The 1950s represented a truly golden age for monster movies. You could fill volumes with the sheer variety and quantity of different creatures from that amazing cinematic decade. Some of them came from space, while others were purely terrestrial. While a few of these creatures’ origins could be attributed to the natural/supernatural world, many were the result of human intervention (an extension of our hubris). A common culprit was radiation and its effects on nature and humanity – a recurrent theme in the 50s. Alongside this postwar fear of the nuclear genie that had been unleashed from its bottle was trepidation about science and progress. Add to this a generalized distrust and animosity toward outsiders and the unknown, and you had the seeds of some pretty fearsome creations.
It was tough to narrow a list of 50s movie monsters down to a mere handful without it seeming superficial, so I decided to confine my list to those that have left the biggest impression on me over the years. While it’s far from a comprehensive list, I hope I’ve included at least a few of your favorites as well (If not, feel free to list them in the comments section). Here’s my baker’s dozen of favorites, in no particular order:
1. The Gill-Man (The Creature from the Black Lagoon – 1954) The infamous Gill-Man represented the last of Universal’s illustrious line of classic monsters, but what a monster it was! Some things are better left alone, or at least treated with greater reverence. Researchers in the Amazon jungle stumble upon a throwback to another age – not really a missing link but more of an evolutionary tangent. The awesome aquatic humanoid creature was designed by Millicent Patrick (who was uncredited), and Ricou Browning brought him to life within the suit, conveying equal helpings of power and pathos.
2. The Blob (The Blob – 1958) Who thought that cherry Jello could be so menacing? Actually, the filmmakers used a glob of red-dyed silicone, but it’s hard not to think of that cafeteria staple when watching the title creature do its stuff. Compared to the other monsters on this list, the blob doesn’t have much personality, but it makes up for this deficit with a voracious appetite. This non-terrestrial creature engulf s every living thing in sight, and is relentless in its goal to take over the world (or at least a tiny part of it in small-town Pennsylanvia). Can Steve McQueen and friends stop it in time?
3. Dracula (The Horror of Dracula – 1958) Christopher Lee adds another dimension to the eponymous count, with his animalistic interpretation in Hammer’s audacious reboot of the Universal franchise. Peter Cushing’s Dr. Van Helsing couldn’t stop him from returning for several sequels of varying quality. Honorable mention: Frankenstein’s monster (The Curse of Frankenstein – 1957). Christopher Lee looks suitably hideous in makeup that was purposely designed not to be mistaken for Jack Pierce’s copyrighted creation in the earlier Universal films.
4. Giant ants (Them! – 1954) Atomic testing in White Sands, New Mexico results in a colony of common ants growing to mammoth proportions. Giant bug movies were a dime a dozen in the 50s, with audiences witnessing oversized tarantulas, mantises, locusts and scorpions – none of which could hold a candle to the giant ants. Their demise provided little comfort, as their very existence promised that similar atom-age terrors would be on the way.
5. Mutant (This Island Earth – 1955) There are few depictions of alien creatures that are as iconic as this one, with its goggle eyes and oversized brainy head. In a decade full of memorable aliens, the Metaluna Mutant ranks with the best. The movie it originated from has gained a bad rap in recent years, no thanks to being raked over the coals by Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (which was enjoyable in its own right), but taken in the right vein it’s still a lot of nostalgic fun.
6. Martians (The War of the Worlds—1953) We only catch a few brief glimpses of the Martians from The War of the Worlds, but their entrance (and exit) is unforgettable. I was always impressed by their imaginative, only vaguely humanoid, design; most notably, their unusual three-partitioned eye. The Martians were a radical departure from other depictions of Mars life (compare to Invaders from Mars, released the same year). Perhaps the greatest feat of the filmmakers, however, was generating some sympathy for these beings that had nearly wiped out the human race. I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the sickly aliens as they were wiped out by Earthly germs.
7. Godzilla (Gojira/Godzilla – 1954) The monster that refused to stay dead made its debut appearance in 1954. Awakened as a result of atomic testing in the South Pacific, Godzilla stands as a powerful metaphor for tampering with forces that we can scarcely understand. When we push Mother Nature, Mother Nature pushes back. There have been several different iterations of the Big G over the years, but they all owe a debt of gratitude to this original design and Eiji Tsuburaya’s creature effects work. Was there ever any doubt that he would end up on this list?
8. Brain creatures (Fiend Without a Face – 1958) I don’t think these things officially had a name, but “brain creatures,” works as well as any. They’re the stuff of nightmares – invisible monsters made visible. They’re the unfortunate byproduct of (wait for it) a nuclear power plant, and resemble disembodied brains that use their spinal cord tails to strangle their victims. Must be seen to be believed!
9. The Thing (The Thing from Another World - 1951) – James Arness stars as the titular creature, an intelligent plant from a crashed flying saucer that terrorizes an arctic base. The story is a departure from the original John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?” but effective nonetheless. The Thing serves as a poster child for cold war paranoia and xenophobia. In the film’s final line, we’re admonished by reporter Ned “Scotty” Scott to “Keep watching the skies!”
10. The Fly/Andre (The Fly – 1958) The original Fly always left an impression on me as a kid, even though my first viewing experience was on my parents’ 14-inch RCA TV in the 70s, rather than in a movie theater. As a young, impressionable lad there was nothing like watching for the first time as Helene lifted the cover from her inventor husband to reveal (gasp!) a fly head. Truth be told, I think it was her scream that got to me the most. While the makeup might seem tame to today’s jaded audiences (even naïve and quaint compared to David Cronenberg’s excellent remake), it’s still an unusual man-made monster.
11. The Ymir (20 Million Miles to Earth – 1953) The Ymir never asked to be brought back from Venus, which makes it one of the more tragic monsters on this list. He comes to life, thanks to Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion wizardry. Harryhausen made many significant contributions to the body of fantasy and sci-fi films in the 50s, but this one showcased his ability to engage our sense of wonder and our hearts.
12. Giant squid (20,000Leagues Under the Sea – 1954) The sole real-life monster featured here, this above all of the others comes closest to the real thing. No one’s ever seen a live giant squid with quite the same proportions as the one depicted in the film, but it remains plausible that such animals dwell in the ocean depths. I’d like to be able to admire a specimen as large as the one that attacked the Nautilus one day… from a distance, of course.
13. Monster from the Id (Forbidden Planet – 1956) Probably the most esoteric monster on this rogue’s gallery, the Monster from the Id is not a flesh and blood creature, but a monster made up of pure energy. A product of the unfathomably advanced Krell machinery and the mind of its creator, Dr. Morbius, the Monster from the Id is virtually omnipotent and invincible. Can it be stopped before it wipes out Commander Adam’s crew?