Frankenstein to Star Wars, Best 'Genre' per Decade - 50's

After a bit of a break, we’re back with our ongoing look at the best genre films of all time, per decade, starting with Frankenstein (the 30's) and ending with Star Wars (the 70's). Please remember that this list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive; we’re offering some of our takes*, and invite you to chime in with some of yours.

When looking at the ‘50s, it’s important to remember that this decade is essentially the Hollywood Science Fiction explosion. There were certainly films of that ilk before, and there have been sci-fi saturated decades since. However, this was the decade that we see that genre touch nearly everything. It was the decade of the Space Race, Atomic Power, and “Modern Conveniences”. Therefore, expect this look skewed in that direction.

The Blob (1958): Young Steve McQueen (in his film debut!) battles the scariest crawling Jell-O from space we’d seen at this point. It’s often categorized as a “B-picture”, but it’s a fairly enduring film. There are a lot of fun moments, like the movie theater panic and the swallowing of the diner. And lest we forget, bonus points because the creature isn’t destroyed, but merely stopped … for the moment.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954): Gilled-death rises from the deep, and Universal Studios is there! Originally shot in 3D by director Jack Arnold, "Creature" contains stellar underwater photography for the time period and a fantastically designed monster. One of the highlights is the Creature stalking the heroine in the water (while she's wearing what Stephen King calls "the requisite one-piece white swimsuit" in his book on horror, Danse Macabre). Other films have sunk trying to imitate the style and atmosphere, but "Creature" rises above them all.

The Fly (1958): Featuring the immortal "Help me, pleeeease! Help me!", "The Fly" was as close to a gross-out film as you could get in the late '50s. With the giant fly's head and hand grafted onto a hapless human scientist, you know that you're in for a good time. And of course, there's Vincent Price, who can elevate the quality of a horror film just by walking into the room.

"The Fly" is another movie that straddles the lines of science fiction and horror, but anyone who's seen the awesome costume and chilling ending knows exactly which side it belongs too.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956): The title says it all. Godzilla is the king! The movie that launched an industry of atomic-powered monsters, Godzilla still reigns as the 400-foot tall champion. We recommend picking up the unedited Japanese version (Gojira) if you get a chance. It's longer, and it doesn't have Raymond Burr cut in as reporter Steve Martin. Regardless, Godzilla is king of rubber-suit land.

Despite the dated effects, the movie still holds up extremely well; it crushes by comparison the weak Devlin/Emmerich remake from 1998. Hell, the scene of Bob Goldthwait in a Godzilla suit stomping the model development in One Crazy Summer is about twenty times as good as the Devlin/Emmerich version. (Yes, there are those who argue the merits of the Devlin/Emmerich version. But we must insist: Godzilla is not an iguana).

Horror of Dracula (1958): Christopher Lee as Dracula vs. Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. The review could stop there and you'd understand why this is so great. However, other points need to be made, like the fact that this launched the Hammer Studios franchise, and that the blood ran in color.

Though the film's script is brutal on the novel (let's reiterate: brutal. Many are the nonsensical changes to character relationships), there is so much going on that the film takes on a life of its own. The climactic battle between the Count and his nemesis is fantastic. Many, many Lee/Cushing films followed. Good, good stuff.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): Though director Don Siegel insisted that this wasn't a McCarthyist allegory, it still works in that fashion amazingly well. As in Jack Finney's novel, the hero (Kevin McCarthy, ironically enough) discovers that alien pods are replacing people. A ticking clock of suspense, the movie is especially memorable for the scene of McCarthy shouting in the middle of the street.

The 1970s remake is pretty darn good too, particularly due to the strong presence of Donald Sutherland. The '90s version, simply titled Body Snatchers is okay, but the less said about this decade’s The Invasion, the better. The original is currently being homage in a Marvel Comics summer event near you.

The Thing . . . From Another World (1951): Commonly known as "The Thing", this absolutely awesome flick set many standards for '50s horror and science fiction. Drawn from John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?", the film is set at an isolated Arctic research station with a mix of military and scientific personnel. The sci-fi debate chestnut of "destroy the alien or study it" is clearly defined here.

Though Christian Nyby gets the directorial credit, it's generally understood that producer Howard Hawks oversaw the whole deal.

The entire affair moves at a slam-bang pace with great suspense. And now dig this: James "Marshall Dillon" Arness played The Thing. We refer once again to King’s Danse Macabre; his take on the political and social overtones of this film is especially cogent.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): Frankly, it's somewhat saddening that this is being remade. Thematically, it was a perfect film of its time, with the message that pursuing apocalyptic weapon design in a political race (i.e., The Cold War) is a futile endeavor that leads to destruction.

There are many fine touches in Robert Wise’s terrific film, particularly Gort the robot and the realistic depiction of what would happen if the military met aliens. The thing that puts this above so many other genre films is the time that it takes with thoughtfulness and dialogue. It’s a suspenseful film, but that comes in second to communicating worthy ideas, one of the reasons why it’s remembered as a classic of its kind.

The War of the Worlds (1953): The first adaptation of this particular H.G. Wells novel, "War of the Worlds" is generally considered a fine example of ‘50s sci-fi. This Oscar winner (for special effects) recounts the familiar tale of what happens when aliens attack.

Though some liberties are taken with the narrative, the overall thrust of the story is still the same. Some symbolic points are scored in demonstrating the ruthlessness of the Martian invaders when they massacre three men approaching peacefully (and later, a pastor as well). The visuals really drive the story. A viewing today will definitely do one thing: make you realize exactly how much Independence Day bit from it.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953): Ray Harryhausen in the, er, hausen! A hugely influential movie (likely inspiring everything from Godzilla to Cloverfield), the Beast is the first in a long line of giant monsters to be aroused from slumber by stupid, stupid humans.

Actually based in part on a Ray Bradbury story (now called The Fog Horn), "Beast" hits the familiar beats associated with this kind of tale. Atomic tests? Check. Peeved-off giant monster? Check. Cities hopeless in the face of this menace? You bet. There’s also the bonus element of having the monster’s blood be toxic in its own right (a prelude to Alien, perhaps) and a climax involving a roller-coaster and a rocket launcher.

Them! (1954): Another entry in the “giant thing created by science” family, "Them!" features giant ants. Though giant ants would become a recurring theme in films (like Empire of the Ants), this is probably the classic of that six-legged sub-genre.

One of the more compelling (and believable) aspects of the film is the way in which the authorities approach their investigation; things are kept quiet, experts are summoned, steps are taken to avoid panic. It seems as if this is the way that the government would indeed deal with giant ants (aside from taxing them, of course).

Also enjoyable is the scientifically accurate notion that the queens would attempt to escape to form new colonies; this thread takes the action to L.A. It’s there that we get a surprise fatality that’s outside of the norm for films of the time. Overall, a strong pioneering effort.

This Island Earth (1955): Despite being wailed on in the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 film, "This Island Earth" is actually a strong film with some indelible visuals. The huge-brained, veiny-headed mutant is an indisputably iconic image, and the movie as a whole received great praise for its effects and color. Comic book fans will note with some amusement that the alien leader is named The Monitor.

One of the key plot points turns on the notion of obviously advanced civilizations needing the help of a human scientist; this idea turns up again and again in the films of the period. It’s almost cute in a way: a species that can build teleporters and interstellar craft needs help, and the way hold auditions is getting a guy to build a radio.

Forbidden Planet (1956): Attention Lost fans: this is one of the keystone texts for the series. Based in many ways on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, "Planet" comes bursting with great ideas. The visuals are uniformly terrific, with sweeping images of The Great Machine and a monster that, when revealed, comes courtesy of animation staff imported from Disney. Great care (and cost) went into the creation of the vehicles and, of course, Robby the Robot.

There are also those that credit the genesis of the miniskirt to this film for the outfits worn by Anne Francis.

Younger viewers may find it hard to accept noted deadpan genius Leslie Nielsen in an action role, but this is great stuff.

Among other favorites? 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). And though we’ll pass this along without the benefit of having seen never seen the original BBC version, many scholars and fans alike agree The Quartermass Experiment (1953) should be regarded as a seminal text.

There it is, readers. The ‘50s At this point, we’ll leave it to you.

Please discuss.

[* Edited versions of some entries previously appeared in the author's “Best Horror Films of the 20th Century” list written for his own website, ShotgunReviews.com].

Related Content:

Part One: the 1930's

Part Two: the 1940's

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