Welcome to Rogue Cinema’s second installment on the greatest movie monsters of the previous six and a half decades (to read the first chapter, please go here). I’ve been watching creature features for a very long time and there’s nothing that I look forward to more in life than a good monster movie. It doesn’t matter if the script is lame or that the actors are awful, if there’s a good beastie in it, I’m there. This month we’re going to look at one of the worst decades for cinematic monsters – the 1960s.
The 1960s were tough on creatures and sci-fi movies in general and there were several reasons for that. Monsters primarily started disappearing from the cinema, because box office returns for this type of film began to go south in the late 1950s. Audiences were getting pretty bored with radioactive dinosaurs, mutated bugs and giant aliens. These films began to have a sameness to them, so audiences started to stay away. People were now enthralled with the bold and bloody films from Hammer studios. And movie executives were more than willing to make a deal with Hammer. In fact during the 1960s, most major Hollywood studios had distribution deals with Hammer, including Universal, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Columbia and Paramount.
Another reason monster movies disappeared is because of a small little film called “Psycho” (1960). Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece ruled the box office and changed horror movies forever. So it was natural that every other film producer had to rush out their own version of the crazed killer movie. These movies were cheap to make and they usually made a great return on their investment. It made no sense for an independent producer to sink a great deal of money in a monster movie that might only appeal to little kids.
So although the pickings were much slimmer in the 1960s, there still were a few movies that featured special creatures that possessed the “wow” factor. So here’s a look at four of my favorite monsters from the decade of peace and love.
1. The Hydra (Jason and the Argonauts [Columbia, 1963]) – Director: Don Chaffey
There can be no doubt that the greatest monster maker during the 1960s was Ray Harryhausen. During a decade when most sci-fi monster movies were overheated mush, his creatures stood out. Their vitality and their ability to draw “oohs” and “aahs” from a movie audience were unprecedented. Harryhausen was at the peak of his creative power in the 1960s and nowhere is this more evident than with the hydra.
I was fortunate enough to see the actual model of the hydra in the 1990s when Ray was touring with many of his creations. Even after 30 years of decay, the detail in the model was still evident. And as wonderful as the model was, the performance Ray instilled was even more thrilling. While the hydra has a splendid serpentine grandeur, the beaks on each head give it a bird-like quality as well. It glides so effortlessly during its attack on Jason it’s almost as if it knows it can’t be defeated. The forward and backward movement of each head is marvelous to behold. To see this amazing kinetic action unfold onscreen as an eight-year old boy was simply mesmerizing. Some 40 years after I first saw the film, I was able to bring my family to a special presentation of “Jason and the Argonauts” at a revival house in New Jersey. And my family enjoyed it as much as I did. The hydra has burned a place in my heart as one of my favorite monsters of all time. I never get tired of watching it.
2. Jellyfish Monster (Dogora, the Space Monster [Toho, 1964]) – Director: Ishiro Honda
When I was a kid, ABC ran a movie every afternoon at 4:30PM. The show was called (quite naturally) “The 4:30 Movie.” And that show introduced me to a lot of wild and weird monsters. One of the strangest was the giant intergalactic jellyfish that attacks Japan in “Dogora, the Space Monster” (1964). I remember being really freaked out by this monster and I even remember dreaming about it a few times when I was young.
To me “Dogora” is special because it was so different than most Toho monsters. Rather than being portrayed by a man in a suit, it was a marionette that was manipulated off camera by Eji Tsuburaya’s effects crew. They manage to give the jellyfish a lilting and almost butterfly-like quality which is simultaneously beautiful and hypnotic. And all this beauty suddenly turns to terror when the creature starts destroying the city and sucking up coal and people. It really freaked me out to see cars trying to outrun the monster only to be sucked up into its huge maw. And while the diamond thieves’ angle drags down the sci-fi aspects of the story, “Dogora, the Space Monster” remains a sturdy entry in the Toho kaiju eiga oeuvre.
3. Mooncalf (First Men in the Moon [Columbia, 1964]) – Director: Nathan Juran
By age nine, I was a Ray Harryhausen freak. I made sure to watch all of his movies and I collected “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine religiously in order to learn more about him. So when I saw the TV ads for “First Men in the Moon”, I already knew that I had to see this movie. And when I found the Gold Key comic based on the film at my uncle’s candy store, I thought I had died and gone to heaven!
What makes the Mooncalf unique is both its appearance and its ferocity. When Lionel Jeffries and Edward Judd first see one, Jeffries decides that it’s kind of like a cow and is probably harmless. The situation changes several moments later when another mooncalf chases Jeffries and Judd all throughout the interior moon landscape. Harryhausen gives the creature a singular purpose – to eat these strange tasty human morsels. This is particularly evident when the creature uses its head like a battering ram all in a vain attempt to get to Judd. Ray also gives the mooncalf a slow and steady gait which reflects its prodigious girth. But what sets the creature apart from many others are its burning red eyes and its two sets of mandibles. The mandibles clack and snap repeatedly as they try to grab the earthmen. And the red eyes are a great touch because they almost seem to reflect the creature’s anger. Even after the Selenites kill it, its huge skeleton looks like some prehistoric beast and it’s awesome to watch the tiny Judd creep past it. “First Men in the Moon” was a great treat to see as a kid. It provided me with my minimum daily child requirement of great monster action.
4. Silicate Monster (Island of Terror [Planet Pictures, 1967]) – Director: Terrence Fisher
By the time I was 11 years old, I was getting pretty jaded about horror and sci-fi flicks. I had been disappointed by so many of them recently that I was beginning to think that the glory days of the 1950s were over (they were, but I didn’t know that). Imagine my surprise then when my good friend Jimmy and I went to see a double feature of British shockers; “Island of Terror” (1967) and “The Projected Man” (1967). We came in at the beginning of “The Projected Man” and enjoyed it very much. However, we were positively blown away by “Island of Terror.” We simply didn’t think that sci-fi movies could be this good.
Part of the appeal of “Island of Terror” is the strong cast headed up by the wonderful Peter Cushing and the always dependable Edward Judd. But even more than that, we were terrified by the weird silicate creatures that wanted to eat everyone’s bones. They scared us so much that for days, both Jimmy and I thought for sure that there were silicates in our basement and that they would come and suck our bones out while we slept! The creatures really do look like a science experiment gone wrong which only adds to their plausibility. Their tortoise-like shells and their warty, veiny look is also quite disturbing. Even worse, their singular tentacle is always active and searching for prey. And the fact that they are so relentless only raises their terror factor. But the cherry on the top of the silicate sundae is the slurping sounds that they make when they attack their victims. It was so unpleasant to me that I couldn’t look at screen while they were attacking someone. That is one of the few times that cinematic sound had that effect on me. Almost 50 years later, “Island of Terror” remains a superior 1960s sci-fi flick that continues to scare baby boomers everywhere.
Well, that concludes this trip down monster memory lane. These four flicks remain favorites of mine for a lot of reasons, but mainly because the creatures in them hit the monster sweet spot (for some additional cool 1960s monsters, check out the list below). Next time we’ll take a look at a decade when monster movies mounted a bit of a comeback – the 1970s!
Honorable Mentions (additional 1960 monster favorites)
1. Ghidrah (“Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster”, ) – While many of Ghidrah’s subsequent flicks are pretty cheesy, this first flick maintains a pretty good pace and has some superior Toho monster on monster action.
2. Flesh Eating Zombie (“Night of the Living Dead”, ) – This is a no brainer. Leave it to horror maestro George A. Romero to introduce the last great movie monster. The flick might have suffered from a low budget but it produced mega shocks that are still reverberating to this day.
3. Carnivorous Weed (“The Lost Continent”, ) – A Hammer cheese-fest that has developed a cult following over the decades. The main villain here is a stubborn sentient weed (created by Bob Mattey) that crushes ships and devours unsuspecting victims.
4. Gwangi (“The Valley of Gwangi”, ) – Forty six years later, Ray Harryhausen’s Allosaurus remains one of the great cinematic dinosaurs of all time. CGI artists are still watching this in order to understand how movie dinosaurs should move.
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.