Cinematic monsters are a subject I've neglected a lot on this website, perhaps because it's not always easy to hunt down good stills on your own, and perhaps because there's simply so much ground to cover, but we're going to try and mitigate that a little this Halloween season, at least with a look at the weirdest, wackiest monsters from the world's ultimate movie monster era: the 1950's.
I'll admit, when it comes to most American movies this old, they often threaten to put me right to sleep. Blame the faster pace of modern cinema, a lifetime of video games or too much sugar, but I just can't keep my attention focused on up to an hour or more of middle-aged men arguing in laboratories. What does grab my attention, however, are the concepts and designs of the monsters themselves, and they really don't make them like they used to.
With nuclear technology and space exploration only beginning to blossom - and scaring the shit out of the average person - the 50's saw a veritable Cambrian Explosion of space invaders, tentacled mutants, giant insects and brain parasites as studios raced to come up with the most bizarre, most outrageous creatures they could for an audience far less jaded and far more easily terrified than today. The sheer number and variety of movie monsters cranked out during this period is staggering even without factoring the Universal monsters - to whom I may devote their own article - and the Japanese kaiju boom, which also feel more like a category unto themselves.
And the damnedest thing is, this ten-year surge of creepy-crawlies would never really be repeated. It spilled over only marginally into the 60's, gave way to mostly zombies and demons in the 70's, picked back up a little in the 80's, and then fizzled out again. We still get monster movies with semi-regularity, yes, but simply nothing like what we're about to see. Not to this extreme, and we start off with one of my oldest favorites...
1953: ROBOT MONSTER
One of the earliest monsters we get to look at makes as perfect an introduction as any. Robot Monster is one of the few "bad" movies I actually do find hilarious from start to finish, and any added snark, even from Mystery Science Theater 3000, kind of only distracts too much from the self-explanatory silliness of it all.
Underneath that silliness, however, are some ideas I'm fully capable of taking seriously. Even the design of RO-MAN, a cheap helmet plopped onto a gorilla suit, has some intrigue in its own way. We only ever see two members of this race, our own "RO-MAN" and his off-planet, superior, "GREAT GUIDANCE," and we have to wonder if they're a naturally evolved species who simply began to replace their own heads with technological ones. Their dialog, while goofy, has its own unique internal logic and terminology, and by the time the movie begins, RO-MAN has already personally killed every single human being on Earth, down to a single family and a "space platform" of refugees. It's not much of a spoiler that the whole thing turns out to be a little boy's bad dream, OR IS IT???
I said this when I quickie-reviewed my favorite monster movies last year, but I think RO-MAN has potential to be genuinely cool and frightening in the right hands without a lot of modification.
1953: IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE
In a rare case of sympathetic alien monsters, the true villains of this film are the paranoid townspeople certain that these aliens intend to invade and conquer us, especially when some of their own friends and family begin acting strangely. As it turns out, the aliens have simply "borrowed" local humans to help repair their spacecraft, and intend to continue on their way when they're done with them.
The aliens themselves are gelatinous, luminous, bulb-shaped beings, each with a single eye, who leave a glistening trail as they hover along the ground. It's a very simple, very nice design, and one that would have surely denoted a malevolent invader in any other film at the time.
There isn't a whole lot I can say about the titular "THEM!," being that they're literally nothing but huge, hairy ants, but this was the film that established the concept of gigantic, radioactive mutant arthropods, and despite the cheesiness that's associated with today, it approached the concept with earnest horror and suspence seldom pulled off since, particularly the bizarre, haunting sounds made by the ants as they get closer and closer...
1955: THE BEAST WITH 1,000,000 EYES
With fangs, claws, antennae, pointy ears, bulging eyes and a veiny forehead, the "beast" in this film is basically a grab-bag of stereotypical alien features, and you may notice that while its eyes are nicely penetrating, it comes fairly short of having 1,000,000 of them. That's because the title is merely symbolic; the alien is capable of long-distance mind control, and can see through the eyes of any human or animal within range of its telepathy. It's the beast with access to 1,000,000 eyes!
In fact, the monster was originally scripted as nothing but a bodiless, invisible, psychic force, but with monsters being such a draw at the time, the studio demanded a "real" one last-minute, and artist Paul Blaisdell did a decent job with the time he was given.
1955: THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT
The "Quatermass" films were based on a series of British television serials named for their protagonist, Professor Bernard Quatermass, who in this first adventure contends with one of the most disturbing monsters of its time...and fairly disturbing to this day. The grisly, cancerous, creeping mass we see here was once a human astronaut, infected by mysterious spores he encounters on a routine mission. The rapidly mutating man absorbs every living thing he comes into contact with, including a variety of zoo animals and even a large cactus. You don't need blood and guts for good body horror; just looking at this globster and knowing how it came to be is frightening enough. Naturally, the thing threatens to germinate even more of the infectious spores until successfully contained and destroyed.
1956: THE SHE-CREATURE
Yes, the SHE-CREATURE, another one designed by Paul Blaisdell, even has scaly giant monster breasts, though I guess this is because she's really just a human woman. So how does she become THE SHE CREATURE, you ask? Radiation? Aliens? Growth serum? Nope - hypnotism.
Yeah, really. A hypnotist awakens a woman's "ancestral memories" of her past life as an extinct, humanoid sea monster from before the age of the dinosaurs, or something, and it somehow even manifests as a physical transformation. At the time, the concept was probably hashed together out of sheer thoughlessness, but today, the absurdity of it only falls in line with the deliberate surrealism of so much horror manga and creepyasta. I like the idea of being "hypnotized" into a reincarnation of some primordial crab-woman. That rules.
1956: IT CONQUERED THE WORLD
From the same year and same effects artist as the SHE-CREATURE, we have Beluah, an invader from the planet Venus often compared to a carrot, an asparagus stalk, or in less polite circles a "personal massage device." I just think he's precious, with his grouchy little face and flailing, nubby arms. He controls a horde of tiny, stingray-like flying parasites, which allow him to take control of humans in his quest to CONQUER THE WORLD.
Interestingly, Beluah was first designed as a squat, almost flattened monster, under the incorrect notion that Venus would have much, much higher gravity than Earth. When the film's lead actress first saw the prop, she's said to have made fun of its appearance and even jokingly knocked it over, which left the director aghast. After all, if a mere woman didn't find his monster terrifying, how would audiences?
You can tell how this "problem" was "solved" at a glance. The original Beluah is still there, but the top of his head has stretched into a giant cone, most likely with a "booooooOOP" sound, from a purely scientific hypothesis.
1957: THE BLACK SCORPION
Numerous THEM! imitators came and went, but many of them simply used live, actual superimposed insects, and that's hardly as fun as puppetry and stop motion; especially when the latter tend to be terribly, terribly wrong. I adore the ogre-like face on this arachnid, like something straight out of an old Japanese youkai scroll. The rest of it is, surprisingly, quite accurate to the real thing, and portrayed with pretty decent stop motion for zoomed out shots.
The best part of THE BLACK SCORPION, however, is easily when our human protagonists explore the subterranean fissure from which the monster emerged, finding a hidden world beneath the Earth where giant scorpions are not the only monstrous arthropods. There's also something like a gigantic inchworm, armed with its own flexible pincers, which loses a battle against two scorpions simultaneously.
The world of the scorpions is also inhabited by what resembles a spider crab or even a giant pseudoscorpion, but lives beneath a trap door like certain species of spider.
What's truly fascinating about these big bugs, however, is that they weren't originally made for this movie at all. Both the spider-crab and the "inchworm" are recycled from King Kong footage, which was originally deleted - and lost to time - when early audiences were said to have found the footage too horrific, or at least didn't quite understand why a sequence with other, non-gorilla monsters simply came and went to never be mentioned again. It was a simpler time.
1957: THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS
This poor space alien is probably more famous now from the opening of Malcolm in the Middle than for its own movie, in which there are actually two brains from the planet Arous. The evil alien criminal, Gor, takes over a human body and finds itself overwhelmed by new sensations, even attempting to force itself on women. The good alien, Vol, takes over the body of a dog to hunt the maniac down, which really doesn't feel as thought through a plan as you would expect from a being that's 99.9% brain matter. The brains themselves are pretty cool in their true forms, though, with their glowing, half-lidded eyes and brainstem tails.
1957: THE CYCLOPS
Growing bigger and bigger beyond your control is a scary as hell concept, and The Cyclops cranks up the horror with a half-melted face and destroyed mind. Originally a pilot who went missing in the Tarhuamare mountains, the cyclops has been magnified and warped by radiation, bestial and violent but dimly, fuzzily aware of his human past.
1957: MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL
Our last giant, radioactive insect opts for a wasp, but it's much more fantastic in appearance than either our ants or our scorpions, looking like no actual insect on Earth but pretty damn fun all around, weird insect nose hairs and all. This time around, giant animals result from experimental space technology, exposing a series of specimens to cosmic radiation in Earth's orbit. Why they would send a bunch of wasps up there after crabs and hamsters already came back abnormally massive is a mystery by most human logic, but it's definitely the first thing I'd do.
More laughable than the "giant" animals however is what happens to this lizard: taking one look at it, the our hero observes "it's in a TRANCE!" I guess because it's doing nothing but sitting in its cage and staring at nothing in particular, something lizards are well known to never, ever do.
1957: NOT OF THIS EARTH
We're only half through our examples from the year 1957 alone, apparently the ultimate monster year of all time.
The lead alien of Not of this Earth only appears in human form, hiding his pure, white eyes behind sunglasses until he needs his deadly gaze to melt somebody's brains out. His goal is to collect and test human blood to cure an unknown illness threatening his homeworld, but apparently his species never thought to just ask.
Naturally, what I really like about this movie is the alien's little "pet," a tick-like flying creature with a webbed umbrella of tentacles, like a deep-sea squid, which it uses to envelop the faces of its victims before sucking them dry! Once again, we've also got a creature designed by the same person, Paul Blaisdell, still originally uncredited.
1957: INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN
Though they were hardly the first small, big-brained, big-eyed humanoid aliens, the Saucer Men probably solidified the cliche and continue to inspire imitators, though not many get as joyfully weird as these bozos. Said to be more plant-based than animal, the saucer men attack by injecting alcohol through their syringe-like claws, their victims getting positively piss-drunk before dying of alcohol poisoning. The aliens are also equipped with eyeballs on the backs of their detachable hands, a great trick for surveillance that was referenced twice by Tim Burton's adaptation of Mars Attacks.
The Saucer Men also mark the first time our recurring artist Blaisdell would actually get some screen credit...unfortunately also one of the last.
1957: ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS
You would think a movie about giant, murderous radioactive crabs wouldn't need to make them any weirder, but these giant, murderous crabs are also telepathic, they can speak, they can regenerate from any amount of injury, and they absorb the minds and memories of any humans they devour. The lead crab, named Hoolar, is a female with eggs, and yes, she plans to take over the world with her brood. The best part, of course, are the crab's unsettlingly goofy, way-too-human faces and buck teeth.
1957: FROM HELL IT CAME
Imaginative, to say the least, is the undead, mutant tree-demon known as Tabanga. In a mix of the supernatural and superscientifical, Tabanga is the result of a witch doctor murdering a local prince and hiding his body inside an old, dead tree, only for corpse and tree to become one under exposure to - you guessed it - radiation! Not satisfied with killing its own murderer, Tabanga continues to rampage and murder indiscriminately until struck by a gunshot in its only weak point, the very knife left protruding from its heart.
1957: THE WOMAN EATER
Another vegetable horror, The Woman Eater is a strange, tropical tree covered in thick, hair-like foliage with many segmented, claw-tipped arms. For reasons unknown, it prefers to feed exclusively on human women, and when fed its favorite snack, it produces a chemical that can apparently bring the dead back to life...though not, unfortunately, with their minds intact. When the plant is brought back from a jungle expedition and nurtured in a laboratory, we get a triple-whammy of mad scientist, murderous plant, and walking cadaver in the same film.
The great thing about the "woman eater" itself is, of course, that it almost looks more like a shaggy, upright caterpillar than any sort of plant, truly like something evolving less and less dependency upon sunlight as its primary food source.
1957: THE GIANT CLAW
It's said that when audiences first saw The Giant Claw, they laughed themselves silly at the monster's muppet-like face. Personally, I think the sillier a monster looks, the more unwholesome it looks, or at the very least, the more memorable and fun. A goofy-looking monster is pretty much win/win for me, and I have no difficulty taking it seriously when one of the world's deadliest actual animals is a damn Hippopotamus.
What's actually funny about The Giant Claw isn't really that it's a huge, screaming buzzard with googly-eyes, but a huge, screaming buzzard with googly-eyes that came here "from an antimatter galaxy." Yeah, what? Shouldn't it immediately annihilate itself as soon as it touches our atmosphere? What's more, the film's script is extremely hung up on the idea that this bird is "as big as a battleship." Almost every character compares it to one, as if the director thought "a bird the size of a battleship" was just the coolest and most marketable catchphrase of his whole career. There's even a Giant Claw Battleship Reference Compilation for your enjoyment.
1957: QUATERMASS 2
While not nearly as horrific as the first Quatermass foe, the second film features rather interesting, microscopic aliens who combine to form bell-shaped sludge monsters several stories in height. Actually an intelligent race, the creatures arrived on Earth to build a terraforming colony and manufacture food for themselves at the expense of our environment, producing copious amounts of the incredibly toxic black ooze on which they feed and taking possession of unwilling human hosts.
1957: THE MONOLITH MONSTERS
Does a "monster" need to be something alive in the traditional sense? I was only disappointed as a kid that "The Monolith Monsters" were literally just alien rocks, but as an adult, I think it's a stroke of brilliance. The foreign mineral arrives, of course, by meteorite, and when it comes into contact with fresh water, grows so quickly that its towering spires almost immediately crumble and collapse, wreaking mass destruction as every fragment erupts into another forest of unstable space-rocks. Worse still, the rocks "drain" silicon from anything they come into contact with, even humans, and instantly petrify living things as a result. Bad science aside, the concept of a growing, multiplying, consuming mineral as a "monster" is an excellent one, calling to mind The Colour out of Space.
1957: THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD
Somehow or other, this giant sea monster is supposed to be a "mollusk," like a snail or a slug, even though we all know a giant insect larva when we see one. At least it looks damn cool either way, even if its "challenge" to our world is only a brief frenzy of draining body fluids from a diver or two before getting shot to death.
1958: IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE
Paul Blaisdell's next creation after the Saucer Men was once again uncredited, especially a shame considering this film is often considered a precursor to Alien. The ghoulish, muscular reptilian stows away on an Earth ship during an experimental landing on Mars, stalking the crew through the massive ship on its long flight home. It's large and strong enough to tear doors off their hinges, but stealthy and intelligent enough to sneak up on its victims before draining them entirely of body fluids. The monster's defeat comes via none other than the ships airlock, when the crew don spacesuits and allow all the oxygen out of their vessel.
1958: THE BLOB
Everybody knows THE BLOB! Possibly one of this decade's most famous creatures after the Universal Monsters and Godzilla, the blob went on to inspire slimes, jellies and oozes in countless hundreds of fantasy games and see an incredibly well made, incredibly terrifying 1980's remake. Falling to Earth as a small glob of jelly in the center of a meteorite, the blob grows exponentially larger with every living thing it engulfs and dissolves until finally frozen and deposited in the arctic.
There isn't a whole lot else to say about such a pleasantly straightforward antagonist, except that the observant viewer may notice that it arrives on Earth perfectly clear...only adopting its famous reddish coloration after its first victim!
1958: FIEND WITHOUT A FACE
One of my favorite monster concepts ever, and another I already gushed about multiple times on the site, Fiend Without a Face begins with a seemingly invisible threat, an unseen force that pulses and throbs and somehow removes the brains and spines from human victims. When the "fiend" is finally rendered visible, we see swarms of crawling, climbing, leaping human brains in the forest surrounding an atomic plant, and the cause of it all is said to have been "evil thoughts" brought to life by leaking radiation. Sometimes, I realize I've spent my life trying to come up with a better idea for a monster than THE FIENDS, and that it's been futile from day one.
1958: THE BRAIN EATERS
While hardly as spectacular as some of our other brains and brain parasites, these adorable mind-controlling fuzzballs are interesting in that they're possessed of highly advanced technology and have invaded from inside our OWN planet, having apparently lived beneath the earth since the carboniferous period. They even have "invasion craft" in the form of a humongous, drill-like metal spire! The little dears have been watching us and are highly displeased by our violent, destructive tendencies, intending to forcibly organize us and protect us from ourselves as what they call "a gift."
Sadly, this film's only claim to fame is often little more than a footnote about its similarities to Robert Heinlein's novel The Puppet Masters, and the ansuing lawsuit. The director of The Brain Eaters swore he'd never read or even heard of the book, but agreed the similarities were uncanny enough for a small settlement.
1958: I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE
It sounds almost like a comedy, but this one's underlying plot is pretty damn dark. When a woman finds her new husband's kindness and affection all but disappearing overnight, she suspects he may literally no longer be the same person - and the other men in town aren't acting like themselves, either. It's soon revealed that the real men have been kidnapped and put into stasis, replaced by skeevy aliens who plan to covertly mate with human women to save their dying species, all the females of which have been destroyed in some sort of unspecified cataclysm or plague. The veiny, gnarled aliens are a superb design, but given their methods, it's hard to sympathize with their plight. Again, they could have actually asked. I'm sure the human race would love to help them out any way it could in exchange for whatever incredible knowledge they might hold, you know? And there's no shortage of people in this world who would be absolutely into them.
1958: NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST
Another marvelously disturbing concept, and another alien seeking to "save" the human race through hostile takeover. This time, it's an infectious parasitoid - a concept that would become far more common after Alien - implanting hundreds of microscopic embryos in the bloodstream of a hapless astronaut.
Portrayed by disquietingly crude hand-drawn animation, the parasitic embryos frolicking in a living man's guts had to be a bit of a shock for 1958, and the aftermath of their birth gruesome as hell to contemplate, thwarted only when their host commits suicide. The adult monster is an amazing design for a parasitoid, too; I love that scabrous flesh, the mangy knots of moss-like hair and the face like some horrible, bug-eyed parrot!
1958: THE CRAWLING EYE
Also known as The Trollenberg Terror, this case of alien invasion occurs in the swiss alps, where something hiding in a mysterious cloud keeps ripping the heads clean off mountain climbers and other intruders. What these aliens want and where they came from is left largely to the imagination, but the cold and elevation seem to be quite comfortable to them, and they're capable of telepathically controlling human beings whether living or dead. Even for 1958, the wet, thickly veined octopoids are magnificently disturbing, though the "crawling eye" moniker always seemed slightly off, to me, with the actual eyeball being so small on these baglike monsters, horrifically human and lidless it may be.
1959: THE TINGLER
A Vincent Price classic I've also reviewed more than once, the Tingler might be one of the weirdest concepts of its decade, and you've just seen what a bold statement that is. As this movie reveals, the "tingling" you feel down your spine when distressed is the result of a tiny, parasitic monster in your spinal column, formed by and fed by human fear. Fortunately, a tingler dies as soon as you scream, so few tinglers ever reach a significant size...until a researcher proves its existence by literally scaring his own mute wife to death. Far stronger than its size should entail, her fat, happy tingler goes on a murderous rampage before finally animating its original host's body and inflicting a lethal dose of karma upon her husband.
What strikes me most about the tingler's design is how much it resembles a real-world velvet worm, an animal so obscure that it's extremely doubtful it was truly the inspiration. What also strikes me, and I've told this story four or five times now, is that the tingler was first described to me in a children's book about movie monsters as "a giant, spider-like creature," apparently by an author who somehow went their entire life having never seen a spider.
The Tingler is particularly famous for the interactive gimmicks its director pulled during its theatrical run. A sequence midway through the film implies that the tingler has gotten loose in this very theater, and random seats were rigged to actually "shock" patrons with a buzzer-like device. Others were simply planted in the audience and paid to ham it up, screaming that the tingler had them in its wormy grasp.
1959: THE WASP WOMAN
Notable as one of our few explicitly female monsters, let alone female insectoids, though the Wasp Woman suffers a bit from the hokiness of her origin; of course this ladymonster is tied to a cosmetics corporation, and decided that a serum derived from the "royal jelly" of wasps might be the secret to artificial youth. It works, of course, dialing her looks back at least a couple decades, but it also turns her into a murderous were-wasp from time to time, not that this is really a disadvantage to anyone with refined taste.
1959: THE ANGRY RED PLANET
For once, we have a menagerie of martian monstrosities who haven't come to attack planet Earth, but are merely defending their own home from human intruders. The Angry Red Planet features several wonderful alien beings, all presumably under the control of the planet's original, three-eyed masters, seen here.
One of the first and smaller horrors encountered is a fairly Freudian carnivorous plant, which reminds me a lot of Hydnora africana. Actually, that plant only traps insects so they'll get covered in its pollen and releases them a day later...how do we know this thing was really carnivorous?
More famous, and the film's literal poster child, is the giant "Rat Bat Spider" that menaces our heroes, with a maniacal grimace and beautifully spiny, webbed legs ending in crab-like pincers. You'll also notice, of course, that the footage is both negative and tinted red, which was billed as "CINEMAGIC" and used exclusively for scenes on the martian surface.
My personal favorite, unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with it, is the gigantic Martian "amoeba," closer in appearance to a huge, crawling Portuguese Man O' War with rotating googly eyes. Contact with the Amoeba even causes a nasty, fungus-like skin infection in one of our astronauts, and when its ooze is seen from inside the ship, it looks like multicolored upchuck. Nasty!
1959: ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES
Of course this is another case of normal creatures grown to abnormal proportions by radiation. This time, by the nuclear waste of an atomic plant in Cape Canaveral. The leeches themselves are pretty fascinating designs, their suckers more lamprey-like than leech-like, with vestigial, perpetually closed eyes, flaring cobra-like bodies and additional ventral suckers like an octopus. Disturbingly, the leeches learn to drain human victims over an extended period of time, dragging them to underwater grottos and keeping them just too weak to manage an escape.
Though they're not outstanding among the monsters we've looked at - and debuted before the Angry Red Planet - it feels obligatory to end this with a bunch of leech monsters.
We've just taken a look at 35 inventively peculiar, silly, lovable, sometimes truly nightmarish monsters from a single decade alone...and it's still pretty far from complete. I haven't nearly the time and space here to include the aforementioned kaiju or Universal classics, the innumerable ghost and ghoul movies or a mountain of more miscellaneous atomic mutants from around the world, and you may have guessed I'm saving The Fly for another article all its own. What the hell even happened that we became so collectively obsessed with monsters from 1950 to 1959? I guess I answered that in my opening paragraphs, but it still doesn't feel like the complete story.
For whatever reason, 1950's America lost its collective shit over the possibility that a radioactive bug from mars might punish us for our hubris, and I'm kind of sad that ever stopped. What is it we're into now? Zombies and more zombies? Please bring back nuclear space brains. Please. Someone. Anyone.