1950: House By the River
Well, we’ve finally reached it—the year that might be the absolute nadir for horror, as far as this century project is concerned. Suffice to say, there’s barely anything for us to choose from here, to the point that one has to ask questions like “Does Sunset Boulevard count as horror?” Great film though Billy Wilder’s picture may be, and suitably disturbing at times, we can’t in good conscience refer to it as a “horror movie.”
Some of the only films that qualify for that kind of distinction in 1950 were produced outside of the U.S. In the U.K., there’s a so-so adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, which preceded the well-regarded American version from Roger Corman that would arrive a decade later. And in Mexico, we have “The Man Without a Face,” El Hombre Sin Rostro, which is a low-budget entry that lands somewhere between film noir and horror-thriller. Other than that? Almost nothing. Horror is at its least culturally relevant here, but the next few years will begin to reclaim it from obscurity via its fusion with a film genre that had come into its own, post-war vogue: Science fiction.
1950 Honorable Mentions:
The Fall of the House of Usher, El Hombre Sin Rostro
The Film: House By the River
Director: Fritz Lang
It’s interesting how the silent, German filmography of director Fritz Lang seems to be significantly better known to film geeks these days than his later American output, considering the fact that Lang spent 1936-1960 directing a steady stream of dramas, noirs and thrillers in Hollywood—more than 25 in all. Although we understandably revere the man for his utterly groundbreaking work in foundational, wildly imaginative films such as Metropolis, M and Dr. Mabuse, his American features proved Lang’s ability to change and adapt with the times, grafting his mastery of visual motifs and shadow onto emerging genres as they arrived. He was by no means only a silent era director, and films like House By the River show his American stylings at their best, even if it’s not as well known as noirs such as The Big Heat.
This is a sultry, muggy sort of noir, with elements of stifling Southern Gothic in its darkened manor houses and sweaty browlines. Although it has some of the same “country noir” leanings we mentioned in this series’ entry on 1947’s The Red House, this is less a story about the long-buried sins of rural folks, and more a character profile of a privileged scoundrel’s deceitful attempt to preserve himself at all costs, even if it means throwing his own family to the wolves.
Actor Louis Hayward is a consummate noir slimeball here as Stephen, a diminished novelist whose glory days are behind him, leaving him to putter around the family estate and lust after the hired help. When a drunken outburst leaves the family maid dead at Stephen’s hands, he immediately ropes his good-natured brother into helping dispose of the body, which is dumped into the titular river. But these crimes, of course, can never stay buried for long … and what better fall guy is there than the brother you’ve always resented? Hayward plays the character beautifully, with early scenes establishing his capacity for compassion, just to make his inhumanity toward his own family that much more despicable in the end.
And then, of course, there’s the river itself. Lang’s camera obsesses over the natural features of the river, making its muddy water a character in and of itself. There’s an air of magical realism in the way Lang frames the river as first a willing accomplice and eventually a turncoat traitor in Stephen’s crimes, to the point that you half expect the novelist to rebuke its betrayal. Fish leap out of its waters, seemingly attempt to flee whatever malice is harbored there. The lazy passage of the water is oddly mesmerizing.
All in all, House by the River makes for one of the era’s more underrated, low-budget noirs, benefiting greatly from an increasingly unhinged central performance and the presence of Lang’s always professional direction to achieve a well-defined mood of constant guilt and unease.
1951: The Thing From Another World
After years of dormancy and diminishing returns, the horror genre finds the seeds in 1951 of its resurrection, at least in the U.S.—a partnership with the rapidly evolving science fiction genre. Although 1952 will be another weak crop, before a revival begins in earnest around 1953, this year at least gives us more to talk about than the two that preceded it.
Providing a bridge to the past is the best of the Abbott and Costello “Meet” sequels, Meet the Invisible Man, now playing the character entirely for laughs rather than chills or thrills. It works fine; The Invisible Man was never one of the more frightening Universal Monsters anyway. Nevertheless, it confirms that the era of the frightening gothic monster film seems to have passed—the public has become jaded, and is no longer shocked by the sight of a vampire or werewolf. They want to be menaced by new figures that are relevant to 1950s popular culture, and appearances like Boris Karloff’s in this year’s The Strange Door seem particularly old fashioned.
Films like The Man From Planet X or The Day the Earth Stood Still, on the other hand, reflect the emerging zeitgeist much more clearly, catching the “saucer age” of the U.S. in full bloom, and the sudden national obsession with alien invaders, presented as a not-at-all subtle proxy for Cold War/Soviet tensions. Some of these films, like The Man From Planet X, are easier to slot into the horror genre for the fact that they’re primarily attempting to titillate and frighten an audience, whereas The Day the Earth Stood Still has loftier philosophical and pacifistic aspirations, not unlike those possessed by Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. The Day the Earth Stood Still seems particularly unimpressed with the technological advances of the past decade, with a pessimistic outlook on human nature that assumes we’ll almost certainly destroy ourselves in the end—worries that still seem pretty well founded decades later, even if we managed to avoid an immediate nuclear holocaust after developing The Bomb. The film has such a low opinion of humanity, in fact, that it seems to support the idea of its alien visitors stripping our species of its agency, for our own good, precisely because we can’t be trusted with it.
1951 Honorable Mentions:
The Day the Earth Stood Still, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Five, The Man From Planet X, The Strange Door
The Film: The Thing From Another World
Director: Christian Nyby
If The Day the Earth Stood Still is distrustful of the inability of humanity’s leaders to avoid an impending conflict that could destroy life as we know it, then The Thing From Another World is more representative of the common man’s deep, paranoiac distrust of his own Cold War neighbor, in much the same manner as Invasion of the Body Snatchers from later in the decade. The fear here isn’t one of inherently corrupted human nature in a new, technological age, but rather that the mysterious Other will infiltrate and destroy us—from without, rather than “within,” in this case. Unlike John Carpenter’s 1982 remake, the “Thing” here doesn’t insidiously imitate or subsume the identities and bodies of those it kills. It’s more like a bridge between the lumbering monsters of 1940s horror cinema and the outer space-inspired killers of the new era, albeit with a new, Communist subtext.
Debate has long raged about who truly directed The Thing From Another World, with some primary sources claiming that producer Howard Hawks was behind the camera on a daily basis, but we should be less concerned about the name receiving top billing and more focused on The Thing as a top-flight work of isolated paranoia and suspense. Its crew of scientists, military suits and journalists, all holed up in a North Pole research station, should by all logic be united in their resistance against an invading force from another world, but instead are divided by aspects of personal interest. The military wishes to destroy the creature, for the sake of national security. The scientists want to communicate, refusing to accept what is pretty clearly a case of hostile intent. And the writer, like so many film journalists, mostly wants to file the “story of a lifetime” for his own, self-aggrandizing ends. Whose response to the presence of a blood-drinking plant alien is most inherently flawed?
Regardless of what side one comes down on, The Thing From Another World is a gripping sci-fi thriller, with effective camera work that plays up the “no escape” isolation of being in a location that is inherently hostile to human life. The sequence where the clustered scientists and military men are backed into a corner by the advancing, backlit Thing as it smashes through the door and stands, highlighted against the arctic cold, is a classic of the genre. The fact that the creature is met with liquid fire (and later an electrical trap) feels like an atom-age update on how the Universal monsters were so often destroyed—by elements of nature, tamed by man’s science, used to drive back that which should not be.
The Thing From Another World launches a grand age of space and alien exploitation at the movies, which will last throughout the decade. From Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and War of the Worlds to Invaders From Mars, It Came From Outer Space or The Blob, the nation had found its latest and greatest bogeyman—and horror was happy for the assist.
1952: The White Reindeer
For the last time in the early 1950s, we have a year with very little horror output—at least from the American film industry, anyway. Even after the arrival of American sci-fi horror films in 1950 and 1951, this year is a serious gap, salvaged only by a collection of diverse horror flicks from outside the U.S.
From Germany we have Mandragore, a film that stoked fears about the ethical ramifications of the scientific breakthrough of artificial insemination, in a tale about a “soulless” woman born as the result of a science experiment gone wrong. The U.K. contributes Ghost Ship, while Finland produces the influential, vampiric horror-fantasy The White Reindeer.
The few low-key films produced in the U.S., meanwhile, feel a bit like they’re clinging to the past. The Black Castle stars Karloff in a gothic romance tale with only mild horror elements, while the farcical Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is exactly as derivative and inessential as that title would make it sound—a film that could easily have been produced in 1942 rather than 1952. All in all, this is a real low point for American-produced horror, but 1953 will be the start of a serious revival.
1952 Honorable Mentions:
Beware, My Lovely, Mandragore, Ghost Ship, The Black Castle
The Film: The White Reindeer
Director: Erik Blomberg
Nearly 70 years before Ari Aster’s Midsommar exposed many genre fans to the thought of horrific actions occurring in broad daylight under the unnatural, perpetual glare of the midnight sun, The White Reindeer already contained kernels of the very same idea. Produced in Finland and shot in Lapland, the country’s northernmost point, there’s an authentic element of agoraphobic isolation present in this film that is impossible to fake. It automatically ramps up the tension in every scene, being armed with the knowledge that these people are impossibly distant from any form of help or rescue.
The White Reindeer is a truly fantastical film, whose snowscapes dotted with occasional dead trees make it stand out in beautiful black-and-white contrast. Tonally, it’s an utterly unique hodgepodge of genre influences, teetering between Eastern European fantasy and the noir-inflected American psychological horror films of Val Lewton—especially Cat People, with which this movie shares some serious thematic DNA. It’s the story of a woman named Pirita, played fabulously by Finnish actress Mirjami Kuosmanen, who meets a man and settles down in a remote country homestead. But with her husband often away for long periods, the young wife grows remorsefully lonely, pining for companionship. After visiting a local shaman for a solution to her problem, Pirita finds the results are more than she bargained for, being cursed with a condition that begins leaving the area’s … thirsty … young men as frozen corpses.
What we have here, then, is one part fairytale and one part psychological horror meltdown, leaning heavily on its contrastingly bright and shadowy cinematography and the strength with which Kuosmanen sells her transformation into something more than human. The landscapes, accessible only by ski and sled, give the story an alien air to it, as if these characters are explorers living on the surface of a foreign world, rather than the same planet where throngs of tourists are simultaneously walking down the streets of London or Paris. The unbearably cold bleakness of those frozen landscapes are the film’s signature; imagery it shares with only a few other notable horror films, especially the second portion of horror anthology Kwaidan, “The Woman of the Snow.”
If you’re tired of sampling horror cinema with an overreliance on classical genre tropes, gothic manors or monsters, then The White Reindeer will likely feel like a mystical breath of (frigidly cold) fresh air. It goes a long way toward salvaging 1952, in what is otherwise a notably weak year.
1953: House of Wax
Finally, after nearly a six-year gap since 1947, we have a year where the horror genre feels like it’s been fully reanimated. Via both its fusion with science fiction, and the evolution of classical horror into the Technicolor era—simultaneously an era of brand new gimmicks and styles of presentation—the genre managed to introduce itself to a new generation of filmgoers.
1953 proves to be a highly influential year for a number of sub-genres. In particular, the “giant atomic monster” movie gets its start here in the form of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, featuring the unleashed stop-motion animation talents of Ray Harryhausen. Audiences had been primed for the tale by the 1952 theatrical re-release of King Kong, with special effects from Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien, but The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is notable for the way its rampaging monster, a fictional “Rhedosaurus” dinosaur, is explicitly stated to have been released from polar ice via atom bomb testing. This fascination with nuclear weaponry as an instigating factor or scapegoat would be used to endless length in the creature feature revival of the 1950s, as giant reptiles or insects took on the physical role of embodying the existential fear of an epoch. Many different styles of special effects would be used to bring such creatures to life over the course of the next decade, but few retain the charm of Harryhausen’s intricately detailed models and miniatures.
On the “closer to straight science fiction” front comes this year’s monumental adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, notable for both its expansive budget and groundbreaking FX work, although the quality of its miniatures suffered in subsequent digital transfers, which made sights such as the strings holding up Martian war machines more visible. Regardless, this was an alien invasion story presented in a way that one hadn’t been before: With an “A” budget, recognizable actors and a palpable sense of gravitas, playing more like a war drama than a true horror film. It became the gold standard against which lower-budget entries such as Invaders From Mars would be judged, even though Invaders was rushed into theaters before War of the Worlds to claim the title of the first colorized “flying saucer” film.
1953 is also home to the first major wave of 3D features in cinema history, although aspects of the technology had existed as early as 1922. Bwana Devil, an independent exploitation film about man-eating lions, had proven a surprising success in limited release in 1952, spurring the development of 3D features from major film studios. The first, noir thriller Man in the Dark, arrived this year, only two days before the first color 3D feature from a major studio was released: House of Wax.
1953 Honorable Mentions:
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The War of the Worlds, It Came From Outer Space, Invaders From Mars, Scared Stiff, Man in the Dark
The Film: House of Wax
Director: André De Toth
In addition to the already described cross-pollination of the horror genre with science fiction in the early 1950s, the genre simultaneously split off along a different classifiable tangent: A return to classical spookiness, albeit presented with a new attitude of camp and gimmickry. It was as if horror directors of the era were making their films with some acknowledgement that audiences were harder to scare than they once were, and expected some other element of entertainment to get them into their seats. This they often received in the form of ostentatious presentation gimmicks, such as those perfected by producer William Castle in the close of the decade, or from films that latched onto emerging technologies such as the first major craze for 3D features. Visually, House of Wax might be compared to a colorized (and gaudier), 3D riff on the aesthetics of a film as old as Universal’s Phantom of the Opera, but unlike that film, it’s harder to imagine producers genuinely believed audiences would be screaming and fainting in the aisles at the villain’s climactic unmasking. We’re instead leaning on technological novelty this time around, and the wry sense of humor and thespian sophistication that always accompanies the presence of the film’s star: Vincent Price.
The film is a loose remake of the Michael Curtiz-directed, 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum, telling the story of a brilliant wax figure sculptor whose museum of priceless sculptures is burned down by a duplicitous business partner, resulting in the permanent scarring of Price’s naive artist, Henry Jarrod. The unhinged sculptor then returns years later, intent on both revenge and rebuilding his collection of cherished faces … by any means necessary. Things only get worse when he meets a woman who looks just like his lost masterpiece—a thematic callback very much like Karloff’s lost love in The Mummy—and becomes intent on making her a permanent addition to the exhibition. Cue arched eyebrow and equally arch remark.
As for the 3D gimmick, it’s actually fairly unobtrusive toward the film itself—certainly, the film isn’t full of completely shameless exhibitions of the technology, as one would see decades later in something like Friday the 13th Part 3D. Only a few sequences have been obviously (and tackily) sutured to the film for the express intent of showcasing the 3D technology—most amusingly, a paddle ball performer who repeatedly sends his ball on a string careening in the direction of the audience while essentially breaking the fourth wall. It’s guaranteed to get a laugh, when watching House of Wax in any modern screening. Contemporary audiences certainly didn’t care, as the film went on to become the highest-grossing 3D feature until it was eclipsed by 1969’s shamelessly softcore The Stewardesses.
Despite being a technological milestone, though, House of Wax was ultimately far more influential in the sense that it was Price’s first big starring role within the horror genre—a stepping stone that helped create a horror icon, decades into a career that had been typified largely by dramatic performances. Contrary to popular belief, Price wouldn’t immediately be typecast as a constant horror leading man following House of Wax, as he continued to appear in a variety of films until the end of the decade and his subsequent run of films with William Castle and Roger Corman, which included everything from The Fly and The Tingler to House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death. To anyone who was watching, though House of Wax hinted at numerous classic performances to come—especially the revenge-seeking Price characters seen in films such as Theatre of Blood or The Abominable Dr. Phibes. When it came to grandiose revenge, nobody did it quite like Vincent Price.
The intermingling of horror and science fiction cinema is in full swing here in 1954, as the two genres combine to create some of the features we think of as being most indelibly tied to the imagery of “1950s monster movies.” The most prominent and long-lasting in its appeal and impact is of course Godzilla, given that it’s been receiving sequels for more than 65 years now, including 2019’s King of the Monsters. It’s hard to overstate what a persistent and foundational presence Godzilla has been in both Japanese and American pop culture, informing on some level every other representation of giant monsters in the years that followed.
In the moment, however, there’s little doubt that in the American market, the most immediately influential horror film of the year was Them! This tale of radioactive, giant ants laid the foundation for so many of the “big bug” and “radioactive monster” films that quickly followed that it was practically a complete template for every subsequent offering, from The Deadly Mantis to The Black Scorpion, The Giant Gila Monster and Empire of the Ants. These films weren’t exactly delicate in their nuclear age paranoia, and were less than scientific in their depiction of the effect of radiation on living tissue, but when you really get down to it, there’s nothing here any less realistic than the content of comparable, modern B movies like Birdemic or Geostorm. In any era, there will be audience members who would prefer to be titillated by the fantastically anthropomorphized worst case scenarios of current pop cultural fears, like giant monsters, rather than grapple with the reality of how things like nuclear proliferation or climate change might genuinely mean mankind’s destruction. In 1954, it was simply easier to dismiss a giant ant puppet than it was to dismiss the reality of Kruschev amassing an ever-growing nuclear arsenal. As ever, movies represented a brief respite from such harsh truths.
Other notables from 1954 include Alfred Hitchcock’s relentlessly entertaining, single-location thriller Rear Window, which is certainly horror adjacent but difficult to give the top spot in any kind of proper horror count-down; Gog, which set plenty of the tropes for future “killer robots on the loose” movies such as Chopping Mall; and Creature From the Black Lagoon, the oft-forgotten last proper entry in the original Universal Monsters cycle, filmed in 3D but largely presented in 2D thanks to the gimmick’s popularity fading into obscurity relatively quickly. Although the titular Creature, also referred to as “Gill-Man,” is typically counted among the earlier Universal Monsters, the film itself feels like something of an outlier—a would-be science fiction horror film with hints of an ecological message, hampered by dated tone and structure that feel straight out of the early 1940s. Thanks to the sight of the radiant Julie Adams in her iconic white bathing suit, though, the film has managed to retain a certain vivid place in the collective memories of those who came of age in the 1950s.
1954 Honorable Mentions:
Rear Window, Them!, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Gog, Target Earth, The Witch
The Film: Godzilla
Director: Ishirô Honda
Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla is one of the more unusual films to ever kick-start a franchise that has persisted for more than half a century, precisely because the franchise that was spawned from the film has so little in common, for the most part, with the original outing. When members of the American public hear the word “Godzilla” today, they think in terms of colorful kaiju battles, explosions, gaudy FX and silly rubber suits. That’s not Honda’s Godzilla—or as we should probably say, Gojira. His was a film with bleak, apocalyptic overtones; a meditation on the omnipresent anxiety his nation was experiencing, an inescapable awareness of mortality for the entire human race. You would not have walked out of a Japanese theater in 1954, thinking that the monster known as Godzilla would end up portrayed as a protector of the Earth—that’s a modern reclamation of how a technological discovery like nuclear power can be made to serve man, rather than destroy him. More likely, you would have seen Godzilla for what he was: An anthropomorphized figurehead of our swiftly approaching demise. And it would probably have scared the hell out of you.
As such, Godzilla truly is a genuinely spooky film at times—the only entry in the series, with the possible exception of 2016’s Shin Godzilla, that actually plays something like a horror film. One must keep in mind that it was released a mere 10 years after the first atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the blink of an eye. The nation had barely come to any terms with the civilian slaughter that ended the second world war, much less dealt with those feelings via the allegory of film. It all spills onto the screen in Godzilla, though, from the shots of bloodied civilians lying dead on their backs in the rubble to the cries of the wounded as they lay in overcrowded hospital hallways with no one to help them. These are the types of events that can be assumed to occur in any Godzilla film, but later entries in the series rarely have any interest in depicting that sort of human toll. It’s hard to focus on the petty thrills of kaiju combat, after all, when you’re considering how many innocent souls have been wiped out in each building that crumbles to dust.
The film’s human protagonists, likewise, are faced with the responsibility of making decisions that those citizens of Japan were denied in the war. The noble Dr. Serizawa resists all initial efforts to cajole him into using his newly discovered “Oxygen Destroyer” to combat Godzilla, believing that the effectiveness of such a device will only spur the creation of new and more terrifying weapons. He chooses to make the ultimate sacrifice, destroying his knowledge along with his life, to both protect his nation from the threat of Godzilla and ensure that no one else follows his own dark path to an apocalyptic conclusion.
If there’s one sequence in Godzilla that truly captures the mournful vibe, it’s the choir of young schoolgirls singing composer Akira Ifukube’s haunting “Prayer For Peace,” which infuses all the shots it overlays with an incredibly powerful, sobering feeling of gravitas. It confirms aurally that Godzilla, like so many other horror films, is ultimately about psychological trauma and the hope for healing and redemption, even if mankind as a species rarely deserves it.
1955: The Night of the Hunter
The film industry’s horror output has definitely improved for the better by the time we reach 1955, a year that is toplined by two classics that could easily headline almost any year of this list—provided you categorize either as horror, of course. The Night of the Hunter is a grim American fairy tale with ethereal cinematography, grossly misunderstood in its initial release, while Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques is a pitch-perfect, pulpy murder mystery that presaged the coming era of giallo and slasher films in many ways. We ultimately chose Night of the Hunter, but here’s some additional words on Les Diaboliques, which you should absolutely watch, from Paste’s own Dom Sinacola:
Watching Les Diaboliques through the lens of the modern horror film, especially the slasher flick—replete with un-killable villain (check); ever-looming jump scares (check); and a “final girl” of sorts (check?)—one would not have to squint too hard to see a new genre coming into being. You could even make a case for Clouzot’s canonization in horror, but to take the film on only those terms would miss just how masterfully the iconic French director could wield tension. Nothing about Les Diaboliques dips into the scummy waters of cheap thrills.
The rest of the year feels extremely “1950s” in its output, as it probably should: We’re smack in the middle of the decade. Giant monster movies like Tarantula are running amok, with more excellent Harryhausen stop-motion animation in It Came From Beneath the Sea, in which a giant octopus at one point destroys the Golden Gate Bridge. Additional sci-fi horror films from this year include The Quatermass Xperiment, which is considered the birth of the British horror revival at Hammer Film Productions, and the lush but cheesy This Island Earth, which would go on to be the main course featured in the theatrically released MST3K: The Movie, 41 years later.
Beyond that, there’s still a plethora of others one could mention, from Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy to Universal’s Revenge of the Creature and the first Godzilla sequel, Godzilla Raids Again. Truly, it feels good to put the lean years of the late 1940s and early 1950s behind us.
1955 Honorable Mentions:
Diabolique, Tarantula, It Came From Beneath the Sea, The Quatermass Xperiment, Dementia, This Island Earth
The Film: The Night of the Hunter
Director: Charles Laughton
When Charles Laughton passed away in 1962, following an Academy Award-decorated career as one of Hollywood’s more recognizable and respected performers, it was sadly under the impression that his sole directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter, had been some kind of failure. For a film that is now often cited as one of the best of the 1950s, or even the very best that the decade has to offer, it’s fascinating to puzzle over how the contemporary critical reaction could have been so cool. Film writers of the day looked at the movie and called it old-fashioned, or stilted. They seemed unimpressed by the evocative, dreamy cinematography of Stanley Cortez, or the icily seductive performance of Robert Mitchum, in the role of a lifetime. Somehow, The Night of the Hunter instead became one of those movies cited as an influence by a cadre of up-and-coming auteurs in the New Hollywood generation, and its stock rose with the fortunes of its disciples.
Adapted from the 1953 David Grubb novel of the same name, The Night of the Hunter is a brooding thriller with elements of Southern Gothic and expressionistic horror. Calling upon works by directors such as Paul Leni and F.W. Murnau for inspiration, Laughton imagined West Virginia as a silent, wide-open (but shadow-stalked) place of fantastical beauty and hidden peril for the innocent. The story plays like an adult fairy tale: A family with two young children is menaced by an imposter who joins the community under a pretense, looking for a hidden treasure. Only the kids can see through his murderous intent, but will they be able to convince anyone of what’s happening right under their noses before it’s too late?
Mitchum’s performance here, as the magnetic and sonorous “Rev.” Harry Powell, ranks among the all-time great film antagonists. Powell is the male equivalent of a “black widow,” moving in with lonely women to bleed them dry and eventually leave bodies behind in his wake. Ending up in jail for an unrelated crime, he becomes aware that his cellmate, who is sentenced to death, left behind the score of a bank heist, with only his children knowing its location. What’s left for Powell, after his release, but to cozy up to another widow? This he does with honey-dripping flattery, always with icy-cold intention in the back of his eyes, regarding this woman and her children as tools to be used and discarded as soon as possible. Powell carries himself like a man without a care in the world, whistling mirthlessly wherever he goes. He acts as if he genuinely believes that God approves of his actions, and we pray that he must be mistaken—because if he’s not, we’re all in trouble.
Visually, the film is both beautiful and distinctive, with scenescapes of the West Virginia countryside that evoke the wild, dangerous wildernesses of folk tales by the Brothers Grimm and the folksy, rural ramblings of Mark Twain at the same time. Danger pools in the shadows of overgrown hedges and trees. Sunlight filters down through the shimmering water of a river and the gently waving hair of a submerged corpse, still in her nightgown. It all feels like a dream you’ll struggle to piece together the next morning, only to have it slip away a little more, the harder you concentrate.
There’s no other film with quite the same feel as The Night of the Hunter. It remains an American classic; one that now receives, more or less, the esteem that it always deserved.
1956: The Bad Seed
1956 is perhaps a touch weaker than the years that surround it, where we wouldn’t bother putting the likes of The Creature Walks Among Us into the list of honorable mentions, but thanks to a handful of classics it’s still a fairly strong year overall.
Yet another adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame graced the silver screen this year, this time starring Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo, but it’s less consequential than either the Charles Laughton or Lon Chaney versions of the same story. More accurately capturing the current zeitgeist is Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which borrows the motifs of The War of the Worlds but capitalizes on the real life saucer craze of the era, brought to life through Ray Harryhausen’s state-of-the-art effects. The film contains numerous stop-motion FX shots that are now classics, especially the entire UFO attack on Washington D.C., which includes the sight of a crashing saucer smashing its way through the Washington Monument, which splinters like a toothpick. Harryhausen’s designs for the saucers themselves would become genre staples in their own right, as the static central cabin and rotating outer disc were often used as shorthand descriptions for a “typical” UFO, themselves symbols of 1950s science fiction.
It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though, that stands as 1956’s other gem. Don Siegel’s film is the first of several adaptations of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, and although it lacks some of the more stomach-churningly weird sights of Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake (like that man-faced dog!), it makes up for it with solid performances and its uniquely bright, complacent portrayal of human society being destroyed from within. As so many others have observed since the film’s first release, it’s the ultimate Red Scare-era parable for the coming conflict of East vs. West, emotionless collectivist vs. passionate individualist cultures, tapping into the simmering fear that the nation’s very identity was being secretly undermined by outsiders. The fact that the assimilations and “pod people” creations happen while we sleep only deepens the metaphor, implying the need for constant, ceaseless vigilance. Of course, these themes have kept Invasion of the Body Snatchers painfully relevant at any time in American history when xenophobia is running rampant, today being no exception. Embroiled as we are in another culture war revolving around oft-racist accusations of “un-American” behavior, there’s never been a better time to revisit the film than right now.
1956 Honorable Mentions:
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rodan, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Creature Walks Among Us, X the Unknown
The Film: The Bad Seed
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
If Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the ultimate Cold War parable, then The Bad Seed is the ultimate cinematic argument in favor of “nature” over “nurture,” when it comes to the root of pure psychopathy. There have been a lot of evil little kids in the history of American horror cinema, but few as chilling self-righteous about their superiority as little Rhoda.
That’s arguably the most unsettling thing about 8-year-old Rhoda Penmark: She has no easily understandable reason for being the way she is, no excuse for the audience to fall back on in attempting to rationalize her behavior. She isn’t the victim of some form of serial abuse. She has two loving parents, although father Kenneth is absent due to his military duties. She has a comfortable upbringing, and is never implied to be the victim of discrimination or bullying. Rather, Rhoda is the bully, for no other reason than the fact that she’s determined she can get away with it. Does it make her character arguably less complex than one who has been shaped by a tragic past or corrupted by negative influences? Perhaps, but having no obvious impetus for her behavior also makes Rhoda that much more frightening. It implies the possibility of every parent’s worst fear: What if your kid is born wrong on the inside, and there’s literally nothing you can do about it? It presages the same painful realizations Tilda Swinton has to suffer through in We Need to Talk About Kevin, more than 50 years later.
That very scenario makes Nancy Kelly’s performance as Rhoda’s mother, Christine, powerfully sympathetic, with a bitter air of hopelessness. She’s reminiscent of Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist, trying to hold a family together as the unsettling clues start building up, looking likely to crack under the strain at any moment. You don’t blame her for being desperate, so desperate, to believe every one of Rhoda’s excuses and rationalizations. After all, everyone else does. In fact, one gets the sense that even more than the dark stain within Rhoda’s soul, Christine fears the inevitability of how impossible it will be to convince others of what she slowly comes to realize about her daughter. She fears being labeled as an unfit mother for daring to show anything other than unconditional love at all times.
And Rhoda, psychopath that she is, capitalizes on these opportunities. Actress Patty McCormack is terrifying in The Bad Seed as the little hellion, who switches so casually between sweet flattery, faux sincerity and cruel displays of power. She has the supreme egomania of someone who regards all the other people around her as non-humans—in her mind, they aren’t individuals, they’re merely the herd. This she displays with startling maturity, possessing the depth of sophistication necessary to both understand social dynamics but operate completely outside of them. She understands precisely what it would mean to be detected, and to see that cunning in the eyes of an 8-year-old, it’s hard to look at any child the same way again.
1957: The Incredible Shrinking Man
We’ve entered the late 1950s, and the total volume of horror films being produced has gone into overdrive. The sci-fi/horror crossover is still going strong, with wave after wave of (rather cookie-cutter) giant monster movies such as The Deadly Mantis, The Amazing Colossal Man (more MST3K alums) and The Giant Claw, but this year also sees one of the pinnacles of the genre in the form of The Incredible Shrinking Man. Indeed, this era represents one of the peaks for science fiction as a populist film genre in general, coinciding as it did with the launch of the Sputnik satellite and the start of the space race.
At the same time, though, a noticeable evolution is making its presence felt in the horror genre: The rebirth of classical gothic horror, after a period of dormancy. You can see it in the film titles this year, which feature (around the globe) multiple vampire films, multiple “Frankenstein” films and I Was a Teenage Werewolf, to boot. Something is in the water, and the archetypes established via the Universal monsters are starting to come back into vogue.
Chief among the revivalists is a company whose name will appear steadily in these entries for the next decade, and then some: Britain’s Hammer Film Productions. Beginning with this year’s Curse of Frankenstein, the company would launch a gloriously colorized series of classical, gothic monster movies, reawakening old terrors associated with characters such as Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, mummies and werewolves, now presented in the lurid new tones of Eastmancolor, where pulses of bright arterial blood became the gruesome new standard. Benefitting from atmospheric set pieces and stylish direction by the likes of Terence Fisher, the newly christened concept of “Hammer Horror” would launch a new wave of imitators throughout Europe (especially Italy) and the U.S.A., proving that the horror genre didn’t necessarily need to lean on science fiction in order to be successful.
It was The Curse of Frankenstein that led the way, a film that was very difficult to keep out of the top spot for 1957—but fear not, as Hammer will be well represented in subsequent years. Starring the duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who would become the two faces most associated with Hammer Horror productions, the film reevaluates the legacy of Universal’s Frankenstein films by cleverly shifting its focus away from the monster and onto the doctor himself. Whereas the Universal Dr. Frankenstein portrayed by Colin Clive, or his sons portrayed by Basil Rathbone and Cedric Hardwicke are all characterized as well-intentioned scientists who get swept up in the heady thrill of discovery and don’t realize their faults until it’s too late, Cushing’s Frankenstein is an imperious cad, through and through. A brilliant but egotistical rake, this Frankenstein doesn’t hesitate to resort to dirty tactics or outright murder to get what he wants, believing that the importance of his prospective discoveries will mean that the ends will justify whatever means he chooses to employ. In order to bring his creation to life, he’ll put friends and family into danger time and time again, making it clear that although Lee’s monster is hideous to behold, it’s clearly Dr. Frankenstein who is the film’s villain—traits that would be inherited by other film characters such as Re-Animator’s Herbert West, some 30 years later. The film would go on to inspire a bevy of sequels, in which Dr. Frankenstein gradually becomes something of an anti-hero, descending ever deeper into his desperation to perfect his scientific breakthrough.
1957 Honorable Mentions:
The Curse of Frankenstein, Night of the Demon, Quatermass 2, 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Deadly Mantis, Lust of the Vampire, The Amazing Colossal Man
The Film: The Incredible Shrinking Man
Director: Jack Arnold
A pinnacle achievement in 1950s special effects and the concept of the science fiction horror-thriller in general, The Incredible Shrinking Man was the magnum opus of director Jack Arnold, who largely produced workmanlike science fiction films throughout the decade, such as It Came From Outer Space or Tarantula, although he also directed Universal’s Creature From the Black Lagoon. It’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, though, that stands the test of time as the most pure (and still quite entertaining) expression of the era’s populist science fiction tropes.
Our protagonist is Scott Carey (Grant Williams), an average, red-blooded American male on vacation with his wife when a chance exposure to radioactive materials (curse you, decaying nuclei!) begins a barely perceptible shrinking process. At first, it’s almost as if Scott is being gaslighted by the whole world, being told repeatedly that he’s never been 6’1’’, and must always have been 5’11’’—his insistence that he knows what he’s talking about seems reflective of the governmental paranoia of the age, as the citizenry was repeatedly being instructed by their own leaders to look away from the very real, daily threat of thermonuclear obliteration. Of course, the scientists can only give Scott the runaround for so long, though—eventually it becomes clear that Scott is indeed slowly shrinking, making his case into national tabloid news, and fracturing his relationships in the process. There are some nice visual illustrations of the crumbling marriage; in particular the scene where Scott’s wedding ring slips off with a clang, his hand having grown too small to support it. Scott responds with manic swings between cruel bitterness, suicidal ideation and desperate, unrealistic hope for divine scientific intervention. But as time passes, the thought of rescue slips further and further into fantasy, and Scott’s daily challenges begin to become more and more dangerous.
At a tidy 81 minutes, The Incredible Shrinking Man is an uncomplicated, high-concept story that cuts to the chase with immediacy. But for the nuclear-age flavoring, it’s a story that easily could have sprung from the pages of Lovecraft-era Weird Tales or Amazing Stories magazines, or the men’s magazines of the day, which so delighted in tales of man vs. beast in the remote wilderness of savage places. This film, on the other hand, simply transplants that story to the confines of an American household, subbing in a housecat for lions, or a monstrous, giant spider for some red-mawed beast faced in the depths of the jungle. It’s a simple but effective way of making the audience consider the nature of perspective, and how any given situation is often more subjective than we make it out to be—it just depends on your point of view. As a six foot man, a house cat is a loving little creature that depends on you for its every need. As a six inch man, it’s an alpha predator with every intention of first playing with you before it ends your suffering.
Many films had done “miniature person” FX before The Incredible Shrinking Man, but this one fully commits to the gimmick, and the results are quite impressive, if not always entirely consistent. You have to chuckle about some of the logistics—where are they getting these perfectly functional, doll-sized clothing, couches, beds and coffee tables? Why does a coffee cup look like a huge soup bowl in the hands of Scott, when he’s still supposed to be three feet tall? Once his shrinking has reduced him to the size of an insect, though, and he becomes trapped in the house’s cellar, that’s when Scott’s world becomes truly nightmarish—an alien landscape that he must thrillingly navigate through sheer ingenuity and derring-do. Simply watching him attempt to scale a shelf is a wonderfully suspenseful sequence, knowing that any slip-up could cost him his life.
Ultimately, The Incredible Shrinking Man makes for excellent populist entertainment, with some last-minute waxing philosophical, in the tradition of most sci-fi of the era. It’s mostly silliness, but the final lines are unexpectedly profound, ranking up there with The Thing From Another World’s “Keep watching the skies!” As Scott concludes, no longer afraid of the unknown as he continues to shrink into a new sub-atomic world: “Even smaller than the smallest; I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!”
1958: Horror of Dracula
After Hammer Film Productions lit the fuse of the gothic horror revival with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, 1958 is the year when the genre really explodes once again, and the new wave of imitators surpasses even the sci-fi horror films of the day, which are still going strong. Keynoted by Terence Fisher’s sumptuous Horror of Dracula, the horror genre has arguably its strongest overall year of the 1950s.
On the sci-fi side of the spectrum, we have a number of classics both major and minor, from the surprisingly gory killer brains of Fiend Without a Face to low budget drive-in cheese fests such as the similarly titled I Married a Monster From Outer Space and It! The Terror From Beyond Space. More influential on the pop cultural consciousness are two films that would both inspire gorier 1980s remakes: The Fly and The Blob.
Of the two, it’s the original version of The Fly that holds up better to modern viewing. Playing essentially like a suspenseful murder mystery with science fiction elements, it reintroduced horror audiences to Vincent Price after 1953’s House of Wax. This would be the launching pad for two decades of consistent horror performances from Price, which would see the actor collaborate heavily with budget-minded horror auteurs such as William Castle and Roger Corman. Here, though, he’s playing his role with considerably less puckishness than he’ll soon be displaying in the likes of House on Haunted Hill or The Tingler.
The year is also home to the first of Hammer’s Frankenstein sequels, The Revenge of Frankenstein, in which Peter Cushing’s doctor is secretly whisked away from the guillotine so he can continue his research in brain transplantation. This time, he actually succeeds at transplanting the brain of his hunchbacked assistant into a new, unblemished body … or so it appears. Complications unsurprisingly ensue, as Frankenstein’s life is put in danger by members of the community slowly realizing his identity, even as the new “monster” begins to deteriorate mentally and physically. It all ends with some truly inspired brain-swapping lunacy, but remains essential for the magnetic performance of Cushing, who is at his best here. It’s the first of several Frankenstein sequels that are nearly on par with the original, largely thanks to the antihero charisma of Hammer’s most important star.
1958 Honorable Mentions:
The Fly, The Revenge of Frankenstein, I Bury the Living, Lake of the Dead, Fiend Without a Face, The Blob, I Married a Monster From Outer Space
The Film: Horror of Dracula
Director: Terence Fisher
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee represented the two godfathers of Hammer Horror, and were paired up in many Hammer films—and again in productions by competing British studio Amicus, or independent films such as Horror Express—but it’s Horror of Dracula where the two have their most iconic confrontation. This is not a complex story; it’s an elemental one. Hammer’s revival of the vampire mythos trades in well-worn tropes of good vs. evil and the vampire lore established by decades of films and folk tales to this point, but it elevated those tropes to new heights through the use of sumptuous production design, vivid color, charismatic performances and professional direction.
Looking at these films from a modern perspective, it’s easy to lose sight of the novelty that was present in the gush of red tempera paint that springs forth from a stake driven into the chest of an undead blood-sucker, but to the audiences of 1958 London, New York or Los Angeles, it was a sight they’d literally never had a chance to see on the big screen. The bloodletting of both Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula ushered in a new era of cinematic violence, establishing new boundaries of good taste and what one could get past the censors. And that’s not even mentioning the increasingly plunging necklines that would follow shortly in the wake of so much Eastmancolor blood.
That blood, of course, was only a single element of Hammer Horror’s formula in films such as Horror of Dracula. Their budgets were by no means particularly muscular, but they made the most of what they had, with ornate-looking gothic manor sets, detailed period clothing and the requisite crumbling graveyards and sinister fogbanks. Terence Fisher’s lively direction was likewise a dependable element that helped launch each of the primary monster series, from Curse of Frankenstein to Horror of Dracula, The Mummy and The Curse of the Werewolf. His name emblazoned on each film helped project a sense of gravitas to these projects that is often missing in the horror genre.
And then, of course, there’s Lee himself, masterfully inhabiting the role that would define much of his career, to the actor’s own chagrin. His Dracula is an entirely different beast from the suave, exotic presence of Béla Lugosi in the 1931 Universal original, defined much more by his physicality rather than his charm. This isn’t to say that Lee’s Dracula lacks personality; rather, he radiates a sheer force of ironclad will to compel obedience, rather than achieving his means through faux romantic overtures or flowery dialog. The actor’s unusual height only adds to this Dracula’s commanding presence—he’s a largely silent puppetmaster, with a feral, bestial dark side that is only brought out in times of great duress. Believe it or not, he was the first on-screen vampire to be depicted with fangs, and it’s a completely fitting characterization, as are the crazed, bloodshot eyes. Lee’s Dracula often looks entirely out of his mind, and that only makes him a more terrifying spectacle.
1959: House on Haunted Hill
1959 is one of those years that offers a little bit of everything, but doesn’t really own anything you’d call a masterpiece of the genre. It’s home to everything from sci-fi, spacefaring horror to the launch of new Hammer gothic horror series, to the rebirth of the American “Old Dark House” genre—some for all tastes. It’s noteworthy in particular for the prominence of two names that will be common in the low-budget horror circles for the next several decades: William Castle and Roger Corman. The first is the genre’s consummate showman and snake oil salesman, while the latter is its most consistently successful promoter, producer and discoverer of young talent. Together, the two would shape the image of American horror cinema for the next decade and beyond.
On the sci-fi side of the spectrum, it feels like the well might be starting to dry up a bit—it’s no coincidence that a late-to-the-party Ed Wood is now releasing his infamous film Plan 9 From Outer Space, exploring territory that has been thoroughly covered throughout this decade. Still, there are a lot of horror stories here that are themed around science, including Return of the Fly and Castle’s The Tingler—still famous today for its classic fourth wall-breaking sequence, in which Price implores the audience members to “scream for your lives!” because “the Tingler is loose in this theater!” Castle, with his love of gimmickry, even had certain theater seats installed with buzzers/vibrating devices, in order to make unsuspecting viewers believe they were feeling the “tingling” attack of the titular creature.
It’s another strong year for Hammer’s gruesome twosome as well, as the duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star together in two very different, Terence Fisher-directed films: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy. The former sees Cushing assuming the mantle of Sherlock Holmes that had been associated heavily with Basil Rathbone since the 1940s, with Lee playing a protagonist for once in the form of Sir Henry Baskerville. Cushing’s aquiline features, whip-smart delivery and impish humor make him well suited for the role of Holmes, and the film is often considered one of the very best feature adaptations of an Arthur Conan Doyle novel. In The Mummy, on the other hand, Cushing is playing a somewhat snooty archaeologist, who runs afoul of a vengeful Egyptian antagonist who wants payback on the excavators for their careers of profiteering off his nation’s history in the name of science. It’s actually a pretty relatable grievance, except for the fact that his solution to the problem is to unleash the undead mummy Kharis, played by—of course—Christopher Lee. As such, Hammer’s The Mummy has a bit more in common with the schlocky Universal Mummy sequels than Karloff’s touching, doomed love story from 1932, although it does replicate the “reincarnated bride” aspect to a lesser degree. It gets by, like so many other Hammer films of the period, on its performances and lush production design.
1959 Honorable Mentions:
The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Tingler, The Mummy, The Ghost of Yotsuya, A Bucket of Blood, The Bat, Plan 9 From Outer Space
The Film: House on Haunted Hill
Director: William Castle
Aside from the gimmick that the ever-shameless William Castle titled “Emergo,” which consisted of a skeleton on a string flying over live theater audiences, there wasn’t anything particularly novel about House on Haunted Hill when it was released in 1959. In fact, pretty much everything in the film was already a throwback to the golden era of Old Dark House mysteries, from its classically spooky set-dressings to its crew of strangers boarded up in a purportedly haunted house for the night. Truth be told, it’s really not a very “scary” film, nor was it trying particularly hard to be one. What it is instead is an incredibly entertaining ghost yarn; a charming amalgam of familiar elements that have been buffed up and given a new shine and the benefit of some outstanding performances. It plays like a horror genre “greatest hits” album.
Vincent Price, of course, is the straw that stirs the drink. He’s playing eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren, who invites five seeming strangers to an allegedly haunted house in honor of his icily cold wife, who he quite clearly despises. The poor souls who walk through the house’s doors have immediately stepped into a minefield of matrimonial combat; a 4D chess match that is played out via numerous plots and double-crosses. And then, of course, there’s the manner of the house’s restless spirits …
Price, suffice to say, is fabulous, and much of the way the actor is depicted in pop culture comes as a pantomime of his performance here. Every line is delivered with supreme sardonicism, from a man who seems to both resent his station on Earth and relish each small way he’s able to make his guests feel uncomfortable. He’s in full-on mastermind mode, and it’s a joy to watch him work, playing up the campiness of his dialog and the scenario while still retaining an ineffable degree of cool.
The house itself, likewise, feels like a primary character, resonant with the trappings of decades of haunted house tales. Cobwebs crust seemingly every corner. Chandeliers come crashing down where someone was standing moments before. Secret passages connect one room to another. Clawed hands emerge from around a corner to swipe at the lovely Carolyn Craig, who screams her head off with particular gusto. There’s very little internal logic for how any of it is pulled off, given the eventual explanation, but the audience has enjoyed themselves far too much to care. That’s just the sort of film it is.
Given that lighthearted attitude, this is also one of the few times we’ll actively recommend seeking out the colorized re-release of a film that was originally released in black-and-white. The color version of House on Haunted Hill makes for an even more cheesily novel experience, as it casts its characters in unrealistically bright primary hues, visually sorting them like the various player pieces from the board game Clue. Throw that version of the film on in the background of a Halloween party, and all will seem right with the world.