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Nineteen 1950’s SF Movies To Help Get You Through the Next Few Weeks

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020 | Posted by John Miller

Caltiki-small

Caltiki, The Immortal Monster

Let’s face it, most of us are going to be stuck at home for the next couple of months and although we all probably have a lot of reading to catch up on, ennui is inevitably going to set in sooner or later. Fortunately, we are living in the golden ago of home video and there’s a lot out there to explore. Here’s a list of what I (generally) consider the best science films of the 1950s, not limited to those made in America, but  also those shown in America. The ratings are on a 10+ to 1 scale (no “1’s” on this list) and all are readily available, with eBay being a great source of affordable entertainment you can own and not just rent, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see that many of these are also on streaming services for those who eschew physical ownership.

19. Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959: 8+): An Italian production filmed in Mexico. Accounts vary, but it is the first film at least partially directed by Mario Bava, who also did the moodily atmospheric cinematography. The story opens with archaeologists investigating Mayan ruins where they comes across a blob-like monster which they ultimately destroy, but save a bit in a small, glass-topped aquarium (never a good idea) and bring back to Mexico City. Also, something about a comet. Sub-genre: Blob movies.

18. Fly, The (1958: 8+): A decent effort, even it does devolve into “there are things that man is not meant to know” territory. Two weak spots are the cat’s audible meows after being sent off somewhere (and I didn’t like the family pet being used as an experimental animal) and the fact that the guy who gets the fly head retains human intelligence. Vincent Price does a nice turn as the scientist’s brother. Way less grotty than the remake. Sub-genre: science gone wrong.

17. Creeping Unknown, The/The Quatermass Xperiment (1955: 8+): British production, directed and written by Val Guest. Brian Dunlevy is really grumpy as Bernard Quatermass, head of the British rocket group. The first rocket they send into space is invaded by a creepy alien life form which kills two of the astronauts and infects the third. Incredibly, his wife kidnaps him from the hospital and he goes on a killing spree throughout London with eventually all of his humanity subsumed by the alien, which is more animal-like than intelligent. Great climactic scene in Westminster Abbey. Sub-genre: alien invasion.

16. Invaders From Mars (1953: 8+) : Surrealistic and dreamy (because, SPOILER ALERT: It’s a dream.) Martian invasion from the viewpoint of a somewhat precocious child. A little padded, but quite creepy. Gave me the willies as a kid, and still does. Sub-genre: alien invasion.

Invaders-from-Mars

Invaders From Mars

15. This Island Earth (1955: 9) An imaginative and colorful first contact movie ending on an alien planet that, although the most interesting part of the film, feels somewhat tacked-on. Sub-Genre: first alien contact.

14. Crawling Eye, The (1958 USA: 9) British Production. The titles in the US (The Crawling Eye) and the UK (The Trollenberg Terror) says about all you can say about the differences in the two countries. Superior, spooky alien invasion flick, let down by its limited budget and sometime primitive special effects. Still, the aliens (apart from that taking over minds to kill people thing) are adorable. Sub-genre: alien invasion.

13. The H Man (1959 US: 9) This Japanese production directed by Ishiro Honda is a bizarre police procedural/ monster flick hybrid in which the scientist gets the B-girl. One of the best blob movies, and the second one to make this list (there will be a third, but maybe not the one you think). Sub-genre: Blob movie.

H-Man

The H Man

12. Rodan (1957 US: 9) Another Japanese production directed by Ishiro Honda. One of the classic kaiju movies (third one made). It starts out with big bugs attacking a coal mine and segues into really big flying reptiles devastating Japan. When I was a kid there was a program called Million Dollar Movie on channel WOR where they played the same movie like twice a day for an entire week. I probably watched this thing like ten times. The ending is sadly moving in its own way. Note: as with most of these films, the Japanese version is superior to the Americanized one. Sub-genre: kaiju

11. Kiss Me Deadly (1955: 9) Eerie blend of hard-boiled detective noir and sf as Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer seeks the “whatsis.” In this movie Hammer is not a nice guy. Not, actually, that he ever is. Quirky characters in a brooding Los Angeles. Sub-genre: alternate universe.

10. Mysterians, The (1959 US: 9) Directed by Inshiro Honda (who else?). One of the great alien invasion flicks of the 1950s. This one’s got everything. Giant killer robot. Creepy aliens who want our women. Flying saucers. A last-ditch battle which pits a newly-developed super weapon against the alien’s secret (initially, anyway) base. Fast-moving fun. Sub-genre: alien invasion.

Mysterians

The Mysterians

9. Creature from the Black Lagoon, The (1954: 9) First and by far the best of the Creature movies, with Florida standing in for the Amazon (In a sad commentary on our times, Silver Springs, where this was filmed because of the crystalline clarity of its water, is now polluted out of existence.) The underwater scenes are great, as is both the Creature suit (pay no attention to the bubbles coming out of the top of his head) and the luscious Julie Adams. Also stars the ubiquitous Richards (Denning and Carlson). Sub-genre: crypto-zoology.

8. Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956: 9) Superior effort with a good script, good acting, and some great Harryhausen saucers. Sub-genre: alien invasion.

7. Enemy From Space/Quartermass 2 (1957 US : 9+) British production, directed by Val Guest. Once again Brian Dunlevy grumps his way through the Quartermass role, this time taking on a hive-mind creature that’s hell bent on turning the world into a giant slime pit. Excellent early Hammer and best of the 50’s Blob movies. Sub-genre: alien invasion.  Also, of course, Blob movie.

Enemy-from-space-small

Enemy From Space/ Quartermass 2

6. Thing From Another World, The (1951: 10) Great claustrophobic alien loose in house movie. Terrific script, direction, acting. Stars the always dependable Kenneth Tobey, and James Arness as the alien carrot. Sub-genre: alien invasion.

5. Them! (1954: 10) The Citizen Kane of big-bug movies. The first and the best, it set the template for all the rest. Superior script, superior acting by James Whitmore and James Arness (and keep your eyes out for a very young Leonard Nimoy). Sub-genre: crypto-zoology.

4. Krakatit (1951 US: 10) A Czechoslovakian production, based on a novel by Karel Capek (the guy who coined the word “robot.”).  Tough to find, but well worth seeking out (copies are now currently on eBay). A highly mannered and stylized movie, well-acted and beautifully filmed, that runs on fairy tale logic. The story is told in flashback, as a deathly ill man is found wandering on the streets of Prague. It turns out that he’s invented the most powerful explosive force known to man (named after the volcano Krakatoa).  He does all he can to keep it out of the hands of politicians and arms merchants, but can he?. An extraordinary anti-war film made before the Communists took over Czechoslovakia. Sub-Genre: technology gone wrong.

3. It Came From Outer Space (1953:10) Superior script (at the very least based on an original treatment by Ray Bradbury) sets this first contact film above most others as it defies many of the conventions of 1950s sf cinema. Stars the very dependable Richard Carlson. Sub-genre: alien first contact

2. Forbidden Planet (1956: 10) A beautiful setting and superior acting in this classic retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A cautionary tale of a man unaware of his own limitations. Top-notch effects for its time, it also introduced one of the great characters of 1950s sf cinema: Robby the Robot. Sub-genre: technology gone wrong.

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet

1. Godzilla (1954: 10+) Another Japanese production directed by Inshiro Honda. A great achievement made by a country nine years removed from losing World War II, it combines giant monster destruction with telling social commentary. The first kaiju movie, among the first green sf movies, the first in a franchise that continues to be viable even until today (though I wish the last entry was less dumb), this is not a feel-good movie, but it does tell how a society facing horrific disaster can pull itself together and heal. We are, of course, talking the original Burr-less version here. Accept no substitutes. Sub-genre: kaiju


John Jos. Miller’s latest publication is “The Ghost of a Smile,” in Dreamforge Magazine #4, December, 2019 (Tangent recommended reading list 2019). Next up:  “An Annotated Long Night at the Palmer House” at Wild Cards Blog, Tor.com (May 2020) www.facebook.com/john.j.miller.9883

21 Comments »

  1. Great list!

    (To which I myself would append Harryhausen’s other b&w monster movies — Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea and 20,000,000 Miles to Earth, in no particular order.)

    Comment by Joe H. - April 9, 2020 10:56 am

  2. Thanks. All worthy additions. If the list was a little longer, those certainly would have received consideration, plus I wanted to get away from some of the usual suspects and highlight some lesser-known films.

    Comment by John Miller - April 9, 2020 1:51 pm

  3. Thank you, Mr. Miller. That’s a great list; I think I’ve seen them all with the exceptions of Kiss Me Deadly and Karakatit, and they are all worth viewing.

    For some reason, Caltiki was a favorite at our house when I was a kid.

    “The Power of Caltiki Will Destroy the World!” is still remembered by my siblings. Thanks again.

    Comment by John E. Boyle - April 9, 2020 4:55 pm

  4. The unfortunately named KRAKATIT is the hardest one on the list to find, and one of the hardest of all the surviving 1950s movies to run across (weirdly, some sf movies made in the 1950s are pretty much totally lost already; at least I’ve never been able to find them), but there are some available on eBay the last time I checked. KISS ME DEADLY did have a Criterion release, although I don’t know if it’s currently readily available. CALTIKI is not exactly widely known. Thanks.

    Comment by John Miller - April 9, 2020 5:19 pm

  5. Several sellers list “Krakatit” on eBay, but they list the year as 1948. There are copies in Czech, and copies in Czech with English subtitles.

    Comment by smitty59 - April 9, 2020 9:39 pm

  6. Nice list, and pretty clever to include “Kiss Me, Deadly”, which is probably the best movie on the list. One disagreement, though. I think Jack Arnold’s “Tarantula” is the best of the giant bug movies.

    Comment by Michael Padgett - April 10, 2020 11:12 am

  7. KRAKATIT was made in 1948, but wasn’t shown in the US until 1951 (as per KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES) and even then was a pretty limited release.

    TARANTULA is pretty good. Offhand, I’d put it as #2 in the Big Bug Movie Sweeostakes.

    Comment by John Miller - April 10, 2020 2:37 pm

  8. This is an excellent list and it fills me with a piercing nostalgia. Thanks. I recently picked up the Blu-ray of It Came From Outer Space and you have motivated me to watch it tonight.

    But I object in the strongest possible terms to the exclusion of Fiend Without a Face.
    Virtually everything about that movie kicks ass. It is loaded with Cold War SF style and features some of the coolest monsters ever filmed.
    The insanely over-the-top violence of the epic climax, which makes the final act of this classic 1950’s genre flick seem somehow injected with late 1970’s grindhouse steroids, puts it on an entirely different level.
    It’s as if Bill Haley and his Comets were jamming pretty good and then Jimi Hendrix walked out on stage to accompany them. No other flick of its era compares.

    Comment by John Hocking - April 10, 2020 7:46 pm

  9. Now I have to rewatch Tarantula and Fiend without a Face. Thanks!

    You never know what you’re going to find at Black Gate!

    Comment by John E. Boyle - April 10, 2020 10:52 pm

  10. I’m a big fan of THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957) which deals with a threat from outer space that isn’t a guy in a rubber headpiece.

    All the George Pal SF movies are great too. Best of breed effects for the time.

    Comment by eeknight - April 10, 2020 10:56 pm

  11. Oh, and The Black Scorpion would probably also end up on my list — very good non-Harryhausen stop-motion animation, and deserves ranking on the best Big Bug Movies Sweepstakes.

    Comment by Joe H. - April 11, 2020 8:37 am

  12. Great minds thinks alike. I’ve watched several of these over the last two weeks (at least one, The Trollenberg Terror, because I recalled your earlier praise for it). The Angry Red Planet, Attack of the Mushroom People, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Dementia 13, and The Black Sleep are just a few of the others I have also used to get my mind off present circumstances. Thanks for providing a couple more to dig up on a late night.

    Comment by MichaelWDenney - April 11, 2020 3:26 pm

  13. Yeah, FIEND WITHOUT A FACE really does deserve special mention. Maybe I should have made it 29 movies instead of 19.

    MONOLITH MONSTERS is a unique take on alien invasion that also deserves a special call-out, as does BLACK SCORPION. I knew I was forgetting an excellent Big Bug movie in my previous comment. The stop-action effects are excellent, it stars one of the Richards, and also Mara Corday. Its only drawbacks are that they obviously ran out of special effects money by the end, it has one of the most annoying kids in ’50s SF movies, and, once again, the dog drops out of the plot (so does the kid, but that was okay). Still quite worthwhile. BLACK SLEEP is also an interesting film that doesn’t get enough call outs. Did you know that ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE was based on a William Hope Hodgson short story?

    Comment by John Miller - April 11, 2020 3:45 pm

  14. I didn’t know that about Attack of the Mushroom People. Gives me an excuse to look up the story.

    Comment by MichaelWDenney - April 11, 2020 3:55 pm

  15. “A Voice in the Night.” Fairly widely anthologized for an older story.

    Comment by John Miller - April 11, 2020 4:00 pm

  16. It’s a 1939 film, but Humphrey Bogart made one scifi/horror film. And it’s wonderfully bad.

    The Return of Doctor X

    Comment by Bob Byrne - April 11, 2020 6:46 pm

  17. When I was young (i.e. in the early 1980s), I remember one of the local PBS stations had a weekly late night monster movie hosted by … somebody? Maybe an astronomer? I’m pretty sure Monolith Monsters was one of the films on the docket there.

    Comment by Joe H. - April 11, 2020 10:19 pm

  18. I found a copy of “The Voice in the Night” available online. A much simpler and much more sympathetic tale than Attack of the Mushroom People but the inspiration is obvious. A good, short, chilling read. Thanks, John.

    Comment by MichaelWDenney - April 11, 2020 11:08 pm

  19. That’s the weirdest Bogart film I’ve ever seen — and not all that too far removed from CASABLANCA.

    That sounds like a pretty progressive PBS station.

    Yeah, that’s a pretty good short story. Not a lot of plot, but it gets right to its rather chilling point. Glad you liked it. Hodgson was a pretty fair writer and an all- around interesting character. His life was cut short by WW I.

    Comment by John Miller - April 12, 2020 3:42 pm

  20. The Thing from Another World is my favorite ’50s SF.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - April 13, 2020 7:16 pm

  21. A good choice.

    Comment by John Miller - April 14, 2020 2:50 pm


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