In a decade that started as the miserable nadir of the horror film (with a mere three horror entries being released worldwide in 1950), the genre managed to rekindle itself remarkably enough to close out the decade with a triumphant scream that reverberates to this day. After The Thing From Another World became a surprise smash hit (in 1951), the sci-fi bonanza that had begun flooding the market with its xenophobic product only the year before quickly and opportunistically blurred the lines between genres, encroaching more and more into the realms of horror to take advantage of the relative vacuum therein.
Enter figures like William Alland, George Pal, and Ray Harryhausen, who imbued their science fiction output with wonderfully horrific sensibilities (War of the Worlds, It Came From Outer Space) and returned the monstrous to eager audiences (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Creature From the Black Lagoon). After the television premiere of King Kong broke viewership records in 1956, Hollywood studios realized the possibilities of the new market as a forum for their dated product, then moldering in dusty vaults and well-nigh forgotten. And so was born the Shock! Theater package in 1957, a collection of 52 Universal and Columbia horror films (plus 20 more in 1958) which were sold to local markets looking to fill up some of their late night dead air time. Naughty children across the country delighted in defying parental decree by slinking downstairs to catch the gruesome gesticulations of their local horror host whilst being reintroduced to Draculas, Wolfmen, and Mummies galore. Famous Monsters of Filmland, which began as an intended one-off to capitalize on this renewed interest in the macabre, sold its first issue in February of ’58 and was such a revelatory hit with horror-starved kiddies that it quickly went into a second printing and managed a 191-issue run that lasted well into the ‘1980s (and brought an entire generation into the fold!) The drive-in theater phenomenon (which had begun in the early ’30s) hit its peak in the late fifties with more than 4,000 “passion pits” spread out across predominantly rural areas of the United States.
With all of the renewed attention surrounding the genre and promising venues becoming readily available, filmmakers and producers tore the lid off of Pandora’s Box of Horrible Horrors and made fortunes by deluging budding horror fans with big bugs, marauding Martians, brains gone bad and teenaged terribles. This was also the era that introduced horror audiences to the marvels of Vincent Price, William Castle, Hammer studios, Toho’s “kaiju-eiga”s, and Roger Corman, as well as the era that engendered a renewed interest in censorship from an ever-expansive and meddling government.
By the time 1959 rolled around, the horror field had been seeded for the foreseeable future with oodles of gothic grandeur and myriad monsters and wouldn’t progress remarkably until the stark horrors of the late ’60s (namely, Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby) would cast their ominous shadow across the future of the genre. 1959, when the bugs were bigger, monsters lurked around every corner, the average ticket price was just .51¢(!), and the Barbie doll began its dreadful transmutation of the female body image! It was… a very good year!
(It should be noted that the films included below finished their productions in 1959, but were not necessarily released theatrically in the same year)
The Alligator People – USA
After Sparrows (1926), The Spiral Staircase and Strangler of the Swamp (both 1946) and Night of the Hunter (1955), this was the next signpost on the road to the southern gothic that would revamp (ha, ha) the careers of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in the ’60s. This one has Beverly Garland (already a genre luminary) menaced by a moonshining (read: method-acting) Lon Chaney Jr. and haunted by the specter of her long-lost husband, who has been medically maligned and turned into an alligator man. The film was partially made on location in the Louisiana bayou, hence delivering an atmosphere that is rife with palpable dread and swampy claustrophobia, and Chaney gives a supercharged (read: inebriated) performance as the looming and lecherous alligator-hater, Manon. The film, given the distance of time, oscillates wildly between the spooky (the setting and the collusion) and the silly (the alligator man), making it a winning encapsulation of the relatively benign horrors of the era and ensuring its place in the horror maven’s lexicon as one of the definitive gumbo-gobblin’ good times!
Beast from Haunted Cave – USA
A group of criminal beatniks set off an explosion at a nearby cave to cover up their clever robbery of a stack of gold bars from a Deadwood bank. A local ski instructor is enlisted to take the thieving “tourists” on a cross-country ski trip to his remote cabin in the snow-heaped woods, but something was awakened in that cave… something with eight giant hairy legs and a hunger for mortal (and rather chewy) beatnik flesh… something that is impervious to freezing temperatures, waist-deep snow, human firepower and the riled disbelief of indignant theater-goers… something known simply as… The Baldwin Brothers! Er, scratch that. It’s actually a (much less terrifying) giant spider with spindly styrofoam legs. What is an improbably ludicrous and, by this time, hackneyed premise is lifted out of the cinematic dustbins by dint of the psychological drama and crumbling resolve that plagues the group as they clamber for survival in hostile environs. Add to that mix one carnivorous spider, a besieged cabin, and several well wrought performances and you have one highly entertaining and surprisingly rewarding stroll down the well-worn paths of sublimated absurdity.
A Bucket of Blood – USA
This brutally incisive black comedy from Roger Corman (and A.I.P.) went a long ways toward launching the career of Dick Miller and was a significant stepping stone on the way towards the following year’s resounding cult hit, The Little Shop of Horrors. Cleverly riffing on the set-ups behind Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953), this one has Miller as a bedraggled and socially clumsy busboy (Walter Paisley, a role he would nominally reprise five more times!) who works at a local artist’s hot-spot and desperately seeks the acceptance of his patronizingly officious patrons. Walter ends up astonishing the pretentious crowd when he kills his landlady’s cat, tries to hide the corpse under a layer of plaster, and is subsequently proclaimed an artistic genius! Poor Walter doesn’t have an artistic bone in his body, but he’s not above borrowing some from other people’s bodies to complete his “masterpieces” and revel in his new found spotlight. As Walter’s success grows, so does his own self-image until he becomes an aggrandized parody of the very people who besmirched him in his former station. This wonderful deconstruction of grandiloquent art culture and the beatnik movement was highly timely (a Corman staple), comedically brilliant, utterly misanthropic, and was a solid return to the long fallow fields of the horror comedy which would see a lot of tilling over the next few decades!
Curse of the Undead – USA
With “westerns” and “horrors” being the two largest staples of the B-movie movement, it was just a matter of time until they were wed. Unfortunately (as with marriage) many of the pairings were woeful excuses for stretched companionship and the promise of doubtful pleasures. While the genre had its origins with The Rawhide Terror in 1934, it wasn’t until Mexico’s The Living Coffin (1958) and this film that the formula was winsome enough to truly kindle the sub-genre (it would arguably be perfected and subsequently abandoned after Harryhausen’s The Valley of Gwangi, in 1969). This flick combines elements of the western, the noir, and the vampire film seamlessly and proves itself to be not only a prime example in each of these disparate genres but quite an exhilarating roll in the hay as a threesome. This is for all those who like their cowboys in black, their anti-heroes subversively alluring, and their genre thrills in the plural.
Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage, The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus) – France/Italy
The gruesome set-up behind this laudable film has subsequently seen its flesh pecked clean by scores of cinematic vultures, but its grim atmosphere and twisted psychology (as delivered by Georges Franju) have yet to be equaled. A brilliant Parisian surgeon, Dr. Genessier, causes an automobile accident that disfigures his lovely daughter, Christiane. Genessier begins a series of highly unethical (and unflinchingly graphic) skin grafts using tissue culled from captive beauties to try and repair Christiane’s face but, more prominently, as an attempted ablution for his own tarnished soul. This is one of the high-points of the “horror borne on psychological wings” mold and makes a great companion piece to Les Diaboliques, its French precursor and spiritual twin. The surgical set-pieces are par excellence, the motivations are demented yet believable, and this fine film immediately galvanized the French film industry into horror mode. Quite simply, this is one of the best and most influential horror films ever made!
First Man Into Space – UK
Using the basic outline of The Quatermass Xperiment, this film has a navy test pilot, Lt. Dan Prescott, becoming the first human to fly beyond the ionosphere, but when his craft returns to earth he is nowhere to be found. Turns out Prescott was bombarded by space dust and ejected from his ship only to plummet back to the earth as a blood-hungry monster with impenetrable skin (think Oprah Winfrey, on steroids.) No doubt a heavy influence upon Stan Lee in his creation of the Fantastic Four (namely, The Thing), this classic sci-fi horror hybrid avoids being a tired retread of the Quatermass pic because of Prescott’s dilemma between utter revulsion towards his monstrous condition, and his increasing inability to harness his homicidal urges. Jessica Alba is nowhere to be found, but the rest is…
The Flesh and the Fiends (Mania) – UK
Sounds like the lurid title to some must-own BDSM video, eh? I say thee nay!! There’s nary an anal bead in sight! This grand exercise has Grand Moff Cushing playing the infamous Dr. Knox, who is in desperate need of bodies and unconcerned with how he gets ‘em. In steps Donald ‘not-so’ Pleasance and George Rose as the even more infamous Burke and Hare (body snatchers to the stars!) who proceed to fill the corpse quotient by any means necessary. There’s quite a bit of gothic grandeur to be had here and, given the cast and John Gilling as director, the performances are splendid. Between this ringer and Lewton’s The Body Snatcher, the Burke and Hare saga really need hath no other entry.
4D Man – USA
Every time I see Lee Meriwether I can’t help but imagine her in full Catwoman regalia, so you may have to forgive my rather inflamed saluting of this one, but I’m not one to “pussyfoot” around! It begins as a compelling drama revolving around two entirely contrasting rival brothers and their pursuit of a scientific breakthrough which each hopes will net him a tug on Catwoman’s tail. One of the brothers (Robert Lansing) begins self-experimenting and ends up being able to pass into the 4th dimension at will, but at the cost of his youth and Catwoman’s purring affections. What to do? Well, what he does is embark on a killing spree to replenish his ebbing vitality with his victim’s life force which, he hopes, will earn him a little better bedside manner with Catwoman. The special effects are mesmerizing, Meriwether’s a real pussycat, and Lansing’s well-achieved transformation into power-mad mutant makes this one of the more fascinating productions of the era. The Catwoman costume, sadly, does not appear.
The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake – UK
Rather slapdash and certainly done on the cheap, this one becomes a winner thanks to a terrific turn-in by Henry Daniell as Dr. Emil Zurich, a Voodoo priest who is busily gathering up a cute little collection of shrunken heads on his quest for revenge. Daniell, who made a career playing unreservedly aloof and refined villains, is one of those actors who is immediately recognized by sight, though perhaps not name, but who should be recollected as one of the greats nonetheless. This was the last of Edward L. Cahn’s nine horror films (all made between ’55 and ’59) and while not as impressive and influential as some of his others would prove to be (see Invisible Invaders, below), this is still a pleasantly diverting and technically accomplished trip into British horror antiquity (and those spectral heads are a hoot)!
The Ghost of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan) – Japan
This is one of the most lyrically beautiful and resoundingly eerie horror films ever made and is also the definitive version of the oft strikingly adapted Kabuki play. Filmed by Nobuo Nakagawa, who made a career out of his refined and innovative approach to the horror film, this is an utterly Eastern and horrifically groundbreaking approach to the spectral vengeance gamut of films the Japanese are known for (particularly these days). The plot revolves around Iemon, a disgraced samurai, who fervently attempts to rise out of his impoverished surroundings by better-dealing and murdering his way into the realm of fortunes and finery. Just about every ghostly revenge pic that followed borrows heavily from this inspired source, but this film is unmatched in its ambiance and finger-wagging misanthropia. Worth its weight in geishas if you can find it!
The Giant Gila Monster – USA
Is that a horrified and incredulous gasp I hear coming from your lips? C’mon fiends, this one is just too much fun for that five-year-old locked inside us all (or in our trunk) and it remains one of the benchmarks in rib-tickling drive-in entertainment. Starring Don Sullivan (The Monster of Piedras Blancas) and a bevy of dilettante teens, this is another entry in the “so bunglingly bad its deliriously good” run of films that flooded the market in the windfall fifties. It plays out like a cash-strapped Gojira filmed in a terrarium festooned with such awful miniature work and sporting such an inane script that, no doubt, kids waited all of 30 seconds before diving headlong into the back seat to get away from it. And that is how it is best experienced: from a popcorn strewn back seat, head nestled firmly in cleavage. Just be sure to pop up for air long enough for the occasional glimpse of this time capsule of ’50s innocence and timeless opportunity (and to make sure that five-year-old isn’t gawkin’ at ya!)
The Hideous Sun Demon – USA
“The Hideous Sun Demon… The Blaze of the Sun Made Him a Monster!”, and it could totally happen, fiends! Ever been to Florida? Case in point! The ’50s were, indubitably, the decade of the monster with She Devils and She Demons, Mole People, Crawling Eyes and Fiends Without a Face, but one of the most far-fetched and beloved creatures of the decade is Robert Clarke as a rumpot scientist who inadvertently irradiates himself and turns into the lizard-like Sun Demon. The cast and crew were rounded out by the director/star’s family and friends, which leads to some seriously stilted performances, but the draw of this spate of films was always the monster itself and the one on display here is peachy-keen, fiends! Several fun sequences feature the titular creepy running amok through the sun-drenched countryside terrorizing the locals, and Clarke lends a real energetic monstrosity to his characterization. Beaches in Florida may be full of nerve-jangling Sun Demons, but they aren’t nearly as endearing (or innocuous) as the one here!
Horrors of the Black Museum – UK
That would be London, not Harlem. Michael Gough delivers one of the most deliriously hammy and utterly delightful performances in this romp where he hypnotizes his hunchback and has him go on a killing spree with articles mimicking Scotland Yard’s famous collection. The murder set-pieces are the real entertainment (besides Gough) and pushed the boundaries of acceptability at the time, though its excesses would be quickly and invariably eclipsed. It is even more interesting that the bizarre methods of execution (murderous binoculars?) are actualities that still tell a story to those select few with access to the actual Black Museum in London. But we have this film, so fuck ‘em.
The Hound of the Baskervilles – UK
A lush production with an emphasis on the neo-gothicism being revived by Hammer studios, this is my personal favorite rendition of the ubiquitous story (with a fond nod to Basil Rathbone) and stands as a fine example of Hammer at its atmospheric best. Peter Cushing makes a stellar Sherlock Holmes (a role he would perform twice more on film), delivering a very sprightly characterization that comes as a breath of fresh air, and Andre Morell (as Watson) proves a wonderful second. Christopher Lee makes the most of his thankless role as the intended victim, Sir Henry, but the real star is those breathtaking moors full of watery peril and creeping mist. One of Hammer’s finest productions and an absolute must-see, fiends!
Invisible Invaders – USA
John Agar’s chin could be used to deflect a nuclear assault, so vanquishing some interplanetary martians cum shambling zombies presents no real problems for the guy, it’s how he gets there that’s the fun in this film directed by the very busy Edward L. Cahn with some good scares and flourishes of aplomb. This film should also be recognized as an important stepping stone (after Cahn’s, The Zombies of Maura Tau) on the way to The Last Man on Earth (’64) and then onto the benchmark in zombiedom, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (’68). Interestingly enough, this was the second time by May of ’59 that one could see John Carradine as an alien possessed walking corpse, the other film being The Cosmic Man, but this one has way more going for it with a full on zombie assault and some absurd sci-fi gadgetry that looks like it should be popping corn instead of aliens. Totally endearing and you will love it every step of the way.
The Killer Shrews – USA
This (ahem) cash strapped production features an acting crew of Coon dogs badly dressed up as the giant titular shrews and stirred into very dog-like action. They don’t go so far as to piss on fire hydrants and sniff asses, but they could have used a couple more months at Julliard, we’ll put it that way. What is even better is that they are cultured thespians next to most of the performances by their human co-stars who are about as deadpan as a fish come home for cleaning. So why am I recommending this unseemly turd, you might ask? This was the companion picture to The Giant Gila Monster and, despite its meager foundations, delivers an air of ominous suspense and some proto-gory bits on its way to a thrilling finish that actually sees the Shrews victorious, something not done in the ’50s. A true cult gem, watch it and feel the love, ya dirty dawgs!
Lady Vampire (Onna Kyuketsuki) – Japan
The great Nobuo Nakagawa pulled the Japanese horror genre into a modern setting for the first time with his blending of the vampire mythos liberally spiced with elements that recall Fredric March’s brilliant turn as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man. Shigeru Amachi (The Ghost of Yotsuya) plays the role of a disgraced samurai who retains his honor after the death of his patron by victimizing young ladies and holding them in a state of agitated bliss while he slowly drains their life force over the decades. Nakagawa works in a rich fantasy angle with a fairy-tale-gone-wrong underground castle and a host of oddball vampire thralls, but the film’s best moments involve the dapper vampire undergoing moonlit transformations and running amok on the Tokyo streets. One of the more original and intriguing interpretations of the bloodsucker film and certainly one of the most strikingly filmed, this is essential viewing for fans of Japanese cinema and vampire lovers alike.
The Manster – USA/Japan
From the opening sequence, which showcases the silhouette of an enraged beastie and ensuing mass carnage, you know you are in for an especially over the top exercise in mind-bending monster mayhem with this one. Peter Dyneley, as the beset reporter become monstrous Manster, Larry Stanford, winningly echoes some of Lon Chaney Jr’s stricken werewolf angst, and who doesn’t love that unforgettable eye-on-the-shoulder sequence? The film unrelentingly ratchets up suspense as Larry becomes possessed by the murderous being bursting forth from his body, and the climactic bodily split atop volcanic mountain is one of the most well-realized and shocking effects of the era. This film was instrumental in the surprisingly prolific “man with two heads” sub-genre, and is filled to the brim with enough action and body count brutality to please fans of any era. Entirely sui generis and an absolute must-see!
The Man Who Could Cheat Death – UK
You know you are in the presence of greatness when the least successful horror picture that Hammer produced in the ’50s starred Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, and Anton Diffring, was written by Jimmy Sangster, and directed by the astoundingly talented Terence Fisher. This is a heavily gothicized remake of 1945’s The Man in Half Moon Street, based on a play by Barre Lyndon, and strongly recalls some of the more grandiose mad scientist films of the ’30s and ’40s. Hazel Court’s
tits eyes and grace are mesmerizing, Lee strikes his aristocratic pose with suitably rigid affectation, and Anton Diffring brings a ferocious passion to his death-cheating megalomaniac, Dr. Bonnet. This adaptation is by far the most fetching version of the glandular stealing doctor tale (outside of E.C. Comics), with Diffring gleefully hamming it up and bringing the horror whenever he goes green at the gills, but the production is truly buoyed by the performance of Arnold Marle as the conflicted co-conspirator, Professor Ludwig Weiss. Hammer, once again, managed to deliver high-entertainment in spades.
The Mummy – UK
Hammer interprets the monsters of Universal (in blazing Technicolor) for the third time in as many years and outdoes the terrors of their previous entries by dint of the commanding performance of Christopher Lee as the Mummy, Kharis, under the sure-handed and evocative direction of Terence Fisher. The Banning family ill-advisedly desecrates the tomb of the Princess Ananka, which puts a mighty-sized hair across Kharis’s bandaged ass and sets him off on a vengeance quest to obliterate the profaning family and all who would stand between him and his winsome prize, the misfortunate Ananka lookalike, Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux). Peter Cushing (as John Banning) gives his usual top-drawer characterization and Furneaux proves she can scream with the best of them. However, the most striking sequences involve Lee roaming the quagmired countryside and smashing the occasional furnishings in his attempted looting of some beauteous British tail. This is, for my money, the very best Mummy movie ever made and one of Britain’s finest horrors of all time.
Return of the Fly – USA
Vincent Price continued his domination of the horror industry in the engaging sequel to the previous year’s surprise smash hit, The Fly. Little Phillipe Delambre (Bret Halsey) is all grown up and eager to follow in his doomed father’s segmented footsteps on his quest to legitimize Papa’s findings and complete his ground-breaking works with the Disintegrator Integrator. Given that the entire audience knows exactly how the plot will unfold, this film still manages to be captivating and thrilling on its way to the climactic inevitability, largely due to the fine creature effects and the scientific espionage sub-plot, along with some inspired character acting. This was double-billed with The Alligator People (see above), which must have been a hoot and a holler for Monster Boomers, as it remains for classic film fans today.
Suddenly, Last Summer – USA
Katherine Hepburn gives the performance of a lifetime (for the umpteenth time) as Violet Venable, the mother of a smothered son, Sebastian, who was murdered under mysterious circumstances while summering in Europe. Violet is coldly manipulating the lobotomization of her niece (played by Elizabeth Taylor, who likewise gives the performance of a lifetime) whom she has scapegoated for her son’s demise. While its connection to the horror genre is tenuous, this psychological drama puts you on the edge of your seat and keeps you there thanks to the brilliant direction of Joseph Mankiewicz, along with the acclaimed characterizations of the aforementioned and the great Montgomery Clift. The nuthouse scenes are terrifying, but the grisly denouement near the climax of this film is one of the most disturbing and memorable shocks in film history, granting it an unapologetic inclusion on this list of essentials.
Teenagers From Outer Space – USA
You don’t really have to see this one whilst significantly inebriated to properly wrap your head around it, but it is recommended. Silly earthlings laser-blasted into science-room skeletons, teenagers menaced by the shadow of a giant lobster(!), the most startlingly inane dialogue you will ever bear witness to, and one of the most pestiferous performances ever delivered on celluloid (courtesy of David Love, who was being “groomed” for superstardom on the producer’s couch!) Just ripe for comical commentary, this utterly dumbfounding slice of cinema is like a retarded poster boy for filmic ineptitude and the excess of idiocy, and therefore a rip-roarin’, hooch-swillin’ bucket of silly fun!
The Tingler – USA
Sitting amongst a gaggle of your school chums, the popcorn’s been flying and the giggling has been like a contagious wave throughout an appreciative audience for over an hour. Suddenly, a nerve-jangling scream of terror erupts from a young lady in the third row and the audience begins to concernedly whisper amongst themselves. After a brief pause, which sees the overwhelmed young lady ushered from the premises by a team of nurses, the picture continues. Barely another minute goes by when the film reel jumps its track and the silhouette of the Tingler awkwardly ekes its way into view across the screen. What, exactly, is going on here? The theater suddenly goes jet black and Vincent Price comes across the house speakers admonishing you to, “please, please, do not panic, but scream… scream for your lives!” The audience is electrified (both literally and figuratively) and as the seats start buzzing, you are stirred into participatory bliss with screams erupting from every side. Five minutes later the sensory overload is at an end, but the buzz has only begun. Okay, so the screamer was an audience plant, the nurses were paid actresses, the Tingler itself bears an uncanny resemblance to a rubber earwig, and the best scares were cribbed directly from Les Diaboliques, but the overall experience was a stroke of manipulative crowd pleasing genius and an entirely unforgettable thrill. The fact that 50+ years have passed and this film is still talked about in awed reverence says it all. Bill Castle was the man and this, ladies and gentlemen, is the epitome of show-business entertainment.
Honorable mentions: The Atomic Submarine; Attack of the Giant Leeches; Caltiki the Immortal Monster (Caltiki – il mostro immortale); The Cosmic Man; The Head (Die Nackte und der Satan); Jack the Ripper; Journey to the Center of the Earth; The Leech Woman; Night of the Ghouls; The Ship of Monster (La nave de los monstruos); Terror is a Man, Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier; Uncle Was a Vampire (Tempi duri per i vampiri, Hard Times for Dracula)
Stay tuned for part 4 (of 10)… 1988!