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17 December 2008

1958: Science Fiction Film's Sense-of-Wonderful Year

by Gary Westfahl

It would be an interesting question for a panel at a science fiction convention: What was the most important year in the history of science fiction film? One might choose the year that saw the appearance of a single landmark film, such as 1927 (Fritz Lang's Metropolis) or 1936 (William Cameron Menzies's Things to Come). 1950 would be a good candidate, since that was the year when Destination Moon and its cheap imitation Rocketship X-M effectively established science fiction as a recognized film genre. I am tempted to argue for 1968, the year that brought us the greatest science fiction film of all time (the intriguingly cryptic 2001: A Space Odyssey) and the most influential science fiction film of all time (the comfortingly familiar Planet of the Apes, which showed Hollywood executives that they could profit by investing in exotic-looking adventures while still following conventional formulas, making this landmark film the direct ancestor of most modern science fiction films). It would be hard to overlook 1977, with its one-two punch of the classic Star Wars and the risible Close Encounters of the Third Kind, films that had an unprecedented impact upon popular culture. And of course there is 1982, the year that showed us how high science fiction film could reach (Blade Runner) and how low it could sink (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial).

However, my own personal choice as the most important year in the history of science fiction film is a year that most people would not even consider: 1958. And while there remains time for a discussion of that year's science fiction films to qualify as a fiftieth-anniversary celebration, I would like to explain why I believe that year represents a uniquely fascinating and significant moment in the genre's history. Briefly, I think the year 1958 commands special attention because a convergence of three separate developments combined to produce an unusual number of films which were unlike any other films that had preceded them and which still make for rewarding viewing today.

First, by the time that year began, the major Hollywood studios had effectively given up making science fiction films. In the early 1950s, feeling threatened by the new medium of television, they were driven to all sorts of strange innovations in an effort to keep people coming to theatres, and along with Cinemascope, 3-D, extravagant all-star productions, and investigations of the new phenomenon of "juvenile delinquents," they invested in several big-budget science fiction films, prominently including the aforementioned Destination Moon, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), This Island Earth (1955), and Forbidden Planet (1956). But I don't think film executives of that era ever enjoyed making films so obviously outside of their comfort zones — films about spaceships, aliens, robots, and other things they didn't really understand — and once they felt reassured that even people with television sets were still going to go to the movies, they happily abandoned oddities like 3-D films and science fiction films and retreated to more familiar productions. If they were in the mood for something out of the ordinary, their typical choice in the late 1950s and early 1960s was that subgenre of fantasy films that no one ever dares to label as fantasy films, namely, biblical epics. Otherwise, until the appearance of Fantastic Voyage in 1966, their dabblings in science fiction were almost entirely limited to safe, respectable adaptations of the works of Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon [1958], Journey to the Center of the Earth [1959], Master of the World [1961]) and H. G. Wells (The Time Machine [1960], The First Men in the Moon [1964]). And this meant that the making of science fiction films became almost exclusively the territory of low-budget, independent filmmakers, and while their budgets were miniscule, and their talents on and off the screen often questionable, they had to little to lose in making their cheap, hasty productions, and hence they were open to taking risks that no major studio would consider.

Second, the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite on October 4, 1957, soon followed by the American launch of Explorer 1 on February 1, 1958, abruptly and exponentially increased public interest in outer space. Now, it no longer seemed impossible to imagine that human beings might soon travel into space, or that aliens from other planets might soon visit the planet Earth. The major studios were too cautious, or too obtuse, to respond to this sudden new curiosity about space, but lesser filmmakers had no such scruples, and they were perfectly willing to cancel plans for another exploitative saga of troubled youth and seek greater profits by improvising a new scenario having something to do with rocketships or aliens.

Third, by the year 1958, science fiction films, even though they had essentially emerged only eight years ago, were in a sense facing their first crisis, a palpable sense that certain basic formulas had now been exhausted. After so many films following similar patterns had appeared, a filmmaker could no longer feel comfortable making yet another film simply involving a giant mutated insect rampaging through the countryside, a scientist transforming a man into an ugly rubber-masked monster, or sinister humanoid aliens intent upon conquering the Earth. These time-honored tropes did not have to be entirely discarded, but filmmakers felt impelled to come up with some novel variation on the theme, some new approach or gimmick, that would make their films seem different from their innumerable predecessors.

Thus, by the year 1958, a small army of innovative filmmakers on the fringe of the industry had been given science fiction film as their own private domain; the embryonic Soviet and American space program had made such films more appealing than ever as ways to lure audiences to theatres; and the people creating these films were especially motivated to develop fresh ideas to enliven their old stories. The stage was set, in other words, for the production of films that, despite their palpable flaws, were singularly unique and fascinating.


Yet abstract arguments can never establish the special qualities of the science fiction films made in 1958; one must examine the evidence. And, confronting all the extraordinary and bizarre films that were released that year, the only problem is: where, oh where, to begin?

For reasons that will become apparent, one cannot epitomize this year by attempting to compile a list of its Ten Best Films; but I can offer my own personal list of its Ten Most Interesting Films, all films I have seen at least once (though in some cases a long time ago), discussed in alphabetical order, with 1958 release dates confirmed by the Internet Movie Database.

Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. (Director, Nathan Juran as Nathan Hertz; writer, Mark Hanna.) It is at times a bit too farcical for my own tastes, but this film remains fascinating as a treatise on the sexual politics of the 1950s. Was it really the work of a bumbling alien, or is Alison Hayes's explosive growth a creative visualization of a burgeoning strength and self-empowerment triggered by her anger about her husband's infidelity? Is it a sign of the era's determination to constrain women that its enormous men are permitted to merely be "colossal" (The Amazing Colossal Man [1957], War of the Colossal Beast [1958]) while the women are always measured (this film and The Thirty-Foot Bride of Candy Rock [1959])? Does the fact that Hayes is so often represented only by her huge hand signify a lingering, stifling commitment to domestic "women's work"? A 1993 television remake with Daryl Hannah attempted to tell this story more seriously, but the results were predictably both less interesting and less entertaining.

The Blob. (Director, Irwin S. Yeaworth, Jr.; writers, Theodore Simonson and Kate Phillips, story Irvine Millgate.) For once, a giant monster is not a dinosaur or a radioactively enlarged animal, but rather a strange pulsating growth run amok, apparently without intelligence or malevolent intent but menacing nonetheless as it expands and oozes through a small Pennsylvania town (an unusual, and evocative, setting for a monster movie). Teenagers Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut are the first to understand and respond to the menace, and unlike other science fiction films of the era that drafted teenagers to function as heroes, The Blob demonstrates enormous respect for its youthful protagonists. A concluding sequence with the blob menacing the audience at a movie theatre is intriguing on several levels, and even a jarringly inappropriate, jazzy score only serves to heighten the film's strange ambience.

The Colossus of New York. (Director, Eugene Lourié; writer, Thelma Schnee, story Willis Goldbeck.) To the accompaniment of crashing piano chords (making this another film with an unexpected, but effective score), idealistic young scientist Ross Martin is saved from death by having his brain transplanted into an enormous metal body, whereupon he predictably begins acting more like a robot than a human being. But ultimately, inspired by his son, he is able to integrate his new mechanical powers with his enduring compassionate nature, although to conform to the sensibilities of its time the film must end with this unwieldy hybrid creature's death. Overall, this probably qualifies as the most moving science fiction film of 1958, and if you are interested in studying "cyborgs in science fiction film and television," this is where you must begin.

The Crawling Eye. (Director, Quentin Lawrence; writer, Jimmy Sangster, story Peter Key.) This is the cuckoo in my nest, as a film made in Great Britain and based upon an earlier television series, but somehow it just seems to fit in. Purists may insist upon using its original British title, The Trollenberg Terror, but despite the fact that the American title does spoil the suspense, even purists must admit that it's a much better title. Essentially, this is two films: for much of its length, it is a crisp, atmospheric account of a mountain resort where a strange cloud comes to hover and a woman with psychic powers disquietingly detects an alien presence; then, we learn that the cloud conceals enormous, one-eyed creatures with tentacles (surely the inspiration for the recurring alien villains in the "Treehouse of Horrors" episodes of The Simpsons), it abruptly becomes a very different sort of movie, much more akin to its American counterparts. It is a film that lingers in one's memory when other, apparently more worthwhile films are long forgotten.

The Fly. (Director, Kurt Neumann; writer, James Clavell, story George Langelaan.) Yes, one can appreciate the more nuanced and gradual blending of man and fly exhibited by Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg's 1986 remake, but perhaps the sheer horror of becoming half-man, half-fly was better conveyed by the simpler device of placing a huge fly head on David Hedison's shoulders. And while the first sequel Return of the Fly (1959) contrives to provide its scientist hero with a happy ending, the original film singularly embraced the inevitably tragic result of his misguided experiment — that the scientist, to end his misery, would be compelled to ask his wife to kill him off by crushing his insect head with a huge vise. And one is awed by the compounded pain of the film's surprise ending: the chance discovery of the other sad product of the scientist's mishap, a fly with a tiny human head crying "Help me" as it struggles to escape from a spider's web. In sum, the remake was an admirable film in many respects, but even a talent like Cronenberg could not quite outdo the impact of its clumsier predecessor.

I Married a Monster from Outer Space. (Director, Gene Fowler, Jr.; writer, Louis Vittes.) Unquestionably it sports one of the best titles ever devised for a science fiction film — testifying to a 1950s paranoia so pervasive as to penetrate even into the bridal suite — and the film also includes one of the genre's most memorable scenes (when a flash of lightning abruptly reveals that a woman's new husband is really a loathsome alien in disguise). Since the alien is portrayed by real-life closeted gay Thomas Tryon, there is the inevitable suggestion of a gay subtext (since many homosexual men in the 1950s, compelled by society to marry women they had no feelings for, undoubtedly felt like aliens, and seemed like aliens to their wives) — especially considering that at the end of the film, in search of "real men" to help her combat the alien menace, the distraught bride goes to the waiting room of a hospital's maternity ward, knowing that fathering a child proves that a man is really human (and really macho too). However, more broadly, the film also speaks to the ways that science fiction fans both straight and gay may feel that they are, in effect, despised aliens living in a society that quite conspicuously does not share their values.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Director, Edward L. Cahn; writer, Jerome Bixby.) This film is renowned as a precursor to Alien (1979), even though its menacing stowaway is more prosaically humanoid in appearance and the weapon of choice to be used against it is an ordinary gun which would, if fired on board an actual spaceship, penetrate the hull and doom its inhabitants to a swift and airless death. But the disturbing message is the same: we can build spaceships to protect ourselves from unknown dangers, but those dangers may be able to overcome our best defenses and menace us within our most secure chambers. And the film projects a subdued but furious energy that makes it hypnotically compelling viewing even for those disinclined to search for its deeper meanings.

Queen of Outer Space. (Director, Edward Bernds; writer, Charles Beaumont, story Ben Hecht.) In the late 1950s, as the story goes, veteran Hollywood writer Ben Hecht had shrewdly seen where the industry was going — toward idiotic yarns about male astronauts who travel to planets inhabited only by beautiful, man-hungry women — and when he jokingly described that scenario at a Hollywood party, an eavesdropping producer proved him right by immediately buying the rights to his story and giving him screen credit for the completed film. Proceeding with the polite stiffness of a high school play, the film functions as both an expression of, and a commentary on, the worst tendencies of 1950s science fiction films, its thoroughgoing lack of conviction displaying, I would argue, the lingering influence of Hecht's original satiric intent. And though its response to the protofeminist dilemma is most conventional — namely, that women must liberate themselves by rejecting the guidance of other, bitchy women and falling into the arms of handsome men — it is a film which suggests, like Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and I Married a Monster from Outer Space, that women's issues were indeed an increasing preoccupation of American society in the 1950s.

Space Master X-7. (Director, Edward Bernds; writers, George Worthing Yates and Daniel Mainwaring.) By ordinary standards, this is undoubtedly the most awful film on my list (Moe of the Three Stooges trying to play it straight as a cab driver?), its brief story largely conveyed by a voiceover narration suggesting that most of its soundtrack was accidentally lost. Yet this tale of a contaminated woman who engenders lethal alien goo — "bloodrust" — wherever she goes was surely the film that scared me the most as a child, impelling me to start looking under hotel beds to see if any bloodrust had been left behind by the previous guest. In a way, this film cunningly domesticates the menace of The Blob, taking the alien amoeba out of the street and hiding it in your closet; and while, as already indicated, a conspicuous lack of artistry on the screen can have its own special power, this is the one film on my list that I wish had been made with a little more care, and the film that would provide the best basis for an updated remake.

Teenage Cave Man. (Director, Roger Corman; writer, R. Wright Campbell.) You've probably been wondering when Roger Corman would appear on this list, and it would indeed be impossible to omit the king of late-1950s low-budget science fiction films. This is one of his better films, despite a story line that, even at the time, was a cliché to science fiction readers: a prehistoric caveman disobeys orders and ventures into a forbidden zone where he discovers that he is actually living in a future world devastated by nuclear war that has retreated to savagery. But Corman tells the tale with an appealing, childlike sincerity, and even its awkwardly interpolated footage of dinosaurs from One Million Years B.C. (1940) and Unknown Island (1948) only serves to underline the fact that protagonist Robert Vaughn is living in a world disturbingly suggestive of several different eras of human history, requiring him to puzzle out just how such a world might have emerged. And its final message undoubtedly appealed to his youthful audiences: no matter how much adults have screwed up the world, teenagers will always be able to make things better again.

This list of examples to illustrate the peculiar merits of 1958 science fiction films might be greatly expanded. For example, even though it is not really a science fiction film, I am sorry I had to leave out The Curse of the Faceless Man, another soundtrack-less saga exploiting the haunting notion that one of those ash-covered bodies observed in the ruins of Pompeii might come back to life and, in the manner of Hollywood's mummies, seek out a woman resembling his ancient paramour to carry her around in his arms in the vain hope of rekindling a lost romance. Then there are Attack of the Puppet People (John Hoyt decides to replay Dr. Cyclops [1940] for laughs, though the people he miniaturizes don't seem to appreciate his sense of humor); Earth vs. the Spider (an enormous spider emulates King Kong by going on a rampage, being captured to serve as a tourist attraction, and escaping to go on another rampage, with teenagers displaying far less gravitas than McQueen and Corsaut coming to the rescue); Fiend without a Face (a scientist unwittingly unleashes flying brains that attack hapless victims — a literalization of the power of scientific thought?); Frankenstein — 1970 (Boris Karloff, finally a true member of the Frankenstein family, uses atomic energy to create a space-age monster which, after stumbling about menacingly with bandages around his head, turns out to look exactly like — Boris Karloff); Monster on the Campus (a professor's experiment goes awry and turns him into a murderous monster, liberating him to respond to his students in the manner that most professors would like to respond to their students); and War of the Colossal Beast (The Amazing Colossal Man [1957] returns, much uglier and now portrayed by an actor even worse than John Langan, though a poignant victim nonetheless, finally driven to commit suicide by colliding with electrical wires). And there are other science fiction films from 1958 that I have not yet been able to see, though their outlandish plot descriptions indicate that they might qualify for my honor roll, such as The Brain Eaters, The Flame Barrier, How to Make a Monster, The Lost Missile, Monster from Green Hell, Terror from the Year 5000, and The Thing That Couldn't Die.

In sum, I argue, there was no other year in the history of science fiction film that produced so many films that, however ineptly, evoked a genuine sense of wonder, so many films that were undeniably strange in every conceivable fashion ... that wonderful year, 1958.


In response to this argument, I can anticipate a minor objection, and a major objection.

The minor objection would begin: but why single out the year 1958? Weren't there just as many memorably odd films in 1957, or 1959, or even the years before 1957 or the years after 1959? And I can sympathize with such a viewpoint. Clearly, the forces I described which brought these singular films in being did not begin operating precisely on January 1, 1958, and cease functioning precisely on December 31, 1958, and in fact I regret that the technicality of a late-1957 release has prevented me from considering such remarkable films as The Brain from Planet Arous and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, just as the technicality of an early-1959 release dictated the omission of The Cosmic Man and First Man into Space. I still personally believe that the science fiction films of 1958 collectively outshine the films of nearby years, but an informed observer of the era's films might well feel justified in choosing another year as its high point.

The major objection would be that this argument is simply an exercise in self-indulgent nostalgia; I cherish these films not because they are significant, but only because these were the films that I watched as a child, and I am too blinded by fond memories of my youth to recognize that these films, for the most part, represent nothing more than ephemeral trash, properly neglected in favor of the better science fiction films produced more recently.

The prosaic rebuttal would be that, as it happens, I first saw several of these films, including The Colossus of New York, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, and Teenage Cave Man, when I was well into adulthood, and hence cannot be appreciating them solely because I was deeply affected by them as a child. I would also note that there are many films I enjoyed as a child, ranging from Pollyanna (1960) to the television series Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963), which I no longer value in any way; for that matter, I have never regarded my childhood as particularly idyllic and devote little time to thinking back fondly about it. Thus, I'm sure that there is something more to my fondness for the science fiction films of 1958 than a simple desire to recapture or celebrate the lost pleasures of my youth.

I think the issue here is clear enough: as I've been saying in print since 1991, I like my science fiction weird, unsettling, unconventional, unpredictable. We would like to believe that films meeting these criteria can only emerge from a deliberate artistic intent, meticulously realized; but they might also be the serendipitous result of inadequate resources, sheer incompetence, blinding haste, or a lack of anything to lose. That is, if you don't have enough money to do what you really want to do, if you don't really know what you're doing, if you don't have enough time to think about what you're doing, or if you have no reason to worry about the consequences of what you're doing, then you may well end up going where no filmmaker has dared to go before. And, with the major studios out of the picture and the other aforementioned factors in play, the field of science fiction film in the late 1950s was essentially left entirely to minor filmmakers who all too often lacked the resources, talent, time, or incentive to produce more conventional, crowd-pleasing work, resulting in the singular collection of films that I have been discussing here.

Further, recall that, from the start, I have never said that 1958 was the best year in the history of science fiction film — only the most important. And the reason is that its films present for the first time the full flowering of all of the numerous and diverse possibilities available to science fiction film, opening up territory for later filmmakers to explore with more care and more resources. Certain lines of influence are obvious; it goes without saying that It! The Terror from Beyond Space paved the way for Alien, just as The Blob paved the way for The Andromeda Strain (1971). But note also that The Colossus of New York is wrestling with issues that will come up again in Blade Runner, and that The Crawling Eye fitfully evokes the awe and mystery of the truly alien that would emerge more forcefully in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In sum almost every science fiction film you can think of has some ancestor that was released in the year 1958.

Sadly, the circumstances that led to this creative outpouring changed in the 1960s, as the B-movie market gradually collapsed and the big players got back into the business of making science fiction films. Now, when you have millions and millions of dollars to spend on a science fiction movie, and thus need to earn a large profit, you are going to hire the best talents available and take as much time as you need to make your film; and as you become more and more risk-averse and demand more and more rewrites and more and more reshoots, your product will inevitably become more and more unadventurous. And that's why I am so often disappointed with contemporary science fiction films: they are very well made, they function very smoothly as diverting entertainment, but they aren't taking any chances, and they aren't making me think.

So, to fittingly conclude this look into the past by turning to the future, let us consider how it might be possible to recreate the circumstances that led to the memorable science fiction films of 1958. Already, we can observe a vast new array of filmmakers, equipped with their own video cameras and ready to post their work on YouTube or similar websites, who are producing some striking films for viewing on the Internet. If the big producers again drift away from making science fiction films, and if some new event reawakens interest in stories about space travel or new technologies, these talents may focus more and more of their energies on science fiction, perhaps drawing their inspiration from the independent, iconoclastic filmmakers of the late 1950s who would best function as their role models. Then, science fiction film again might predominantly become what it was in the sense-of-wonderful year of 1958 — cheap, rushed, unpolished, and fascinatingly strange.

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