Those Fabulously Dreadful 50’s Monster Movies Pt. 1
High ambitions, low budgets – it’s easy to forget how enjoyable the American SF movies of the 1950s are. In ‘It Conquered The World’ the space mission appears to be run from a standard-sized motel room, and as glaring greaseball Lee Van Clef announces that Venusians are on their way to colonise the Earth his wife proves less than supportive; ‘Please come to bed, you’ll feel better in the morning.’ All power on our planet ceases, indicated by stock shots of idle dockyards and one of a record player slowing down.
When the Venusian appears to an accompanying glissando of wobbly strings and flutes it looks like a piece of skate with eyeballs. ‘Must be some kind of cave-bat,’ says Peter Graves knowingly. ‘What do you mean, ‘de-energised’?’ asks Beverly Garland, puzzled. ‘Does it mean the faucets won’t work?’
Luckily nobody seems too bothered and spends a lot of time discussing snacks and cocktails. Dick Miller turns up. Wobbles the cave-bat attacks anyone who goes for a stroll in Laurel Canyon, making a noise like a shorting-out toaster whenever it drains someone of all emotions. ‘No need for newspapers now,’ says a lobotomised policeman, ‘they’re nothing but a useless stack of ideas and notions.’ Of course what we’re dealing with here is the fear of creeping Socialism; after all, it’s America 1956.
Most of the action is limited to what appears to be Lucille Ball’s lounge until Beverly Garland ventures out and corners the cave-bat’s controller, a horned conical cucumber with crab-claws and glowing eyes. ‘You’re ugly! Horrible! Try your intellect on me!’ yells Beverly, looking damn good in a tight sweater. Van Clef is disappointed with the alien and burns its eye out with an ordinary blowlamp before tipping it on its side. ‘I made you welcome to this earth – you made it a charnel house!’ he cries. It’s left to Peter Graves to deliver a Dreadful Warning to the people of Earth over a stock-shot of stars.
Meanwhile, over at ‘The Monster That Challenged The World’, an earthquake releases something into the Salton Sea, California’s inland salt lake. A sailor does a brilliant scream as he’s consumed by the released creature, which look like a really big caterpillar that leaves its victims with bugged-out eyes. A cute little girl called Sandy turns up with her mother and a completely out-of-place romantic subplot develops. A mortician discusses sandwiches. The guy who played Dr Terwillicker in ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T’ turns up as a scientist; a bad sign. Geiger counters are waved about. Someone tries to close the beach and a strange retro-Jaws vibe develops.
Divers discover jumbo sea-snails. No amount of urgent music can disguise the fact that much of the film consists of people talking about lunch options or making phone calls. Sandy and her mum are trapped in a broom cupboard by a giant roaming mollusc, which is dispatched with a hose.
But over at 1957’s ‘The Monolith Monsters’, a narrator warns us that Earth is under attack from ‘bits and pieces of the universe’, one of which brings a deadly menace; rocks. We’re back at the Salton Sea again, in a town that looks like Hill Valley in ‘Back To The Future’. In the lab, there’s a way of discovering what those weird rocks are up to; get a hammer and thump them.
You can learn a lot about venetian blinds by studying these films. In the striped darkness the rocks (which looks suspiciously like lumps of tar) bubble and grow, but only do it when the camera isn’t on them. As they petrify anyone they touch it’s probably a bad time to take a wagonful of kids into the desert for a science lesson. A cute moppet finds two lizards and the teacher tells her ‘they’re husband and wife’. A scientist messing with test tubes in a venetian-blind-covered lab is puzzled by technical terms. ‘Negative cleavage?’ he asks, and is treated to a pulse-sapping lecture on silicates.
The moppet wakes up in an iron lung, and Earth’s power goes out again. We’re now three quarters of the way through this flick without a single creature appearing, but it’s worth the wait because some decent miniature work shows how the rocks plan to take over the world – by falling over on people.
Typically for such movies, horrified bystanders are never seen in the same shot as the creatures, and women exist to ask dumb questions between delivering beverages. The films have now become instructional for unintentionally revealing the truth about the 1950s; conformists must fight back against anything ‘weird’ or face being taken over by godless Socialists who will wreak havoc on their way of life, filling newspapers with useless stacks of ideas and notions.