Dr. Helfenbein On Movies: Science Fiction of the 1950s Reply

Dr. Helfenbein is an avid film watcher (or, as some would say, cinephile) and will be writing a semi-regular column for the BACC Rag in which he recommends older movies students might be interested in watching. 

The first two decades of the sound era (the 30s and 40s) saw few science fiction movies (notable exceptions being the serials Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers). Whether it was due to the atomic era and Cold War or just to the fact the time was right, the 1950s saw an explosion of science fiction on the big screen: space monsters, alien invaders, colliding planets, giant invertebrates, and mad scientists all made it to the big time in the decade that gave us Fortran and rock ‘n’ roll. In this column I’ll deal with selections from the unfriendly-visitors-from-outer-space subgenre.

            The Thing From Another World (1951), directed by Christian Nyby, tells the tale of a group of scientists, military personnel and news reporters at a station in Antarctica. They find, buried beneath snow and ice, a space ship . . . and its lone occupant. The Thing is a classic of claustrophobic horror with most of the action between humans and bloodthirsty alien taking place in the confined quarters of the station, the exterior an inhospitable frozen zone. This movie served up the UFO-mania rallying cry of “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”

A meteor streaks through the night sky and lands in the woods near an old man’s shack. He goes out to investigate; finding the meteorite, he pokes it with a stick till the meteorite breaks open to release a gelatinous creature that glides up the stick onto the old man’s hand . . . . So begins The Blob (Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. 1958) a movie that is both a classic science fiction horror tale and an important entry into teen-flick subgenre. It is indeed a group of teenagers, led by future Hollywood superstar Steve McQueen, who alone know of the existence of the ravenous Blob; try as they might, they cannot convince the local authorities of the monster’s existence. Who believes teenagers anyway?

Much has been made of the fear-of-communist-take-over subtext of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), but the director himself has made the case for Invasion as a caution against the growing social conformity of the era. The alien invaders here have no technology per se, taking a purely biological approach: in a small California town, seeds from space grow into pods in which human forms identical to actual people develop. Each pod-creature absorbs its human counterpart’s consciousness (minus the emotions) when the human falls asleep. Can one survivor rally the world outside the town to defend itself?

William Cameron Menzies’s Invaders From Mars (1953) is an alien invasion seen through the eyes of a child: after waking on a stormy night to see a saucer descend and burrow underground, the young protagonist watches helplessly as the adults in his life are pulled into the Martians’ subteranean hideout, eventually returned to society much altered . . . . This fever dream of a movie is one about which many people, including yours truly, have said, “I saw this as a child and never forgot it!” Watch Invaders From Mars before your childhood ends.

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