooned, together with survivors of a pirate attack, and must learn to survive in a world of strange wonders that seems to be overseen by an invisible benefactor. Combining great production values, one of Jules Verne's best stories and arguably the best and most original of of Ray Harryhausen's animation work, The Mysterious Island was one of my favorite films as a kid and remains so. The fantastic score by cinematic musical genius Bernard Hermann, whose work on the Hitchcock films Vertigo and Psycho is iconic in American pop culture, is not to be overlooked and one of the most lasting memories that I have of the film.

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1961
Produced by: Irwin Allen
Directed by: Irwin Allen
Other:
Cast of Characters
Walter Pidgeon Admiral Harriman Nelson
Joan Fontaine Dr. Susan Hiller
Peter Lorre Commodore Lucius Emery
Barbara Eden Lieutenant Cathy Connors
Robert Sterling Captain Lee Crane
Michael Ansara Miguel Alvarez
Frankie Avalon LTJG Danny Romano
Synopsis and Commentary

A brilliant and willful Naval scientist defies orders and pits the capabilities of his experimental nuclear submarine against both natural perils and hostile navies in a race to stop the burning Van Allen belts from consuming the Earth. Certainly, the most overt example of the "trust the military, not the politicians" thread in Cold War Sci-Fi, as well as the ultimate vindication of the uses of atomic power, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is also easily the best of Irwin Allen's film and television efforts (he also remade The Lost World and made the all-star disaster epic to end all: The Towering Inferno - though it didn't). Walter Pidgeon brings the same sort of obsessive genius to this film as he showed in Forbidden Planet; a personality tempered his mild-mannered fellow scientist Commodore Emery (Peter Lorre) and by Capt Crane. Fans of Barbara Eden should not miss this one! I absolutely loved this movie (they showed it to us in the 4th grade), and while I watched the TV series religiously as a kid, it was pretty campy stuff after the first few episodes, though I have to say that David Hedison made a better Captain Crane - he could make even that dreck seem serious. Del Munroe returned in the TV series as essentially the same character, although his name is slightly altered. Michael Ansara also played the most imposing Klingon in the classic Star Trek series, Commander Kang on the episode Day of the Dove.

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1964
Produced by: Produzioni la Regina / American International Pictures
Directed by: Ubaldo Ragona & Sydney Salkow
Other: Novel by Richard Matheson
Cast of Characters
Vincent Price Dr. Robert Morgan
Franca Bettoia Ruth Collins
Emma Danieli Virginia Morgan
Giacomo Rosso-Stuart Ben Cortman
Umberto Raho Dr. Mercer
Synopsis and Commentary

One man survives alone in Los Angeles following an apocalyptic plague that has transformed the human population into vampiric creatures. Based on Richard Matheson's best novel, I Am Legend, this Italian adaptation takes full advantage of Vincent Price's range of emotional ability to explore the monomaniacal obsession of Morgan in his daily hunt for the "vampires", his nightly fear-filled vigils to hold them at bay from his house, and the swings of thought from mechanical routine to despair to desperate hope. Although it is loathed by Matheson, I like this version for its claustrophobic, psychological qualities (the story was remade in the 1970s as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston). Lacking any significant special effects and working on a meager budget, it achieves an effect of isolation, alienation that also mirrors the witch hunts of the McCarthy Red Scare. This is the original zombie plague movie, pre-dating even Night of the Living Dead, and the true wellspring for films such as 28 Days Later. Rumor has it that Will Smith is slated to play the titular lead in a big budget adaptation of I Am Legend in 2007.

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS
Rating
Film Production Credits
Release Date: 1964
Produced by: Aubrey Schenk Productions
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Other:
Cast of Characters
Paul Mantee CMDR Christopher "Kit" Draper
Victor Lundin Friday
Adam West COL Dan McReady
Mona Monkey
Synopsis and Commentary

An American space exploration craft crashes on Mars, marooning a sole survivor who must learn to adapt to his alien surroundings, securing water, oxygen, food and shelter, in the hopes of eventual rescue. In many respects this is a good film. Certainly, it is original (if borrowed heavily from the Robinson Crusoe story). While scientific authenticity is debatable, the basic story of a man surviving alone in a hostile environment millions of miles from Earth with only the faintest hope of help is compelling, so much so that in 2000 two films revisited the same territory: Red Planet and Mission to Mars.

LINKS TO THE OTHER PAGES

The Best Science Fiction Films

The Golden Age of Science Fiction Films (1919 - 1945)

The Age of Dystopia in Science Fiction Films (1965 - Present)

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