With the DVD release of NIGHTMARES IN RED WHITE AND BLUE looming, I thought I’d spend the next few weeks highlighting some great horror films that aren’t included in my documentary. In 96 minutes, NIRWAB references approximately 250 films… but, of course, this barely scratches the surface of “classic horror.” With that in mind, I’ve given myself a task for the weeks leading up to Halloween. For each decade between the 1930s and the 2000s, I’m going pick ten additional films to highlight. And since there are plenty of great horror films that I haven’t even seen yet, I’m also going to review a pair of films from each decade that are completely new to me.
It’s difficult to talk about horror movies of the 1950s without talking about the “British invasion” of the genre (to say nothing of the overwhelming influence of the French film DIABOLIQUE, which set the stage for the return of psychological horror in the 1960s). For that reason, I’m dividing this week’s crop between American horror and British horror (mostly Hammer).
The Hammer studio made its first fright-fest in 1955, when they adapted Nigel Kneale’s 1953 BBC miniseries THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, about a man who returns from space with an alien “infection.” I remember seeing the film for the first time on an AMC Halloween marathon. Although the plot is quite predictable, I was extremely impressed by the creepy presence of Richard Wordsworth (as the infected space traveler). His performance alone puts this film on par with some of the better episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits.” The film did so well at the British box office that it was released in America under the title THE CREEPING UNKNOWN, and Hammer practically reinvented itself overnight – putting all of its energy into sci-fi / horror films.
Until this week, I’d never seen Hammer’s second sci-fi / horror film X: THE UNKNOWN (1956), in which a group of thick-skulled military types discover a bottomless pit that emits high levels of radiation… and, eventually, a radioactive "mud monster." The film has been referred to occasionally as the British version of THE BLOB (1958), but I think that’s selling it short. X: THE UNKNOWN has many of the hallmarks of the great American sci-fi / horror films of the fifties: an alien invasion scare (reminiscent of THE BLOB), atomic anxiety (reminiscent of THEM!, 1954) and a struggle between the conservative military and the more liberal minds of science (reminiscent of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, 1951). Admittedly the film is a bit too talky overall, but there are definitely some satisfyingly gooey visuals… An extreme dose of radiation causes one character to literally melt onscreen! Unlike America’s Blob, England’s Mud Monster doesn’t even have to touch you to kill you. That just goes to show how refined the Brits are.
Hammer followed up with the even better QUATERMASS 2 (a.k.a. ENEMY FROM SPACE, 1957), which does everything that INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS does – only, Anglo-philes will argue, better. Then the studio really hit pay-dirt with the more traditional Gothic horror film THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), which made a genre icon of Peter Cushing and forecast the next two decades of Hammer fare. It was followed up by the even more sinister REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) and by DRACULA (a.k.a. HORROR OF DRACULA, 1960), which made a star of Christopher Lee. In all of the excitement over Victorian monsters, Professor Quatermass kind of got lost. Hammer didn’t bring him back until 1966, when they belatedly adapted the 1958-59 BBC miniseries QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (a.k.a. FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH).
I watched the original miniseries this week, and I have to say that it was a troubling experience. On one hand, the story is absolutely brilliant. On the other hand, the production was utterly boring. QUATERMASS AND THE PIT has got to be the highest of high-concept sci-fi / horror movies. It has all of the great genre movie tropes: witchcraft, black magic, goblins, demons, the devil, ghosts, poltergeist, possession, psychics, telekinesis, the missing link, space ships, alien invasion and nuclear holocaust. Even more amazing: writer Nigel Kneale combines all of these things into a story that is more than the sum of its parts. QUATERMASS AND THE PIT actually has something significant to say about mankind’s past and future. As a result, the film has had an overwhelming influence on stories as different as Stephen King’s THE TOMMYKNOCKERS (the author admits he unconsciously plagiarized QUATERMASS while writing his novel in a coke-induced frenzy), John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS (Carpenter has said that QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is an all-time favorites) and Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER. No self-respecting sci-fi / horror fan should be unaware of this one… although it might be best to stick with the Hammer adaptation.
Since I mentioned John Carpenter, I should also point out another of his British favorites from the 1950s: THE TROLLENBERG TERROR (a.k.a. THE CREEPING EYE, 1958). The story is nothing unique – scientific experiments with radiation lure telepathic aliens to a laboratory in the Swiss mountains – but there are several images in the film’s final siege that will stay with you forever.
I can say the same thing about MGM’s FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958), which I just saw for the first time. I rented this one because Criterion has distributed the film on DVD, and the Criterion label is always a high recommendation. At first, this atomic monster movie seemed like just a cheap crackerjack version of THE TINGLER (1959)… In fact, for the first two-thirds of the picture, I was kind of amazed that the filmmakers had produced a monster that was even cheaper than William Castle’s tingler: namely, an invisible tingler. The film relies purely on sounds effects to convey the nastiness of an invisible “mental vampire” that sucks the brains and spinal cords out of its victims.
Then, after a lot of ridiculous scientific “explanation,” the film takes a dramatic turn into surrealism. Honestly – the third act is like a bad acid trip. The radiation-fueled “mental vampires” finally become visible and start attacking everyone in sight. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen these brain-sucking snails slurping up and down tree trunks in the middle of the night. In response, our heroes stab them, shoot them and even axe them… with some very messy results. On the DVD bonus features, film historian Tom Weaver reveals that FIEND WITHOUT A FACE originally played on a double bill with the Boris Karloff film THE HAUNTED STRANGER. I’ve never seen THE HAUNTED STRANGER, but I pity Karloff for having to compete with this madness… Nothing that Frankenstein’s Monster could do would possibly would be as gnarly as the last twenty minutes of FIEND WITHOUT A FACE. In fact, the only thing that comes close is Frank Henenlotter’s gleeful homage BRAIN DAMAGE (1988).
I can't overlook HOUSE OF WAX (1953), since it’s the film that turned Vincent Price into a horror icon. (Price had certainly played dark and tragic roles before - in TOWER OF LONDON, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES, LAURA and DRAGONWYCK - but this was his commercial breakthrough as a leading man. Subsequent appearances in THE FLY and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL sealed the deal.) HOUSE OF WAX was also the first 3-D horror movie... but we shouldn’t hold that against the film.
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) with Robert Mitchum is probably the most genuinely unsettling psychological horror films of the decade. It set the stage for PSYCHO and CAPE FEAR a few years later… to say nothing of Hollywood’s other creepiest preacher, Reverend Kane in POLTERGEIST 2.
Last but not least, there’s Albert Band’s I BURY THE LIVING (1958), about a cemetery attendant who inherits a kind of voodoo power related to an old map of the graveyard. When he sticks a black pin into a reserved plot on the cemetery map, the future "guest" of that plot dies instantly. The film serves as yet another reminder that the most effective sci-fi / horror stories don’t need special effects half as much as they need interesting concepts. It all begins with two words: “What if…?”