When coming up with a list of favorite or best science fiction films of the 1950s, a half-dozen indisputable classics almost always show up: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL , THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, FORBIDDEN PLANET, THEM, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The decade also saw the release of several second-tier classics: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, WAR OF THE WORLDS, GODZILLA: KING OF MONSTERS, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, INVADERS FROM MARS, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, THE FLY, DESTINATION MOON, 2,000 LEAGUES BENEATH THE SEA, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, and the first two QUATERMASS films. While not necessarily great films like the first six, they nonetheless range in quality from excellent to very good, and are worthy of their reputations. However, there are other movies made from the decade that are just as good but often overlooked, not just by general audiences, but by avowed science fiction fans as well. It is usually only the most devoted and well-read fan who is aware of them and actively seeks them out, and unfortunately, they tend to be an older demographic whose numbers are dwindling.
Fortunately, both DVD and channels such as Turner Classic Movies have helped keep many of these movies alive and available for younger viewers to discover and enjoy. All the films listed are available on DVD (and in some instances, Blu-Ray as well), and the curious viewer will be well rewarded if he or she seeks them out. Continuing from where we left off from the last post, here are my Top Ten underrated science fiction films from the Fifties:
7. THE MAN FROM PLANET X
1951 was a landmark year for the science fiction film with the release of both THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, two genuine classics that not only influenced the genre output of the rest of the decade but continue to do so to this day. It can be plausibly argued that any subsequent treatment of the topic of extraterrestrial life in the American cinema has merely been a variation of either film. Made and released in the same year, THE MAN FROM PLANET X is not quite on their high level, but it’s nonetheless a fine movie that’s worthy of further study in its own right. For once thing, the film’s treatment of the “First Contact” scenario between humans and alien is quite intriguing, with an aura of mystery and ambivalence that makes for an interesting comparison with the other two movies. It’s also one of the best movies by the legendary director Edgar Ulmer, and I actually like it more than his more acclaimed DETOUR and BLUEBEARD. If you’ve ever wondered why Ulmer has such a cult, this movie goes a long way to help one understand why, as it’s wonderfully atmospheric and very stylized in its photography and set design, much like Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT. It can actually be viewed as a intermediate species between the horror films of the Thirties and Forties and the science fiction films that would in turn dominate the Fifties. For that reason, I especially recommend it to fans of classic horror who aren’t necessarily science fiction fans as well.
8. THE MAGNETIC MONSTER
If 1951 was the year the SF cinema broke, 1953 was the year it exploded. That year saw the release of such classics as WAR OF THE WORLDS, INVADERS FROM MARS, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, DONOVAN’S BRAIN and THE BEAST FROM 2,000 FATHOMS. My personal favorite from this year is one of the few genuine “hard science fiction films,” the Ivan Tors production THE MAGNETIC MONSTER, a movie that does for physics what THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN did for biology. The monster of the title is actually a new form of matter (a magnetic monopole, as it turns out) created in a cyclotron that threatens to destroy the world through a chain reaction when it is found that it periodically “feeds” on nearby matter, converting it into energy, and that this process increases by the inverse cube. Yes, it’s fanciful, but no more so than the conspiracy scenario (I refuse to misuse the word “theory) continually thrown-up by today’s scientific illiterates of particle accelerators destroying the world by creating an artificial black-hole or “strange matter” (which the hungry isotope in the movie actually resembles in its hypothetical properties). The story is made believable through the use of credible science to provide a technical background for its fantastic elements and a documentary-style realism to the proceedings, not unlike that of the similarly- plotted PANIC IN THE STREETS. It also helps that the hero is played by Richard Carlson, the second-best (after Kenneth Tobey) recurring lead actor in Fifties science fiction films. Carlson was especially good in challenging roles as scientists and other experts, always coming across that he both knew what he was doing and knew what he was talking about. Watch it as part of a double bill with either X THE UNKNOWN or THE MONOLITH MONSTERS to see how a similar premise can be handled differently but no less effectively.
9. THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT
This is a certified classic, one of the finest of the marvelous Ealing Studios comedies of the era that starred Alec Guinness, so why is it on this list? While it’s been hailed as a comic masterpiece and a stinging satire on both management and labor alike, it’s less widely recognized as a great science fiction film, even though it most certainly is one. No less an SF luminary than Ben Bova has named it his favorite science fiction movie of all time, and it’s easy to understand why: it takes on all the challenges that good science fiction tries to do, and does a superlative job at each of them. The film credibly portrays a possible scientific or technological advance (in this case, an indestructible fabric that repels all dirt and stains), plausibly portrays the possible social consequences of such an invention (which involves the attempts of rival businesses and manufacturing unions to suppress it because of their fears such an innovation will destroy them) and most importantly yet not as often discussed, the effects such a discovery has on the characters involved. Guinness plays a chemist and inventor who in many ways is very much like Tony Stark, Marvel’s Iron Man. He wraps himself with his own invention because he is defined by his science, and does not fully consider the ethical or social consequences of his work, or the dangers to himself from not doing so. It’s not just one of the funniest comedies of the era, but one of the most intelligent as well.
9. THIS ISLAND EARTH
There was once a time when this would be ranked among the classics or near-classics but thanks to MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 THE MOVIE, its reputation has dropped precipitously and unfairly so. Now don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoy MST3K myself, but if you’ve only seen this movie through it, then you haven’t really seen it all. Not only do the jokes run non-stop over the dialogue, but at least a third of the original film has been cut out! Unfortunately, many have indeed decided to judge the film this way, and consider it to be a bad film just because a couple of puppets told them so (mind you, these are the same people who uncritically obsess over genuinely awful contemporary movies and TV shows). This is in spite of the fact that it has one of the most sophisticated plots for an American science fiction film of the era, is one of the best adapted from written source material (in this case, Raymond F. Jones’s novella “The Alien Machine”), and along with FORBIDDEN PLANET is the film that comes closest to the actual literary science fiction of the period (the original story had been published in Astounding Science Fiction). It’s also been more influential than you might think: the fondly-remembered THE LAST STARFIGHTER obviously borrowed its main premise from it, Weird Al Yankovic has featured an Interocitor in UHF and at least one of his videos, and a clip from the movie even played on the TV in ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL. Alas, not only has its reputation suffered from studio-sanctioned heckling, but the official DVD doesn’t even do this intelligent and imaginative movie justice (how many other films know what a Rydberg atom is, much less incorporate them in its set design?), as the picture has been panned-and-scanned and some scenes show more dirt and damage than they should. This is really inexcusable, especially since it’s been shown letterboxed whenever I’ve seen it played on TV. Adding even further insult to injury, there are no extras on the disc…but the Blu-Ray of MST3K THE MOVIE does feature a half-hour documentary on the making of THIS ISLAND EARTH! In spite of this, I still recommend the DVD of THIS ISLAND EARTH, just to watch it un-riffed; it’s a thoughtful and thematically rich film that even manages to be touching in its final moments. I also recommend buying the MST3K disc for the documentary…that and “Ladies and gentlemen, A Flock of Seagulls!”
11. THE WEREWOLF
I’ve always found werewolf movies to be particularly scary, probably because they so perfectly integrate the main components of both types of horror: the breakdown of the laws of nature that lies at the heart of dark fantasy and the disintegration of the human psyche that is at the core of psychological horror. Watching someone turn into a monster is terrifying enough but their mental reversion into a feral state just adds further chills. THE WEREWOLF (1957) is a particularly interesting example of this subgenre by providing a scientific basis for lycanthropy, as did Jack Williamson’s novel DARKER THAN YOU THINK. The titular lycanthrope has been the unwitting victim of experiments by a pair of well-meaning but ethically challenged doctors with the goal of improving the human survival instinct (an almost identical premise to the following year’s I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF) resulting in his periodic transformation into a murderous beast. As noted in Phil Hardy’s OVERLOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION, it’s historically significant in that it marks the moment that horror began to reassert itself after SF’s domination throughout the decade, but the science fiction elements still predominate: not only are the normally supernatural plot elements explained through quasi-scientific means, but so is the theme of psychological descent into madness as well. The movie was directed by Fred Sears, who also made THE GIANT CLAW, and while that movie is my favorite of his, THE WEREWOLF is probably his best. They’re both available together on a DVD set with two other Sam Katzman productions, the watchable but unremarkable CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN and the deadly dull ZOMBIES OF MORA-TU.
12. THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD
Of all the giant monster movies released during the decade, this one is my personal favorite. It’s one of the few that seemed to really learn the lessons provided by THEM! on how to make an effective film in the genre, and while watching it, you may be reminded of some later scenes in JAWS as well. Director Arnold Laven had already made a name for himself as a director of hard-hitting crime dramas and thrillers and he put his skills at maintaining realism and building suspense to good use for this genre turn. Fine performances are provided by the entire cast, headlined by Tim Holt as the Colonel and Hans Conreid as The Scientist, both of whom play fully-rounded human beings instead of the stereotypes you’re probably expecting. The monster itself, (it’s called a mollusk but it’s really more like a giant predatory sea louse) is an extremely effective and mostly convincing animatronic creation. Finally, the excellent script by Pat Fielder turns most of the then-established cliches of the genre upside-down and makes us care about all the characters. It’s surprising that this particularly well-written entry into the Fifties Monster Rally has seemingly received little to no feminist attention, as not only is it one of the few such movies of the decade to be written by a woman, but it provides a strong central female character played by Audrey Dalton. Dalton plays a secretary and single mother who is believably strong, smart and capable, and she winds up being the character most of us, regardless of age or gender, wind up identifying with the most. A Korean War widow who as had to juggle being both a mother to her daughter and working a full-time job (a situation many women of the time were in, but a fact that popular culture rarely acknowledged), she winds up having to provide emotional support to all the other characters in their moments of crisis. In fact, a fascinating “mother motif” runs throughout the entire movie. In addition to Dalton, the female characters also include her daughter, who has a maternal attitude towards animals (when she looks for her lost ladybug, we instantly think of the old schoolyard chant), the mother of a victim, who had been very strict and possessive towards her daughter; the pregnant wife of one of Conried’s co-workers, and a switchboard operator who is constantly being badgered by her mother. Even the titular monster can be viewed as just an overprotective parent instictively attacking those who would harm its offspring. It’s available on DVD as part of a double feature with another surprisingly effective sleeper from the era, IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE.
13. THE INVISIBLE BOY
Ever finish watching a movie and then find yourself saying “damn, why isn’t this better known?” That was my reaction after watching this charming and engaging follow-up to FORBIDDEN PLANET which moves Robbie the Robot front-and center, co-starring with the very likeable Richard Eyer (best remembered for playing the Genie in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) who plays the titular transparent lad. In addition to robots and invisibility, a whole host of other SF conventions (I also refuse to misuse the word “trope”) come into play: a mad supercomputer, artificially-accelerated intelligence, time travel, space travel and mind-control cybernetics. Although it’s more obviously made for children than its progenitor, there’s also a layer of social commentary underneath that helps make it watchable for adults as well. It’s available as an extra on the FORBIDDEN PLANET 50th Anniversary Special Edition DVD.
14. THE 27th DAY
Political biases can also play big role in why a movie gets underappreciated, especially as they change over time. THE 27TH DAY has received some exceptionally hostile, even savage attacks that don’t reflect on the actual quality of the film. Its critics are appalled by the portrayal of communist leaders as brutal dictators and the suggestion that things would be improved if communism not only went into the ash heap of history, but was rendered one itself. Because we all know that communism was a simply a noble idea that never had a real chance, and its adherents were all just good people who tried to make a better world, right? Never mind the one hundred million dead bodies….Anyways, this story of five individuals from five different countries who are literally given the power of life and death by an alien visitor and are challenged to use it is a very thoughtful and sober work, not at all “paranoid,” “hysterical” or “extremist” as its detractors claim. It takes its “What If-?” scenario and convincingly demonstrates how it would affect all sorts of relationships, both interpersonal and international. Although the ending is a little too pat and convenient, watching the characters wrestle with the ethical dilemmas handed to them makes for fascinating viewing. It’s the science fiction equivalent of TWELVE ANGRY MEN.
15. THE 4-D MAN
Here’s another one that has slipped through the cracks, so to speak. One of the most offbeat and unique science fiction films of the decade, it was the second by Irwin Yeaworth, who had previously helmed THE BLOB. While that film is a certified cult classic, I consider THE 4-D MAN to be even better, a more accomplished and assured work as well as a decidedly more mature one. What really helps to make this a solid (pun intended) piece of work is the superb performance in the title role by Robert Lansing, one of the decade’s best for a science fiction film. Lansing is completely sympathetic and believable as a dedicated physicist who is coming apart over the stresses of both his workplace and personal life but then accidentally gains the ability to walk through walls and whatnot. At first he revels in this ability, only to be horrified by its side effects on both himself and others. Although the premise itself is highly unlikely to say the least, and the explanation for it largely nonsense, the film nonetheless manages to be quite involving, not just through the excellent performances by the entire cast (which in addition to Lansing include Lee Meriwether, Robert Strauss, Edgar Stehli and a very young Patty Duke) but by its realistic depiction of scientists at work. The scientists are presented as people like anyone else, and their profession is shown to involve a tremendous amount of hard work that takes not days but months or years to complete. Experiments don’t always work the first time and must be repeated and replicated before they are accepted, and there is much internal conflict over who gets credit and who gets funding and workspace. The interesting depiction of both science and scientists is something it shares with many of the other films selected for this list. I also love Ralph Carmichael’s jazzy score; some dislike it and consider it inappropriate, but I think it perfectly suits such an offbeat and unique entry in the genre. I particularly like the tune that plays while Lansing strolls down the street at night, testing his new-found abilities, as well as the theme used for the nifty Norman McLaren-style animated opening credits.
16. BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE
Ishiro Honda was Japan’s most prolific director of science fiction films and certainly the best known in the West, almost entirely on the basis of GODZILLA and subsequent entries in Toho Studio’s dakaiju films. However he directed a wide variety of films in the genre featuring a diverse array of plots and themes that reveal Honda to be an extremely versatile as well as talented helmer of SF subject matter: THE MYSTERIANS, ATRAGON, THE H-MAN, THE HUMAN VAPOR, MATANGO, GORATH and the entry on this list, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE. I have chosen this film specifically because it seems to be the most neglected of Honda’s science fiction films, in spite of being one of his finest genre contributions. Possibly, the lack of a monster has something to do with this: THE MYSTERIANS, ATRAGON and (in the Japanese print) GORATH all feature brief appearances by giant monsters while this one goes kaiju-less.. However, that only makes it seem all the more interesting and mature. Like THIS ISLAND EARTH, it’s not just extremely eye-catching and visually imaginative but an amazingly ambitious film for the period, with action taking place all over the world and on the Moon, as well as the titular space battles between Earthlings and alien invaders. Honda’s earlier experience directing war films, not just depicting scenes of mass battle but those of the human tragedy and sacrifice that inevitably arises from large-scale conflict certainly helps a lot here. Some may be reminded of INDEPENDENCE DAY, especially in scenes of mass destruction and a montage where the world’s nations unite to fight the invaders. Other, more historically informed fans will also be reminded of plot points from CAPTAIN SCARLET AND THE MYSTERIONS and the model work and effects are at least as good as those in Gerry Anderson’s classic series. Granted it has some flaws: the first third tends to drag and with all the constant cross-cutting, we don’t get to know the characters long enough to really feel for them, but it’s still a worthy would-be epic. It’s available on a DVD set with two other great films from Honda, MOTHRA and THE H-MAN.
UP NEXT: The Sixties and The Seventies…