GARGANTUAN BUGS, RADIOACTIVE SEA MONSTERS, AND CARNIVOROUS ARACHNIDS: ATOMIC ANXIETIES AND FEARS OF RADIATION REFLECTED IN MUTANT MONSTER FILMS, 1953-1962

 

                Radioactive monsters, utopian atom-powered cities, exploding planets, weird ray devices, and many other images have crept into the way everyone thinks about nuclear energy, whether that energy is used in weapons or in civilian reactors. The images, by connecting up with major social and psychological forces, have exerted a strange and powerful pressure within history.[1]

                                Spencer Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images

 

The decade of the 1950s gave birth to a proliferation of science fiction films based on a number of themes relating to the socio-political events during this “atomic decade.” “Although the number of films with nuclear subject matter is not huge—much less than 5 percent of the films produced in any one year—the variety of story contexts in which atomic themes appear suggests that the new knowledge of ‘The Bomb’ affected every aspect of normal life.”[2] Advances in science and technology provided moviemakers with plots of space exploration. Films such as Destination Moon (1950), Rocketship X-M (1950), Flight to Mars (1951), The Conquest of Space (1955), Forbidden Planet (1956), and Missile to the Moon (1958) envisioned extraordinary voyages that signaled a hope for human development.

 

At first most these concerned outward-bound rocket passengers, and any horror ingredients were disclosed en route or on arrival. Soon, though, the direction switched. The earth became subjected to attacks and visitations from outer space or beneath the sea…[3]

 

Within this subgenre of “invasion films” there was those that played “upon our cultural fears of communist infiltration and of a cataclysmic world war, that emphasize the need for watchfulness and preparation against alien subversion of all types, as in the case of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its narrative of alien seed pods silently producing duplicates of us and gradually taking over the country.”[4] War of the Worlds (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and The Earth vs. Flying Saucers (1956) imagined hostile alien forces intent on the destruction of planet Earth, while films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) involved an alien urging peaceful co-existence on a violent Earth.

 

Another subgenre of the science fiction film was tied to the bomb, atomic testing, and fears of nuclear war, particularly with the unleashing of the atom and the awesome power associated with that development. Susan Sontag expressed this fear well in her seminal article “The Imagination of Disaster.”

 

I don’t mean the real trauma of the Bomb-that it has been used, that there are enough now to kill everyone on the earth many times over, that those new bombs may very well be used. Besides these new anxieties about physical disaster, the prospect of universal mutilation and even annihilation, the science fiction films reflect powerful anxieties about the condition of the individual psyche.[5]

 

Some of these films envisioned a terrestrial holocaust destroying or threatening humanity as a result of nuclear testing or war [World Without End (1956), On the Beach (1959), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), Crack in the World (1965)]. Nearly all of the atomic films centered on the strange powers of radiation.

 

This kind of radiation causes Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s duck to lay uranium eggs in Val Guests’s Mr. Drake’s Duck (1950), makes Mickey Rooney glow in The Atomic Kid, puts Peter Arne seven and a half seconds into the future in Timeslip, creates geniuses or zombies in John Gillings’s The Gamma People (1956), shrinks Grant Williams in Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), grows Glenn Langan in Bert I. Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man, revives a murderous native as a walking tree in Dan Milner’s From Hell It Came (1957), makes Japanese gangsters sentient slime in Ishiro Honda’s Bijo to Ekatai Ningen, turns Ron Randell to steel in Allan Dwan’s The Most Dangerous Man Alive and makes Tor Johnson into Coleman Francis’s The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961).[6]

 

One of the most readily identifiable series of atomic-related motion pictures to arise during the 1950s was the mutant monster film. In these films atomic fallout or experimentation causes natural plants, animals, insects, or people to radically change in character; usually they become enlarged. The rise of these films are closely correlated to important historic nuclear events during this first generation of United States nuclear consciousness, where one can see the effects of the atomic age on the collective imagination of that era.

 

These films would later be satirized in Joe Dante’s underrated Matinee (1993) that “provided a reasonably valid high-school view of the Missile Crisis by entwining the most angst-ridden week of the Cold War with a satire of the schlock apocalyptic radioactive mutation movies that everyone, even then, recognized as a primitive manifestation of nuclear terror.”[7] The emergence of the radiated mutant monster film, with particular attention to the enlarged being, will be examined in relation to four distinct phases of the first atomic generation, 1945-1963: awakening and awareness, anxiety, alleviation, and apathy. Most of the films of this subgenre will be analyzed and critiqued, and explanations given for the decline and near disappearance of this subgenre in the early 1960s.

 

ERA OF ATOMIC AWAKENING AND AWARENESS: 1945-1952

 

The eight-year period from 1945 to 1952 was an era of growing public awareness of the devastating and destructive power of a new weapon, the atomic bomb, and an awakening to the deleterious effects of its byproduct, radiation. Initially radiation was seen as a strange unseen power capable of bringing about tremendous scientific wonders and technical achievements. However, as studies by the medical and scientific community on the effects of radiation on humans, particularly the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, began to filter into public consciousness, atomic themes began appearing in motion pictures, particularly those of an atomic powered mutant monster.

 

1945

 

                Prior to 1945, atomic developments, including the experiments of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, were largely hidden from the general public. This would dramatically change on July 16, 1945 with “Trinity,” the first atomic test near Alamogordo, New Mexico, where a power equal to 20,000 tons of TNT was unleashed. Despite two-thirds of Hiroshima being destroyed after the explosion of “Little Boy” on August 6th, and the devastation of Nagasaki by a second atomic bomb “Fat Man” on August 9th, leaving between 110,000 and 130,000 Japanese dead, a Gallup Poll later that year revealed that 85 percent of the United States population approved the use of the atomic bomb.[8] On October 12, 1945, the Joint Committee for the Investigation of the Effects of the Atomic Bomb in Japan was created under the direction of Colonel Ashley Oughterson with the recommendation for a long-term study of this Committee transmitted to James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, in 1946, subsequently to President Truman.

 

1946

 

                On July 25, 1946, after native Bikini Islanders of the Pacific were displaced, an atomic test occurred beneath the surface of the ocean that ended up destroying eleven Navy ships and damaging six other ships from the fleet further highlighting the powerful unpredictable nature of the atomic bomb. On November 26th, President Truman directed the National Academy of Sciences to initiate studies of the long-term effects of the atomic bombings on the Japanese survivors. More importantly to public consciousness was the publication by The Federation of American Scientists in March of One World or None, a short paperback novel that imagined the effect of a single nuclear bomb on Manhattan. John Hershey’s Hiroshima, an account of six survivors of the Hiroshima blast, was released becoming an instant best seller and awakening the public to the horrors of a nuclear holocaust.

 

1947

 

                In an address to a joint session of Congress on March 12th, President Truman spoke of the impending threat of “world communism.” The Senate and House approve several weeks later Truman’s request for more funds for the continued research and development of atomic weapons. Early that year Dr. James V. Neel, a medical geneticist, was appointed acting director of the newly formed Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. This commission would be important in detailing to the public the frightening consequences of radiation fallout.

 

1948

 

                 Debate began to arise in the scientific community as to the consequences of nuclear explosions on humanity. In February 1948, the initiation of the Genetic Studies in Hiroshima began, that was followed in May 1948 with the beginning of the studies in Nagasaki. David Bradley, a medical monitor at the Operation Crossroads tests which took place at the Eniwetok Atoll in 1946, published No Place to Hide written in opposition to government reassurances that there was no need for the public to worry about radioactive fallout. Bradley argued “there is no real defence against atomic weapons” and “no satisfactory countermeasures and methods of decontamination.”[9]

 

1949

 

                Unsettling events began to rouse a quiet uneasiness in the United States over the threat of nuclear war and the consequences of a nuclear holocaust. China became a communist republic bringing the threat of worldwide communism closer to reality. In the summer, three Japanese opthalmologists, Drs. Kinnosuke Hirose, Tadshi Fujino, and Hiroshi Ikui, see the first cases of lenticular opacities. In the Fall of 1949, the beginning of the first opthalmological survey that revealed the frequency of radiation-related lenticular opacities in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. “Dr. Takuso Yamawaki surmises that leukemia may be increased among the survivors.”[10] In August, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics explodes its own atomic device. For the first time in American history, the country was shadowed by the threat of an atomic holocaust on home soil initiated by a foreign power. According to a Gallup Poll, seventy percent of Americans opposed a United States promise not to be the first to use atomic weapons in a future war.

 

1950

 

                On January 31st, in an attempt to keep ahead of the Soviets, Truman authorized the development of the “Super,” or hydrogen bomb. Richard Gerstell, who also served as a medical monitor at the Operation Crossroads test, published How to Survive an Atomic Bomb, playing down the nuclear threat and reducing it to a series of housekeeping problems. Contrasting his novel was Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth which deals with the effects of a series of atomic bombs falling in the bay near Manhattan on a household in Westchester County in New York State. In writing the novel, Merril checked with David Bradley on radiation facts including diagnosis and symptoms of radiation poisoning. Surfacing in the novel is the concept of mutation. Maggie, the central character in the novel, comes in contact with radiation transmitted by her husband and gives birth to a limbless child. The deleterious effect of radiation first comes to the motion picture viewer in the film noir thriller D.O.A. (1950), a plot centered on a man poisoned with a radioactive substance trying to solve his own murder.

 

1951

 

                The United States began atomic bomb testing in Nevada deploying troops near ground zero bringing contained nuclear fall-out on American soil. In the Spring, the first survey of Japanese women who were pregnant at the time of their exposure to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki revealed not only an increase in the frequency of pregnancy loss but suggested mental retardation among those that were born. An increased awareness of the harmful after effects of the atomic bomb can be found in a Gallup Poll that reported that just 51 percent of the Americans support using atomic bombs on military targets in the Korean War.  William Tenn’s Generation of Noah , originally labeled as “too fantastic” by editors, is published. The book, which is one of the first of a new subgenre of nuclear war fiction, details a fictional account of one family’s pre-occupation with surviving a nuclear explosion by use of an atomic shelter.

 

“The first real atomic monster movie is Samuel Newfield’s The Lost Continent (1951), a very cheap item from Lippert, the company that had produced Rocketship X-M (1950), the first real atomic Awful Warning movie.”[11] The plot centered on an expedition to the South Seas in search of a downed nuclear powered rocket. On the island, dinosaurs are being kept alive by uranium deposits. While the radioactive elements are clearly incidental to the plot, it is a precursor to the “nature-run-amok due to radioactive powers” theme common to the mutant monster movies.

 

1952

 

                The two most significant international events of an atomic nature in 1952 was Winston Churchill announcing that Britain had successfully tested an atomic weapon at Monte Bello, Australia, and a hydrogen bomb test at Eniwetok by the United States on November 1st that destroyed the island leaving a crater one mile wide and 175 feet deep. However, it probably wasn’t the nuclear events that were headlining the newspapers at the time that had the most impact on the birth of the mutant monster movie but rather the re-release of the classic motion picture, King Kong

 

In 1932-33, King Kong grossed a very respectable $750,000 in the days of the Depression and low-ticket prices. In the summer of 1952, the movie was reissued with a strong radio and television campaign. By the time the dust had settled in the cinema aisles and drive-in lots across North America, Kong had grossed over $3,000,000 and provided both the impetus for United States moviemakers to produce The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and Japanese producers to create their own atomic powered gargantuan Gojira (1954), later released in the United States as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956). After 1952, fueled by the rise in awareness over the dangers of radiation, fears of a nuclear holocaust, and the success of the reissue of King Kong, the cinema screen would be filled with almost every type of massive mutant monster, most notably gigantic insects.

 

ERA OF ATOMIC ANXIETIES: 1953-1957

 

                With the Cold War in a deep freeze, newspaper headlines and magazine articles warning the public of the dangers of radiation and radioactive fallout, and atomic fears running rampant, the period from 1953 through to the end of 1957 saw an “explosion” of giant mutant monster movies in what can be termed “The Golden Age of the Mutant Monster Motion Picture.” Fifteen of these films during this period are critiqued.

 

1953

 

                The year 1953 saw the Soviet Union explode its first hydrogen bomb in August and a number of movies with atomic radiation themes including Split Second, a story involving an escaped convict holding several people hostage in the Nevada ghost town Lost Hope, where nuclear testing is scheduled to take place.  In the comedy Run for the Hills, an insurance clerk, fearing hydrogen bomb radiation, moves into a cave. However, the most successful atomic related movie to be released, both in terms of box office receipts and artistic achievement, was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.     

 

1.             The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

 

                The film was loosely based on Ray Bradbury’s short story of the same name from The Saturday Evening Post (reprinted as “The Foghorn” in Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun). The plot begins with a nuclear device being tested inside the Arctic Circle. The explosion frees a prehistoric “rhedosaurus,” a large, four-legged carnivorous dinosaur that starts advancing toward New York City, the metropolis that is near the ancient ancestral breeding grounds of the beast. Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) is the only one to see the monster that survives the sinking of a small ship, but is unable to convince anyone of the dinosaur’s existence. The monster comes ashore in Manhattan near Fulton Fish Market, stomps around Wall Street, devours an inattentive policeman, smashes a few automobiles, lumbers through walls and returns to the river. By the time it comes ashore again in Coney Island it has been wounded and its blood proves to be infested with a highly virulent disease necessitating its destruction. Nesbitt and a sharpshooter (Lee Van Cleef) load a grenade rifle with radioactive isotope (to kill the bacteria), ride the roller coaster car to the top of the tracks near the beast, and successfully plant the grenade in the monster’s wound. The car falls, the two men scramble down the scaffolding as the roller coaster structure burns, and the rhedosaurus lunges around the fiery roller coaster structure finally dieing.

 

                Two aspects of the film were particularly good, Eugene Lourie’s direction results in an intelligent use of camera angles, lighting, and shadows to give this low-budget film (a budget under $200,000) an expensive look. The most notable achievement was in the work of special effects magician Ray Harryhausen who attempted to emulate the look of King Kong by applying stop motion animation. Instead of using expensive miniature sets, under budgetary constraints he applied a process that became known as “Dynamation.” Bill Warren describes this process:

 

Location footage of people reacting in terror (or whatever) to a to-be-animated figure is shot, usually under Harryhausen’s direction. Back in his studio, he projects this footage on a screen from behind, masking off the elements that the animated figure will be moving behind – foreground action, buildings, mountains, etc. This rear-projected footage is rephotographed by Harryhausen a frame at a time as he animates the creature (also a frame at a time) in front of this process screen. The film is wound back and now the masked-off areas are exposed, the previously-shot area itself masked off, and the scene is filmed once again. The result is that the animated creature is placed between the foreground and background of one shot – sandwiched between layers of reality.[12]

 

The inexpensive process helped to add to the documentary look of the film and kept the production costs to about $210,000. Mutual Films, the producers of Beast, took the film to RKO (the company that had a hit the previous year with the Kong reissue) but RKO wasn’t interested. Warner Brothers, wanting to get into the science fiction field, bought the film for $400,000, added a score, and designed a sensationalistic ad campaign to promote the film.

 

The film brought in at least $1.5 million and as much as $5 million, making it one of the largest grossing films of 1953. While the creature in Beast was not a mutant monster but rather a dinosaur awakened by an atomic bomb, the film played upon the fears of the dangers of nuclear testing. With the success of Beast behind them, Warner Brothers began production on Them!, a film that would lead to an entire new subgenre of science fiction films, the giant insect film.

 

1954

 

                The year 1954 saw Judith Merril’s story Shadow on the Hearth adapted to television under the title Atomic Attack. The television program was able to effectively carry the message of the novel of the dangers of a nuclear war and its effects on the human population. Philip Wylie’s novel Tomorrow! described the bombing of twinned mid-western cities modeled on Minneapolis and St. Paul. The novel analyzed various viewpoints on the importance of civil defense ranging from indifference to downright hostility. On February 2nd, the United States announced the explosion of its first hydrogen bomb. However, the single most important event in the 1950s that helped to shape public consciousness on the dangers of a nuclear war, most particularly the dangers of radiation fallout, was the “Lucky Dragon” incident.

 

                At 6:45 a.m. on the morning of March 1, 1954, eight years after the United States began atomic testing on the Marshall Island, the United States detonated a bomb codenamed “Bravo” on the island of Bikini. The bomb had the equivalent to 17 megatons of TNT, or 1,300 times the destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb. Despite being about 100 miles east of Bikini, and 20 miles (32 km) outside the “danger zone,” a Japanese tuna fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon V), was caught in the path of Bravo’s fallout and sprayed with a cloud of radioactive dust.

 

For nearly three hours sandy ash rained down on the boat and crew. Soon most of the 23 crew members began to experience symptoms of radiation sickness (nausea, pain, and skin inflammation). On March 14 the crew returned to their home port of Yaizu in Shizuoka prefecture and reported their condition to local doctors. The condition of the crew members and the circumstances of their injuries became matters of worldwide interest and intense concern in Japan for months to come. All were hospitalized and one later died of liver and blood damage on September 23. The sea-going vessel was stripped down and decontaminated.

 

When a young biophysics professor at the city university read about the Lucky Dragon in the Yomiuri Shinbun, he called city health officials and was summoned to the Osaka central market to examine fish that had been shipped there. To his astonishment, his Geiger counter rattled at 60,000 counts per minute, and it was soon determined that about 100 people had already eaten the contaminated tuna. The result was a rising hysteria over contamination of the fish supply. Fish was banned from the Emperor’s diet and some fish dealers were forced into bankruptcy. News of the Lucky Dragon incident was front page news in American newspapers on March 17th but the issue of radioactive tuna was subsequently given little space in the American press.

 

After two radioactive tuna fish were picked up at one United States cannery, a secret meeting took place between representatives of the tuna industry, the Food and Drug Administration, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the State Department where an acceptable level of radioactivity in fish was agreed upon but never released to the public. While the Lucky Dragon incident touched several sensitive issues in Japan including the atomic legacy of World War II, a disruption in a principal Japanese food item (fish), a curtailment of fishing rights on the high sea, and a deep-rooted concern that the United States was insensitive to the feelings and sufferings of the Japanese people and unduly preoccupied with the development of weapons for mass destruction, the largest effect was on world consciousness, particularly in the United States, where the dangers of radiation fallout on biological life was broadcast on radio, television, and in the newspapers.

 

The fears of radiation fallout eventually made their way to the motion pictures. In 1954, two science fiction movies featured a radiation angle: Monster from the Ocean Floor and Them!, While the first movie was a dud, the latter became a science fiction classic.

 

1.             The Monster from the Ocean Floor

 

                The plot of the film involves an octopus-like creature with one gigantic eye that terrorizes a Mexican seacoast. A vacationing illustrator, Julie Blair (Anne Kimbell), sees the creature one night but no one believes her, not even Steve Dunning (Stuart Wade), a marine biologist who moves around the sea in a one-man submarine. When Julie attempts to catch the creature, she snags some of its flesh that Steve examines and declares it to be a large one-celled animal, an amoeba. “The dialogue indicates the monster is probably the result of atomic tests.”[13] When Julie confronts the creature underwater and is grabbed by one of its illuminated tentacles, Steve zooms up in his little sub and rams the creature in the eye killing it.

 

                Monster on the Ocean Floor, the first fantastic film of Roger Corman, was made for less than $20,000. Unfortunately, the film is exceedingly dull and interminably talky, fails to take advantage of the scenic locations (the movie was shot entirely outdoors or underwater), and does not effectively exploit the dangers of the monster (built by Bob Baker, a popular Los Angeles marionette artist). Furthermore, the direction of Wyott Ordung is slow paced while the climax has little build up and is over too fast. There is little wonder why this little film has been quickly forgotten.

 

2.             Them!

 

                Them! is one of the most respected science fiction films of the 1950s. Warner Brothers was so secretive about who “Them” were, that when it was first released many reviewers only knew it was about monsters. The structure of the film is simple and intelligent. Atomic testing has mutated common desert ants so that, generation by generation, they have gotten larger. Needing a larger food supply the ants have turned carnivorous and begun to prey on humans.

 

                The film is structured as a documentary-style thriller similar to films such as The House on 92nd Street (1945) or Panic in the Streets (1950). New Mexico police sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and his partner (Chris Drake) discover a trailer house torn to shreds, some tracks in the sand, and a little girl frightened and clutching a doll. They later find a local store demolished and the storekeeper dead. They also hear a strange noise, a wavering cry over the desert. An FBI agent, Robert Graham (James Arness), is sent to investigate and a plaster cast is sent to Washington, D.C. Soon two entomologists, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat Medford (Joan Weldon), arrive to investigate and one large ant is shot after attacking Pat. One of the ants’ nest is bombed with poison gas although some of the flying ants have managed to escape and attack a cargo ship killing the crew. The other ants and their queen are found hiding in the storm drains of Los Angeles. The Army is brought in to destroy them. Although Ben dies while saving two boys cornered by the ants, the military is able to burn the creatures alive.

 

                The picture is strongly cast, nicely written, and quite suspenseful as we are slowly led down a path of mystery until the reasons for the death and destruction are revealed (It’s ants!). The film was originally budgeted for 3-D and color but the budget was reduced and shot flat and in black and white adding both to a realistic documentary style, and the eerie scenes of the ant nest and storm drain. The producers used mechanical models of ants rather than miniatures or animated ants, and the decision was a wise one allowing the insects to interact with humans. Them! was the largest-grossing film for Warner Brothers that year and its popularity resulted in the imitation of the plot line in many subsequent films: the strange tracks, the desert setting, the eerie insect sounds, the monster in search of food, the tracking of the monster in its lair scene, and the attack on the city.

 

                Them! was also the first gigantic bug movie and “was followed by numerous imitations from other producers, who pressed into service almost every genus of insect and backyard pest (with the possible exception of the tumblebug).”[14] Bill Warren considers the film’s message as the necessity for government to make responsible carefully planned decisions regarding nuclear policy.

 

Some commentators have seen Them! as a warning against the threat of nuclear accidents, a warning against the use of any forms of atomic energy. But the attitude of Them! toward atomic energy really isn’t so blithely stated. The ants are, indeed unfortunate by-products of atomic testing, but they are only by-products. The warning Them! sounds, even if advertently, is only than man has unleashed a genie from an atomic bottle; it may not be easy to put it back. We will have to learn how to handle the power and to take responsibility for rectifying our errors; if we don’t, as Edmund Gwenn says in the fiery finale of Them!, we will vanish from the world’s face and the beasts will reign over the Earth. [15]

 

Unlike Warren, Kim Newman notes that the film’s message was aimed directly at the dangers of atomic testing as evidenced by comments from the producer.

 

Steve Rubin wrote in Cinefantastique that the film’s power “lies in its ability to deliver a subtle but crucial message of the hazards of the nuclear age.” Ted Sherdeman, the film’s writer and original producer, saw Them! as an opportunity to deal with his own atomic anxieties. ‘I was a Lieutenant Colonel then,’ he said of the Hiroshima bombing, ‘and when I heard the news I just went over to the curb and started throwing up.’[16]

Warren Kozak in “Killer Monster Bugs From Hell” adds support to Newman’s argument.

 

Yes, we were the strongest nation on earth, but there was still that ever-present worry of Communist infestation – not to mention the specter of nuclear holocaust. And even though science and the atomic bomb helped win the war, there were still nagging questions about the safety of all of those tests in the desert.[17]

 

Susan Sontag adds: “the accidental awakening of the super-destructive monster who has slept in the earth since prehistory is, often, an obvious metaphor for the Bomb.”[18] Hill notes that the production of these mutant movies was attempts by the Western governments to “blunt people’s sensibilities sufficiently for them to face the horrors of atomic warfare…”[19] After Them!, the Bomb and its side-effects became central to monster movies, and giant mutant insects (call it “Cinema Arthropoda” or “Bug Noir”) were now to play a prominent role in science fiction plots of the mid to late 1950s.[20]

 

1955

 

                The year 1955 saw the United States deploy the B-52, a strategic nuclear bomber, while the Soviet Union deployed their Bear and Bison bomber further heightening Cold War tensions. In Chicago, Illinois, the populace was horrified to find that radioactive rain was falling on the city. Studies were first published indicating that radioactive fall-out could cause bone cancer, leukemia and long-term genetic damage. Two monster movies with radiation themes were popular hits with audiences during the year.

 

1.             It Came from Beneath the Sea

 

                It Came from Beneath the Sea would be the first of over a dozen films produced by Charles H. Schneer with special effects by Ray Harryhausen. The storyline is elementary. Kenneth Tobey, in charge of Nautilus, an atomic powered submarine, is alarmed when his sub is pursued by an unidentified object and is briefly halted. They are able to pull free from the creature but a piece of tissue is found wedged in the bow plates that is later identified as octopus flesh by scientists Donald Curtis and Faith Domergue. They surmise that a giant octopus normally dwelling in the Mindanao Trench in the South Pacific has been made radioactive by H-Bomb tests and must hunt men rather than fish as the sea creatures somehow have built-in Geiger counters and can swim out of its reach. After a ship is attacked, Dr. Domergue worms the truth out of one of the survivors that a large octopus is loose and shipping lanes are closed. The monster starts attacking people on the beach and eventually the octopus moves towards San Francisco. Bombs set by our three heroes sends the monster onto the pilings of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Octopus severs the span of the bridge but is driven back into the water by Tobey and Curtis after they turn on electricity on the bridge. The beast attacks downtown San Francisco pulling down the Ferry building before being pushed back into the water with help from flame throwers where Tobey finally destroys it with an atomic torpedo.

 

                The strengths of the movie rest primarily with Harryhausen’s special effects. He built a two-foot creature with six arms, rather than eight (hoping the audience wouldn’t count the arms), allowing him to perform the stop-motion with less difficulty. The creature was made lifelike by always having at least one tentacle in motion, coating the beast with glycerin to give it a nice wet and icky look, and adding foam via an optical printer whenever the beast’s body or arms broke water. The dramatic elements of the film were less effective although Kenneth Tobey is more than adequate as the submarine commander. Faith Domergue is convincing as an intelligent woman scientist struggling for recognition in a man’s world of the 1950s. The weaknesses of the film include over-explanation by the scientists on technical matters, unnecessary narration, the love triangle failing to materialize and being perfunctorily handled, and some of the characters failing to elicit appropriate emotions during times when they should like during a few of the rescue operations. Overall while not in the same “league” (pardon the pun) as Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the film, thanks to Harryhausen, is fun to watch.

 

2.             Tarantula

 

                After the success of Warner Brothers’ giant ant film Them!, other studios saw the exploitation possibilities of other giant insects.

 

Giant insects are, of course, perfect for film. They are hideously ugly with multiple eyes, probing antennae, hairy legs, arms and – this is key – no heart nor conscience. Their only concern: survival. There is no such thing as a fair fight in the insect world.[21]

 

Kozak later adds:

 

Insects are tougher than we are. They are perfectly constructed with exoskeletal body armor to withstand the punishment of a larger world. They can last longer underwater than any mammal. They work harder and can carry much more than their own weight over great distances. Not only that, bugs are voracious and ubiquitous. So give them the only advantage that they lack over us – the element of size – and you have the purest form of horror in cinema.[22]

 

The next studio to leap onto the insect bandwagon was Universal-International with Tarantula. The film was based on an episode of television’s “Science Fiction Theatre” called “No Food for Thought,” by Robert M. Fresco. The best bug movies “emerged from producer William Alland’s unit at Universal-International, where the scripts weren’t much better but good production values and superior special effects made a lot of difference.”[23]

 

                The story starts with a deformed man (Eddie Parker) collapsing in a desert. Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) examines the body and determines that the man died of acromegaly, a disease that takes years to kill, so the man could not be the local scientist the body vaguely resembles. Dr. Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) however identifies the man as his partner in the desert laboratory. Deemer, his partner Lund, and the dead scientist had been working on an “atomically stabilized” nutrient that can help feed the world’s millions but a side effect is that it produces gigantism in animals and acromegaly in human beings. During a fight, Lund vengefully injects Deemer with the nutrient. While the two scientists are struggling in the lab, a tarantula that had been fed the nutrient escapes into the desert. The tarantula continues to grow larger and larger devouring people and animals. Deemer eventually reveals the secret to the tarantula’s growth. With this knowledge Deemer’s new lab assistant “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday) and the sheriff (Nestor Paiva) call a napalm strike by the Air Force (lead pilot is Clint Eastwood) which burns the spider to death.

 

                Tarantula is a fast and exciting film and is effectively set in the eerie and isolated Southwestern desert. The special effects using a real spider on miniature sets or superimposed film are effective. Although the giant spider’s attacks tend to become repetitious, the attack on the horse ranch is especially memorable. The gimmick of using three horrible-looking men (who are suffering from a genuine and dreadful disease) is unnecessary and exploitative adding nothing to the plot. The pools of tarantula venom that put Matt on the track of the spider are ridiculous. The script is pedestrian and except for Carroll’s intelligence performance the acting is mediocre. Although rarely frightening, the film is more an adventure thriller than a horror film, but thanks to excellent special effects deserves to be ranked as the best of the giant insect films that followed Them!

 

1956

 

                US nuclear tests at Alpha Island result in fallout being blown across Australia. In the Spring, the results of the clinical study of pregnancy terminations occurring in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are published. Both incidents heighten radiation anxieties around the globe. In the United States, four movies reach audiences with a radioactive mutant monster theme: X the Unknown, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, The Phantom from 20,000 Leagues, and The Amazing Colossal Man.

 

1.             X the Unknown

 

In a muddy field in Scotland, two British soldiers are burnt by radiation when a small fissure opens in the field after an earthquake. Elliot (Edward Chapman), the administrator at an atomic research lab headed by his son Peter (William Lucas), sends scientist Royston (Dean Jagger) to investigate. When Royston arrives, the radiation is not present so he ropes off the apparently bottomless fissure setting sensors nearby. Later that night, two young boys looking for a hermit in an old abandoned tower wander near the fissure, find something slithering nearby, and make a hasty retreat. The next day Royston visits the hospital and finds that one of the boys suffers from severe radiation poisoning. When Royston finds his lab in ruins and an isotope container missing, Elliot sends an atomic energy inspector McGill (Leo McKern) to investigate. The container is eventually located at the tower as well as the hermit (who should have been dead in the time he has possessed it.) McGill and Royston arrive back at the hospital to find the boy dead from radiation poisoning. The boy's father confronts Royston, telling him his son's death is the fault of all scientists..."setting off bombs you can't control!"

 

Meanwhile the hospital’s radiologist melts before the nurse’s eyes in the presence of a radioactive presence. Royston and McGill come back to find a huge hole burned into the radiation lab's radium vault, the radium missing, and the air duct leading into the room with a slimy black substance on it. Royston reveals his theory to McGill, Elliot, and Peter. Royston believes that some primordial matter has developed life after millions of years of existence. This large mass of sentient, radioactive mud makes short work of the guards posted at the fissure. After Peter volunteers to go down the fissure in a sling to verify Royston's theory and spots some radioactive menace and returns quickly to the surface, the Army directs flamethrowers and bombs down into the fissure finally sealing the earthen crack with cement. 

 

Royston finally explains to McGill the purpose of his experiment with the isotope and the radar dishes: he is seeking a method to stabilize radioactive materials. In other words, he's trying to find a way to make nuclear bombs inoperative. Meantime, a crack develops in the cement covering the fissure, and a black substance oozes out. When a car wreck with the occupants of the vehicle melted is reported to the police, Royston quickly shuts down the lab's atomic pile and tries to evacuate the cobalt to a safer location. The mud, now bigger and faster, devours the fuel and returns to its fissure. The Army lures the mud monster out with an isotope mounted on a Jeep where the radar dishes zap it with the frequencies that Royston discovered in his experiments. The blob glows, pulsates, and disappears in a fiery puff of smoke.

X the Unknown has a nicely polished script by Jimmy Sangster based on the Quartermass stories. There is an atmosphere that these fantastic events are real indeed. Despite the monster not appearing until the final third of the picture, with smart dialogue and camerawork we don’t miss the radioactive creature. Considering the tiny budget Hammer had to work with, the mud creature effects are done extremely well. The few scenes with miniatures that reveal cheap special effects are mercifully brief. The British cast is solid and Leo McKern is especially convincing, as is Oscar winner Dean Jagger cast as a draw for American audiences. The film is one of the finer science fiction films to be released in 1956.

 

2.             Godzilla, King of the Monsters

 

                The re-release of King Kong in 1952 had several effects, most notably the film’s success at the box office influenced the production of both Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in the United States and Gojira completed in Japan in 1954 and released by Embassy Pictures in North America in 1956 under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters adding footage of an American reporter (Raymond Burr).[24] Another influence on the 1954 production was likely the “Lucky Dragon” incident that aroused national anger against nuclear testing.

 

                In the storyline, nuclear testing has revived a 400-foot dinosaur-like amphibious monster. As well, the atomic explosion has given the creature fiery radioactive breath. The apparently indestructible monster comes out of the sea and attacks Tokyo smashing the city and threatening much of Japan. Fortunately, a reclusive enigmatic scientist has invented an “oxygen destroyer” that he has kept from public view. The weapon is deployed in the sea near Godzilla, and the giant creature dissolves into nothingness.

 

                Chon A. Noriega sees Godzilla as symbolizing Japan and the movie directed at United States H-bomb testing.

 

Like Godzilla, identified as a four-hundred foot tall dinosaur marking a transition between sea and land creatures and aroused “after all these centuries” by Strontium-90 (a radioactive product of H-bomb explosions). Japan in 1954 is a transitional monster caught between the imperial past and the postwar industrial future, aroused by United States H-bomb tests.[25]

 

Noriega argues that opening scenes of “scorched flesh” and the destruction of Tokyo refer to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, while the scene of the Japanese ship engulfed by white light mushrooming up from beneath the water as alluding to the “Lucky Dragon” incident playing on the American sense of guilt. This guilt is projected onto the monster in Freudian fashion and when the monster is destroyed, “Godzilla’s death represses American guilt and anxieties about nuclear weapons: both history and Japan’s own filmic rendition are retextualized to erase the bomb and thereby relieve anxieties about the American occupation and H-bomb tests.”[26]

 

                Due to a tight shooting schedule and a small budget, director Inoshiro Honda decided not to use stop motion animation but rather an actor in a rubber suit. The destruction scenes are impressive with the dinosaur slowly lumbering through Tokyo destroying buildings rather than romping through the city kicking tiny props aside. The miniature sets are finely crafted. Director Honda increases the believability of the fantastically giant dinosaur by shooting most of the film with dark atmospheric lighting thereby adding to the gloom of the film. Especially effective are the scenes of the beast attacking Tokyo. While the acting is unremarkable the special effects helped establish this film as a favorite among the younger audiences and catapulted the monster into numerous sequels and probably one of the most popular monster menaces of all time.

3.             The Phantom from 20,000 Leagues

 

Oceanographer Ted Stevens (Kent Taylor) arrives at a California beach to investigate mysterious deaths caused by a sea phantom. The phantom is a mutated sea creature, which guards  the underwater deposit of uranium ore that gives off a deadly atomic light, the source of the creature’s mutation. Whenever a boat comes near the light, the creature kills them by bumping its spiny head on the bottom of the craft overturning it. Professor King is a scientist at the Pacific College of Oceanography responsible for the mutated creature. Whether he created the creature or simply allowed the beast to live off the radioactive light is indiscernible. Bill Grant (Rodney Bell), an investigator from the Department of Defense, passes himself off as Baxter, a tourist. A side plot involves King’s secretary (Vivi Janiss) carrying on a nefarious scheme while his assistant Thomas (Philip Pine) is working for the beautiful representative (Helene Stanton) of an unnamed Slavic power. Both end up squaring off against each other. When a ship passes over the underwater atomic light and inexplicably blows up (why hasn’t this happened before?), King decides to set up some dynamite to destroy the atomic light. The phantom resents this and grabs King holding him until the dynamite goes off killing King, the Phantom and covering up the atomic light.

 

The film ranks as one of the worst films of any genre produced in 1956. The title is misleading, as there is nothing spectral, ghost-like or grotesque about the creature. The phantom is of a uniform color with a man inside although it could be a large puppet anchored to the bottom.

 

It has eyes, a large hippo-like mouth, spines on its head and, as in the poster, a small, stiff tongue. There’s a fringe of gills and the mouth opens and closes. The arms wave around, and once feet can be seen. It clearly isn’t a mutation of anything; it’s just a sea monster.[27]

 

Furthermore, the distance of 20,000 leagues would put the monster not underwater but on the other side of the planet and well into outer space. The acting is incompetent and wooden as people enter rooms, speak their lines and then exit with little emotion. The storyline is talky, slow-paced and confusing with numerous plot holes and an unnecessary labyrinthine spy plot with an extraneous murder or two. Phantom is a movie that is quickly forgotten.

 

4.             The Amazing Colossal Man

 

                The film by the very sake of its title is an exploitative attempt to capitalize on the fame of The Incredible Shrinking Man, which had been released earlier in the year. The story centers on Colonel Glenn Manning (Glenn Langan)          who is caught in a plutonium blast while attempting to rescue the pilot of a downed private plane. Glenn survives the blast but has mutated to a bald, pudgy 15-foot giant growing at a rate of eight to ten feet a day. Glenn is whisked away to a secret government installation where he is visited by his fiancée Carol (Cathy Downs). He later mopes around a circus tent provided by the military moaning that he doesn’t want to grow anymore thereby testing the patience of the audience. Scientists soon discover that if he continues to grow his heart will lag behind his development and burst from exertion. Eventually his continued growth causes him to go crazy and he wanders off into the desert. Although his growth is halted through the injection of a drug using a large hypodermic needle, Glenn stomps through Las Vegas destroying buildings. After picking up his fiancée and being convinced by the military to put her back down, he is riddled with bullets and plunges to his death off the Hoover Dam in King-Kong  like fashion.

 

                The best part of the film is the acting as Langan, a former contract player for 20th Century-Fox, delivers his lines with conviction. The movie has good pace and the script has believable dialogue. In the plutonium blast scene, the photography and editing help to create the illusion that his flesh is being stripped from his body. The main problem with the film is with the special effects.

 

In every sequence in which Langan appears with normal-sized people, he’s a superimposed matte or on one side of a very rigid dividing line, separating him from the other half of the split screen. In the matte scenes, he’s always dim and pale, sometimes even transparent, so that instead of creating the illusion of a giant man, the poor effects actually work contrary to this intent, calling attention to themselves and destroying the illusion. When Langan appears by himself with tiny props, the effect is a little better, but often these scenes give themselves away as well – a tiny newspaper looks like nothing more than a tiny newspaper, certainly not a normal-sized newspaper held in giant hands.[28]

 

The giant hypodermic needle is laughable. Rather than an injection device that would be logical to use on a giant man, the needle is a giant needle complete with giant holes for giant fingers, even giant measurements on the barrel of the needle. While the flaws do outnumber the virtues and likely impress observers today as a pretty bad motion picture, the film (apparently shot in ten days) has enough merits to make the movie worth watching.

 

1957

  

By 1957, anxieties over atomic testing had reached a fever pitch not just in the United States but around the world. In the Summer, SANE the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, was formed. In June, 11,000 citizens from around the world, including 3,000 from the United States, sign a petition calling for the end of nuclear weapons testing. To alleviate the problem of radioactive fallout the United States conducts the first underground nuclear tests in Nevada on September 9th. On November 15th, SANE purchases a one-page advertisement in the New York Time demanding an end to all nuclear testing. Seven films were released during the year that featured giant mutant monsters, most with a radiation theme.

 

1.             Attack of the Crab Monsters

 

                Despite the silly title, Attack of the Crab Monsters is an intelligent science fiction movie. After a group of people arrives by plane on a small South Pacific island, the aircraft explodes as it attempts to depart stranding the new inhabitants. Unbeknownst to the group, two crabs have been made gigantic and intelligent by atomic radiation. The Eugelap H-Bomb tests nearby have spread fallout over the island causing the crabs to mutate. The crabs seek the destruction of the humans by using dynamite and super powers to shrink the island. Eventually, only three from the group are left, and one gives his life to kill the last giant crab, saving the other two who are in love.

 

                The film features a unique plot angle in that the crabs have the ability to assimilate into its body anything they have eaten. When the crabs eat the victim’s brains, they absorb the mind, intact and functioning. As a result, the crabs get smarter as the plot develops. Further, after the people die on the island, their voices remain with the crabs that use this to lure their victims towards them. One crab consists of the minds of the previous expedition and the other crab of those who have vanished since the start of the film and both work together as a team.

 

                While the acting is intelligent and skillfully delivered, some of the foreign accents appear strained. Although there are no special effects to support the idea that the crabs are sinking the island, effective camerawork makes the premise believable. There are some plot holes (how could the crabs have blown up the departing plane?) and the script seems to have been hastily written. There is vein of humor running through the story and there are a number of funny lines. Near the end of the film when the survivors have stopped or destroyed one of the crabs, they examine the photo of the other one and discover it is a female and about to lay eggs. The heroine Martha (Pamela Duncan) notes sardonically, “I for one would not care to hear the patter of so many tiny feet.” The crab monster models leave plenty to the imagination, have caricatures of human faces (I guess to mimic that they have minds of people), and have huge clumsy claws like a gigantic spider crab rather than the agile, short-legged claws of a land crab. The film is set mostly at night, sounds are effectively used, and there is a plenty of tension at the end of the film. Although very low-budget and plenty of failings, the film has enough merits to make it worth the viewer’s time.

 

2.             The Beginning of the End

   

                “Choosing giant grasshoppers as menaces is a decision so brainless, so lacking in any conception of the possible impact of seeing great big grasshoppers trying to look menacing, that only someone like Bert I . Gordon would have followed through on it.”[29] Bert Gordon was born on September 24, 1922, in Kenosha, Wisconsin and educated at the University of Wisconsin. While a former producer of television commercials and a production supervisor on the television series “Racket Squad,” he is best known for his low-budget fantasy films involving very cheap special effects. Many of his films featured giants, many of them mutated through radiation or other environmental disaster. His giant films include: King Dinosaur (1955), Beginning of the End (also screenplay) (1957), Cyclops (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), War of the Colossal Beast (also story) (1958), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), The Spider [aka Earth vs. the Spider] (1958), Village of the Giants (also story) (1965), The Food of the Gods (also screenplay) (1976), and Empire of the Ants (also adaptation) (1977).[30]

 

                The story begins with Audrey (Peggie Castle), a photojournalist, discovering a town that has been inexplicably destroyed and everyone missing. She later meets Ed (Peter Graves), the head of a Department of Agriculture experimental station, who has used radiation to develop colossal fruits, vegetables and plants to help find a cure for world hunger. Unfortunately, some grasshoppers have eaten the produce and are as large as buses. The grasshoppers eventually make their way to Chicago where they eat people and climb all over skyscrapers. The situation has become so hopeless that the government has decided to drop a bomb on Chicago but Graves comes up with a plan. He records the grasshopper mating call, takes the boat into the middle of Lake Michigan, and plays the recording loudly attracting the grasshoppers where they jump in and drown.

 

                The grasshoppers in the film are real and incompetently enlarged by “trick photography” and added to the shots of the actors by using overexposed mattes, or projected onto process screens. In one shot, Gordon sprinkled grasshoppers onto a photograph or postcard of the Wrigley Building photographing it so the image would appear vertical. One major problem: Gordon failed to remove the shots of the grasshoppers crawling off the photo of the building and onto the photo of the sky. While Peter Graves is able to read his lines with conviction, Castle is inept as the photojournalist, and Morris Ankrum runs around looking confused as the military man wanting to nuke the Windy City. The picture is silly, the plot illogical, the effects atrocious, and the writing juvenile. No wonder this film was one of the favorites parodied by the hit television series Mystery Science Theater 3000.

 

3.             The Black Scorpion

 

                The storyline for the film begins with an American geologist Hank (Richard Denning) investigating volcanic eruptions in Mexico that have freed gigantic scorpions from the caverns beneath the volcano (finally a plot with no radiation) who come out at night and feed on people. After Hank and another man lower themselves into the caves to investigate, they encounter dozens of the creatures, witness a fight between two scorpions and a giant worm, and rescue a little boy about to be eaten by a huge trapdoor spider before escaping the cavern and dynamiting the entrance sealing off the scorpions. The scorpions however are able to reach the surface and attack a train. The biggest scorpion kills the other smaller scorpions and eats some of the passengers. The giant scorpion reaches Mexico City, sends the populace into a panic, and is lured to a large bullring. With a helicopter overhead distracting the monster, the scorpion is shot in the throat with a large electrical stinger in much the same manner as scorpions kill other scorpions, and the scorpion is electrocuted.

 

                The film has many drawbacks. The live action scenes are uninteresting, the lead hero (Richard Denning) has a cold face and sinister looking eyes, and the dialogue lacks the semi-naturalism of the film Them! The real stars of the film are the special effects team of Willis O’Brien (responsible for the work on King Kong), and his assistant Peter Peterson. The stop-motion animation is magnificent with the movements of the scorpion made intentionally fast to approximate reality. The artificial cavern sequence where O’Brien’s superb chiaroscuro work in setting the battling creatures scuttling about with their tails and stingers held high in a labyrinthine, shadowy and menacing claustrophobic underground world is very effective. While the film is slow-paced, trite and predictable, the scorpions are so realistic and well animated by O’Brien and Peterson, that overall the picture remains a satisfying whole and one of the better big-bug films.

 

4.             The Deadly Mantis

 

                Despite the intelligent use of a praying mantis, one of the most voracious and deadly critters in the insect world, the film falls victim to an unimaginative storyline while the plot takes far too long to get underway. A volcanic explosion in the South Seas causes an iceberg inside the Arctic Circle to turn over. Embedded in the underside of the berg is a gigantic praying mantis that is released. The creature attacks and Arctic radar station, and Eskimo village and a plane in flight. Colonel Joe Parkham (Craig Stevens) investigates these mysterious events. Dr. Ned Jackson (William Hopper), a Washington, D.C. paleontologist, and his assistant Marge Blaine (Alix Talton) identify the creature and join Parkham in the quest for the bug’s destruction. The mantis heads south, destroys some trains and buses, buzzes Washington, D.C., then hides out in the Manhattan Tunnel after being harassed by planes. In the tunnel the mantis is trapped so Parkham, Jackson, and the military finish the job by gassing the critter to death.

 

                The Deadly Mantis is so perfunctory and without surprises that it seems that the director Nathan Juran slept through the production. Stevens acting is so lethargic that he almost disappears at times. The mantis is too large and clumsy to be believable and none of the distinctive features of the creature are used such as its deadly method of hunting. “Instead of slowly and carefully stalking its prey, pouncing at the last minute, which would have been exciting if the mantis had been smaller and the setting different, the mantis zooms in out of the skies, roars at its prey, and then grabs those few who haven’t skedaddled the moment they heard it buzzing in the sky.”[31] Despite the large budget of a major studio, the model work is atrocious and the creature moves so slow that you wonder why its victims had not escaped. The script abounds in either dull or laughable lines, logic is ignored in the plot, and the film is structured like a mystery although the title tells us that the monster is a praying mantis. The end result is that the film is one of the worst science fiction films made by Universal-International.

 

                Richard A. Schwartz asks the question: “embedded within the outer-space invasion and atomic mutant films lies a question of authority: Who is the best equipped to deal with the alien threat: scientists and intellectuals or the government and the military?”[32] While Schwartz never answers his question, the answer lies in how scientists and the military are portrayed in the monster mutant movies, and this depends upon whether the film was produced by a major studio, or an independent company.

 

Generally, the theme is that the science and the military can contain any monstrosity that might be inadvertently unleashed. However there is a crucial difference between how these two institutions are portrayed by the major studios and independents. At the major studios, quick-thinking military men of action are valued more than men of science. Possibly this has to do with the fact that the major studios frequently received the help and cooperation of the Department of Defense. Independent producers almost always never received loans of soldiers and equipment from the military. Military involvement in the production of Universal-International’s The Deadly Mantis is evident at the very beginning of the film where we are treated to twenty minutes of stock air force footage. In The Deadly Mantis, as well as in films such Tarantula, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Them!, all major studio releases, it is the military that arrives to save the day and dispatch the nasty creature. Soldiers are presented as heroes who act by the book and don’t question their orders. In their support of the military, the majors tended to criticize big science. In Tarantula, it is the crazy professors who have been breeding guinea pigs as big as donkeys.

 

Support of the military by the major studios also entailed backing of the testing of atomic weapons. Although the majors never excluded the atomic angle, they most certainly downplayed the issue. The big bang almost always happened off-screen before the action. In It Came From Beneath the Sea, Tobey reprimands a hesitant commander with “you’re not afraid of a little radiation, are ya?” Only in The Beast From 20,00 Fathoms do we get to see the test, but this film was independently produced before being released by a major studio. Conversely, the independents played up the atomic angle with strong language and visuals. Glenn Langan in The Amazing Colossal Man has all his skin and bodily hair burned off by a plutonium bomb. The independent companies also were less afraid to make allegations as to who was at fault. The fault is clearly with the military establishment. Attack of the Crab Monsters has atomic scientists visiting an island to assess the effects of fallout from H-bomb tests on the flora and fauna trying to solve the problem, while the military are out blowing things up. The military characters get killed early in the film leaving the multi-national scientists to devise a strategy to destroy the mutant crustaceans.

 

                 The major studios were also unwilling to portray their atomic creatures in anything except as simple plain atomic mutations. The creations found in Tarantula, The Deadly Mantis, and Them! are mindless destructive machines. In contrast, the independents portrayed their mutants as intelligent creatures. The Crab Monsters absorb the contents of the brains they eat and grow more intelligent. The Colossal Man rants endlessly about his personal problems. These are beings more fit to survive a radiation-polluted environment 

 

While the movie at first appearance does not have a nuclear storyline as the insect in The Deadly Mantis is not awakened by the bomb but an erupting volcano, nevertheless the creature “is a symbol for the Bomb all right, only the Bomb it symbolizes belongs to Someone else.”[33]

 

               

5.             The Giant Claw

 

                A scientist (Jeff Morrow) spots a giant prehistoric/extraterrestrial bird but has difficulty convincing people that the creature exists (sounds familiar?). When it attacks and flies off with a train, authorities warn everyone all over the world to stay indoors. A gang of juvenile delinquents defies the order and they become the bird’s next meal. The creature is invisible because it has an anti-matter shield making it resistant to conventional weaponry. The big bird is visiting earth to lay an egg and is angered when Morrow shoots holes in the Claw’s egg. Morrow eventually develops a method to kill the beast by using mu-mesons to counteract the creature’s ability to convert energy into matter by adjusting the polarity on the atom condenser terminals allowing the mu-mesons to penetrate the giant bird’s anti-matter shield. In effect Morrow is able to reverse the polarity creating a suicidal short circuit. The weapon works, the bird’s shield is destroyed and the creature is shot down.

 

                The film features a number of very talented actors (Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Robert Shayne) and until the creature appears we have the usual mysterious legend attached to a fantastic being including strange disappearances and odd clues. Unfortunately, the Giant Claw, rather than being a menacing vulture or swooping eagle, is a comical creation.

 

The bird has a round, heavy body and disproportionate feet (the giant claws), with turkey tail feathers on its wings. The long gangly neck is ribbed like an accordion, and the giant beak has snaggly teeth. The starring, glassy eyes express a comically over-stressed malevolence, and the head has a topping of tiny feathers. In short, the Giant Claw looks nothing so much as Beaky Buzzard. One almost expects to hear it singing, “I’m Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee.”[34]

 

The bird is not only funny looking, but it is clumsy in motion. According to reliable sources in an attempt to save costs (Harryhausen and O’Brien were likely too expensive) the effects were farmed out to a company in Mexico and the effects do not belie the investment. The wings of the creature barely move, and the bird does not bank left or right when turning. When the bird attacks the United Nations building, the head simply bobs up and down like a woodpecker, and the bird is constantly shrieking, all of which leaves even the strongest of audience members on the floor in helpless laughter.

 

6.             The Monster That Challenged the World

 

                An underwater earthquake at the Salton Sea has released the eggs of a prehistoric sea snail from dormancy. The newly hatched creatures invade the naval installations around the Sea and attacking people along the All American Canal, sucking the fluids from the bodies of their victims. The creatures are eventually tracked down and destroyed by dynamite. The film is made with a semi-documentary approach with a fair deal of suspense. Radioactivity enters the story as the means by which the eggs are initially hatched. The last scene of the hero (Tim Holt) rescuing his love interest (Audrey Dalton) and her daughter (Mimi Gibson) trapped by an accidentally hatched snail that has cornered them in a laboratory is very suspenseful. There are also several eerie scenes of the snails in the canal.

 

                Film critic Stephens views the film as a comment on the agoraphobic side of horror “where spaces are so vast that people are exposed and have no place to hide.”[35] To Stephens, the film fueled the fears of a post-holocaust world where there was no place to hide from atmospheric radiation. With regards to the production values of the film, the monsters, giant, man-eating mollusks, are very well crafted. While likely no deadlier than a shark, they are believably dangerous and although vulnerable to conventional weapons are difficult to kill. Imitating Them! signs of the creature are left behind (slime from the sea snail). The monsters were built and activated by Augie Lohman, and instead of using miniatures, stop-motion animation, or real snails, Lohman built an impressive 11-foot tall mollusk that although activated by hydraulics is still impressively life-like as legs squirm and pinchers clash. The model would have to be one of the most effective low-budget full-sized models built for a 1950s science fiction film. While the cast is inconsistent in its performances and Tim Holt tries too hard (especially to hide his weight problem), the film is a respectable low-budget thriller.

 

7.             Rodan

 

                In a reworking of the Godzilla storyline, H-Bomb testing has released a few gigantic insect larvae in a mine terrorizing the miners. Our hero Shigero (Kenji Sawara) follows the creatures into their lair and witnesses the hatching, an event so traumatic his mind erases the experience from his memory. The baby becomes full-grown after eating the larvae, and becomes a monstrous flying reptile that is so huge that when it flaps its wings it creates hurricane force winds. Rodan, flying at supersonic speeds and leaving vapor trail in its wake, wrecks a little havoc on cities when another Rodan shows up. The monsters are followed to a cave on Mount Aso where the authorities drive them out with artillery and rocket bombardment. The volcano conveniently erupts trapping one of the creatures while the other is destroyed attempting to rescue its companion.

 

                Rodan is not as effective as Godzilla because of the use of vivid color to replace gloomy black-and-white photography. While Godzilla is a horror show, Rodan appears more like a showpiece for Tsuburaya’s outstanding miniature works. The two birds simply fly around looking foolish and ornery. The most effective scene has Rodan devouring the larvae. Although not dull in any sense of the word and while the special effects are convincing, the film never really rises above the level of the “monster-on-the-loose” theme.

 

ERA OF ALLEVIATION: 1958-1962

 

                After 1957, radiation does not play a significant factor in science fiction films. While radiation is used in some films to add scientific credibility to the storyline, from 1958 onward there are few monsters that are created or powered by radiation. By the late 1950s, the effects of radiation on human life was no longer a mystery and with that loss of mystery came an alleviation of some of the fears surrounding that invisible atomic force. Replacing the fear was hope for a future where nuclear power could be used for the benefit of mankind. 

 

1958

 

                While fears of radiation among the general populace were being dissipated, many were turning their fear into anger as they took to the streets to campaign against nuclear weapons and atomic testing. The biggest nuclear related event during the year was probably the first meeting in London of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Six movies featured mutant monsters, radiated or otherwise, nearly as many as would be released over the next four years.

 

1.                  The Crawling Eye

 

The story begins with one of three mountain climbers suffering a mysterious accident that causes the loss of his head. Sarah and Anne Pilgrim (Jennifer Jayne and Janet Munro), a psychic sister act traveling on a train, are drawn by a strange compulsion to stop at Trollenberg, an alpine peak. Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker), also traveling on the train, visits the alpine peak resort to meet with Professor Crevett (Warren Mitchell), head of an observatory and an old colleague of Brooks. Crevett points out to Brooks a mysterious stationary radioactive cloud near Trollenberg. When Anne (who has ESP) and Sarah are performing their act in the hotel, Anne suddenly goes into a trance and has a vision that a geologist and his guide, who had earlier ascended the Trollenberg, are in trouble. Alan and the others head up the mountain to find that the geologist is headless and guide missing. The guide ends up killing one from the search party, returns to the hotel feeling strange, attempts to kill Anne, and after being locked up escapes, is subdued again, and then dissolves into a skeleton.

 

Realizing that the human proxy did not accomplish their plan of conquest, the aliens descend in a cloud towards the resort village. Brooks alerts the villagers who hurry up to the observatory in a cable car. When a small child goes missing Alan rushes back to rescue the child in the hotel lobby before she is grabbed by one of the monsters, a large octopus-like creature with slender tentacles and a huge head resembling a cantaloupe with a single very active and realistic eye directly in the front. Alan is the last trip in the cable car, and barely makes it to the observatory after the aliens had blown icy fog into the shed housing the winch frosting it over. At the observatory, the hotel bartender begins complaining of the heat and is apparently under alien influence. He attempts to kill Anne but is unsuccessful. When the aliens crawl up to the observatory and lay siege to the building, Alan realizes that the aliens like cold and therefore must be susceptible to heat. A squadron of fighters is called that drop incendiary bombs on the aliens still attacking the insulated observatory destroying the creatures. 

 

In The Crawling Eye, good direction and solid acting are dragged down by an illogical storyline. There are too many questions left unanswered and the illogical pieces and fantastical elements are not integrated into a sensible whole. Why is Brooks’ mission mysterious? Why are the psychics in contact with the alien monsters? How do these aliens know who the psychics are? What threat do these psychics pose for the alien monsters? Why do they decapitate human beings? Why pick Trollenberg rather than a more populous alpine resort? What causes Brett to turn into a skeleton? Why do the aliens like to hover around a radioactive cloud? In short, what is going on here? Furthermore, there appears to be no reason to have two heroes (Tucker and Payne).

 

The dialogue and visual elements integrate well. The photography creates a good atmosphere of doom and menace around the mysterious clouds. Brooks’ last second escape in the cable car is especially suspenseful.  While Tucker seems to play his role in a nervous troubled state, the acting by Janet Munro is outstanding as she convincingly plays a confused and frightened individual with believable psychic powers. The special effects hastily shot by Les Bowie (who did most of the masterful effects for the Hammer films) are inventive but the demands of the script were far beyond the film’s budget. The result is that a few scenes are not up to Bowie’s standards, and the creation of a creature with an unbelievable design. The creatures crawl without legs, shriek madly without mouths and wave their thin tentacles around producing an unintended comical effect. The movie would have been better served keeping the creatures off screen altogether. Considerable imagination was put into the production but the haste of the production, an illogical storyline, and the comical monsters severely damage what could have been a superior low- budget film.

 

2.                  Earth vs. the Spider (aka The Spider)

 

When Carol (June Kenny) discovers her father is missing, she and her boyfriend Mike (Gene Persson) go searching for him in a large cave, run into a huge spider (and its large web), and make a hasty retreat while the spider screams in frustration. After the kids alert the authorities, a group including the two kids, their science teacher Kingman (Ed Kemmer), a sheriff and his deputies, and a pest control man search the cave. The spider ends up killing one of the deputies after the sheriff’s men become entangled in the web. The spider is sprayed with DDT and collapses. Kingman gets the brilliant idea to take the spider into town and put it on display in the high school gymnasium. When a school dance is held, the vibrations from the rock ‘n roll music awaken the spider. The school kids flee but the spider kills the janitor. Kingman rushes back home and rams his car into the spider to save his wife and baby from the creature. The spider heads back to the cave where Mike and Carol are in the cave looking for a lost locket. Kingman and others dynamite the cave entrance shut but after realizing they have trapped the kids blast a hole out of the top. The kids just manage to make it out as they send a jolt of electricity through the spider (Mike holding one electrode and Kingman the other). The spider falls to the floor of the cave impaled on several stalagmites.

 

While the film has an uncluttered, direct plot, the story is not structured around the main star, the spider, which everyone seems to think is simply a menace and not a monster. Scenes are flat and dull and there is no flow of the action from scene to scene. The settings are boring; there is plenty of unrealistic teenage talk; the spider’s size varies drastically from scene to scene; and there are many unresolved questions surrounding the arachnid (Where did it come from? What has it been eating all along? Why hasn’t someone seen it before?). The spider also screams like a big age making the creature sound silly. The special effects (one giant slender spider leg and some back projected spiders) are also below par even for a low-budget film.

 

For exterior scenes involving the (real) spider, it forever either appears from or vanishes behind a building, and the matte line is heavy and obvious. Sometimes the spider appears in the foreground in what is called a “burn-in” matte (basically a superimposition with an especially dense image to be supered). At those times, the lighter-colored parts of the spider, such as its leg joints, become transparent.[36]

 

While silly and shoddy, the film is one of the better Bert I. Gordon’s efforts.

 

3.             The Fly

 

                The Fly was an elaborate, fairly expensive production ($325,000) that was extremely popular in 1958. The story begins with the discovery that Hélène Delambre (Patricia Owens) has murdered her brilliant scientist husband André (Al Hedison) by crushing him in a metal press at a factory owned by André and his brother François (Vincent Price). She refuses to tell François or Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) why she did it, feigns insanity, and becomes upset when a fly buzzes through the room. François learns that she is especially interested in a certain fly with a white head and leg. She assumes he knows the awful truth so she tells (in flashback) the whole story to François and Charas. André tells his wife that he is working on a matter transmitter, a machine capable of transmitting matter from one chamber to another chamber although he has had a few setbacks with an ashtray and a cat.

 

Later, when Hélène tries to enter his lab, André passes her a note under the door asking her to look for a certain fly with a peculiar leg and foreleg. If she can’t find the fly he will kill himself. A frantic search of the house does not locate the fly so she asks him to retransmit himself again. She is frightened to discover that her husband has a head of a gigantic housefly, as well as the foreleg. He admits that a fly was in the chamber with him and their atoms became scrambled trading their heads and left arms. André feels like his mind is becoming more like a fly so he convinces his wife to crush his fly parts so that the insect nature will be undetectable. She goes through with the plan. After the flashback, François reluctantly reveals that he has never seen the fly and Hélène is about to be hauled off to the loony bin when François discovers the fly (with André’s head and arm) trapped in a web. He shows the fly to Charas as they watch in horror as a spider descends upon the insect that screams, “Help Me.”

 

The plot is riddled with improbabilities and little scientific logic. For example, the machine is a matter transmitter and yet can perform surgical implants. However, some of these inconsistencies can be rationalized by using the same logic as the story. The shot of the fly trapped in the web screaming with high-pitched shrieks with François lounging nearby drags on far too long. If the audience can hear the insect, why can’t François? Neumann’s directorial efforts fail to help us really sympathize with Hélène and André although both characters are clearly in love. The acting is adequate although Herbert Marshall almost sleepwalks through his scenes and Vincent Price is miscast by not being suited for the quiet, troubled man role and is incapable of registering sorrow.

 

As for the movie’s merits, the buildup to the unmasking of the fly’s head is very effective as is the recovery of André’s body from the press. The few special effects are done well as is the fly-head mask. The photographer’s low-key lighting in the fly-man scenes creates an eerie mood. The end shots of the screaming fly trapped in the web as the spider closes in are wonderfully surrealistic but at the same time comical. In the end, while the movie does not work on scientific logic, it does succeed in working on emotional logic, and because it is fast paced, approached the material with sensitivity and seriousness, and has some truly frighteningly effective scenes, the film is a very memorable and enjoyable production.

 

4.             Monster from Green Hell

 

                Scientists Brady (Jim Davis) and Morgan (Robert E. Griffin) blast a test rocket into the heavens. Aboard the rocket are monkeys, wasps, spider crabs, and a guinea pig. Unfortunately the rocket goes astray and crashes in a remote section of an African jungle called Green Hell. Brady and Morgan head off to Africa and after a difficult journey into the jungle arrive at the camp of Dr. Lorentz, an eminent scientist and humanitarian. After finding him dead, likely killed by big wasps, together with Lorentz’s daughter Lorna (Barbara Turner) and their native guide Mahri (Eduardo Ciannelli), they trek further into the jungle and encounter the wasps, take refuge in a cave but accidentally seal themselves in. After another arduous trek through the caverns they reach the surface to see a volcano erupt and bury the wasps.

 

                The Monster from Green Hell is yet another disappointing offspring from Them! While cosmic radiation is the reported cause for the growth of the wasps, there is no explanation given why the other animals subjected to the radiation were not large as well. The monster special effects are ultra-cheap. Either they used a huge head of one of the monsters, which occasionally pokes out of the bush while a claw grabs a hapless native (the head and claw appear unrelated), or they brought the monsters to life with stop-motion animation using crude puppets (having no armatures) stuck together with pins. Another problem is the size of the wasps, which constantly change from scene to scene varying in size from the size of a bull to the size of a giraffe. Lack of imagination in filming the wasp scenes completely destroys any believability, especially considering the wasps don’t fly. Having used stock jungle footage from Stanley and Livingstone (1939), the producers were forced to use archaic costumes. The battle with the snake is brief and fails to elicit any tension. The actors look bored, except for good performances from Sokoloff and Ciannelli, but there is no romance between Davis and Turner. The dialogue is flat and talky and the script riddled with clichés. On a positive note, Albert Glasser’s title music has a good African rhythm. Overall Monster from Green Hell is a boring, insignificant film with very little to recommend.

 

5.             Terror from the Year 5,000

 

                After materializing a strange statue in their Florida laboratory, Professor Howard Erling (Frederic Downs) and his assistant Victor (John Stratton) send the object to New York archaeologist Robert Hedges (Ward Costello). Hedges’ carbon-14 dating reveals the radioactive statue came from 3,000 years in the future. Hedges’ travels to New York to meet Erling where he discovers that the professor’s daughter Clair (Joyce Holden), engaged to Victor, had sent the statue. Robert also learns from Clair that the mysterious machine in the laboratory is a time machine used to barter and trade with those from the future. Meanwhile, Victor dumps a suitcase into the swamps, goes back to the lab and operates the time machine himself and receives radiation burns from an arm reaching out of the machine. He later tries to kill Hedges fearing he will rob him of his fiancée.

 

After escaping from the hospital where he was treated for burns, Victor uses the machine to get a living woman from the future where she proceeds to pounce on him. Hedges recovers the suitcase from the swamp containing a dead, mutated four-eyed cat. The Future Woman kills a nurse and steals the face of the dead nurse to replace her radiated face. She takes the role of the nurse, hypnotizes Victor by waving her glittering fingernails, and tells him that by the year 5,000, because of atomic radiation every fifth child was born a mutant like herself and sent to isolated colonies.  She plans to take Victor to the year 5,000 because he has undamaged genes. She takes Victor back to the laboratory to go back to the future. Hedges and Erling discover the real nurse’s dead body, race back to the laboratory, and a brief fight ensues causing the time machine to short circuit, and Victor and the Future Woman to die.

 

                Plot holes aside (Why doesn’t the Future Woman grab Victor the moment she pops out of the time machine and flee back to the future with him?), the storyline is occasionally imaginative, and sometimes exotic (the gimmick of the glittering fingernails). Although the script tends to wander it does not become confusing. The radiation angle is strong focusing on gene mutation passed down through generations. The photography maintains a crisp, clean look with the odd imaginative angle, and the sets, especially that of the laboratory, are well designed. Despite the problems, Terror from the Year 5,000 has an imaginative storyline and some clever gimmicks that make it worth viewing.

 

6.             War of the Colossal Beast

 

                A sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), when a truck vanishes in Mexico, Joyce Manning (Sally Fraser) is convinced that her brother Glenn has survived his fall off Hoover Dam and is snatching food from passing trucks. Joyce and Major Baird (Roger Pace) travel to Mexico where the truck disappeared and find the tracks of a giant man. Baird and Joyce locate Glenn hiding out in the mountains. He is horribly scarred with one eye missing and the lips on one side of his face turned into teeth. After they drug a truckload of bread and he eats the cargo and passes out, they return him to Los Angeles.

 

                At this point in the plot, Bert I. Gordon brings up the issue of who is responsible for Glenn’s radioactive injuries as bickering begins between government departments (Pentagon, Congress, the Department of Medical Research, and the Department of health and Welfare). Glenn is tied to a huge pallet in an airport hangar, has flashbacks as to how it all started, escapes, and is recaptured and returned to the hangar. With plans to ship poor Glenn to an uninhabited island, Glenn escapes again, attacks a busload of kids in Griffith Park, is convinced by Joyce to put the bus down, and then commits suicide by electrocuting himself by grabbing some power lines and vanishes altogether.

 

                In Colossal Beast, all sense of realism with regards to the size of Glenn is lost. While in the opening shot he seems larger than 60 feet, the shot of him in Griffith Park has him reaching for Joyce from behind the observatory, a distance of over 200 feet. The script is bland with few surprises. The Colossal Man is off the screen for most of the picture and when he is onscreen he is either standing in one place or tied up. The special effects are horrendous because of Gordon’s cheap method of filming Glenn on black backdrops then combining this footage to people reacting to an appalling sight. The end result is a giant man looking pale, washed-out, even in some scenes almost transparent. Having Glenn drift from the Hoover Dam (where he fell in the previous film) to Mexico is ludicrous considering someone would have noticed a huge disfigured man drifting down the river, even if he didn’t get stuck behind numerous dams along the way. One saving grace is the makeup by Jack H. Young. Nevertheless the plot has no story, there is no love interest between Joyce and Baird, Roger Pace’s military character is uninteresting, there is no empathy created for Glenn’s condition, and the film uses plenty of footage from the previous film. Low-grade production values, an uninteresting story, and bad acting make Colossal Beast a colossal waste of time.

 

1959

 

                The last year of the 1950s brought a few radioactive scares into the homes of America. First, two nuclear accidents occur: a US C-124 crashes in Louisiana where its nuclear payload is incinerated, then a B-52 bomber carrying two hydrogen bombs collides with a refueling tanker. On April 5th, the United States Naval Research lab reports a 300-percent increase in atmospheric radioactivity in the eastern United States after Soviet nuclear tests in September and October of 1958. Deadly strontium-90 begins to show up in milk while the Saturday Evening Post ran a feature called “Fallout: The Silent Killer.” Scientists and physicians warn of the health hazards of fallout including leukemia, bone cancer and long-term genetic damage. In the literary world, Richard Fosters’s The Rest Must Die (1959) is published highlighting the issue of law and order after the bomb is dropped. Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) argues that nuclear war is an unavoidable destructive phase of historical cycles that is doomed to occur once again. In Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959) inhabitants of a huge seven-level underground shelter die, level by level, as the radiation from a nuclear war penetrates deeper into the shelter. Meanwhile, three mutant monster films are released generating little interest from the movie-going public.

 

1.             The Giant Behemoth

 

                Steve Karnes (Gene Evans), an American marine biologist giving a lecture on the dangers of radioactive waste in London, England, meets Professor James Bickford (Andre Morelli), a concerned nuclear physicist. In countering the arguments of another scientist that the radiation atomic fallout per person is less than that produced by a radium-dial watch, Steve responds that this radioactivity is concentrated in greater and greater amounts higher up the food chain, and soon something in the sea will become powerfully radioactive and mutated. Soon radioactive fish start washing ashore and when a Cornwall fisherman dies from radioactive burns, Steve and James visit the seaside town.

 

After a ship is beached with passengers and crew suffering from radiation poisoning, the monster comes ashore and attacks a farm by beaming radiation at the farmer and his dog. After Steve and Bickford examine photos from the site, one of a large footprint, they take the prints to a paleontologist, Dr. Sampson (Jack MacGowran) who tells them that the beast is a paleosaurus, a gigantic carnivorous prehistoric animal that is likely dying from its own radiation and will be heading to the Thames in London to die in fresh water. The beast moves towards the capital city, eludes a net of early warning systems, sinks a ferryboat, and kills Dr. Sampson. The creature thunders into London knocking over power lines, causes gasoline tanks to explode, chases people, shoots off its radioactive electricity, and then returns to the Thames. In the river, Steve and his submarine crew fire a radioactive torpedo into the beast killing the monster.

 

                Master special effects technicians Willis O’Brien and Pete Peterson were sub-contracted to do the special effects for the film. However, due to budget and severe time constraints, the special effects were not up to their usual standards. Some of the effects were filmed without miniature sets using cheaper superimposition procedures instead, and many of the already filmed scenes were used again instead of shooting more scenes of destruction. Certain scenes such as the sinking of the ferry had to be shot in one day using an immobile model head of the creature rather than a wire-controlled model head of the creature that had broke earlier in the production. While the hastily created Behemoth lacks any real distinction, occasionally the monster looks awe-inspiring and menacing. While the plot is predictable, the crowd scenes look cramped, and the animation rushed, good moody low-key photography, and intelligent performances by Evans and Morell make the film a viewing pleasure.

 

2.             The Giant Gila Monster

 

                Two teenagers in a car are attacked by a large beast and go missing prompting a search by the Sheriff and all-around nice guy Chace Winstead (Don Sullivan), a songwriter and head of a peace-loving local hot-rod gang. Chace’s father is dead and he is the sole support of his mother and crippled little sister. Chace helps stranded Steamroller Smith (Ken Knox), who while drunk saw a giant Gila monster. When Smith recovers from his intoxicated state, he hears Chace singing one of his songs, tells him he is a disc jockey, and gives him his business card. Chace’s girlfriend Lisa (Lisa Simone) is as sweet and innocent as Chace: she helps buy Missy (Janice Stone), Chace’s little sister, some new leg braces. More people are killed by the Gila monster (including Chace’s employer), the monster derails a train, and finally its presence is made known to the others. The monster comes snooping around a barn dance with Chace singing his insipid songs, knocks a hole in the side of the building, and scares the inhabitants of the party. The Gila monster wanders out onto the field, and bears down on Chace’s little sister (who for some inexplicable reason is out in the field by herself). Chace loads his hot rod with nitroglycerine he had been conveniently storing in a shed and drives the vehicle at full speed at the lizard before jumping out at the last moment sending the vehicle crashing into the monster where it goes up in flames.  

 

                The Giant Gila Monster gave rock n’ roll a positive place in American culture. One of the underlying messages of the movie is that “authority figures should learn to stop suspecting monstrous acts among teenagers and should look for the real threats in their society.”[37] The movie was budgeted for $300,000 but was completed for less than half that amount, and the special effects suffer. The only special effects are some good miniature sets with the monster creeping around some canyons and gullies along with some close-up shots intended to make the lizard look gigantic. With no rear projections, matte shots, or split screens, the monster never appears in the same shot with the human characters making the lizard a very remote menace. The only man-made objects the lizard comes in contact with are a miniature highway, railroad trestle, barn and toy hot rod, but these occurrences are not enough to create an illusion that a gigantic Gila monster is on the loose. The reason that a Gila monster has grown to gigantic proportions is never explained. The size of the creature varies from scene to scene appearing much smaller under the railroad trestle when compared to it near the barn. The script is poorly written with lengthy stretches of unnecessary talking. The characters are stereotypical (conceited rich man, somber sheriff, righteous hero), and the songs by Sullivan are sickly sweetening and boring. The photography by Wilfrid M. Cline is one of the best features of the film adding a bleak, yet natural realism to the monster scenes. Nevertheless, unimaginative special effects and a sappy plot sink the film.

 

3.             Gigantis the Fire Monster

 

                With the original Godzilla destroyed in Godzilla, King of the Monsters, for some unexplained reason another Godzilla shows up. The movie begins with some atomic explosions and missile launches while a voice-over warns that this technology is opening the heavens to humankind but the Earth harbors more sinister secrets. Pilots Shoichi Tsukoka (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Koji Kobayashi (Minoru Chiaki) land their planes on desolate Iwato Island and are stunned to see a battle between two giant dinosaurs. They quickly contact the authorities that identify the dinosaurs as Angurus, an “angilasaurus” (possibly an ankylosaurus), and Gigantis (Godzilla), both come alive after hibernation due to radioactive fallout. According to Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) the monsters were born out of fire, breathed fire, and went underground to hibernate. The monsters are also attracted and infuriated by light. Unfortunately the inventor of the oxygen destroyer (which killed Godzilla in the first picture) has died and the secret of his invention went with him.

 

To avoid attracting the monsters to the city, Osaka is put under blackout conditions but when a truck crashes into an oil refinery setting the structure on fire, Gigantis and Agurus spot the fire and head for the city. The monsters do battle in Osaka, break open a subway sending a flood of water pouring in, and topple Osaka Castle. Finally Gojira kills Angurus by biting him in the neck then sprays his atomic breath on him. Later Shoichi and Kobayashi spot Gigantis in a deep canyon on an icy island. Kobayashi dives his plane towards Gigantis who fries it with his fiery breath. The plane crashes into a cliff above the beast sending a cascade of ice down into the canyon. His friend’s death gives Shoichi the method to kill the beast: bury him alive in an avalanche of ice and rock. After failing to bury the monster on their first attempt, Shoichi and his fellow pilots eventually are able to bombard the mountain with enough firepower to bury the monster with an avalanche of ice.

 

Gigantis the Fire Monster fails to match the production standards of the original. Vast amount of stock footage, heavily reused sets for the live-action scenes, and few shots of the monsters make the film look cheap. Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya did a wonderful job on a low budget under severe time constraints. Both the subway scene where fleeing crowds are overwhelmed by a flood of water, and the closing scene with Gojira in a realistic miniature set being attacked by fighter planes are visually impressive and handsomely photographed. While the earlier fight scenes in Osaka are filmed attractively with clouds of dust and a city of flames in the background, the scenes were shot at normal (or a faster speed) with the results looking nothing more than what they are: two men in monster suits fighting in an elaborate miniature city. Outside of the scenes of monster mayhem, the photography is uninteresting. There is also a confusing romantic-triangle subplot that distracts from the storyline, the human relationships appear contrived, and the acting is dull (although this could be a dubbing problem). Although far below Toho’s standards, the film is entertaining enough to sit through.

 

1960

 

                The first year of the new decade saw France test its first nuclear bomb in the French Sahara. On the literary front, in his book On Thermonuclear War author Herman Kahn analyzes how to reduce American deaths to only 20-30 million in the event of a nuclear attack. One notable movie featuring radioactive mutants is released.

 

1.             Attack of the Giant Leeches

 

                The story opens in a swamp not far from Cape Canaveral where Lem (George Cisar) fires at a weird shape in the swamp water. He later is unable to convince his friends that he saw a giant leech-like creature with sucker-covered arms. Later game warden Steve Benton (Ken Clark) and his girlfriend Nan (Jan Shepard) are out dismantling illegal trap lines when they come across Lem, dying from sucker wounds assumingly made by an octopus’ suckers. Liz (Yvette Vickers), married to homely Dave Walker (Bruno Ve Sota), sneaks away for a tryst on the banks of the swamp with Cal Moulton. When Dave shows up with a shotgun and forces the two into the swamp, the giant leeches grab the two lovers and haul them away. Dave tells the sheriff his story that he was just trying to scare the couple but is locked away behind bars where he later hangs himself.

 

After the leeches grab two more men, Steve organizes a fruitless search of the swamp to find the blood-sucking monsters. A dynamite explosion in the swamp sends three of the bodies (but not Liz) to the surface with all their bodies drained of blood. Still believing that Liz is still alive in an underwater cavern (shots of her reveal that she is alive), he plants dynamite in the area and is chased away by a giant leech. Doc Greyson (Tyler McVey) discusses the origin of the giant leeches blaming their mutation on atomic energy used in the first stages of launching rockets at Cape Canaveral. Liz finally succumbs to a loss of blood, falls into a pool in the cave, and drifts to the surface outside. Steve battles a giant leech underwater as the dynamite goes off bringing some of the leeches to the surface. But just before “The End” appears we hear more sounds of giant leeches.

 

                Attack of the Giant Leeches is obviously another attempt to find another ugly creature to enlarge but because the leeches in the movie behave like real leeches (except they don’t have arms), exhibit little intelligence, don’t appear to be more dangerous than any other carnivore of their size, and confined to a swamp, they are a remote menace. The special effects appear cheap as the leeches look like men in black plastic pup tents or garbage bags where occasionally an outline of a leg or arm can be seen. They also carry their victims much like a human would. Plot holes abound. For example, any large Florida swamp like the one seen in the movie are many miles from Cape Canaveral and if atomic powered rockets made the leeches big, then what about alligators, flamingos or manatees? On a positive note, the love triangle of Dave, Liz and Cal is interesting to watch, the script has some good dialogue, and the underwater cavern draped with Spanish moss looks realistic. There are also convincing performances by Yvette Vickers and Bruno Ve Sota. However, because the character relationships are standard, and the exploitation of the monster material unimaginative, the film is undistinguished, although not entirely lacking in entertainment value. 

 

1961

 

                The key nuclear events of the year included the Soviet Union detonating a huge 50 megaton hydrogen bomb, the largest atomic bomb to date, 4,000 times a powerful as the bomb that exploded over Hiroshima, while Antarctica becomes a “nuclear free” zone after the signing of the Antarctica Treaty. A B-52 bomber is destroyed over North Carolina and five of the hydrogen bomb’s six fail-safe mechanisms fail on impact. The Twilight Zone television series airs an episode titled “The Shelter” concerning a false alert triggering extreme panic among neighbors as they turn on each other in their quest to find shelter. Robert Moore Williams’s The Day They Bombed Los Angeles is published telling the story of the United States government final attempt to wipe out some zombies under the control of a mutated protein molecule.

 

1962

 

                The final year of the radioactive mutant monster cycle saw a nuclear test-ban conference in Geneva on January 29th adjourning over a disagreement on monitoring systems for international control, and the United States resuming nuclear tests on Christmas Island on April 25th, after a three-year moratorium. October saw the Cuban missile crisis with tense negotiations leading to the withdrawal of Soviet missiles. One episode of the television science fiction series Outer Limits concerns a genetic mutated bee bent on world domination where the queen bee is transformed into a beautiful humanoid and buzzes her way into a middle class suburban home nearly seducing the husband.

 

1.             Mothra

 

                During a typhoon, a ship collides with a reef and the survivors are rescued by helicopter from Beiru Island where the Rolisican government (i.e. the United States) has been conducting atomic tests. When the survivors report natives on the island fed them juice that protected them from the radiation, the scientific community is amazed at the discovery of a lost tribe. Clark Nelson (Kyoko Kagawa), a shady Rolisican businessman, heads an expedition to the island. Dr. Chujo (Ken Uehara), an ethnologist, is chosen to come along, while Bulldog (Franky Sakai), a reporter, sneaks along.

 

In the center of the island is a large valley with mutated molds, carnivorous plants with tentacles, and twin girls about a foot high. When Nelson tries to steal the twins, the natives come to their rescue. The expedition returns to Japan but Nelson secretly returns to the island and kidnaps the twins killing a few natives in the process. Back in Japan Nelson exploits the twins by using them for his “The Secret Fairies Show.” Back on the island all the angry natives gather around a large egg to sing and dance. Soon Mothra emerges from the egg as a large caterpillar and swims towards Japan.

 

After a giant object smashes a ship, the Rolisican government supports Nelson’s claim that he is not responsible for the incident. Mothra is strafed and bombed by Rolisican airplanes but is uninjured. She crawls along through the Japanese countryside ignoring bombs and smashing buildings on the way to Tokyo. Mothra arrives in the capital city and topples the Tokyo Tower and weaves a cocoon around herself. Meanwhile Nelson heads back to Rolisica and sends giant atomic heat ray cannons back to Japan to help destroy the cocoon but the weapons only end up speeding up the metamorphosis.

 

Mothra emerges from the cocoon and flies to Rolisica. Chujo and Bulldog fly to Rolisica (Newkirk City) on a jet airplane. Nelson is recognized and his car is surrounded by an angry mob. When he tries to escape, the police shoot Nelson just as Chujo and Bulldog arrive on the scene. Since the moth is invulnerable, the Rolisican government cooperates with Chujo by painting a Beiru island symbol on the airport runway to attract the moth. Meanwhile, Mothra’s wing flapping is creating winds that swamp ships and knock down buildings. The twins are brought to the airport runway, the moth recognizes the emblem, lands on the tarmac, and then flies away with the tiny girls.  

 

                Mothra features some of the finest special effects in design and imagery found in a Japanese monster movie. The lavishly detailed miniature fields, roads and buildings are very realistic. The cityscapes are varied (Tokyo and Newkirk City look differently although both are lit wrong). The cocoon sequence as the caterpillar lies entangled in the ruins of Tokyo, and the twilight scene of Mothra climbing into Tokyo as she flattens buildings is effectively photographed and requires little suspension of disbelief. Further, the settings are colorful and the storyline is swiftly paced. While Mothra is a giant bug, she is a very different bug with refreshing characteristics. First, she is a moth, “what’s it going to do, eat sheep?”[38] She is also monster bug with a mission not to flatten a city and eat humans, but to rescue the twins. Nevertheless, the movie is directed without inspiration, the characters are stereotyped, the actors appear to struggle through some of their lines, the dialogue is pedestrian, and the English version dialogue was dubbed with embarrassingly bad Japanese accents. While not a classic, the film is very inventive and is a special treat for children and the child at heart.

 

2.             Reptilicus

 

                In Denmark, an oil well drill pierces a frozen, buried section of tail of a prehistoric monster. The tail is taken to a laboratory where the appendage regenerates a body for itself. After a bolt of lightning completely regenerates the monster, it crashes out of its tank, rampages around the country, battles the military, eats people, and spews some sort of green radioactive poison (vomit?). With the dinosaur in the sea the fighter planes shower the beast with firepower blowing away one of its forelimbs that sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Reptilicus is able to regenerate another limb, vomits on the beach, enters the city and wrecks more havoc. The general decides not to blow the beast into tiny bits because of its power of regeneration. These bits would produce hundreds of Reptilici. Instead a shell filled with poison is shot into the monster’s mouth killing the creature. Although the beast is disassembled and each fragment destroyed, the blown-off forelimb at the bottom of the ocean twitches away and grows a new body.    

 

                This film is simply horrendous. The acting is dreadful as the American dubbing is terrible. Carl Ottosen, the Danish actor playing the American general, is impassive, unconvincing, and lacks a heroic stature. The worst part of the film is the inept special effects.

 

This may have the most unconvincing monster in the history of motion pictures, including The Giant Claw and Creature of Destruction. Reptilicus is impersonated by a marionette, with the strings often highly visible. But it isn’t even a good marionette; the head looks crudely carved, the neck is too long and inflexible, the forelimbs are comically diminutive and immobile, and we rarely get a look at whatever might lie below them. The jointing is awkward, so that Reptilicus constantly flops around, moving too quickly and loosely. There are virtually no scenes involving the monster and live actors: we cut from scenes of Danish military might massing in the city streets, to a marionette moving among totally unconvincing miniatures. They don’t even seem to belong in the same universe, much less the same movie. The table top sets have no depth – we can see the backdrop immediately behind the unconvincing cardboard buildings. This is much worse than dismal; these special effects, uncredited in any source available to me, are insulting. It’s difficult to imagine how even the crassest, most commercially motivated producer could have thought anyone, anywhere, would accept these scenes without storming out of the theatre to demand a refund.

 

The American release could have been worse as the European prints have the beast flying. There are almost countless scenes of the Danes fleeing in terror. The problem is that someone failed to convince the extras not to smile and laugh as they are running from the creature. The plot is paper thin, the narrative plodding, and the film is filled with travelogue scenes of Copenhagen. Reptilicus is a film so bad that American International, which co-financed the production, sued Sid Pink the producer and almost refused to distribute the motion picture. After compromises were made, the film was released, and the audiences collapsed with laughter.

 

ERA OF APATHY: 1963 –

 

                The end of the radiated mutant monster movie cycle ended in 1962. From 1963 onwards, very few movies featured radioactive monsters. Although some of the Japanese dinosaurs continued to trample forward in such films as Kingu Kongu tai Gojira [King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963)] and Mosura tai Gojira [Godzilla vs. the Thing (1964)], the latter film was the last of the original series to pay much attention to Godzilla’s atomic origins. It was also the last film to cast Godzilla as a bad guy. “Once the giant reptile was on our side, his radioactivity wore off or went unmentioned, and his fire-breathing trick was just another attribute of his dragon-like hero status rather than a mark of mutation.”[39] Other Japanese monsters that entered the fray but radioactivity was overlooked included an outer space monster [Ghidorah Sandai Kaiju Chikyu Saidai no Kessen (Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (1964))], a giant turtle named that rescued children and battled other malevolent monsters [Daikaiju Gamera (Gammera the Invincible (1965))], and a giant lobster that battled Godzilla [Gojira, Ebirah, Mosura: Nankai no Dai Ketto (Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966))]. The Japanese also produced a number of human mutations [Gasu Ningen dai Ichigo (The Human Vapor (1960)); Matango (Matango – Fungus of Terror/Attack of the Mushroom People (1963))]. However, these mutations were often blamed on either scientific experiment or mishap, and not radiation.

 

Eugene Lourié, the producer of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Behemoth the Sea Monster, completed another sea monster-on-the-loose movie Gorgo (1961) but cut the nuclear angle completely. After 1963, the stragglers of the radioactive mutant film were confined to a few countries including South Korea [Dai Koesu Yongkari (Yongary – Monster From the Deep (1967))], and the Philippines (Brides of Blood (1968).

 

                What caused the death of the radioactive mutant monster cycle after 1962? The answer lies both outside the motion picture industry in a prevailing mood of apathy and neglect over nuclear and radiation related issues, and within the motion picture industry in a movement from a tired repetitious mutant monster formula to more explicit lurid horror films.

 

FACTORS OUTSIDE THE MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY

 

1.             The Perception of Diminished Risk  

 

In 1962, the United States and the Soviets went to the nuclear brink and pulled back. The general opinion was that everything should be done to never let this happen again and that both countries should begin cooperating to avoid such confrontations in the future. In July 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed a treaty banning atomic testing in space, the atmosphere, and underwater. A mood of exhilaration swept the world after the pact. “Almost overnight, the nuclear fear that had been building since the mid-1950s seemed to dissipate.”[40] In a poll conducted in 1959, 64 percent of American’s listed nuclear war as the nation’s most urgent problem. By 1964, a follow-up poll discovered that now only 16% considered a nuclear war the nation’s most urgent problem. Soon the issue vanished entirely from the surveys. The various arms negotiations and treaties over the years gave the appearance that something was being done about the hazards of nuclear war. The public had the perception of a diminished risk of a nuclear attack and subsequent radioactive fallout.

2.             Loss of Immediacy

 

                “With atmospheric tests not dominating newspapers and television screens, the world’s massive nuclear arsenals seemed increasingly unreal.”[41] While familiarity may breed contempt, it also breeds complacency and takes the bite out of everything, including Armageddon. By 1963, the mushroom-shaped cloud, the familiar symbol of the nuclear age, had become a tired cliché with no more emotional impact than a corrosive warning sign on the back of a bleach bottle. With the destructive potential of no immediate concern to the movie-going public, science fiction film producers looked elsewhere for issues, concerns, and storylines that would sell tickets.

 

3.             Knowledge of the Effects of Radiation

 

                In the early 1950s, radiation was an invisible, mysterious and relatively unknown force capable of practically anything that could be conjured up in one’s own imagination. By the mid-to-late 1950s, magazine publications and newspapers began reporting the harmful effects of radiation on the human body creating widespread fears in the general populace. However, along with this knowledge came an appreciation of the limits of radiation as the risks became known to science. That what once seemed possible and very frightening in the mid-1950s, that ants, grasshoppers or crabs could become mutated from a few nuclear tests, by 1963 these possibilities seemed utterly ridiculous and downright preposterous.[42]

 

3.                  Promise of a World Transformed By Atomic Energy

 

In the early 1960s, scientists and futurists were writing about the possibility of a world where atomic energy would be able to solve many of the contemporary problems. An image of a helpful atom was counteracting, if not negating, the vision of a destructive atom. Atomic power no longer seemed as threatening as it once did in the 1950s. The result was complacency set in over nuclear related issues.

 

4.             The Anesthetizing Effect of Complex Nuclear Policy

 

                In the 1950s, United States nuclear policy was based deterrence theory and the military doctrine of “mutually assured destruction.” In the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, the United States would respond with an immediate escalation resulting in the combatants’ total and assured destruction, a frighteningly thought to the general public but designed to prevent neither superpower from making the first strike. In the 1960s, nuclear strategy became too complex for the average citizen with policies involving decision theory, computer processing of data, and complex technical vocabulary. The result was that the nuclear threat now seemed more remote and therefore superficially reassuring.

 

5.             The Vietnam War

 

                From February 1965 to the end of hostilities ten years later, the Vietnam War was the focus of media headlines and had pushed the issue of the bomb into the background. While the bomb was a potential menace, Vietnam was an actuality. Americans could sit around their television sets and watch an ongoing escalating war where the bomb was not a part of the military equation. The American public soon developed a belief, false or otherwise, that if major combat ever escalated between the superpowers that use of the bomb would likely be out of the military equation

 

 

6.             Trust in Responsible Institutions/No Major or Minor Accidents

 

                In his article “Public Perception of Radiation Risks,” William R. Hendee tabulated a list of factors involved in the public risk perception of radiation risks. “People’s perceptions of risks are the product of complex interactions among many influences, including knowledge, opinions stated by esteemed and trusted persons, and impressions acquired over time from the news and entertainment media.”[43] Conditions associated with an increased public concern over radiation risks as opposed to conditions associated with decreased public concern are compared. According to Hendee, public concern decreases with familiarity, controllability, voluntariness (as opposed to involuntariness) of exposure, where the mechanisms or processes are understood, a decrease in media attention, effects are reversible, benefits are clear, there is an equitable distribution of risks and benefits, fatalities and injuries are scattered and random, children are not specifically at risk, there is no risk to future generations, the victims are statistical as opposed to identifiable, as well as other factors.[44]

 

                After the tension of the Cuban Crisis had been eased, along with this alleviation of concern came a reassurance that the United States government had followed the correct nuclear policy with the Soviets. The satisfactory resolution of the missile crisis developed a trust in U.S. nuclear policy, whether justified or not, and a belief was generally held by many that there likely would never arise a situation where nuclear force would be required. Threats and deterrence theory had worked and the United States public was in good hands. These perceptions were also accompanied by no apparent major or minor nuclear-related accidents apparently validating beliefs.

 

                The product of a generalized apathy and lack of concern over nuclear issues, the bomb, and radiation fallout by the general public was a loss of interest in films with nuclear themes, specifically movies involving radiated mutant monsters.

 

FACTORS WITHIN THE MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY

 

1.             A  Decline in the Quality of Mutant Monster Films

 

                By the late 1950s the giant mutant monster film had reached the end of its radioactive half-life. As usual, greed became the dominant factor in the creation of the motion pictures. Producers were no longer interested in making a good film, just a profitable one. Beginning with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them!, and ending with Reptilicus, as the years progressed, quality of the productions sharply declined. The giant bug that laid the golden eggs had been squashed. The main suspect in this crime is Bert I. Gordon who produced eight giant creature films by 1958, all of them with shoddy production values.

 

2.             The Major Studios Drop Out of the Market Leaving the Production to the Independents

 

                The atomic monster mutation cycle began to lose its momentum in the 1950s when the major studios such as Universal-International started to lose interest in the science fiction genre. Studios such as 20th Century-Fox, which had produced The Day the Earth Stood Still in the 1950s, farmed out their science fiction and horror productions to Regal Films, a subsidiary, during the period from 1955-1958. Even a movie such as The Fly was allotted a relatively small budget. Worst yet, while reducing the production of science fiction movies, the majors dropped out of the mutant monster movie subgenre altogether. The independent companies were left in the late 1950s to carry the torch of producing these films to satisfy the already dwindling interest of the movie-going public for radioactive creatures. The smaller independent companies were not able to expend the funds to produce the special effects necessary to create really good mutant monster movies. As these poorly produced movies were being released, more and more moviegoers stayed away.

 

3.             The Television Reissue of the Universal Monster Movies and the Rise of the British Horrors

 

                As producers were bringing to life every type of mutant bug and creature in the late 1950s, plots involving weird monsters and aliens were becoming stale and worn-out. New kinds of gimmicks were necessary to hold viewer’s attentions and they found them in the graphic violence, gore, and sex of the Hammer horror films. Hammer’s line of British horrors was lurid and filled with images that caught the attention of teenagers: disembodied parts, tortures, detailed surgical operations, and plenty of blood. Beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), a movie that grossed an amazing $8 million, Hammer would produce a series of Frankenstein movies adding Dracula in 1958 (Horror of Dracula) and the Mummy (The Mummy) in 1959 to its production line. Helping with the rise of the Hammer horrors was the release to television in 1957 of the famous “Shock Theatre” package of movies that contained some Columbia thrillers of the Boris Karloff mad-doctor variety, but more importantly, the Universal horrors of the 1930s and 1940s which had never been shown on television. 

 

                Due to producer’s greed and a lack of interest in making fine films, the result was a decline in the quality of mutant monster motion pictures that featured repetitious formulaic plots, boring dialogue, and shoddy special effects. Coupled with a renewed interest in the horror genre, specifically the Universal horrors on television and the Hammer horrors being released for the big screen, the ten-year run of radioactive creature features from 1953 to 1962 had come to a fiery finale.

 

SUMMATION

 

                During the period 1945 to 1952, the United States underwent a time of awakening to and awareness of the dangers of the atomic bomb and its byproduct, radiation. Scientific analyses, magazine and newspaper articles, technical reports, and media publications, both of the ongoing atomic tests and the medical studies on the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, revealed to the general public the horrifying effect of an atomic or nuclear bomb and radioactive fallout on humans. Very few movies during this 8-year phase depicted the dangers of this invisible radioactive force, and many simply exploited its mysterious character for dramatic effects and used a radiation theme incidental to the plot. The tremendous box-office success of the re-release of King Kong in 1952, provided both the impetus for United States moviemakers to produce The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and Japanese producers to create their own atomic powered gargantuan Gojira (1954), later released in the United States as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956).  

 

                With the Cold War in a deep freeze, newspaper headlines and magazine articles warning the public of the dangers of radiation and radioactive fallout, the period from 1953 through to the end of 1957 was an era of atomic anxiety, and beginning with the popular The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, was characterized by an “explosion” of giant mutant monster movies in what can be termed “The Golden Age of the Mutant Monster Motion Picture.” In these films atomic fallout or scientific experimentation causes natural plants, animals, insects, or people to radically change in character; usually they become enlarged. The rise of these films are closely correlated to important historic nuclear events during this first generation of United States nuclear consciousness, where one can see the effects of the atomic age on the collective imagination of that era. The most important of these events was the Lucky Dragon incident that brought the horrifying effects of radioactive fallout on a group of Japanese fishermen into the home of every American.

 

                The success of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms gave the impetus for Warner Brothers to produce and release Them!, a story involving common desert ants mutated to gigantic proportions attacking the human population. The tremendous box-office success of this first giant bug film resulted in numerous imitations from producers pressing into service other insects and bugs. The most successful films during this era relied on strong storylines, and excellent special effects (usually by Ray Harryhausen or Willis O’Brien). Besides The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them!, other impressive movies during this period included It Came from Beneath the Sea, X the Unknown, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, and The Black Scorpion. Least successful were films like Tarantula, Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Deadly Mantis, and Rodan that suffered from either poor special effects, a pedestrian storyline, plot holes, bad acting, or a combination of the above. During this period a number of really horrible movies were released with very little to recommend and this lists includes The Monster from the Ocean Floor, The Phantom from 20,000 Leagues, The Amazing Colossal Man, The Beginning of the End, The Giant Claw, and The Monster That Challenged the World.

 

                After 1957, radiation did not play a significant factor in science fiction films. While radiation is used in some films to add scientific credibility to the storyline, from 1958 onward there are few monsters that are created or powered by radiation. This era was characterized by a slow alleviation of the fears of the radiation and the atomic menace. There were just two movies to recommend during this period. This short list includes The Fly, thanks to a fast paced script with effective special effects that approached the material with intelligence and sensitivity, and the wonderfully inventive Mothra. Less impressive but still worth viewing include The Crawling Eye, Earth vs. The Spider, Terror from the Year 5,000, The Giant Behemoth, and Gigantis the Fire Monster. Movies that should never have been produced include Monster from Green Hell, War of the Colossal Beast, The Giant Gila Monster, Attack of the Giant Leeches, and the atrocious Reptilicus, quite fittingly the last movie in this dying mutant monster cycle.

 

                From 1963 onwards, atomic apathy had set in and very few movies featured radioactive monsters with the possible exceptions of a few productions in South Korea and the Philippines. Even the Japanese dinosaur movies dropped the radioactive angle altogether and turned their most famous monster, Godzilla, into a creature with dragon-like hero status.

 

The cause of the end the radioactive mutant monster cycle after 1962 can be traced both to factors outside the motion picture industry in a prevailing mood of apathy and neglect over nuclear and radiation related issues, and within the motion picture industry in a movement from a tired repetitious mutant monster formula to more explicit lurid horror films.

 

                Outside the motion picture industry apathy and neglect over nuclear issues was created by a number of factors including a perception of diminished risk of nuclear attack, a loss of immediacy as atmospheric test no longer dominated the headlines, an increased knowledge of the effects of radiation, the vision of a helpful atom replacing a destructive one, a development of complex nuclear strategy that made the nuclear threat remote, the Vietnam War pushing the issue of the bomb into the background, and a development of trust in the United States government’s handling of nuclear issues.             

  

                Within the motion picture industry, endless repetition of the monster mutant formula along with producers more interested in profit than in making good films spawned a number of horrible movies that kept audiences away. The main suspect in this crime is Bert I. Gordon who produced eight giant creature films by 1958, all of them with shoddy production values. With the major studios dropping out of the mutant monster market in the late 1950s, the independent companies were left to satisfying the already dwindling interest of the movie-going public for radioactive creatures. Unfortunately, the smaller independent companies were not able to expend the funds to produce the special effects necessary to create really good mutant monster movies. As these poorly produced movies were being released, more and more moviegoers stayed away.

 

Finally, as plots involving mutant monsters were becoming stale and worn-out, new kinds of gimmicks were necessary to hold viewer’s attentions and audiences found them in the graphic violence, gore, and sex of the Hammer horror films. Hammer’s line of British horrors was lurid and filled with images that caught the attention of teenagers: disembodied parts, tortures, detailed surgical operations, and plenty of blood. Helping with the rise of the Hammer horrors was the release to television in 1957 of the famous “Shock Theatre” package of movies that contained some Columbia thrillers of the Boris Karloff mad-doctor variety, but more importantly, the Universal horrors of the 1930s and 1940s which had never been shown on television. Together, these horrors helped put the final nail in the coffin of the mutant monster film cycle.              

 


 

ENDNOTES

 

 

[1] Spencer Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), preface.

[2] Bryan Fruth et al., “The Atomic Age: Facts and Films from 1945-1965,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 23 (Winter 1996): 154.

[3] Derek Hill, “The Face of Horror,” Sight and Sound 28 (Winter 1958-1959): 8.

[4] J.P. Telotte, Science Fiction Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 97.

[5] Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster,” in Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of American Film Criticism, 1915 to Present, ed. David Denby (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 273.

[6] Kim Newman, Apocalypse Movies: End of the World Cinema (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), 79.

[7] J. Hoberman, “Pax Americana [Why make a homage to 50s Monster Culture in the 90s? J. Hoberman on ‘Mars Attacks!’],” Sight and Sound ns7 (February 1997): 7.

[8] Fruth, 156.

[9] David Seed, “The Debate Over Nuclear Refuge,” Cold War History 4 (October 2003): 119.

[10] William J. Schull, Effects of Atomic Radiation. A Half-Century of Studies from Hiroshima and Nagasaki (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), 298.

[11] Newman, 78.

[12] Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies!: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Volume 1: 1950-1957 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1982), 103.

[13] Warren, Volume 1, 179.

[14] George Turner, “Wrap Shot [giant insects in science fiction films],” American Cinematographer 78 (November 1997): 128.

[15] Warren, Volume 1, 195.

[16] Newman, 80.

[17] Warren Kozak, “Killer Monster Bugs From Hell,” ID (New York, New York) 44 (September/October 1997): 76.

[18] Sontag, 271.

[19] Hill, 7.

[20] Noel Carroll takes a psychoanalytic view of giant insects equating them with Freudian notions of repressed sexuality. “Giant insects are a case in point. The giant spider, for instance, appeared in silent film in John Barrymore’s Jekyll and Hyde as an explicit symbol of desire. Perhaps insects, especially spiders, can perform this role not only because of their resemblance to hands—the hairy hands of masturbation—but also because of their cultural association with impurity. At the same time, their identification as poisonous and predatory—devouring—can be mobilized to express anxious fantasies over sexuality. Like giant reptiles, giant insects are often encountered in two specific contexts in horror films. They inhabit negative paradises—jungles and lost worlds—that unaware humans happen into, not to find Edenic milk and honey but the gnashing teeth or mandibles of oral regression. Or, giant insects or reptiles are slumbering potentials of nature released or awakened by physical or chemical alterations caused by human experiments in areas of knowledge best left to the gods. Here, the predominant metaphor is that these creatures or forces have been unfettered or unleashed, suggesting their close connection to erotic impulses. Like the fusion and fission figures of horror films, these nightmares are also explicable as effigies of deep-seated, archaic conflicts.” Noel Carroll, “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings,” Film Quarterly 34 (Spring 1981): 22.

[21] Kozak, 77.

[22] Kozak, 78.

[23] Turner, 128.

[24] Most viewers don’t realize that Raymond Burr’s scenes were shot in the United States almost 18 months after the Japanese film was released.

[25] Chon A. Noriega, “Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When Them! is U.S.,” Cinema Journal 27 (Fall 1987): 68.

[26] Noriega, 70.

[27] Warren, Volume 1, 304.

[28] Warren, Volume 1, 317.

[29] Warren, Volume 1, 325.

[30] Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia: The Most Comprehensive Encyclopedia of World Cinema in a Single Volume (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 541.

[31] Warren, Volume 1, 336.

[32] Richard A. Schwartz, Cold War Culture: Media and the Arts, 1945-1990 (New York: Checkmark Books, 2000), 277.

[33] Newman, 85.

[34] Warren, Volume 1, 345.

[35] Bob Stephens, “Four choice B titles from the 50’s, nicely presented,” Films in Review 46, Issue 9/10 (Nov/Dec 1995).

[36] Warren, Volume 2, 62.

[37] Cyndy Hendershot, I was a Cold War Monster: Horror Films, Eroticism and the Cold War Imagination (Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 2001), 111.

[38] Warren, Volume 2, 675.

[39] Newman, 90.

[40] Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 355.

[41] Boyer, 357.

[42] Some of the comments by critics on mutant bug films hardly helped the matter. “When I see a beetle the size of a bison inserting its plastic claws into the buttocks of some tedious Hollywood blonde, I heave a sigh of delight because this is just what I have been wanting to do for years and years…” (Hill, 9).

[43] William R. Hendee, “Public Perception of Radiation Risks,” in Radiation and Public Perception: Benefits and Risks, ed. Jack P. Young and Rosalyn S. Yalow, Advances in Chemistry Series 243 (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1995), 21

[44] Hendee, 19.

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

 

Carroll, Noel. “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings.” Film Quarterly 34 (Spring 1981): 16-25.

 

Fruth, Bryan, Alicia Germer, Keiko Kikuchi, Anamaria Mihalega, Melanie Olmstead, Hikaru Saski, and Jack Nachbar. “The Atomic Age: Facts and Films from 1945-1965.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 23 (Winter 1996): 154-160.

 

Hendee, William R. “Public Perception of Radiation Risks.” In Radiation and Public Perception: Benefits and Risks, edited by Jack P. Young and Rosalyn S. Yalow, 13-22.  Advances in Chemistry Series 243. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1995.

 

Hendershot, Cyndy. I was a Cold War Monster: Horror Films, Eroticism and the Cold War Imagination. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 2001.

 

Hill, Derek. “The Face of Horror.” Sight and Sound 28 (Winter 1958-1959): 6-11.

 

Hoberman, J. “Pax Americana [Why make a homage to 50s Monster Culture in the 90s? J. Hoberman on ‘Mars Attacks!’].” Sight and Sound ns7 (February 1997): 6-9.

 

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia: The Most Comprehensive Encyclopedia of World Cinema in a Single Volume. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.

 

Kozak, Warren. “Killer Monster Bugs From Hell.” ID (New York, New York) 44 (September/October 1997): 76-79.

 

Newman, Kim. Apocalypse Movies: End of the World Cinema. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.

 

Noriega, Chon A. “Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When Them! is U.S.,” Cinema Journal 27 (Fall 1987): 63-77.

 

Schull, William J. Effects of Atomic Radiation. A Half-Century of Studies from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995.

 

Schwartz, Richard A. Cold War Culture: Media and the Arts, 1945-1990. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

 

Seed, David. “The Debate Over Nuclear Refuge.” Cold War History 4 (October 2003): 117-142.

 

Sontag, Susan. “The Imagination of Disaster.” In Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of American Film Criticism, 1915 to Present, edited by David Denby, 263-278. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

 

Stephens, Bob. “Four choice B titles from the 50’s, nicely presented.” Films in Review 46, Issue 9/10 (Nov/Dec 1995): 54-60.

 

Telotte, J.P. Science Fiction Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

 

Turner, George. “Wrap Shot [giant insects in science fiction films].” American Cinematographer 78 (November 1997): 128.

 

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies!: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. Volume 1: 1950-1957. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1982.

 

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies!: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. Volume 2: 1958-1962. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1986.

 

Weart, Spencer. Nuclear Fear: A History of Images. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.