For horror fans, a cinematic centenary is just around the corner (2022 in-fact) and to celebrate this monumental moment of the monstrous Rob Mclaughlin takes a close look at the key points of the evolution of the horror movie. Today we stop in the 1950s for…
A Night of Scares at the Drive-In
Post-War horror films had to adapt to meet the needs of cannier audiences with location and settings of their story needing to express accessible points of identifiable cultural terms and characteristics. With countries still recovering from World War II, thematic elements in horror began to present new protagonists in their stories that drew direct influence from the fears and unease of their audience. The biggest of these new global fears was the growth or nuclear or ‘atomic’ power and the potential of further worldwide nuclear conflict. The bombing of Hiroshima cast a long shadow over the horror genre and as such produced one of the largest (and most radioactive) horror icons of all time in the form of Godzilla/Gōjira (1954) who was a literal physical manifestation of the supposed horrors of radioactivity and the embodiment of Japanese fear of continued nuclear conflict. It wasn’t just mutual assured destruction that permeated the horror film of the 1950s induced fear to a post-war audience through the representation of invasive forces or external presences encroaching on ‘Main-Street USA’.
With the new ‘pop culture’ market growing with family members no longer needed for conscription and having for the first time disposable income the growing genre of science fiction and horror films were aimed directly towards a newfound demographic – Teenagers. Through films set for the most part in recognisable small towns made famous by the likes of Norman Rockwell movies makers attempted to appeal towards them with this particular era being renowned for ‘drive-in movie’ cycle of films with kings of exploitation William Castle heading up numerous ‘Attacks of’ and ‘Invasions of…’ movies in the 50s where small-town America came under siege from an external force of a bug-eyed alien or prehistoric/robot/atomic monsters – this was literally the time of ‘Science Fiction Double Features’ that Richard O’Brien wrote (or sung) about it The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
While showing overgrown things that came from the desert/or ‘metaluna’ monsters from planet X not all of these movies provided quality entertainment as ‘auteur’ Ed Wood exploited these innocent times with ‘classics such as Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). With 1950s horror films focusing heavily on the fear of the loss of self and individuality films like The War of the Worlds (1953), Invaders from Mars (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) highlighting the fears of an alien hive-mind or invading force taking away newly gained freedoms.
A 50s diet of horror home-spun (and relatively cheap) back-lot shot genre films inhabited by parent swallowing sandpits, blob oozing flea-pit cinemas did towards the end of the decade begin to look tired and cliché as the spaces in which these films were screened and more subtle avenues of horror also ventured onto the screen. Not every monster on screen came from a Black Lagoon or from the dawn of time – some of the most sinister monsters were well and truly human such as the case of Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Reverend Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955) or the pre-pubescent nightmare that is Rhoda in The Bad Seed (1956).
The hyper-real representations of ‘Middle America’ therefore was slowly replaced with new antagonists, new settings and new villains based in motels, stylish brownstone apartments, shopping malls and the increasingly forgotten communities left behind by continued social and political change.
Five recommended Horror Films of the 1950s
Invaders From Mars (1953)
A perfect example of 1950s paranoid horror. A parent eating sink-hole leads to the adults in a small American town being taken over from interplanetary invaders. A mix of childhood fear, sinister loss of identity terrifyingly creepy aliens ‘Invaders’ is still heart-stopping. Stay away from Tobe Hooper’s rather silly joyless 1980s remake.
The biggest and not partially subtlest allegory to the Japanese fear of ‘atomic’ (Nuclear) power – yes when it comes down to it the film essentially is a man in a rubber suit smashing through toy-sized tanks and cardboard cities but the limitations of the black and white shooting actually provide to be one of the films saving graces as the monotone look of the film provides considerable mood and tone to the film.
The Blob (1958)
Steve McQueen vs a bus-sized blob of raspberry jelly. While not particularly fear-inducing the effects and aesthetic really sum in the 1950s style of Americana of Caddys, Cheerleaders, Jocks and Googie styled diners.
Unlike a lot of 1980s remakes, the considerably more gruesome 1989 take on the Blob is actually a much better movie and makes the neon pink nemesis a literal face-melting nightmarish monster.
The Bad Seed (1956)
Bringing a very human face to 1950s horror this psychological horror-thriller film with elements of melodrama and film noir and debates the idea of nurture vs nature of a very bad little girl. Without spoiling the film too much you can very much see Rhodas behaviour and outlook form the beginnings of the ‘creepy child trope’ that has appeared throughout cinematic horror.
The Fly (1958)
Once again preying on the viewers’ fears of this time of ‘Science Gone Mad’ The Fly, of course, is a film best remembered for the disturbing “Help me! Help me!” scene at the end and while this may well be one of the most iconic moments of horror the film itself is still a fantastic mad-scientist flick and of course stars the legendary Vincent Price.
Join us again tomorrow for a look at the 1960s and the rise of the slasher film and Italian Horror Cinema.