One of the reasons Heavy Listing went on semi-hiatus was to use our writing time cultivating other contributors.
Louis K. Lowy is a terrific writer, whose novel, Die Laughing, is both funny and exciting as hell. It is set in the black-and-white ’50s — a terrain Louis returns to today, in our Movie Night tribute to Halloween.
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Horror and sci-fi films from the 1950s tend to fall under two categories: those that are remarkably good because they are examples of terrific filmmaking and those that are remarkably good because they are examples of terrible filmmaking. I decided to go with the later category because the best of them are so damn fun to watch. I made my top ten choices with one thought in mind. Despite—or because of—the low budgets the films had to be entertaining. With that small criterion I begin my list of the Top Ten Best Terrible Horror Movies of the ’50s.
10. Killers From Space
This 1954 release was produced and directed, according to Wikipedia, by W. Lee Wilder (brother of Billy Wilder!) from an original, commissioned screenplay co-written by his son Myles Wilder. From the final product it’s obvious the fruit fell far from the Billy Wilder branch of this family tree.
This b & w film starred Peter Graves, brother of James Arness who played the monster in The Thing From Another Planet (a 1950s horror classic) and also went on to everlasting fame as Marshall Matt Dillon in the Gunsmoke TV series. Graves was no slouch himself. He starred in the Mission Impossible TV series and in the Airport movies.
The premise is Dr. Douglas Martin (Graves) while flying over an atomic test site crashes and is supposedly killed. He shows up again, but is acting weird. It turns out that aliens have revived him so he can steal top-secret info that the spacemen can use to conquer earth.
The film has an abundance of ultra low-tech effects that blow away any credibility. It begins with scratchy stock footage of a nuclear test site intermingled with studio shots of Graves in a jet cockpit. The aliens bulging eyes made from ping-pong balls cut in half and dotted in the center for pupils give new meaning to the term bug-eyed monsters. The spacemen are conveniently holed up in a cave (a favorite haunt of outer space creatures in the 1950s) where they are developing gigantic bugs and lizards obviously normal-sized but shot in extreme close up to look humongous. One of the most excruciatingly memorable scenes is the four-minute travail of Dr. Martin trying to find his way out of the cave as he attempts to avoid rear projection images of the enlarged cockroaches, grasshoppers, monitor lizards, horned toads and any other creature W. Lee Wilder could find to film. Killers From Space is a film filled with horror for all the wrong reasons.
It can be watched or downloaded for free at Internet Archive: http://archive.org/search.php?query=killers%20from%20space%20AND%20collection%3Amoviesandfilms
9. Robot Monster
Another ‘monsterpiece’ of the so-bad-it’s-good films. Apparently 2-D wasn’t good enough for this 1953 b & w film, so they also released it in 3-D. It was shot in Bronson Canyon, Los Angeles where (according to the DVD blurb) Ro-Man, a sex-starved robot monster…has destroyed all of humanity with the exception of a small band of survivors (who must) re-populate the human race and destroy…Ro-Man and his commander, The Great Guidance.
What makes this film so special is the laughably bad costume of Ro-Man. From Wikipedia: Twenty-five-year-old writer/director Phil Tucker made Robot Monster in four days for an estimated $16,000. The budget did not allow for a robot costume as intended [but they could afford 3-D?] so Tucker used his friend George Barrows who had his own gorilla suit to play Ro-Man. Tucker added (a dive) helmet.
There is, of course, the requisite cave where Ro-Man dwells, and the extreme close-up giant creatures spliced from stock footage of 1940’s One Million B.C. Elmer Bernstein, the prestigious composer who wrote the score for The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, composed the music though I doubt Robot Monster was included in his resume.
Again from Wikipedia, the film (received) decent reviews and grossed $1,000,000 in its initial release, more than sixty times its original investment.
Which just goes to show you that sometimes bad can be good – very good!
8. The Giant Gila Monster.
I almost excluded this 1959 b & w release filmed in and around Cielo, Texas, because the star is another extreme close-up. As the title suggests, this time it’s a Gila lizard who lives in—what else?—a cave. What saved the day was the inclusion of teenagers. By 1959 producer Samuel Z. Arkoff had discovered the power of teenage dollars and had produced a slew of films to harness that financial windfall. Director Ray Kellogg jumped on the bandwagon with this entry.
The movie opens with a thirty-second voice-over warning us of the dreaded giant Hilo lizard (his pronunciation) that lurks in forbidden lands. At the same time ominous music plays and the camera pans across dried forest. We dissolve to a ruckus rock ‘n roll soundtrack and the most common trope in teen horror movies – a boy and girl parked in lover’s lane working their way toward the nasty.
Suddenly the car lunges forward and tumbles over a ridge. Screams and heart pounding music takes over. The film cuts to a colossal lizard paw bearing straight down on the camera until the paw overwhelms the lens, and is replaced by the film’s title. Wow, and all that in the first minute! Another highlight scene takes place at a sock hop. Our hero, misunderstood teen Chase Winstead is warbling a heartwarming ballad about God telling all his children to sing, when the Gila monster decides to pay a visit. Mayhem ensues which eventually leads to Chase defeating the creature with help from his hot rod and four quarts of nitroglycerin.
The Giant Gila Monster can also be found on Internet Archive: http://archive.org/search.php?query=the%20giant%20gila%20monster%20AND%20collection%3Amoviesandfilms
7. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman
This one would make the list if only for its poster. Drawn by Reynold Brown, it has everything a horror fan could dream of: a 50 foot tall voluptuous half-clad, redhead; bare legs spread across a multi-level super-hiway, a Chrysler in one red-fingernailed hand and the other reaching down for panicked, scrambling drivers caught in a maelstrom of wrecked vehicles. A 1958 b & w Allied Artists release, IMDB says of the plot: When an abused wife grows to giant size because of an alien encounter and an aborted murder attempt, she goes after (her) cheating husband with revenge on her mind.
The effects are wonderfully awful. Not only do we get the extreme close-ups and model-sized sets, we get the worst gigantic rubber hands to ever grace a film. As the trailer proudly spouts, “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Incredibly huge with incredible desires for love and vengence!” I heartily give this low-budget horror/funfest a jumbo, rubber thumbs-up.
6. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein 5. I Was a Teenage Werewolf
Numbers six and five are the definitive 1950s teen horror, or, rather, horror-teen movies, both released in 1957 under the auspices of the aforementioned Samuel Z. Arkoff, through his company American International Pictures. He once explained the Arkoff film formula thusly:
Arkoff ran with his formula. Another rule he had was to develop the most enticing posters for his movies that money could buy. Many were drawn from the title alone, before the scripts were even finished. Consequently many of the AIP posters of that era and genre are the most sought after and expensive ones on the market. Unfortunately they were nearly always the best part of the films.
The b & w Teen Werewolf is the better of the two flicks. It’s actually pretty good and has the added bonus of Michael Landon of Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie fame starring in his first movie as our ill-fated protagonist.
It has a great scene in a high school gym. A female gymnast in tights (Fantasy) is working out after class on the ropes (Fornication.) Tony (Landon) is watching her. The school bell blares. This somehow causes poor Tony to flip out and transform into the furry, gruesome-toothed, salivating creature. The snarling werewolf in a varsity jacket descends upon the girl (Killing) who is hanging face down on the ropes. Her P.O.V. scenes are effectively shot upside down. All-in-all it’s not a bad movie for its genre.
Both Teen Werewolf and Teen Frank had the B-film great Whit Bissell as separate mad scientists who turned the hapless teens into monsters.
Teen Frank also starred Phyllis Coates, who played Lois Lane in the first season of the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV series. The plot revolves around university-employed Professor Frankenstein (Bissell) who has an alligator pit beneath his house. He steals dead athletes from a plane crash and from their body parts constructs a creature with a beefcake body and a monster face. The creature goes around murdering people. Shot in 99% black and white, in a possible homage to The Wizard of Oz, as our teen monster goes to his final reward via electricution from laboratory machines, the film shocks us with a glorious color shot! I Was A Teenage Frankenstein and I Was A Teenage Werewolf are Arkoff and A.I.P. at their finest.
4. The Wasp Woman
Another metamorphic monster makes number four on my list of favorites so dreadful they’re exceptional. What separates this one from the previous two are it’s protagonist, who is a high-powered female that owns and runs a cosmetic firm, and its late-50s avant-garde vibe to it. The sets are decked out in chic design and the sound track is centered on jumpy jazz music much like The Twilight Zone employed.
This 1959 quickie shot in fourteen days by Roger Corman is the tale of cosmetics magnate Janis Starlin (Susan Cabot) who tampers with nature thanks to the help of yet another misguided scientist in her quest to regain her youth. At first the wasp enzyme injections produce the desired results but rapidly take a woeful turn.
Starlin changes into a murdering entomological nightmare with insect mask and hands that are a disaster. Shot in glimpses of light, the upper portion of the head piece looks like a rubber mask with a Fun Fur scalp and turgid pipe cleaner antennas glued to the forehead. The eyes resemble bottom convex portions of pounded out metal goblets minus the stems. The lower portion of the mouth has a pair of protruding canine teeth. Still, The Wasp Woman is a sassy mix of late 50s panache and low budget horror film non-wizardry that gives it a special air.
Find it at Internet Archive: http://archive.org/search.php?query=the%20wasp%20woman%20AND%20collection%3Amoviesandfilms
One last behemoth, this one from the other side of the world (sort of), comes in at number three. This Japanese b & w classic was originally released in its home country in 1954. Shortly after, American producers bought the foreign footage, re-edited it, dubbed it in English and inserted scenes of reporter Steve Martin, played by Raymond Burr, the future TV star of Perry Mason and Ironsides. Burr never set foot in Japan. He was made to blend in with existing footage by use of Japanese doubles in matching suits filmed from behind, and creative cutting. In 1956 it was released in the United States as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
This film is terrific not only for Burr’s ludicrous ‘interacting’ with the dubbed in Japanese actors (and the added factor of him being named Steve Martin), but, to the Japanese filmmakers credit, they do a decent job with their giant creature, a man in a rubber suit who tramps around spewing fire and crushing pint-sized landscapes. It’s also a 1950s message film on the dangers of the atomic age.
The American producers spent around $100,000 for the footage and the revamping. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! grossed two million. As Blue Oyster Cult sang in their song titled after the film’s star: Go, go, go, Godzilla!
Check out the trailer at Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/GodzillaKingOfTheMonstersTrailer
2. The Blob
What can you say about a movie that debuts one of the iconic stars of the last fifty years, features a theme song co-written by a seven-time Grammy winner, was shot in one-hundred percent color, and has a title star that resembles a cross between hair gel and toothpaste?
The Blob (1958) stars movie great Steve McQueen as teenager Steve Andrews and Aneta Corseaut as teenager Jane Martin. (Apparently there weren’t any ethnic families in the 1950s.)
McQueen went on to play in the classics Bullitt, The Great Escape, and Papillion. Corseaut achieved fame (?) as Andy Taylor’s love interest, Helen Crump, in The Andy Griffith Show.
Misunderstood, angst-ridden teen Steve Andrews comes to the rescue after the appropriately named Blob falls to earth and the stupidest senior citizen in horror film history picks it up on a stick and watches it slowly ooze onto his arm.
The Blob gobbles him up, grows bigger, and continues to find others to consume. There are two highlight scenes involving the creature invading the sanctity of 1950s teenage icons, a movie theater and a train car diner.
The oddity of watching McQueen in a film like this is alone worth the price of admission. Even without him, it’s still a good look at a 1950s culture that was more fantasy than reality. Oh, and the Grammy winner who co-wrote the theme song? None other than Burt Bacharach. The song’s title is the same as the movie and plays over the closing credits. It’s so marvelously lousy that if I were on the Grammy committee I’d either strip him of a couple of his awards, or give him a few more.
The song can be heard on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCtcgI4BcIQ
1. Plan 9 From Outer Space
Here it is, the Citizen Kane of horror movies gone irrevocably wrong, Ed Wood, Jr.’s 1959 b & w masterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space (original title Grave Robbers From Outer Space.)
Go ahead. Admire the wobbly cardboard tombstones . . . The rotund, heavily accented Swedish wrestler-cum-actor Tor Johnson, who can’t work his way out of the grave . . . The cop who lackadaisically scratches his forehead with the tip of his gun . . . The remainder of the recently-dead Bela Lugosi’s role being taken over by Wood’s foot-taller dentist . . . The toy flying saucers hung by visible strings being utilized for UFOs . . . The effeminate spaceman portrayed by someone named Dudley Manlove . . . The hourglass-figured TV hostess Vampira creeping around . . . The inept acting . . . The inane dialogue . . . The curly-cued prognosticator, Criswell, spouting such wisdom as “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives” . . . All of these, and more, are worth your admiration. But the true star of this film is director Wood, himself.
This is a man who believed in his heart that he was making a serious piece of work. That’s the key to the greatness of Plan 9. It is not told with a wink to the viewer. Wood sees greatness in every frame of his film. It’s what makes this film magical. The viewer never gets the notion that this was made to grab a quick buck like the Arkoff films, or that someone such as Roger Corman was hastily cranking it out so he could move on to the next one.
Wood’s sincerity comes through. The actors (and that term is debatable) take their roles seriously because their leader takes it seriously. Tim Burton did a magnificent job in his tribute film Ed Wood, but to truly understand this man’s genius treat yourself to Plan 9 From Outer Space.
You can find it at Internet Archive: http://archive.org/search.php?query=plan%209%20from%20outer%20space%20AND%20collection%3Amoviesandfilms
One last word, all of these films are best enjoyed with popcorn and whatever gets you through the night.
By Louis K. Lowy