Greetings, readers. I thought I’d do something a little different today. To begin, a bit of background information. I’m not your average horror fan of my generation. I was born in 1987, and unlike, I suspect, most of my generation of horror fans, I was not raised on a steady diet of 1980s/1990s VHS horror. I was a sensitive child, prone to nightmares, and graphic depictions of violence would have sent me into paroxysms of unrelenting terror, never to sleep again. I was, however, irresistibly drawn to monsters. I had probably hundreds of Monsters In My Pocket rubber figures, and we have crayon drawings dating to 1991/1992, signed with my name, which have very clear, recognizable depictions of skeletons, bats, mummies and vampires.
I’m a reader, always have been, and I have very strong memories of going to the public library week after week and checking out books from the rather sizable collection of books about older horror and science fiction films, aimed at children. I would marvel at the descriptions and illustrations in these books, and by the time I was seven or eight I could reel off titles from the Godzilla series or compare Lugosi and Karloff vehicles the way other children compared baseball cards.
As I’ve grown older, my love of classic horror and science fiction has not diminished, but grown as I’ve grown to understand the history and social context of the films. I majored in the study of History at college, achieving my Bachelor’s in it, and now I primarily use the skills built through that program to more thoroughly understand the films I’ve loved for over a decade.
My parents are so proud.
Other than the Universal cycle of films from the 1930s and 1940s (I consider THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, released 1954, a separate entity, almost a kissing-cousin of the Universal classic cycle), my deepest love is for the science fiction-horror of the 1950s. So, I thought I’d take a break from more modern fare and revisit these classic films.
To begin with, a quick history lesson. America’s official involvement in the Second World War began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, and ended with Japan’s declaration of surrender on August 15th, 1945 (V-J Day being celebrated in America on August 14th due to differences in Time Zone), following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (August 6th) and Nagasaki (August 9th). In the immediate Post-War Era, we see an enormous upswing in American prosperity. Men returning from Europe and the Pacific returned to work, and while many women left the factories, not every Rosie the Riveter became a Holly Homemaker. America sees a Baby Boom, an Economic Boom, and with it, a Luxury Boom. Among other things, we see an expansion in automobile ownership in America. We also begin to really see teenagers as an economic force for the first time.
So what does America do with a newly-mobile population of hormonal adolescents with money burning a hole in their pockets? We send ’em to the Drive-In, put a quickly (and inexpensively) produced monster movie on the screen to make Sally grab Dave’s hand in fear, and let ’em neck. The Drive-In Boom is born, and with it, what I’ve come to call the Second Great Era of American B-Pictures (I’ll do another post one of these days detailing the First Great Era of American B-Pictures). Cheaply made monster movies were churned out hard and fast, with American International Pictures leading the pack in terms of production. And while certainly some of these were awkward, schlocky pap made strictly for economic gain, we actually see quite a few films — not all of them, I admit, Drive-In fare — that end up delivering veiled socio-political commentary! Shall we take a look?
Soviets and Saucer-Men
While the Space Race officially began with the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4th, 1957, its roots lie eleven years earlier in the Soviet occupation following the defeat of Nazi Germany. Soviet occupiers deported thousands of German technical specialists, particularly ones associated with Germany’s rocketry program, to the USSR, a program known as Operation Osoaviakhim. America was doing much the same (under the title Operation Paperclip), and there were fears in America that the Russkies would be using this stolen knowledge to aggressively spread Communist doctrine to the First World.
In 1951, two films were released that in one sense capitalized on this fear, and in another sense explored it.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL came first, in which Klaatu, an alien emissary (Michael Rennie) comes to Earth with a message of peace — and is promptly shot by a nervous GI. Recovering quickly in a Washington, D.C. hospital, Klaatu escapes the watchful eye of the U.S. Government and takes refuge in a boarding-house, listening gravely as the other residents debate newspaper reports of the “space-man,” including a woman who opines that the so-called “space-man” is “from right here on Earth — and you know where I mean!” Frustrated by the inability of the nations of Earth to come together and listen to his message as one, Klaatu is forced to resort to the desperate act of stopping all electricity on Earth for thirty minutes to get the world’s attention. Hunted as a criminal and mortally wounded, Klaatu manages to deliver his humbling message before expiring.
While THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is noteworthy in A) being the first major film depicting alien life and a flying saucer and B) espousing world peace, it must be said that this classic is dreadfully shallow. The message is a worthwhile one regarding military expansionism, but the delivery is extremely blunt. The viewer is simply hammered with Klaatu’s message of “aggression extending beyond this sphere will be met with obliteration,” which I feel unfortunately detracts from the overall film.
Taking a different tack is Howard Hawks’ THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. A team of American scientists and Air Force officers are sent to examine a strange “airplane” crash at the North Pole. The “airplane” is unusually heavy, strangely magnetic, radioactive and…disc-shaped. The flying saucer is accidentally destroyed during efforts to melt it out of the ice, but its pilot — thrown free during the crash — is recovered in a block of ice. When the Thing (James Arness) is inadvertently thawed, it proves to be an aggressive humanoid vegetable. While the Air Force and some of the scientists are fearful of the Thing, Dr. Carrington, the head of the scientific community, insists that it must be an advanced, peaceful creature whom we could learn from. The egghead is effectively duped by the creature into helping it nourish it’s blood-hungry seed pods, growing an invasion force in the green house.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is very straight-forward and even heavy-handed (some might say preachy) in its message, while THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD stands as a more subtle metaphor for the insidious spread of Communist ideology.
The “Thing” is described as emotionless, a mindset too alien for the hot-blooded American (and by extension, Capitalist) patriots to comprehend or connect to. Likewise, it seems to exist for one purpose: to spread itself, virus-like, far and wide. The “Thing” does so by breeding an army; feeding on blood as it does, it kills those who aren’t it’s own, as obstacles or as cattle. Into this stumbles Dr. Carrington; a well-meaning man of science hoping to work for the advancement of humanity as a whole, blinded by his ideals of something bigger and greater than the sum of its parts, a grandiose dream — a machine of which we are all simple cogs. He encounters the “Thing” and sees a key to jump-starting his dream. Thus by its very nature the “Thing” seduces Dr. Carrington into betraying his own species.
Communism, likewise, was seen as the corrupter and destroyer of American ideals, a sick foreign body to be rejected like any other virus. If allowed in, it would tempt us all away from Mom and Apple Pie and Baseball in favor of cold, soulless Collectivization and Five Year Plans. And you know how Communism gets in? Through the intellectuals, blinded to the concerns and realities of the Real World by their ivory-tower educations and sciences. These eggheads, so easily led astray by the seductive promises of shared information, would (or so Joe McCarthy would have us believe) betray America and Mom and even the Apple Pie to Comrade Joe and wind up with nothing more than borscht so watered down you could read Pravda through it. Not that, under Communism, you’d be able to afford a copy of Pravda.
How do we stop the threat of international Communism? By sticking together as a group, as the heroes of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD DO. It is only by their united efforts — e pluribus unum and all that — that the corrupting invader can be defeated.
In the wake of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL came what could truly be considered a horde of alien invaders. Few, however, even came close to packing the intellectual punch of the initial two trailblazers. Among these, I’d like to look at two: KILLERS FROM SPACE (1954) and IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956), both, curiously enough, starring James Arness’ brother, Peter Graves.
In KILLERS FROM SPACE, Dr. Douglas Martin (Peter Graves) is a pilot and Atomic Scientist, whose plane crashes while he is examining an atomic test site. No body is found, and Dr. Martin is presumed dead. A week later, however, he shows up at the base with no memory of the missing days and an unusual new scar on his chest. Upon being given a clean bill of health, he wishes to return to work, but is urged to rest a few days longer. He breaks into the base, stealing atomic secrets and hiding them under a rock in the desert. Caught in the act, Dr. Martin is dosed with a powerful truth serum and tells an incredible story of being brainwashed by a race of aliens hiding in caves, ordered to bring them nuclear secrets as they are siphoning atomic energy to power their schemes of invasion.
KILLERS FROM SPACE goes back to the McCarthy era fear of intellectual defectors that I touched upon earlier, and quite a bit of dialogue in the film is directed to exploring the immediate concern that Dr. Martin has either turned Commie or been replaced by a vodka-swilling doppelganger from the far side of the Iron Curtain. While the Red Scare provides much of the initial drive of the story as the mystery of Dr. Martin’s disappearance unfolds, truth be told, Communism is (yes) only a red herring here. However, the identical appearance of the aliens here may be a hint of Collectivism. I’m not 100% sure.
In IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, discredited scientist Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef, patron saint of sharp glares and sharper cheek bones) aids an intelligent fungus alien leave Venus and come to Earth. Once here, the terrible toadstool begins to spawn bat-like parasites, which latch onto the necks of human beings, robbing them of their free will and individuality, making them nothing more than pawns of it’s inscrutable alien will. The only way to break the alien’s hold over them is to kill the human host. It is then up to heroic all-American scientist Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves) to save the world — and ultimately, help Tom redeem himself.
Dr. Nelson’s closing eulogy for Tom Anderson sums up the message of the film (and with it, touching on Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism upon which, according to Weber, America was founded):
“He learned almost too late that man is a feeling creature… and because of it, the greatest in the universe. He learned too late for himself that men have to find their own way, to make their own mistakes. There can’t be any gift of perfection from outside ourselves. And when men seek such perfection… they find only death… fire… loss… disillusionment… the end of everything that’s gone forward. Men have always sought an end to the toil and misery, but it can’t be given, it has to be achieved. There is hope, but it has to come from inside, from Man himself.”
While inferior in terms of budget, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD blends elements of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and much of my commentary to these films applies here as well: The intellectual Tom is seduced by the idealistic propaganda of the Alien, and willingly gives it information regarding Earth’s defenses. Those taken by the Alien become soulless slaves to its agenda. Though they look like friends and family, they are in fact The Enemy. Only by killing them can we preserve our way of life — Mom, Apple Pie, Baseball and all. The primary element taken from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is the alien’s ability to stop electricity — which here comes across more as a means of isolating the hero from outside assistance rather than a key plot point.
As mentioned before, there were probably hundreds of alien invasion flicks released during the 1950s, some fairly rubbish and others very strongly written and thoughtful. To address all the good ones is beyond my scope here, and would quickly become repetitive. However, if you’d like to take a look for yourself, I’d recommend, in addition to the films already explored here, THIS ISLAND EARTH, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, INVADERS FROM MARS (1953) and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) are all excellent films to observe the strength of White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant America (and to Joe McCarthy, this is the America worth fighting for) in the face of an emotionless alien threat.
A Biblical Prophecy Come True
On July 16th, 1945, “Trinity,” the first nuclear weapons test, was detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico, as an experiment to see if…well, if it’d actually work. Following close on the heels of this test came the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on August 29th, 1949 the Soviet Union tested it’s first atomic bomb. The Nuclear arms race had begun, and on November 1st, 1952 America tested its first hydrogen bomb; on February 28th, 1954 the first deliverable hydrogen bomb was tested at Bikini Atoll, an explosion which signified, for some scientists, the beginning of the end of civilization. For the first time, we were capable of truly exterminating each other on a hitherto undreamed-of scale.
Amidst the fallout of Bikini Atoll were two films; however, I will only discuss one of them here, Warner Brothers’ THEM! (1954). The other, Toho Studios’ GOJIRA, also 1954, is Japanese-made and thus does not fall under the American cinema purview of this essay.
In THEM!, New Mexico state troopers stumble across a string of mysterious disappearances, murders involving formic acid, and sugar thefts. The FBI gets involved, in the form of James Arness, and soon Dr. Medford, a myrmecologist is called in as well. The disappearances, deaths, and sugar thefts are the work of giant ants, mutated by the residual radiation of the initial “Trinity” Test. Though individually the nine-foot long ants are susceptible to small-arms fire, their number is legion and the nest is discovered and poisoned with cyanide gas too late — a trio of flying queens have escaped, carrying with them the threat of millions of more ants. The hunt is successful, but as the last queen burns under concentrated assault with flamethrowers, Dr. Medford observes, “We haven’t seen the end of them. We’ve only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us.”
THEM! stands as perhaps the only truly sincere and thoughtful American-made film regarding fears of the Nuclear Age. Radiation in American cinema, dating back as far as 1936’s THE INVISIBLE RAY starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, has largely been nothing more than a gimmick used to get the monster up and running. And I’ve thought long and hard about this fact, and the best conclusion I can come to is that America has never experienced the horrors of nuclear warfare first-hand. It’s never been our shadows seared into concrete as our flesh atomizes in the blast, it’s never been our children whimpering in terror as the doctor slowly and sadly waves a Geiger counter over them.
Japan has experienced this unfortunate nightmare, and thus it is to the cinema of the Rising Sun that one must turn to find truly earnest films dealing with the horrors unleashed when Oppenheimer opened Pandora’s box. GOJIRA, MATANGO, and MOTHRA all provide, even if wrapped in an entertaining story, a serious glimpse into the heart of the Nuclear Age.
In America, on the other hand, outside of THEM! one of the “best” commentaries on nuclear proliferation comes from Ed Wood’s 1959 turkey-classic, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, in which the alien Eros berates the people of Earth for their explosive arms race, his mission being to deliver a message of warning to Mankind before we discover the “Solarmanite” Bomb, which explodes the atoms of sunlight, setting off a chain reaction that would destroy everything within reach of our Sun’s rays.
In the final analysis, despite common assumptions to the contrary, America’s sci-fi/horror of the 1950s Boom was in fact littered with intelligent films containing thoughtful discussions of socio-political matters disguised in the veil of thrilling entertainment. Films such as THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD tackled the growing paranoia of the Cold War, while THEM! dealt somberly with the significance of the splitting of the atom. Indeed, so tightly interconnected are the Nuclear Age and the Cold War, that between them America — and really, the world — was irrevocably changed from what it had existed as prior to 1945. To quote Dr. Medford once more, “When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”
Tags: childhood memories, cold war, damn russkies, history, Horror, Horror Movie, howard hawks, nuclear proliferation, socio-political commentary, the day the earth stood still, the thing from another world, Warner Bros.