The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
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Issue #5

Still Watching the Skies: Fearing and Loving the Alien in ’50s Movies  

Eric M. Heideman

The sky is full of lights, and people have always made up stories to explain them. Perhaps some lights were worlds in their own right—certainly our sibling, the Moon—and perhaps those worlds harbored creatures. Early tales featuring encounters with beings of other worlds included those of Lucian (1st century), Cyrano de Bergerac (17th century), and Voltaire’s “Micromegas” (18th century). The keystone tales of human contact with extraterrestrials are two short novels by H.G. Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898), in which Mars invades Earth, and The First Men in the Moon (1899), in which human travelers encounter Selenites.

Silent cinema occasionally featured human contact with extraterrestrials, usually within a character’s dream. A Trip to the Moon (1902), directed by Georges Melies, a stage magician and the father of cinematic special effects, loosely combined the respective Moon novels of Wells and Jules Verne. Aelita (1924) was a USSR-made comedy whose title character was the queen of Mars.

Early sound-film space aliens were mostly derived from the comics. Alex Raymond’s newspaper comic strip inspired the serial Flash Gordon (1936) and its two sequels, in which Flash and his buddies thwart the dreams of conquest of Ming, emperor of the planet Mongo, while Flash copes with the amorous advances of Ming’s daughter Aura. On Hallowe’en 1938, Orson Welles’ realistic radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds created a national panic. Also in 1938, the most benign space alien of all, Superman of Krypton, debuted in Action Comics #1, giving birth to comic books as a viable commercial form separate from comic strips. Superman’s adventures soon spread to all media, including a splendid series of animated cartoons in the 1940s, a serial, a 1951 motion picture, and a long-running television show (1952-1957).

In August 1945 what President Truman called “the fundamental power of the universe” was unleashed on two human cities. Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946 and we began to see our wartime allies, the Soviet Union, as our new enemies. In 1949, with the help of spies, they got their own Bomb.

Meanwhile, in 1947, lots of people started reporting that the lights in the sky were moving. While many shapes were attributed to those lights, the most popular shape was a “flying disc.” Without discounting the possibilities that these “discs” were experimental government vehicles—American or Soviet—or alien spacecraft attracted by our radio broadcasts, I’ll observe that for 20 years science fiction magazines had been showing up on newsstands, their garish covers often featuring space aliens and space vehicles.

Just as horror cinema, with a long (mostly Germanic) prehistory made its debut as a genre in Hollywood in the ‘30s, so science fiction cinema, with an even longer prehistory, emerged as a distinct genre in the ‘50s. Whereas, in the ‘30s, horror films had often had SF elements, for most of the ‘50s SF films dominated, often containing horror elements. From 1950 until the gothic revival of 1957-58 science fiction/horror cinema dealt mostly with either the effects of nuclear radiation on people or animals, or with human encounters with space aliens.

Destination Moon (1950), produced by master animator George Pal from a script by Robert A. Heinlein, attempted to realistically portray a trip to the Moon. Though it created a sensation at the time, its flat earnestness reportedly makes it rough going today. Rocketship X-M (1950), featuring a trip to a Mars whose humanlike inhabitants have reverted to savagery after a nuclear exchange, is less realistic than Destination Moon, but reportedly more fun. The otherwise unimportant The Flying Saucer (1950) appears to have given those flying objects the name that stuck. (The film’s “saucer” is Soviet in origin.)

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Astounding magazine editor John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” was acquired and produced by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951; AKA The Thing), directed by Christian Nyby under Hawks’ close supervision. This suspenseful, witty tale of a “walking carrot” (James Arness, whose growl and lurching walk constitute cinema’s best imitation of the Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster) menacing a small human Arctic outpost was the first really good film (setting Melies’ fanciful 1902 venture to the side) about a human/extraterrestrial encounter. The Thing has often been called a study of strong-military people of action vs. weak-scientist people of thought. But as Mark Jancovich persuasively argues, it is really about bureaucrats with their heads in the clouds-both scientists and military-vs. working-stiff grunts-both military and scientists-dealing with the actual situation in front of them. Air Force Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is also a case-study in democratic leadership. He trusts his people to come up with good ideas, and they are comfortable improvising contributions to the group effort.

The lively cast includes Robert Cornthwaite as the head scientist whose idealism blinds him to the Thing’s menace, Margaret Sheridan as a strong and sensible member of the scientific crew (she and Tobey flirt, but they flirt as equals) and Douglas Spencer as Scotty, a wisecracking Greek chorus-reporter. It is Scotty, in relating the adventure to the world via radio, who composes the anthem of ‘50s SF movies: “Watch the skies. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”

The amazingly versatile director Robert Wise (whose films include The Body Snatcher, The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) made his science fiction debut with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), adapted, in an unusually literate script, from Harry Bates’ novelette “Farewell to the Master.” This story of Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a dignified, human-appearing emissary from a planetary federation, strives for a maximum of realism in its understated presentation. The film has dated very little (there are occasional infelicities such as Klaatu’s saying he’s come 250 million miles, which would put his journey’s start in the asteroid belt). The effects-from the beautifully designed flying saucer, to the clean-lined giant robot, Gort (7’4” Lock Martin) are strikingly simple, and for that very reason still seem contemporary. Klaatu ventures into his vessel, waves his hands at a row of panels, and lights come on. We have no trouble believing that a very advanced technology would work this way. The film’s enduring appeal also owes much to top-caliber performances by Rennie, Patricia Neal, in a subtly nuanced performance as an Earthwoman who chooses to trust Gort, and behaves with great courage, and Sam Jaffe, whose wild-haired wise old scientist is a thinly-disguised tribute to Albert Einstein.

The film has been called both a liberal message of peace and an authoritarian tract, since Klaatu tells an assembly of Earth scientists (a genuinely multi-national, multi-racial group, very unusual for the time) that if our population ventures into space while maintaining our warlike ways, our planet will be reduced to a cinder. I submit that both interpretations of the film’s message are too simple: both by what he says and by what he doesn’t say, Klaatu hints at an interplanetary (interstellar?) federation with complex politics. These people of other worlds were so frightened of their own aggression that they in effect gave up their free will, creating near-omnipotent robots such as Gort who act automatically against any aggressor. (One wonders how Gort would view contact sports and energetic consentual sex.) Klaatu says, “We do not claim to have achieved perfection, but we have a system, and it works.” The film offers no evidence that the people of other worlds bear us any ill will. Klaatu hopes against hope to get through to us before the robots take the matter out of his people’s hands.

For The Man from Planet X (1951), director Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat) was given a weak script and a small budget, but managed to inject some atmospheric touches and some ambiguity. A small spaceman from a planet about to swing by Earth lands on a Scottish island, engages in some unexplained activity, and is killed by the military. Ulmer’s direction raises the possibility that the initially friendly alien may have been trying to arrange immigration, not invasion, from his dying world. In Flight to Mars (1951) an Earth expedition finds an underground Martian city of middle-aged white men in robes and young white women in mini-skirts, who want to seize our ship so they can build a fleet of duplicate ships to conquer Earth. In George Pal’s When Worlds Collide (1951; from the novel by Philip Wylie) two worlds are approaching Earth, one of which will collide with it. A group of Earthlings construct a space-ark to the other world. The story has dated, but Pal’s FX still deliver the goods.

With two commercially successful space films under his belt, George Pal asked Barre Lyndon to write an adaptation of the quintessential space-invasion novel. The War of the Worlds (1953) changes Wells’ primary setting from turn-of-the-century London to 1950s Los Angeles, substitutes a monotheistic religious note for Wells’ scientific humanism, and drops Wells’ anti-(British) imperialist subtext. But Pal and Gordon Jennings brilliantly visualize many scenes from the novel, and bring the nearly indestructible Martian war machines to unforgettably vivid life. The briefly-glimpsed Martians are refreshingly non-human in appearance: diminutive, leathery, with a single three-faceted eye and suction-cup fingers. And, as in the novel, they are pitiless conquerors: when three Angelenos advance upon them waving a white flag, they’re disintegrated for their act of trust. The film is fast-paced and exciting and involves one in the story in a way that most space-invasion films don’t. Gene Barry gives a solid lead performance as a scientist/intellectual who is also a complex, flesh-and-blood human being.

Invaders from Mars (1953) might have been an ordinary programmer had it not been directed by William Cameron Menzies, who Bill Warren calls “Almost certainly the greatest and most innovative visual designer ever to work on movies.” Menzies’ art director/production designer credits included Things to Come (1936; he also directed), both the 1924 and 1940 The Thief of Baghdad, and Gone with the Wind. The script frames the Marian invasion as though it were all a boy’s dream, so Menzies designed his simple, vivid sets to reflect only those details that a child would notice. Young David (Jimmy Hunt) sees a flying saucer descend into a sand pit in his back yard. He then observes as first his father (Leif Erikson), then most of the authority figures in his life, go out to the sandpit only to return changed. Eventually David comes face to face with the head Martian (Luce Potter), a small, big-headed figure floating in a bowl carried by giant green “mutant “ slaves (including Lock “Gort” Martin). The film manages to be both playful and creepy, in its early exploration of a running ‘50s SF theme, the loss of individuality and identity.

Several sources have stated that Ray Bradbury’s original treatment for It Came from Outer Space (1953) was discarded, and the script written mostly by Harry Essex. But by comparing the various drafts Bill Warren has demonstrated that Bradbury’s plot, his dialogue (condensed and modified), his vision are present in almost every scene of director Jack Arnold’s finished film. In the middle of the period that produced such Commies-among-us paranoia as Red Planet (1952) came Bradbury’s thoughtful plea for cosmopolitan tolerance. Writer/amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) follows a “meteor” out to the desert where he finds an enormous spaceship, whose crew subsequently conceal it. Putnam then deduces that the aliens are assuming the shapes of local people. Putnam has the devil of a time persuading folks of this, both because the story is strange and because he is strange: “alone and isolated, a man who thinks for himself,” as his friend and foe, the sheriff, describes him. The townspeople eventually become convinced that there are aliens among them and form a mob, but Putnam meanwhile has become convinced that the aliens mean us no harm, and he tries to stop the mob.

The aliens—briefly glimpsed as resembling enormous one-eyed jellyfish-are neither for us nor against us. They have simply crashed here and are trying to effect repairs so they can leave. They react to us not as a group but as individuals, from friendly to hostile to indifferent. Warren calls them “the most realistically motivated aliens in any science fiction film.” Also notable are Arnold’s imaginative direction—he would become, with Great Britain’s Terence Fisher, one of the two best fantastic-cinema directors of the ‘50s—and Putnam’s schoolteacher girlfriend Ellen (Barbara Rush), who is quite sensible and strong, except on those occasions when—like almost every female lead in almost every “monster movie” ever made—she screams.

Those timeless masterpieces Robot Monster and Cat Women on the Moon also debuted in 1953. Target Earth (1954) is a Twilight Zone-like study of tensions among a small group hiding out in a deserted city occupied by invading robots from Venus.

In 1955 a spunky little British studio named Hammer adapted Nigel Kneale’s popular six-part BBC teleplay into a feature film, The Quatermass Xperiment. In the film Dr. Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) has sent three pioneer astronauts into Earth’s stratospere. Only one returns, and he (Richard Wordsworth), seemingly infected by something up there, gradually mutates into something inhuman. The script is intelligent, the direction by Val Guest taut and suspenseful, and Wordsworth’s mute performance as a man slowly losing his humanity is moving. American actor Donlevy is apparently quite different from the cultured British scientist of Kneale’s teleplay, but Donlevy is a memorable Quatermass, gruff, forceful, explaining to Wordsworth’s wife that science has no room for feelings.” After the threat to humanity is finally defeated, Quatermass doesn’t say, “I meddled in things man was meant to leave alone.” He says, “We’re going up again.” In many ways this offbeat hero is a trial run for Hammer’s unique interpretation of Victor Frankenstein.

Despite the Mystery Science Theatre 3K gang’s graceless and tacky trashing in their 1996 feature film, This Island Earth (1955) is a decent film, well above the ‘50s average, and has, I think, the cinema’s first non-dream journey to another solar system. Though This Island Earth has not aged as well as the decade’s SF classics, it features a nicely suspenseful beginning, in which high-domed travelers from Metaluna enlist the aid of Earth scientists. Exeter, the head of the Metaluna expedition, is a character of some complexity, well played by Jeff Morrow. The film’s latter part, where two Earth scientists are abducted on a journey back to Metaluna is too truncated. But we get some well-done matte paintings and miniatures of Metaluna, an advanced culture dying from a war with another planet.

With breathtaking confidence, Forbidden Planet (1956) takes for granted a 23rd century Earth that has attained faster-than-light travel, voyaging from star to star in flying saucers(!). The second expedition to Altair 4 discovers the still-operating instrumentalities of the Krel, an almost godlike civilization that 2,000 centuries ago wiped itself out in a single night. Story (by Cyril Hume, Irving Block, and Allen Adler) awesome FX (by the Disney studios) and matte paintings, a unique alien soundtrack ( “electronic tonalities” by Louis and Bebe Barron), highly professional acting (by Walter Pidgeon, Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, and Warren Stevens), and Robby the Robot come together to create a complete world, haunted by an exalted alien civilization. Forbidden Planet deserves an entire essay to itself. Watch this space.

Producer Walter Wanger, impressed by Jack Finney’s Colliers magazine serial The Body Snatchers, assigned Don Siegel to direct a film adaptation. Siegel worked on the script with Daniel Mainwaring, with some touching up by young Sam Peckinpah. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy, in a forceful performance) finds his sleepy northern California town of Santa Mira experiencing an “epidemic” of people believing that their loved ones have been replaced by unfeeling impostors. Miles eventually learns that the impostors are, in fact, pods, drifting through space to take root and absorb the appearance, the memories— everything but the emotional life—of human beings.

At the time of its release, the film was described as both a parable of Communist take-over and a criticism of the anti-Communist “witch hunts” of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Siegel has said of these parallels, “It was inescapable, but I tried not to emphasize it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I didn’t want to preach.” Siegel’s restrained exploration of the theme paid off. The pods can be interpreted any number of ways, so the film hasn’t dated. Miles talks about the way people lose their humanity (read: empathy) a little bit at a time. “Santa Mira” is actually a composite of several L.A.-vicinity locales. Siegel carefully establishes the town’s mundane blandness, making the gradual uncovering of the horror beneath its surface all the more impressive. At the studio’s insistence Siegel removed several bits of comic dialogue from the film and added a prologue and epilogue. Perhaps Siegel’s original version would have been better; perhaps not. What got released is the most genuinely creepy horror/science fiction film of the 1950s.

An attempt was made to duplicate the magic of The War of the Worlds in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) featuring animation by Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen had been a prot´g´ of King Kong’s animator, Willis O’Brien, and used O’Brien’s stop-motion animation technique, in which flexible models were photographed one frame at a time. Harryhausen’s spaceships for Earth vs. were spectacular, the platonic essence of flying saucers. But alas, the script was simply average, the acting bland. There is some charm in the fact that the space-invaders are underachievers. They first send a message of peace to the scientist hero (Hugh Marlowe), but the message doesn’t get through because of a technical flaw. Then the aliens demand that Earth surrender, but they give us 60 days to capitulate, giving us time to whip up a sonic weapon to defeat them. Ultimately, in crashing to Earth, the saucers take out most of the iconic buildings in Washington, DC, a scene that must have been disturbing at the time, and that recent events have made equally disturbing today.

Producer/director Roger Corman, who’s always known how to get maximum value from every dollar spent, made a couple of above-average space-alien quickies, It Conquered the World (1956; it didn’t) and Not of This Earth (1957; featuring vampires from another world). He writes that for It Conquered, “From my engineering and physics background I’d reasoned that a being from a planet with a powerful field of gravity would sit very low to the ground. So with my effects man, Paul Blaisdell, I’d designed a rather squat creature. But just before we were to shoot the climactic showdown with Beverly [Garland] and the monster, she stood over it and stared it down, hands on her hips. ‘So,’ she said with a derisive snarl, making sure I heard her, ‘you’ve come to conquer the world, have you? Well, take that!’ And she kicked the monster in the head. I got the point immediately. By that afternoon the monster was rebuilt ten feet high. Lesson one: Always make the monster bigger than your leading lady.”

In 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) an Earth expedition to Venus returns with a gelatinous egg that hatches into a creature (resembling a human/dinosaur hybrid) who grows at an incredible rate, is mistreated, fights back, and is eventually killed. The film is marred by a flat script, but Harryhausen’s creature is impressive. Although the creature is no King Kong, one feels for it; it is simply a wild animal stolen from its habitat and trying to survive. Kronos (1957) features an impressive 100-foot robot from space who sucks up all energy sources. In The Mysterians (Japan, 1957; U.S. release 1959), Godzilla chroniclers Inoshiro Honda (director) and Eiji Tsuburaya (FX) serve up a confused but lively tale of spacemen who land in Japan wanting to breed with Earthwomen.

Quatermass 2 (Great Britain, 1957), adapted by Nigel Kneale and Val Guest from another Kneale teleplay and directed by Guest, is an even better film than its predecessor. This time Quatermass discovers that a rural English industrial plant is a front for a cellular intelligence from space that takes over people’s minds, and Quatermass uncovers a conspiracy that reaches high up in the British government. Quatermass is his usual indomitable self, but Donlevy lends the role a bit more human feeling, befitting the fact that Quatermass faces an even more comprehensive threat to humanity, and must put himself personally in peril.

As independently made films featuring cheap monsters go, The Blob (1958) is surprisingly sensitive and subtle. The plot—a meteor hits Earth, releasing a rubbery substance that keeps getting bigger as it eats people—is worked through with intelligence. And there is unusal attention to characterization, from star “Steven” McQueen to minor characters. Rare among ’50s films, it views teenagers respectfully-as people who sometimes notice things adults miss—without pandering to them.

Other 1958 films of note include Jack Arnold’s The Space Children, the unintentionally funny Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, and I Married a Monster from Outer Space, which, the title notwithstanding, is reportedly a nicely-done tale of predatory aliens masquerading as human. (And Plan 9 from Outer Space.) The mostly dumb Angry Red Planet (1959) is notable for a charismatic lead performance by Nora Hayden, the failed experiment of tinting the on-Mars scenes red, a cool monster (a Bat-Rat-Spider), and a seemingly tacked-on ending in which the Martians warn us to leave them alone or they’ll lay waste to Earth.

Village of the Damned (Great Britain, 1960), from John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, is an effectively creepy tale of a village whose fertile women simultaneously become pregnant, giving birth to solemn children with psychic powers. The most likely explanation is that they were seeded by space aliens to form a beachhead on Earth. The film is especially notable for strong performances by George Sanders as the children’s human teacher, and Martin Stephens as his scary presumed son. After that the crop of ‘50s-style space-alien films starts to thin. One can make the case for certain early ‘60s films as further examples of the ‘50s style: the eerie Italian Battle of the Worlds (1961), with Claude Rains; the okay British The Day of Triffids (1963), adapted from Wyndham’s novel about Earth invaded by walking space-plants. But as the ‘60s rolled along the naïve exuberance that made ‘50s space-alien movies so distinctive faded.

People have continued to see lights in the sky that they can’t identify, and some people say they’ve been brought aboard interstellar vessels. Meanwhile, in such films as Quatermass and the Pit (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alien (1979), E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), The Brother from Another Planet (1984), and Star Trek: First Contact (1996), cinema continues to make lively and sometimes sophisticated use of space aliens.

Mention must be made of two deliberate homages to the ‘50s style in space-invasion movies. Independence Day (1996) is simplistic in story and execution, but it works if viewed as a ‘50s movie with good acting and really good FX.

Seeking to make a ‘50s homage, director Tim Burton with his usual quirky humor turned to a 1962 set of Topps trading cards telling a story of Martian invasion. The cards had been quickly pulled from the market because of their grotesque imagery, but their story gained new life in Mars Attacks (1996). This wickedly funny parody is notable in that the Martians appear to have no real motive for their depredations; they act like misbehaving kids. Also notable is the “sonic weapon” finally devised to do them in.

Let’s finish with a thoughtful look at friendly aliens: Contact (1997), from Carl Sagan’s novel, about a scientist, Ellie (Jodie Foster), who devotes her life to listening to radio telescopes for a message from space. A message finally comes through, and leads to Ellie receiving a first feeler of contact from an ancient interstellar federation. But she’s unable to provide objective proof of her experience, so she goes back to watching/ listening for another message. Watching the film recently, I thought about all the centuries that homo sapiens sapiens-a proud, aggressive, lonely species have looked at the skies, and made up stories about the friends and foes who might live in them. The space alien movies of the ‘50s, from the great to the good to the godawful, reflect with touching purity a time when our mass culture first realized that we are living in a science fiction world, and invested the alien with our deepest hopes and darkest nightmares.

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Sources: John Baxter, Science Fiction in the Cinema, 1970; Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, 1983; Phil Hardy, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, 1986; Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction of the Fifties (1982, 1986: two volumes in one), 1997; Mark Jancovich, Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s, 1996; interview with Don Siegel in Who the Devil Made It, 1998; The Internet Movie DataBase; Mars Attacks DVD. Special ongoing thanks to David Christenson for loaning and/or helping locate rare films.

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Eric M. Heideman began collecting Aurora monster models (starting with the Mummy) in the fall of 1963, when he was ten, and became an official recruit to Monster Culture in January 1964 when he discovered Famous Monsters of Filmland #27, “The New Year’s New Fears.” He runs a college-neighborhood Minneapolis public library. In his spare time he edits the annual speculative fiction magazine, Tales of the Unanticipated, works on the multicultural speculative fiction convention, Diversicon, and the dark-fantastic convention, Arcana, and moderates an SF book-discussion group, Second Foundation. Each fall he hosts a classic horror films party, surveying the history of the form. He lives with his 16-year-old holstein cat-familiar, Benjamin Disraeli II, and Ben’s two-year old black tabby sidekick, Boris Karloff, in a building overlooking a park with a lake. His writing has appeared in every issue of Monsterzine.

Copyright © 2001 by the author. All rights reserved.