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Film: Watch the Skies!— Monsters in Films

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES January/ February 2012


There are plenty of people still around who will tell you that the 1950’s was the last good decade before everything started going downhill.  OK, there was a cold war and a hot war but save for the participants in these affairs they could be pretty much ignored by a country happy enough to be living in that good decade.   And it was a particularly good time to be a post-atomic mutated monster.  You might say the decade was the movie Golden Age of such beings.  It began inauspiciously in 1952 with a George Pal production “When Worlds Collide” but really gathers steam with “The Thing From Another World” in that same year. Also known modestly as “The Thing” it was notable for having delivered the very first known space monster. After that there was no stopping the parade of monsters, creatures, and beasties.  They came in a great variety of forms although fashion trends ran to overly large heads heavily veined, single or multi-eyed and numerous waving arm-like appendages and little else.  While a jingly sound was preferred among mutated insects most of the others were quite capable of impressive shrieks, yowls, howls and slurping noises.  Those few monsters incapable of sound for reasons of bodily structure or lack thereof settled for scary musical accompaniments.

Among the 1953 invasion was the highly regarded “It came From Outer Space”, the first to use desert scenery sending SouthWest real estate prices plummeting, and the “The Beast From Twenty Thousand Fathoms”.  The very best of the lot in 1954 was “Them”, a candidate for an Oscar had there been a category for enormous ants.  1955 was a busy year and gave us “It Came From Beneath the Sea”, “The Beast With a Million Eyes”, and “This Island Earth”.  Never getting a well-deserved break 1956 saw the monsters in “It Conquered the World”,  “The Creature Walks Among Us”, “Attach of the Crab Monsters”, and “The beast of Hollow Mountain”. 1957 steps up the pace with “The Amazing Colossal Man”, “The Monolithic Monsters”, “The Giant Claw”, “The Astonishing She-Monster”, and “Invasion of the Saucer Man”.

Just when it seemed that surely the over-worked, over-stressed monsters could not continue this hectic performance the following years right up to 1959 provided “The Blob”, “The Terror From Outer Space”, “The Atomic Submarine” and “Attack of the Giant Leeches”.  Admittedly this last hinted at a slight loss of vigor, a certain lessening of élan — perhaps because the subject lacked the cozy familiarity of ants, crabs and spiders.  In any case it was just not the same after that. Most of the monsters returned from whence they came and sadly the next decades featured them if all, in cruel parodies.  “The Attach of the Killer Tomatoes” in 1979 shamefully ended their once Golden Reign.

While the monsters may have retreated to lick their wounds, left behind were the actors who had been regulars in many of these low budget B movies.  A few had been so closely associated with the genre that their careers in film were cut short.  Best known for escaping this fate was James Arness, the monster in “The Thing”, who soon found himself helping out John Wayne in “Big Jim McClain” and incinerating giant ants in “Them” before going to Gun Smoke fame.  Another is Barbara Rush, lucky enough to distance herself from “This Island Earth” and “When Worlds Collide” and find important roles in the 1954 “Magnificent Obsession”, “The Young Philadelphians” in ’59 and a respectable long run in Hollywood films.  Faith Domergue was less fortunate.  After a promising start in film she was given a supporting role in “This Island Earth” and “It came from Beneath the Sea”, wound up in “Prehistoric Planet Women” in 1966.

An actor who managed to benefit from the B stigma was Kenneth Tobey who was such an ubiquitous figure in the monster movies he created an illusion that he must somehow have been in all of them.  Any film title that included the words ‘beast’, ‘terror’, ‘invaders’, ‘outer space” or ‘strange’ would almost certainly see Kenneth Tobey in some part or another.  In tribute of sorts later films found him in cameo roles — “Inner Space”, “Gremlins”, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, among others.

The good decade and the Golden Age of movie monsters and mutants has long gone by but we should recall and heed the words that closed the 1951 “The Thing From Outer Space”:

“I bring you warning — to everyone of you listening to the sound of my voice. Tell the world, tell this to everyone where ever they are: Watch the skies, watch everywhere, keep looking — watch the skies!”

Damn right, I say.