10 Great Horror Movies of the 1950s – Redemption for an Unloved Era

Wedged between the atmospheric 40s and the groundbreaking 60s, the strengths of 50s horror often go unappreciated

Our own Josh Millican has, in recent months, done a couple of articles listing good/great horror movies from the 1990s, an era generally regarded as a horror graveyard (and not a graveyard in the awesome, spoOoOoOoky sense).  Josh’s articles, and the comments posted by others, suggest that there are a lot more gems of 90s horror than we tend to think.  Equally derided as a desert amongst otherwise verdant decades of genre history are the 1950s.  So I figured I’d take a look at a few of the best horror flicks of that decade, in the hopes of realizing the same kind of redemption.  I know I’m leaving some good stuff off, so, please, use the comments to tell me what 50s classics you think deserve to be enshrined.

 

creature-from-the-black-lagoon-wallpapers_24939_1152x864Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, dir. Jack Arnold)

The 50s really gave birth to the sci-fi/horror crossbreed as we know it today.  One of the key movies in that development was Creature, which takes the “horror of the ancient world awakens” device of vampire and mummy movies and applies it to an evolutionary, rather than supernatural, form of inhuman terror.  The setting is thick with atmosphere, the underwater scenes are masterfully shot, the Gil Man himself is a special effects triumph, and the score is one of the all-time greats.  If you get the chance, see it in the 3D format for which it was intended; those underwater scenes look incredible.

 

Them-1954-01-gThem! (1954, dir. Gordon Douglas)

Giant monsters were all the rage in the 50s, and one of the major subsets of that group, the giant bug movie, reached its undisputed apex in Them!, with its combination of apocalyptic threat and individual, personalized horror.  As impressive as the spectacle may be, Them! often sends chills down the spine just through the sound effects provided for the giant, unfeeling ants.  But the most memorable aspect is the hysterical screaming of the little girl (Sandy Descher) who has lost her family to “Them.”

 

GodzillaGodzilla (1954, dir. Ishiro Honda)

Where giant monsters are concerned, nobody outshines the king.  A stark, at times pseudo-documentary look at the impact of military aggression on civilian innocents, Godzilla is unflinching, both horrifying and tragic in its implications.  Its 1956 US release, re-edited and under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters may be regarded as a watered-down, inferior product, but it ensured the long-term success of the monster and the genre.  This is one of the small handful of movies that almost always manages to bring a tear to my eye.

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 Kevin McCarthy killing a podInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)

The one that gave us the term “pod people,” Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the definitive work of paranoia horror.  The people we know, the people in authority, the people closest to us, everyone we trust – everyone we love – is being replaced by duplicates, perfect in every way except for the total lack of feeling.  On the one hand, we must fear those we usually rely on, and on the other hand, we must doubt our own sanity; if the whole world seems wrong, maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s me.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers attacks us where we are most vulnerable.

 

the-curse-of-frankenstein-600x342The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, dir. Terrence Fisher)

England’s Hammer Studios had scored some success with alien-invasion sci-fi thrillers, and decided to take a risk on the basically dormant classical style of gothic horror, punched up with vibrant color production and a level of on-screen bloodletting which would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.  The combination of grand-guignol excess with sophisticated plotting, gorgeous period production design, and a star making performance from Peter Cushing made for a box office success that absolutely revitalized an entire mode of cinematic storytelling.  Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein is cold and calculating, with none of the moral shading of previous incarnations, but Cushing’s innate charm makes us root for him at times just the same, while Christopher Lee plays the most genuinely terrifying version of the monster ever to grace the screen.

 

I Was a Teenage WerewolfI Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957. dir. Gene Fowler Jr.)

Too often derided for its silly title, I Was a Teenage Werewolf is effective in its thrills and chills, and engaging in the semi-Rebel Without a Cause presentation of its troubled protagonist, Tony (Michael Landon).  Matters are certainly helped by the sleazy but charming mad scientist work of Whit Bissell as hypnotherapist Dr. Brandon, the man who makes a monster of Tony.  If nothing else, this one is worth watching for the infamous attack on a gymnast, with its memorable use of an upside down POV.

 

Dracula_1Horror of Dracula (1958, dir. Terrence Fisher)

Hammer’s team topped themselves when they reunited The Curse of Frankenstein’s leads, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, for another classical gothic horror (known simply as Dracula in its native England, with the extra verbiage added for the American release).  Cushing, so unnerving and heartless in his first horror vehicle, is here the picture of measured compassion and heroic action as Dr. Van Helsing.  Meanwhile, Christopher Lee provides perhaps the most genuinely intimidating, animalistic – yet strangely alluring – Dracula of all time.  Add in Bernard Robinson’s outstanding production design and James Bernard’s iconic score, and you have one of the highlights of vampire cinema.

 

The HManThe H-Man (1958, dir. Ishiro Honda)

Nuclear horror didn’t always take giant form in the films of Ishiro Honda.  This is one of Honda’s earliest collaborations with screenwriter Takeshi Kimura, who help contribute a cynical edge to many of Toho Studios’ darkest and most troubling sci-fi/horror movies.  In The H-Man, radioactive contamination turns people into sentient, acidic goo, which can infect others on contact.  It’s frequently chilling, occasionally ironically funny, and sometimes a shockingly grotesque example of body horror for its era.

 

thefly02The Fly (1958, dir. Kurt Neumann)

On the subject of body horror, we have the era’s best example of science turning a man into a monster.  The mystery and suspense are brilliantly built up, the monster effects are both convincing and utterly shocking, and Vincent Price gives one of his most grounded performances as the brother of the poor scientist who has become an inhuman horror.  And that ending…  “Help me; please help me.”

 

BUCKET OF BLOOD lobby card Dick Miller toystoystoys4A Bucket of Blood (1959, dir. Roger Corman)

The original Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was produced in a hurry to take advantage of available sets; in order to get a script together in time, screenwriter Charles B. Griffith simply cannibalized one of his earlier Corman collaborations: A Bucket of Blood, the story of would-be artist Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), who manages to make a name for himself as a sculptor by committing murders and coating his victims with plaster.  Suddenly, the pretentious, shallow beatniks who shunned and mocked Walter are welcoming him into their circle and praising.  Unlike Little Shop, A Bucket of Blood actually had something of a budget and (more importantly) a longer shooting schedule, so it is a lot more polished, and Corman and company expertly capture the dark humor of Griffith’s script.

 

If you’re into horror from ANY era, keep reading The Blood Shed, and visit our Facebook page!

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Matthew Myers
    15 December 2014 at 10:46 pm - Reply

    Loved all of these films, that era created the Horror/ Sci-Fi crossbreed (well said) and is very underappreciated.

  • Josh Millican
    17 December 2014 at 11:24 pm - Reply

    You definitely should NOT have missed Monsterpalooza this year. They showed Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D in celebration of the film’s 60th anniversary and, afterwards, a Q&A with crew and cast members. I know you’re jealous!

    • Evan A. Baker
      18 December 2014 at 12:08 pm - Reply

      A couple of years ago, my wife and I were lucky enough to catch a Halloween-night 3D screening of Creature, with Julie Adams in attendance. It was a good time, except for the awkward fact of some of the audience whistling and hooting during the bathing suit scenes while the actress herself was there.

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