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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Film Overview: From Alien Invaders and Giant Monsters to Nature Gone Wild

20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)

Science Fiction & Monster Movies of the 1950's

Science Fiction movies have been one of the most popular and enduring genres for decades. The genre has offered some of the most thought provoking, as well as some of the most unintentionally hilarious cinema to ever grace a drive in or multiplex screen. During the 1930's and 1940's a plethora of serials (or cliffhangers) offered up hours of entertainment for adventure seekers. One of the most popular of the serials was the FLASH GORDON series. There were three separate serials-- the self titled FLASH GORDON (1936), FLASH GORDON'S TRIP TO MARS (1938) and arguably the most popular, FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (1940). Other notable cliffhangers were THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935), THE UNDERSEA KINGDOM (1936), THE PHANTOM CREEPS (1939) and one of the more famous, KING OF THE ROCKET MEN (1949) which jump started several similar serials using the 'Rocket Man' character. These included RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON (1952) and ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE (1952).

Radar Men From the Moon (1952)

The cliffhangers died out during the early part of the 1950's and were replaced by a new style of popcorn sci-fi experience. These new films sometimes catered to a more serious audience and a number of these were backed by rather sizable budgets. Two of these are the timeless classics, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE both from 1951. WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951) dealt with the discovery of two planetoids on a collision course with Earth and its imminent destruction. The construction of a specialized spacecraft is built to carry man to another world suitable for life but the ship can only hold a small number of passengers. The film won an Oscar for special effects. George Pal was the producer and was also a capable director. Pal also handled producer credits on the seminal 1953 classic, WAR OF THE WORLDS. Interestingly, a similar movie to COLLIDE would come out of Japan in 1962. GORATH bore a similar story of the title planetoid threatening to destroy the Earth and those around the world coming together to halt the planets destruction by creating a device to avert the disaster by changing Earth's orbit.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) starts off with the landing of an alien spacecraft near Washington D.C. A humanoid alien emerges from the craft only to be fired upon by the military. Another more imposing robotic creature appears from within the ship. It easily disintegrates the military hardware. The injured alien halts the seemingly unstoppable automaton and is then taken into military custody. The alien, Klaatu, uses this time to observe man determined to understand mans propensity for war and destruction. Pressed to show the extent of his power, Klaatu causes all electrical power (sans hospitals and planes) to temporarily shut down. Eventually, Klaatu addresses the people of the Earth and demands they halt all plans and production of weapons of war. If not, then his race will destroy the Earth. The film and its message has become one of the most talked about academic subjects of all time.

Also in 1951, a movie was made that changed the way science fiction was perceived for years to come. That movie was THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) directed by Christian Nybe and Howard Hawks. Based upon the short story WHO GOES THERE? by John Campbell, the film melded both sci-fi movie conventions with that of the horror genre. The story dealt with an unfriendly alien that assumed the form of its human host in an effort to destroy the human race. For the 1951 film the story was changed quite a bit although years later John Carpenter's version was a more faithful, albeit gruesome representation of the Campbell story.

The Thing From Another World (1951)

For Hawks version, scientists in the Arctic find something frozen in the ice. Surmising that a gigantic spacecraft is encased within, another discovery is unearthed; something else is buried beneath the cold, icy earth not far from the ship. It's retrieved and taken back to their lab where it thaws out and wrecks havoc before being electrocuted whereby the thing is disintegrated. The scientists ascertain the Alien is more or less a vegetable (a "super carrot" as one character puts it) from outer space that needs blood to survive. Also, the creature can regenerate damaged tissue; if a piece of it is cut off, a new creature will grow in its place. James Arness (soon to portray Matt Dillon on the 20 season run of GUNSMOKE) is very effective as the alien menace. The music is one of the main components to the films enduring qualities and adds greatly to the element of horror throughout the film.

The Thing From Another World (1951)

One of the most notable things about the films monster is that you never get a really good look at it. It's mostly hidden in silhouette or masked in darkness. Kenneth Tobey is the typical hero of the time and went on to act in numerous other sci fi creature features such as BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955). Arness of course, went on to star in another sci fi classic, THEM! (1954). This film was instrumental in ushering in another wave of sci fi films-- the giant bug movies that were soon to supplant the alien invader films.

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Although Christian Nybe is credited as director, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) is often thought of as a Howard Hawks film. He was a producer and had a hand in rewrites as well as being on set during the entire production. Much of the film bears his trademarks and it is widely considered to be his film. A similar controversy plagues the 1982 Tobe Hooper film, POLTERGEIST which is often referred to as a Stephen Spielberg film. Regardless of who actually directed the movie, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) is one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. The closing moments of the film provide one of the great lines in cinema--"Keep watching the skies".

War of the Worlds (1953)

Just before the sci fi genre was invaded by an onslaught of gigantic, irradiated bugs on the rampage, another movie was integral to the success of the alien invader movies. WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). The film deals with an invasion by a merciless alien race and their fleet of seemingly invulnerable warships. The invaders attempt to wipe out mankind to use the Earth as a replacement for their own dying world.

War of the Worlds (1953)

The award winning effects work (that still stand out today amidst all the overdone CGI flicks that have flooded the modern multiplexes) feature some startling scenes of the alien war ships annihilating everything in their path. The ending is also unusual in that it is alluded to that God ultimately brings about the end of the alien forces when the very air we breath proves poisonous to the murderous extraterrestrials.

It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD beget movies such as DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954), THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951), IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958), INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) and I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958), all films about unfriendly alien visitors. THEM! bore films with such titles as THE BEGINNING OF THE END (1957), THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957), TARANTULA (1955 features a young Clint Eastwood as a fighter pilot), THE BLACK SCORPION (1957), EARTH VS THE SPIDER (1958), MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (1957) and THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957) to name a few.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

The Giant Bug movies were born from the Atomic Bomb scare of the time in addition to Cold War concerns and the fear of communism infiltration. The Bug pictures were the bastard offspring of a film that came out in 1953 entitled THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS based on a short story by Ray Bradbury entitled 'The Fog Horn'. The film version was directed by Eugene Lourie. The then astonishing special effects were created by the great and beloved Ray Harryhausen.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

In this film, however, atomic testing is responsible for releasing the creature from its prehistoric slumber, not causing its gigantic size. For the bug films, atomic radiation was the culprit responsible for the variety of bugs enormous growth. BEAST had among its cast a man named Lee Van Cleef who would enjoy a fruitful career some years later in Italian westerns. In BEAST, he plays the sharpshooter who fires the giant isotope weapon used to kill the monster. Van Cleef also starred in the Roger Corman cheapie, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956).

20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)

BEAST started its own unrelated series of popular movies (some good, some bad) about giant creatures from this planet or another. Titles like IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957), THE GIANT CLAW (1957), MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR (1955), THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN and its sequel WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST (1958-59) and KING DINOSAUR (1955) among them. Some of these were directed by Bert I. Gordon, "Mr. B.I.G." as he is commonly referred. He would make a career out of directing movies about gigantically enhanced (and on one occasion, shrunken) people, bugs and assorted lizards.

Godzilla (1954)

Without doubt, the most famous and popular progeny born from the box office success of BEAST didn't come from the US but from Japan. Famed Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was on a flight back to Tokyo thinking of an idea for a homegrown hit to match the American monster film that was also a hit in Japan. As Tanaka looked out the window of the plane and over the sea he imagined a great beast rising from the depths. This is how the inspiration for GOJIRA (1954), or GODZILLA, as it would come to be known in the States, was born.

Godzilla (1954)

The first film was a serious allegory on the destruction and aftermath of the Atomic Bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film was a smash success and was snatched up for release in America minus 20 minutes under the name GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS in 1956. New scenes were shot by Terry Morse. Raymond Burr, fresh off of PERRY MASON starred in the American added footage which is edited seamlessly into the feature. Regardless of the removal of a number of key scenes from the Japanese version, the US release is one of the best re-editing jobs performed on a foreign film.

Godzilla (1954)

Much of the serious, dramatic elements were removed for the US release including several scenes involving Dr. Serizawa and his fiance who is having an affair with another man because he has no time for her, only his work. There is also a hint that Serizawa may be impotent. Other removed snippets involve additional scenes of burn victims including little children, the result of the monster's attack. Scenes such as this hit home on a powerfully emotional level with the Japanese people. They are hauntingly similar to the news footage of the ravaged victims after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are a handful of other powerful sequences that were removed for there rather nightmarish and doom-laden qualities. One such sequence has a mother and her two children trapped between some burning buildings just as Godzilla approaches. The mother, sensing the inevitable, tells her children to close their eyes that they will be with their father shortly. The original, unaltered Japanese version is one of the finest, albeit downbeat examples of science fiction to ever grace the screen.

With GODZILLA's popularity at both the Japanese and American box office, sequels were assured and 27 followed over the years (the last installment premiered in America in 2005 before it came out in Japan believe it or not) some more serious than others. There are three sets of GODZILLA films-- the Showa series from 1954 to 1975. The Heisei series from 1984 to 1995 and finally the Millenium, or X series from 2000 to 2005. Toho has flirted with the notion of reviving the series around 2010. With the wild success of the Godzilla series in Japan, an innumerable amount of giant monster films (known as Kaiju Eiga in Japan) followed in the wake of the massive monster from the sea. Most all of these other films would see theatrical release in America and a good number of them being sold for television consumption.

Gamera (1966)

The only other giant monster popular enough to receive a series of films was the giant, flying, jet-propelled turtle, Gamera. The first film, GAMERA (1966), or GAMMERA, THE INVINCIBLE, as it was known in America (the distributors added an additional 'M' in the title) was in black and white and followed a similar pattern set down by the original GODZILLA (1954). The difference was Gamera was a slightly gentler monster in that it didn't harm children. There are eight films in the Gamera series, seven of them in color.

Gamera Vs. Guiron (1969)

The remaining entries made Gamera a hero of children and each succeeding entry became more and more silly. However, the level of violence on the monsters was rather strong. Lots of gore was the result of the monster fights. In GAMERA VS. GUIRON (1969), the bad monster has a knife built into its head. One scene has Guiron battling Space Gyaos defeating the monster by chopping it into pieces! In the 90's, a new, more adult and darker Gamera series would spark new life into the Kaiju Eiga genre.

Rodan (1956)

Other Japanese giant monster movies would be made many of which would go on to become classics of the genre such as RODAN (1956), MOTHRA (1962) and FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON (1965). The popularity of these movies attracted US producers such as Henry G. Saperstein who would co-produce a number of Toho's monster epics. American actors such as Academy Award nominees, Nick Adams and Russ Tamblyn as well as Cesar Romero and even Joseph Cotten would make the jaunt to Japan to appear in these films.

The attraction for these kinds of movies died out both in Japan and the US after the release of Ishiro Honda's TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975). There would be a resurgence in 1984 with the release of the all new GODZILLA (1984) which also saw US theatrical release as GODZILLA 1985. Despite the series carrying on strong for another decade in Japan, another series entry wouldn't see issue in US cinemas till the release of GODZILLA 2000 (2000).

Them! (1954)

Back in America in 1954, the other aforementioned film about a gigantic threat would start a firestorm of similar pictures. THEM! (1954), directed by Gordon Douglas, begins with a little girl wandering alone in the desert. Some police officers find her, a blank stare embedded onto her face. Upon further investigation the police stumble upon her parents mobile home which has been destroyed. Strange footprints are also found but no bodies. They hear a strange sound off in the distance. In the background, the little girl, in shock, sits up with a look of terror on her face.

Them! (1954)

A destroyed house is soon discovered and this time a body is found with the same strange footprints outside. The FBI gets involved and sends James Arness to help out on the case. The odd footprints arouse the suspicion of a pair of entomologists. Along with the police officer (played by James Whitmore) and Arness's character, the group journey into the desert where they come face to face with the creatures revealed to be giant ants.

Them! (1954)

They eventually scour the desert by helicopter in search of the nest. Finding it, they use strong poisonous chemicals to kill the many giant ants. Later, the group descends into the hellish nest to make sure all are dead in one of the best and most suspenseful sequences in the film. They find out that two queens have escaped and must be found quickly before they make more nests and propagate thousands more of the giant monsters. One of them is killed at sea while the other makes its way into the NYC sewer systems. There, the remaining creatures are destroyed along with the new nest.

The Black Scorpion (1957)

THEM!(1954) has many things going for it. The music is very gripping and accentuates the terror of the attack scenes. Several scenes have no music which makes those parts work all the more better. The performances are all very good as well. Although James Arness stars, James Whitmore is the main actor and the shocking finale goes against the formula most films followed during this time. Fess Parker, who would later go on to fame in the DANIEL BOONE movies and tv show has a small role of an airplane pilot who spots the giant ants. The film gets better with age and seeing it again recently, one gets the feeling a remake is right around the corner.

Tarantula (1955)

As already mentioned above, a wide array of creature features about enormous insects sprouted up all over the place. One of the better entries was TARANTULA (1955) from Jack Arnold who helmed the classic horror film, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954). In this film, Leo G. Carroll plays a scientist attempting to end world hunger but instead creates a gigantic tarantula that escapes his lab and goes on a rampage before being incinerated by Clint Eastwood as a fighter pilot. Frequent sci fi stars John Agar and the beautiful Mara Corday play the leads.

The Beginning of the End (1957)

The year 1957 was a banner year for big bug cinema. Bert I. Gordon did a number of these movies as already stated. One of the most well known being THE BEGINNING OF THE END (1957) about gigantic locusts. Peter Graves is the hero of the piece. It's a fairly turgid tale punctuated by a couple exciting sequences but nothing overly memorable. THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) was a surprisingly gruesome film about a volcano releasing huge, man eating scorpions, spiders and worms on mankind. The effects were created by Willis O'brien (KING KONG). Scenes of giant scorpions ripping apart humans are surprising to see today for there inclusion in a film of that vintage.

The Black Scorpion (1957)

The ending wherein the biggest giant scorpion is cornered in a stadium and assaulted by soldiers, tanks and helicopters is a show-stopper. THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957) is another memorable movie from the genre about a huge mantis released from its icy tomb. It wrecks havoc until it's pinned down inside a tunnel and bombarded with poisonous gas. THE GIANT CLAW (1957) is one of the most hilarious examples of good intentions gone wrong. Prepare yourself for an assault on mankind by what appears to be a gigantic turkey from outer space; with "turkey" firmly describing the movie itself. The best scene in the movie is the final shot with the 'giant claw' reaching heavenward as it descends beneath the water. Stock footage from EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) is used during some of the destruction scenes.

THE MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (1957) is another lesser film in the 'Big Bug' genre. This time, radiation is responsible for humongous wasps wrecking havoc in Africa. THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957) on the other hand, delivers the goods. Although not technically a bug, the film features enormous mollusks causing havoc on the California coastline. Scenes of the creatures attacking boats and the finale inside a lab are highlights. The hydraulically controlled monsters designed for this film are impressively constructed.

The Giant Bug flicks would enjoy a renaissance during the 70's and would ultimately be supplanted by the Nature-Gone-Amuck flicks during the late 1970's through the early 1980's. A new revival of sorts occurred in recent years after the success of ANACONDA (1997). This new slew of creature features are mostly awful movies made for, or sold to, the Sci-Fi Channel.

To Be Continued...

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