Classic Creatures of the Drive-In Era

This post was conceived as a sort of postscript to a series I did a couple of Halloweens ago which covered the classic horror monsters of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.  It occurred to me that there were some high profile stragglers or leftovers that didn’t make it to screens until the 1950s but still hearken back to that earlier period, when horror pictures were pegged to iconic creatures. For clarity, I am omitting some other major strains of ’50s horror films, which represent then-new trends, such as the GIANT (usually atomic) monster phenomenon; and the Hammer cycle, and other remakes. Both of these merit their own posts, and will likely get them. I’ve also omitted a couple of likely contenders, Bride of the Gorilla (1951) and Gorilla at Large (1954), which belong in their own category, ape horror, which we blogged about here. Lastly, we have omitted films about gaggles of creatures (i.e., Mole People, Alligator People, Body Snatchers, etc.). This is strictly about the solo monster.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

This is the one that made me realize the need for this post. We all, rightly, tend to group the Lagoon Creature with all the classic Universal monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, the Wolf Man), it was always that way with Aurora Models, and the Famous Monsters of Filmland, and so forth. And yet the Creature is a chronological outlier, all the others having been from the 1930s and ’40s. Interestingly, it’s really just this ONE, there wasn’t a new 1950s Universal horror cycle, or rather, there were, but it took other forms (the AIP teenage one mentioned below, and Hammer). But Universal only offered a one-monster cycle (the sequels were Revenge of the Creature [1955] and The Creature Walks Among Us [1956]). And even this one feels transitional. Though the creature itself is backward looking, hearkening back to Lovecraft’s sea monsters, there is a “modern science” feel to this one that’s very characteristic of this era. A lot of the horror of the ’50s featured jungle expeditions to remote pockets of the earth where previously unknown species are discovered. It’s a similar concept to the “atomic monster” genre, it’s about science going just a bit too far, stirring up trouble by poking into things that are better left alone. The humans themselves are forgettable ciphers in this movie, but the costume/make-up design is incredible. This is a movie where the REAL stars are designers and fabricators: Millicent Patrick, Bud Westmore, Jack Kevan, and Chris Mueller, Jr. And of course director Jack Arnold. 

The Werewolf (1956)

I enjoyed this modeslt budget, unambitious twist on an old horror staple, which capitalizes on the surprising fact that no movie had actually had this title before — the famous 1941 Universal classic had been titled The Wolf Man. This one more resembles 1942’s The Mad Monster in that the creature is the result of a doctor’s experiments, rather than a mysterious curse. What I like about is the location shooting in rural San Bernadino County, California. There is on-camera transformation scene (all the best ones have them), and the cast of unknowns is directed to bring real emotional truth to their scenes. Some of the acting seems too good (or any rate too overwroght) for a movie of this type. It’s not any masterpiece, but I enjoyed it.

The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957)

I know I said I wouldn’t do Hammer films, but what I meant was I wouldn’t talk about their Universal monster reboots or their films of the ’60s. This particular film seems to be an occasion where they give original life to a classic creature which then became part of the modern folkloric landscape. The Yeti is an old story, but I’m not aware of him being given cinematic life prior to this, although you see him appear subsequently, as in the children’s special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Notably it follows the same template I described for Creature from the Black Lagoon: a scientific expedition uncovers a lost creature — to its pain and regret. Like most Hammer films, it is pretty plodding and dull but we are eventually rewarded with a creature. Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker are among the cast.

I Was a Teenage Werewolf etc (1957) 

Herman Cohen, who’d worked on such classics as Bride of the Gorilla and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, created one of AIP’s most successful endeavors in 1957 when he wrote and produced this hybrid mash-up of juvenile delinquent films and classic horror. A then unknown Michael Landon plays a wayward high school kid who is essentially hypnotized into behaving like a real werewolf. It was a hit — just go with it! It was such a success, it essentially beame its own horror cycle, with three cycles: I was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), Blood of Dracula (1957) and How to Make a Monster (1958).

The Fly (1958)

The Fly is rightly remembered as one of the classic horror movies of all time, and it’s very old school, though the story it was based on had only been published the year before. Though the film has a scary monster at its heart (a man with a fly’s head, due to an accident during an experiment), the movie’s most memorable scene has us terrified of a simple household spider as it prepares to devour our hero, who has been shrunk down to the size of a fly. If you want to trigger anyone my age or older, just say “Help meeeeee!” in a very high-pitched voice. The great Vincent Price, only a supporting player in the original film, gets to star in the sequel Return of the Fly (1959). A third film, Curse of the Fly (1965) starred Brian Donlevy.

Plan 9 from Outer Space Zombie (1959)

It took awhile, but Tor Johnson eventually became an iconic monster. Plan 9, Ed Wood’s most successful movie used to get television airplay, and a mask of Johnson in his Plan 9 character became a classic Halloween staple.

The Manster a.k.a The Split  (1959)

Not a huge phenomenon at the time and watched mostly today as camp, The Manster is the earliest movie I can think of that features what we think of as a horror movie staple, but is actually super-rare in actual movies: the two-headed monster. And every other example I can think of (e.g. 1972’s The Thing with Two Heads) employs the notion for comedy. It’s serious in this film, which is set for some inexplicable reason in Japan, but it’s more funny than scary here, as well.

Jack the Ripper (1959)

I am planning to devote an entire post sometime to the image of the Ripper throughout film history, but it’s worth mentioning here, that this 1959 film may be the first time the much mythologized historical character is literally the villain in a horror film. There are certainly many previous ones (e.g. The Lodger) that use the Ripper as inspiration, but this is the first time it is literally articulated and used to sell a film. Interestingly, the characterization in the film draws from horror movie tropes: much like Jekyll/ Hyde, he skulks through the London fog in an enormous cape.

X:  The Man with the X Ray Eyes (1963)

Apart from the justly celebrated Poe Cycle, this is Roger Corman’s best claim to a true classic, mixing elements of Jekyll/Hyde, The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man. At times the hero appears to go down the path of monstrousness, misusing his supernatural gift for gain, but in the end his predicament amounts to an ordeal and a torture. This was an early entry by star Ray Milland into the horror field; for better or worse, over the next couple of decades he would be associated with it a lot more. The movie was originally released on a double bill with Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 — a true passing of the torch.

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