Six Horrors From the 1950s

When you think of the horror film, certain decades automatically spring to mind in connection with specific events. The 1930s were surely dominated by Universal, with that studio’s Frankenstein, Dracula, and Invisible Man fare. The ‘40s were also dominated by Universal, with RKO producer Val Lewton also beginning to make his mark with a classic series of highly atmospheric wringers. The ‘60s saw the horror film taking a quantum leap forward into modernity, with sure fare as Psycho and Night of the Living Dead breaking down all kinds of taboos; the Italians and Mexicans stunning audiences with a series of Gothically inflected shockers; and the British studio Hammer really coming into its own. The ‘70s were hallmarked by the Italian giallo film and the emergence of a new crop of North American horrormeisters such as Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. You will notice that I have left out the 1950s, and that is because for me, that decade has always been much more memorable for the sci-fi film; indeed, so many wonderful classics in the science fiction field were created during those 10 years. But of course, though you might have to look a little harder, any number of entertaining films in the horror arena were indeed created during the 1950s, with Night of the Demon (1957) actually being one of the finest horror pictures ever made. Here, I would like to discuss a half dozen others; all, of course, perfect fare for this Shocktober season: 

MAN BEAST MAN BEAST MAN BEAST (1956)

It is almost impossible to discuss the 1956 yeti movie Man Beast without making comparisons to the British film The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, which came out the following year. While the latter film features the stars Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker, the American offering boasts the “talents” of Virginia Maynor (who acts atrociously and doesn’t even provide the requisite eye candy) and action lead Tom Maruzzi. And while the Brit film boasts a literate script and interesting characters … well, let’s just say that the American film again comes off second best. But perhaps the most telling difference of all is that whereas Abominable Snowman… only teases us with occasional glimpses of the yetis, seemingly adhering to Val Lewton’s unspoken credo that the viewer’s imagination can supply far more terror than anything shown on a screen, Man Beast shoves the yetis in our faces again and again. Fortunately, for red-blooded monster fans, this is not altogether a bad thing. The snowmen do look pretty scary here, especially in the film’s finest scene, in which the yetis attack our heroes for the first time, in a dark cave. This scene is filmed largely in silence, and in somewhat slow motion, and is pretty darn nightmarish. As reported in one of my reference bibles, Sleaze Creatures, stock footage and filming in the hills of Bishop, CA do a decent job of simulating the Himalayan locale. Still, at least half of the film’s compact 63-minute running time consists of scenic shots of our band plodding through the snow. Bottom line: This is a fun hour at the movies, vastly inferior to the Brit version as it may be.

TEENAGE MONSTER TEENAGE MONSTERTEENAGE MONSTER (1957)

Conflating the Western, horror and teenage movie genres as it does, Teenage Monster (1957) is a unique experience indeed. It also features the most frightening monster in a late 1800s Western setting since Mercedes McCambridge stalked through the plains of Johnny Guitar three years earlier. In this film, a meteor that looks like a July 4th sparkler crashes near the mine of the Cannon family, killing Paw and turning young Charles into a mutant of sorts. Seven years later, Charles is the eponymous teenage monster, killing cattle and the occasional passerby, while his Maw must hide him from the townsfolk and deal with her new blackmailing hussy of a housekeeper. Charles, as a teenager, looks like nothing more than a long-haired and long-bearded hippie with bad teeth (I’ve seen worse walking the streets of the East Village!), despite the makeup work by Jack “Frankenstein” Pierce. His garbled, whining attempts at speech are reminiscent of a constipated canine and are quite pathetic, but still had me cracking up somehow. Anne Gwynne, who was featured in any number of 1940s Universal horror films, is fine as Charles’ sacrificing mother, and, actually, their relationship is kinda sweet. Still, the film, fun as it is, is patently ridiculous, and with a very rushed ending to boot. Even my revered Psychotronic Encyclopedia calls it “awful.” My tastes must be getting more and more dubious, though, because I did have a good time with this unique little quickie.

DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLLDAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL (1957)

DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL Not to be confused with Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1972) or Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll is a moderately interesting quickie from legendary Poverty Row director Edgar G. Ulmer. In this one, Gloria Talbott – who would find the role for which she is perhaps most fondly remembered in the following year’s I Married a Monster From Outer Space – learns, on her 21st birthday, that she is the eponymous daughter of the infamous scientist. This causes her and her fiancé, 1950s sci-fi stalwart John Agar, some understandable angst, especially when a series of murders commences in the nearby village… To be painfully honest, there really is nothing much to this movie, but Ulmer directs with so much panache, and Talbott, as usual, is so pretty and appealing, that these two elements put the film over. Especially effective are two surrealistic nightmare episodes suffered by Talbott, as well as Ulmer’s use of fog and swirling mist; his cloud-covered moon shots are a real thing of beauty, too. On the down side, we have a surprise ending that is not much of a surprise, and a plot that would have us believe that Jekyll’s alter ego Hyde was really a bloodsucking werewolf! This film is certainly not the horror masterpiece that Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) turned out to be. Still, it IS fun, and the DVD that I recently watched is as crisp and clean looking as can be. Modern-day interviews with Agar and with Ulmer’s daughter make for nice extras, too.

GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWNGIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN (1958)

GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN Truth to tell, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from Giant From the Unknown. I’d seen two of director Richard Cunha’s later works, Missile to the Moon and Frankenstein’s Daughter, and had found them both incredibly awful, albeit very entertainingly so. Indeed, the latter might just be my favorite bad movie of all time. Still, it was to my surprise that Giant…, although certainly not a good movie by any reasonable definition, turned out to be yet another entertaining diversion from director Cunha. In it, a Spanish conquistador, buried 500 years ago by Indians in what is now California, rises from the earth to cause more mayhem. As played by Buddy Baer (brother of heavyweight prizefighter Max), and featuring a makeup job by Jack “Frankenstein” Pierce, this giant does make for one imposing sight. Scientist Morris Ankrum, his daughter Sally Fraser, and an ex-student, Edward Kemmer, all happen to be in this California mountain community when old Vargas goes on his rampage, and the three make for appealing leads. This film features a fair amount of suspense, some startling moments, not too many unintentionally funny lines, and a fairly compact story line. Granted, some of the backdrops look as phony as can be (that lake, that ersatz dam), and some details don’t make much sense if one ponders them later, but darn it, this movie was kinda fun! Maybe I’ve been watching too many shlocky films lately, and my standards are starting to slip, but still, I did enjoy this one. The DVD that I recently watched looks nice and crisp, too, although the source material seems damaged in spots. All in all, I certainly do not regret having rented this one out…

THE CRAWLING EYE THE CRAWLING EYE THE CRAWLING EYE (1958)

Monster fans, rejoice! This great-looking DVD from Image that I recently watched offers us the baby-boomer favorite The Trollenberg Terror with the original, NONspoiler British title that is so much more preferable to the American appellation: The Crawling Eye. In the film, sturdy as always Forrest Tucker plays Alan Brooks, a U.N. physicist/investigator (or something on that order … after two recent viewings, I’m still not clear on that point) who comes to the Swiss village of Trollenberg to investigate a string of mysterious deaths, as well as the radioactive, stationary cloud that hovers over a nearby mountain. Viewers must wait a full hour before getting a look at the title creatures, during which time they should be amply entertained by the plight of Janet Munro’s character – a pretty young woman who is in telepathic contact with the creatures – and by the zombie cat’s-paw who is sent by the unseen foes to do their bidding. The viewer’s patience is ultimately rewarded by some of the most memorable-looking monsters in screen history; creatures that are fondly remembered by all baby boomers who watched the classic ’60s TV show Supernatural Theatre, which showed the crawling eye expand each week during its opening credits. Though filmed on the cheap, these aliens look impressively yucky. The picture, on the whole, is uniformly well acted by all (Tucker, especially, underplays his role nicely), Stanley Black’s subtle yet eerie score works wonders in ratcheting up the tension, and director Quentin Lawrence keeps things moving along briskly. I find this to be a quality example of horrific sci-fi, despite the lack of top-tier FX, and not at all campy (well, perhaps a bit Swiss cheesy!). And thanks to this great new print from Image, we may never see The Trollenberg Terror look any better. Reason to rejoice, indeed!

FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (1958)

FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER This is the movie that almost killed me. Watching it many years ago, at NYC’s Thalia Theatre, as part of an amazing double feature with The Monster From Green Hell, I laughed so uproariously that I really thought I was going to rupture my spleen. It has been my favorite “bad movie” ever since, and I love it to this day, for many reasons. First of all, we have to wait a mere 20 seconds or so before we see one of the film’s two impressive monsters. That first one is Trudy, who, when we first see her, is an ugly, bucktoothed, bushy-browed horror in a nightgown. Come morning, Trudy is as pretty as can be, but retains memories of the previous night. Could all this have something to do with the presence of her uncle’s research assistant, Otto Frank (nee Frankenstein), in the house? What would you think? As it turns out, ol’ Otto, the grandson of the original good Dr., is using Uncle Carter’s lab for some projects of his own. The creature he ultimately creates looks like a wrinkled mass of toadstools, while the monster’s female brain “is conditioned to a man’s world; therefore takes orders where [19th century ones] didn’t.” (This line always brings the house down in theatres!) Fifties stalwart John Ashley provides his usual sturdy support to the befuddled Trudy, director Richard Cunha remarkably brings in his fourth awesome film of 1958 (She Demons, Giant From the Unknown and Missile to the Moon being the others), and the Page Cavanaugh Trio performs two swinging rock ‘n’ roll numbers. Indeed, the song with the refrain “Shaba-labba-lop, bobba-lobba lobba-lop” (which I now know to be called “Daddy-Bird”) was the one that almost killed me back at the Thalia. This really might be the most entertaining teen/horror/rock ‘n’ roll movie ever made, nicely presented on the crisp-looking Image DVD that I recently experienced.

So there you have it … some kind of evidence that although the 1950s were more known for science fiction in the movies, the horror film was surely not completely dormant during that time. And any one of these films would make for perfect fare during this Shocktober season, some 70 years later…


FOLLOW:  Facebooktwitterrssmail  SHARE:  Facebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!
You can subscribe to our posts via email, email digest, browser notifications, Twitter, RSS, etc. You can filter by tag (e.g. Giveaway), keyword, author. We won't give your email address to anyone. Subscribe.

SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

View all posts by

3 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    BTW, those wishing to witness the awesomeness of the Page Cavanaugh Trio performing “Daddy-Bird” can find it at the 4:30 mark here. Just don’t ask me why this trio contains five people…. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfIjaW8fuSk&t=1s

  2. Love, love, love The Crawling Eye! A clip showed up in a montage recently and I was shocked to find out my husband (who haunted late-night TV for decades) did not recognise it. Of course I immediately made him sit down and watch the whole movie. :D

    Now I must see the others in your review, Sandy. Gaps in my education!

    • Sandy Ferber /

      I hope you and the hubby get to see and enjoy those other five doozies soon, Becky!

Review this book and/or Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *