Magnificent Movie Monsters Decade by Decade – Part 1 (The 1950s) – By Philip Smolen

I was a “monster kid.” I still am. Underneath the crust and decay of this nearly six decade old body beats the heart and psyche of a 10-year old who fell in love with movie monsters and who continues to be dazzled, terrified and fascinated by them. I was so enthralled by them that I actually believe that they played a role in molding my emotional makeup when I was young. They made me one of the “strange” ones. I was the kid that every other kid looked at as weird. Monsters and creatures from other worlds were in my very DNA.  My outward appearance was normal. I went to school, did my homework and honored my parents, but my mind and soul were caught firmly in the grip of monster mania. It was my true religion and I prayed at its altar constantly.

I would do most anything to try and find a good monster movie. I woke up in the middle of the night to watch them on late night TV and would even walk a few miles on the weekend to see them at my local cinemas. If I was at a newsstand, I would always scan for a fresh copy of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” or “Castle of Frankenstein” because they always had good monster photos. And I would also peruse the paperback book section for any interesting material that featured monsters.

But to me there were always some movie monsters that just possessed the “wow” factor. There was something kinetic and powerful about them that mesmerized me. The way they moved, the way they looked and the things they did just amazed me. They would bring me so much enjoyment that at the age of nine I started scanning the TV Guide every week in order to find monster movies to watch. And when I found one, I would highlight it with one of my Crayolas so I wouldn’t forget to watch it. And if I did forget, or if my family had to go visiting relatives when it was on TV, I would get angry and sulk. I always felt like I missed an opportunity to watch something that might never again play on TV.

So in celebration of the hundreds of fabulous movie monsters that have been created, we’re going to take a look at some of my favorites from the last 60 years. Our first stop will be the decade where movie monsters just exploded on the screen – the 1950s. Now remember, these are just my personal choices and I’ll try to offer some explanation of why I think they’re special. Interestingly enough, part of the reason these creatures are my favorites is because of my recollections from the first time I saw them. So chalk one up to childhood nightmares!

1. The Id Monster (Forbidden Planet [MGM 1956]) – Director: Fred McCleod Wilcox

My mother wouldn’t let me watch “Forbidden Planet” for a while (she also wouldn’t let me go see “King Kong vs Godzilla” [1962] so go figure). She had seen the film in the theater back in 1956 and was terrified by the idea of an invisible monster that would tear someone “literally limb from limb” and she was sure that my delicate psyche wouldn’t be able to stand the shock. Well, she was right. My first viewing of this sci-fi classic was on an old black and white portable TV during the summer of 1963. And even though I watched “Forbidden Planet” without the benefit of color and stereophonic sound, the Id monster gave me nightmares for a week! The combination of the dazzling effects (which still hold up well in a CGI world) and Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic score seared itself into my mind. I literally could not look away whenever the Id monster was onscreen.

Part of the appeal of the Id monster is that it can’t be classified. There’s a great scene in the flick when Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens) makes a cast of the Id Monster’s footprint. Giving this invisible beast such a huge powerful looking appendage evokes wonderful images in a viewer’s mind. The payoff in the film, of course, is when the monster attacks the C-57D crew. As it’s illuminated in the ship’s electrified fence, you can make out just enough of its shape, but not all the details. This further enhances the beast’s power and ferocity. And when you add in the Barron’s wonderful electronic score, you’ve got a powerful combination of visual/audio stimulation that’s hard to top. It’s no wonder that “Forbidden Planet” is one of the few sci-fi films from the 1950s that hasn’t been remade. Even with today’s CGI magic, it would be next to impossible to surpass what MGM accomplished with the original.

2. The Ymir (20 Million Miles to Earth [Columbia, 1957]) – Director: Nathan Juran

My first encounter with Ray Harryhausen’s beast from Venus was in 1965. My family and I were going to my grandmother’s wake, so we all had to dress up. I was finished early, so I turned on the TV and suddenly found myself face to face with this amazing Venusian nightmare. I couldn’t believe how incredible this creature was. However, I also knew that I’d have to shut off the TV soon because we had to leave for the funeral home. Suddenly, my father and 16 year old sister got into a heated argument over the amount of makeup she was wearing. There was yelling from both parties and doors were slammed. And I was thrilled! This meant that I could continue to watch the Ymir, at least until my father and sister saw eye to eye once again!

Part of the appeal of Ray’s Ymir is that it is recognizable and alien at the same time. It stands like a bipedal dinosaur, has scales like a lizard and has shoulders that are set back just like a man. Ray also imbues the creature with such a wonderful array of reactions, from registering shock when it is blinded by the lights in Joan Taylor’s trailer, to mild interest when it comes in contact with a group of sheep to outrage when it is attacked by a farmer and its dog. And while rage and anger become the Ymir’s primary emotion once it escapes from the lab, Ray still manages to add levels of anger that the creature goes through. The Ymir was an incredible accomplishment for sci-fi cinema. It was one of the first times that an alien creature was allowed to give a true performance. And of course the man behind the performance was one of the geniuses of fantasy movie making – Ray Harryhausen!

3. The Cyclops (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad [Columbia, 1958[) – Director: Nathan Juran

Every year when I was a kid, my family went on vacation to Wildwood, NJ, a beach resort town, near the southern tip of the Garden State made famous by its two mile long boardwalk. In the summer of 1962 my younger sister and I were dropped off by our parents (who I think wanted some alone time) at a local movie house to watch a double feature matinee of MGM’s “Captain Sindbad” [1962] and Columbia’s “The 7th Voyage of Sindbad [1958]. I remember really enjoying the colorful King Brothers’ production of “Captain Sindbad” that featured “Zorro” star Guy Williams. I also remember enjoying the scary monsters. But I was absolutely blown away by its co-feature. I actually dropped my popcorn when Ray Harryhausen’s Cyclops made its first appearance. I was shocked. I had never seen such an incredible fantasy monster before. The Cyclops mesmerized me by his actions. I was terrified when he captured Sinbad’s men and was determined to eat them. I also couldn’t believe that he was strong enough to actually hurl trees at Sinbad’s men and I was thrilled when he fought the fire breathing dragon (I also couldn’t believe that the dragon simply didn’t fry the Cyclops with his breath). But I came out of the theater a changed kid. I immediately tried to build the Cyclops out of some of my modeling clay. And while it didn’t’ even remotely resemble Ray’s creature, it still provided me with hours of playtime fun.

What more can be said about such an iconic creature? Ray Harryhausen was certainly plugged in to the psyche of kids during this period of his life. Just like the Ymir, Ray’s Cyclops is a combination of the familiar and the strange. There are the goat-like legs, the warty chest and that wonderful expressive face with the singular horn. And just like the Ymir, Ray imbues the Cyclops with wonderful touches of characterization including greed and jealousy (when it wants its lamp back), rage (when it finds Sinbad’s crew stealing his treasure and even hunger (licking its lips as it fries Sinbad’s first mate). There have been few creatures in cinema that have stirred film lovers’ imaginations as much as Ray’s Cyclops. It remains a fantasy creature of the first magnitude.

4. The Bat Rat Spider (The Angry Red Planet, [American International, 1959) – Director: Ib Melchior

I will never forget my introduction to Ib Melchior’s bizarre Bat Rat Spider. I was home sick from school (I had the measles, mumps and chicken pox all in the second grade!) and I was miserable. I had to be quarantined from everybody else so my friends couldn’t even come to visit me. Daytime TV was horrible, but unfortunately that and reading were the only activities left to me. So one afternoon I turned on our portable black and white TV and there on my screen was one of the strangest movie monsters I had ever seen. It looked like a rat. It looked like a spider. And it had a tail! But my first reaction when seeing it was panic because I didn’t understand that the movie was filmed using the “Cinemagic” technique! When I saw the bizarre solarization process, I thought I had broken our TV by pushing some of the buttons too hard! I really thought that when my mother or father saw the screen that they would be mad and punish me. Frantically, I began to change the channel and then breathed a huge sigh of relief when all the other channels (all six of them!) looked fine. It was only WABC that looked weird. Then I settled down and watched a movie that was filled with strange looking monsters. As you might suspect, I was hooked!

The Bat Rat Spider was certainly an unusual creature for its time and its primary appeal lies in its weirdness. Unlike Ray Harryhausen’s monsters which are attractive, the Bat Rat Spider is just butt ugly. It tiptoes around the set (even at an early age I figured that it was a puppet) and roars at the astronaut invaders. Then it tries to make a cracker snack out of stalwart scientist Les Tremayne until finally Jack Kruschen blinds it with his sonic ray gun “Cleo.” But even though it really doesn’t do much, it’s still memorable because it successfully creates a sense of anticipation about just what kinds of life forms exist on this planet. I remember thinking to myself that if the Martians can create a creature like this, what other types of monsters are waiting for intrepid heroes?  And while I never had nightmares about this Martian menace, it remains a monstrous cinematic favorite.

Well, these four are just a few of my favorite movie creatures (for additional 1950s entries, see below). When someone asks me which monsters do I love (and believe me this happens more often than you think), these four are always at the top of the list. Over the years they seem to give me the most satisfying emotional bang for my movie buck.

Honorable Mention (additional 1950 movie monster favorites)

1. Metaluna Mutant (“This Island Earth”, 1955) – great attempt by makeup men Jack Kevan and John Kraus to create a two-legged insect.

2. The Giant Mollusk (“The Monster that Challenged the World”, 1957) – Augie Lohman’s 10 foot long sea slug is a 1950s masterpiece of hydraulic fury.

3. The Crawling Eye (“The Crawling Eye”, 1958) – despite their squishy appearance, Les Bowie’s alien cantaloupes still induced thousands of baby boomer nightmares.

4. Glen Manning (“The War of the Colossal Beast”, 1958) – Leave it to Mr. BIG [Bert. I. Gordon] to create one of the ugliest 1950s movie monsters with the help of makeup man Jack H. Young. Too bad the rest of the movie wasn’t any good.

Selected References

Scholll, William. Creature Features. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 2008.

Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 1992.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 2010.