I know that at the end of the first installment in this series, in which I discussed five of the best giant monsters of the 1950’s, I said the next segment would examine some of the worst giant critters from that same decade. However, I have decided to delay that particular topic by one month and instead, focus this time on best Giant Bugs from the 50’s. Since the worst list would feature beasties that could be classified under “bugs” and generic “giant monsters,” I thought it best to get the good ones out of the way before talking about the ones that were crap. So let’s jump right in…
The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) – I know that when one thinks of giant bugs, ants, spiders and flying creatures of all sorts usually spring to mind and not the monsters in this film. However, these caterpillar-like critters were actually prehistoric snails that were roused from their centuries long slumber and released from their underwater cavern by an earthquake. I don’t know about you, but in my book snails/mollusks are close enough to being “bugs’ for purposes of this article. That aforementioned underwater cavern just happens to be located in the Salton Sea, a large inland saline lake, located in Southern California. This also happens to be where the U.S. Navy conducts all manner of testing and training exercises, so they are amongst the first to encounter the giant mollusks. Soon however, the creatures have escaped the sea via the large aqueduct system running throughout the Imperial Valley and are on the loose, attacking anyone unlucky enough to cross their slimy paths. This film gets overlooked quite often when it comes to 50’s monster flicks, which is unfortunate since it is rather a good movie. Sure, it has its dull spots here and there, but it has all the requisite components for a good monster-on-the-loose film. The creatures themselves look good, even if the large mechanical version used to bring them to life is a bit stiff at times.
The Black Scorpion (1957) – Another film from the year 1957, this one features some of the final stop-motion work done by legendary FX master Willis O’Brien, who inspired and mentored Ray Harryhausen. This time around another seismic event has unleashed a bunch of previously unknown creatures. In this case it is a series of Volcanic eruptions in Mexico that allow gigantic scorpions to escape their underground caverns and wreak havoc on the countryside as they make their way towards Mexico City. While rather slow moving during its first half, once the oversized arachnids are on the loose, things pick up. The stop-motion animation that brings them to life is very well done and the scorpions themselves look awesome. The film’s FX falter a wee bit during an underground sequence that showcases some of the other, and more phony-looking, lifeforms that share the subterranean realm, and again towards the end of the film when a few shots reveal that the budget ran out before the film was completely finished. However, we still get some great monster action. The scene where the scorpions attack a train and devour the hapless people aboard is quite chilling. Imagine being nice and cozy on a train one minute and a moment later being pulled from the car by a huge pincer only to find yourself being moved toward a giant mouth in order to be devoured. See? Chilling!
The Deadly Mantis (1957) – Here we have yet another film from 1957. Stop me if you’ve heard this recently: a seismic event unleashes a dormant lifeform from the prehistoric past. Seriously, what were they all drinking that year in Hollywood? This time it’s a colossal Preying Mantis the size of a jumbo jet that is thawed out in the Arctic after a glacier crumbles apart…which the film would have us believe is a direct result of a volcano erupting in the Antarctic. Nevermind the fact that the fossil record shows no evidence of 200-foot insects or that basic science prohibits a creature with an exoskeleton from becoming that large. No, if you have a bone to pick with this monster, let it be with its roar, which sounds more like a Lion with his family jewels caught in a bush than a giant bug. After laying waste to a few military assets and Eskimo villages, the big bug makes for warmer territory: New York. It’s up to the military, aided by paleontologist, to stop the creature. While this movie is rather cheesy, it still manages to entertain with lots of monster action. Some of the FX are far from convincing, but they work well enough given the time period. The movie even has a chilling moment or two when the viewer realizes the horrible fate of the various people who have gone missing.
Tarantula (1955) – Finally we come to a movie that does not involve seismic events and the giant prehistoric creatures unleashed by them. Instead, we have Leo G. Carroll hiding out in the desert, perfecting a growth formula that enlarges all the animals he gives it to, which include bunnies, hamsters and a tarantula. Of course, the spider gets loose after a fire in the lab and begins roaming the countryside, snacking first on livestock and then turning its slavering jaws toward people. To make things even worse, the enormous arachnid is constantly getting bigger, so by the time the end of the film rolls around, it has reached Godzilla-sized proportions. Fighting the good fight are B-Movie legend John Agar as a local doctor and 50’s super hottie Mara Corday as one of Carroll’s new assistants. The FX used to bring the giant tarantula to life are really quite well done for the time. In every instance a real spider is used and not some cheap phony-looking fake. The live tarantula is then matted or superimposed into the film with damn good results, making it appear as if there really is a giant spider on the rampage. Agar is great as the leading man and Corday reminds us why she would be Playboy Playmate of the Month for October 1958. Throw lots of people falling prey to the monster and Clint Eastwood literally flying to the rescue and you’ve got a b-movie classic.
Them! (1954) – Here we have the first, and quintessential, 50’s giant bug movie. This one sets the standard by which all others are measured. This is also the one that all those others wanted to copy. In the deserts of the American Southwest, people are going missing or turning up dead under strange circumstances…like having enough formic acid in them to kill a hundred people. Odd sounds are heard in the desert and unusual tracks are found. Finally, experts are called in and it turns out the area is home to a colony of giant ants. It seems radiation left over from the bomb testing done in the area in years past has mutated these tiny insects into truck-sized monsters. Though efforts are made to kill them all, two young queen ants escape in order to set up new nests elsewhere. The hunt is on to find and stop them before the world is overrun by these creatures. Naturally, to bring these monsters to life, mechanical ants had to be built. While they may look rather silly now, back then they no doubt were quite convincing, making for a great monster romp. With great characters and a good pace that knows how to build up the suspense, this one stands at the top of the heap when it comes to oversized bug movies from the 1950’s.
There you have it, five of the best giant bug films from the 50’s. Next month it will finally be time to take a look at the a few of the decade’s worst giant monsters, whether they be bugs or not. Until next time, gang.