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The Thing from Another World (1951)
This was the first screen adaptation of the short story "Who Goes There?". John Carpenter would direct the most well known version, "The Thing" in 1982. But this film is still considered a classic in it's own right. And while some felt, upon Carpenter's film's original release, that his picture was too reliant on special effects and not enough on dialouge, this film has the opposite problem. So much time is spent standing around, discussing the events and describing happenings, that the film hardly ever bothers to actually show us anything. When it does, the film can become quite thrilling. Luckily, the acting is good across the board, and dialouge is witty and believeable. But sometimes scenes in which characters explain the "science" in the fiction drawl on for far too long. It's still worth seeing, but I have a hard time getting excited about a film that feels more like an episode of a nightly talk-show than a horror film.
House of Wax (1953)
This was the first 3D horror film and the film that catapulted Vincent Price into horror stardom. Sadly, it's not one of Mr. Price's better endeavors. His performance is easily the best thing about the picture. The acting is good across the board, but the film suffers from an incredibly inconsistent tone. The 3D effects offer nothing as well, with several irritating sequences shoehorned in, simply to have something fly at the camera for a few moments. There's nothing really frightening about the picture either, although there's some suspense towards the end. And the whole thing feels too much like a lazy re-imagining of "The Phantom Of The Opera". It inevitably has a place in horror history, but it's more of a footnote for it's gimmick and it's star than it is a worthwhile film.
This is often considered the last great Universal monster movie, and one of the precursors to the creature feature. And while it's certainly an influential film, it's not one that has held up considerably well. The concept of being able to film scenes underwater was a new one when this picture was produced, so there are many overlong, and considerably sloppy (by today's standards) underwater shots. The title creature is also rather silly to behold. The costume almost looks convicing until the many close-ups of the monster's lifeless glass eyes and gaping, hollow mouth are shown. It's not easy to be very scared when it's so painstakingly obvious that you are watching a man in a cheap costume. It's almost as bad, and as unconvincing as modern CGI effects, although there's at least the craftsmanship of the costume to admire. The acting is good, across the board, and characters are generic but decently written. It's an alright film, but very mediocre, and no longer very effective in the ways it was meant to be. But it's something of a landmark of the genre, regardless.
Regularly put on par with films of Hitchcock, and said to be influential upon years of thrillers, is this French film. And I may be in the small percentage of people who find it to be utterly mediocre, even by the standards of it's time. The film is ably directed, with rich cinematography, and the acting of the two female leads keeps things moving at all times. But I find it hard to believe, that even in the 50's, it wouldn't be easy to guess the "twist ending" of this film within the first 30 minutes. Thus, the rest of the film serves to be nothing but continuing suspense, as it all builds to exactly the ending you were hoping it wouldn't. This sucks much of the tension out of the film, all together. It's well directed, but it fails to be thrilling or surprising in any way. I'm at a loss as to what the fuss is all about. But comparing this to the works of Hitchcock is a travesty.
The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
This was the very first horror film produced by legendary horror studio, Hammer Films. I've never been a huge fan of Hammer, and even this first forray into the genre is no exception for me. This film no doubt had some influence on ones that followed it, but it isn't a very effective picture when all is said and done. It's an extremely impersonal film, almost impersonal as it's arrogant, namesake mad scientist. None of the characters are the least bit fleshed out, not even the titular experiment is elaborated on. We know that Quatermass has sent the first men into space, and that's about all we ever know. None of the characters develop any relationships between each other, and the entire film often feels like more of a string of loosely connected scenes, than a consistent narrative. The film seems to be taking an interesting body-horror route, but quickly devolves into creature-feature shenanigans. And even then, the monster is so poorly elaborated on that it's purpose, abilities and appearence remain almost ambigious. This is not even a good film when taken as a product of it's time. It's just a very lazy, very unimaginative dud.
Quatermass 2 (1957)
This is, surprisingly, a much better film than's it predecessor. So much better that it is quite striking. Much of the credit for that has to go to Nigel Kneale, a beloved British author and screenplay writer who created the character of "Quatermass". He was quite unhappy with how his character was represented in the first film, so insisted on being a part of any sequels. And it is readily apparent that having an established science-fiction author on board, made this the film that the first should've been. The characters are much more well-written and developed, with Brian Donlevy toning down his brooding, indifferent manner from the original and portraying his character more realistically. The plot is much more original as well, opting for a rather original tale of alien invasion and corporate evil. The film effectively captures a very thick mood of paranoia, and succeeds in making it's threat feel inescapable. This was, in my humble opinion, perhaps the first horror film to perfectly nail that feeling of paranoid dread. There's also some shockingly violent and gruesome scenes for it's time, and decent effects. This is an effective, moody little creeper, a horror/sci-fi gem and vastly underrated. I know the third, late 60's Quatermass is considered to be the best, and can't wait to get my hands on that one. This one deserves to be held up in the same regard.
This was the first film appearence of the "Body Snatchers" concept, and is still considered a sci-fi/horror classic. But I find myself having an incredibly hard time seperating it from the 1978 "remake", which is, in my ever so humble opinion, one of the greatest horror films ever made. Almost every aspect of this film is positively dated or mundane in comparison. The direction and cinematography are adept, but very similiar to any other film of it's day. It's not a unique take on the subject matter, and most nowadays will simply be a bit bored watching such a well known story be hashed out as if for the first time. It was the first time back in 1956, but this is one film that has been harmed by the popularity of it's concept, and the versions that proceeded it. Still, it's certainly not anywhere near being a bad film. The cast is wonderful, with the legendary Kevin McCarthy in the lead. And the film does manage to stir up some moments of paranoia and suspense. If you want to get the most out of it, I'd reccomend you watch it before the 1978 version, but you've probably already seen it. This is a milestone, but not one that has aged gracefully.
The Bad Seed (1956)
Here we have a true cinematic milestone. The first ever "killer kid" film, and still one of the best. It's based off a novel, that became a hit play, and then this film adaptation. It's roots as a play show, seeing as most of the film takes place within one apartment and a handful of other sets, but it never really brings the film down any. This is a picture that's all about emotion and acting, and the pitch-perfect cast couldn't be any better. Nancy Kelly is especially stunning, in a powerhouse performance that was worthy of an Academy Award, as the tortured mother, and young Patty McCormack is equally stunning as the murderous Rhoda, whose prim and proper exterior hides a conniving, conscienceless killer. Most of the film is centered on dialogue, and we hardly ever see any explicit action taking place. But the amazing cast make us feel as though we have seen what they've seen, been where they've been. Whereas other films like this would seem dated in comparison, this one holds up so well, simply because of the brilliant cast. It's only brought down by outdated notions of psychiatry, which seem downright ignorant today, but one must remember that these advances were being made right around the time this picture came out. It's a revolutionary film, even if a little dated, and one that all serious horror fanatics must see.
This is something of a minor cult classic, and certainy an odd, cheesy little effort. The main point of interest for horror fans is the star studded cast. Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney, John Carradine and Bela Lugosi all in one film is quite a dream come true for horror fanatics. And while the film is decent hokum, some of the cast are sadly wasted. Chaney and Lugosi are insultingly wasted upon roles in which they bumble about like idiots, moaning and groaning. There is no opprotunity for them to use their skill, which is just a shame. Luckily, Basil Rathbone, Herbert Rudley, Carradine and the rest of the cast are colorful and impassioned in their performances, bringing some legitimate emotional resonance to a rather silly tale. The horror can be effective, as the concept of a brain surgeon who turns his patients into mindless, murderous zombies, against their will is quite nasty. But the performances of the victims are campy as all hell, and serve to make the film nothing more than some fun escapism. Nothing vital, but a decent piece of cheese for certain.
The Werewolf (1956)
Here's a hidden gem if there ever was one. Original for it's time, for being a modern take on the werewolf myth as opposed to a 18th century one, and for adding a science fiction twist to the formula. It's a modest picture, that is very obviously low budget, but is not held back much. The acting ranges from decent to good, but Steven Ritch stands out as the doomed "Wolfman". This is one of the most heart-breaking, sympathetic portraits of a monster ever captured on screen, and Ritch's performance is pitch-perfect. Direction is surprisingly solid as well. The film's plot is rather bare bones, a tad silly and the creature effects, while not entirely convincing are decent for their time. But this is a thoroughly effective, sadly underrated effort in the lycanthrope sub-genre. All werewolf fantatics must see this one.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
I was none too impressed with Hammer's iteration of Dracula, so I wasn't expecting much from this, their version of Frankenstein, and really, the film that began the Hammer sensation. And while I didn't find it to be a masterpiece, this was a decent version of the Frankenstein mythos. This one focuses much more on Frankenstein himself, and the performance by Peter Cushing is what carries the film. Needless to say, he's amazing in the role. Equal parts sympathetic and blood-curdlingly evil. Robert Querquhart is equally as good as Frankenstein's best friend and mentor. And Christopher Lee does what he can with an incredibly one-dimensional portrayal of the monster. It's partially this stilted portrayal of the famous monster itself that holds the film back. The whole thing amounts to nothing more than a mad scientist film, and a very by the numbers one at that. Still, the great performances make it worth watching for fans of Cushing and Lee, and it's certainly one of Hammer's better efforts.
Night of the Demon (1957) (1958)
Here is a true cult classic, heralded by many as one of the greatest horror films you've never seen. Directed by Val Lewton prodigy, Jacques Tourneur, it's a film quite ahead of it's time. That's not to say that it hasn't aged in many respects. The handling of the plot feels downright silly by today's standards, and the film is rather ignorant regarding it's depiction of Witchcraft and staunchly anti-enlightenment. It's the typical tale in which the haughty, skeptic professor is punished by the unseen world of the supernatural for his disbelief. But the film is more than well directed, acted and moody enough to compensate for it's ridiculousness. The atmosphere is thick, and even when the titular creature is shown on screen, it doesn't bring the film down as much as others of it's time. The cast is great too, with Niall MacGinnis standing out in particular, as a sly and devious practioner of the dark arts. I suppose the best way to categorize my feelings on this one is this; I don't like what it has to say, but I love the way it says it. If you can leave your intellect and your personal beliefs at the door, this is a treat.
The Abominable Snowman (1957)
This was one of Hammer's earliest pictures, coming out the same year as "The Curse Of Frankenstein", which greatly overshadowed it. Yet, for my money, this one is easily the better of the two films. Taking a more intellectual, atmospheric approach than most monster movies of it's time, the film doesn't fall into the cheesiness that so many of it's contemporaries did. The creatures themselves are only seen briefly at the end, which is both a strength and a weakness. There's not a lot of action, but luckily the dialogue is crisp and the cast is magnificent, with Peter Cushing giving, of course, a fantastic performance. The isolated, snowy landscapes add a sense of the ominous as well. It's still nothing amazing, but it holds up much better than many films of it's kind, and it at least has something going on underneath the hood. It deserves to be better remembered among Hammer fans.
Despite baring some plot, and title in significance, this film and "The Werewolf" (1956), are entirely unrelated. But like that film, this one is a very good little riff on the classic mythos, set in modern times. The film also serves as an effective allegory for drug addiction, with a particularly good performance from John Beal as the beloved town doctor and loving father who becomes addicted to a substance that turns him into a "vampire" of sorts. Direction is solid as well, with the supporting cast being good across the table. Unfortunately, the effects are rather horrible, and the "vampire" looks much more like a furry-faced toad than a vampire, or even a vampire bat. This takes some of the punch out of the more graphic scenes. But besides this, and a lackluster ending, this is yet another underrated effort.
Horror of Dracula (1958)
This was my first classic Hammer film. There are a few good scenes, but for the most part this is a clichéd, spiritless re-hashing of the Dracula mythos. Christopher Lee has been an excellent actor in all the other films I've seen him in, but he is one of the most underwhelming Draculas ever. He speaks as fast as an auctioneer, has zilch personality and tucks tail and runs whenever he's threatened. Quite possibly the least scary incarnation of the character in history. There is also a surprising lack of innovation or creativity in the script. The film somehow manages to be the most rote, by the numbers representation of the Dracula story I have ever seen. Snazzy sets and beautiful use of color, as well as a fantastic performance by Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, are all that save this from utter boredom.
The Fly (1958)
Many younger horror fanatics may not know that the 1986 masterpiece, "The Fly" is a remake of this 1958 film. But the two are about as different as an original and a remake can be. While Cronenberg's vision was a body horror with a strong emotional undercurrent, this is much more of a classic sci-fi/horror B-movie. There's still a strong emotional element to the film, and this is it's greatest strength. Because otherwise, this is about as silly a horror film as you'll ever see. Thanks to clunky effects and a terribly silly plot overall. It's hard to take seriously when a man is running about in marble-eyed "Fly" helmet, and the characters are frantically searching for a tiny fly with a human head. But the actors play the material completely straight, which, if it weren't for their fantastic performances and some isolated moments of existential horror, would make this an awful film. Luckily, the cast is superb, with Vincent Price himself playing an out of turn good guy role, just as convincingly as he plays evil masterminds. And Patricia Owens is wonderful as the dutiful wife of an ill-fated scientist. Her struggle to save her husband is what lends the goofy proceedings some actual weight. Direction is fine, albeit slightly pedestrian as well. If you enjoy 50's sci-fi and B-pictures, you may want to see this one. Otherwise, while not a bad effort, it's nothing of importance.
Fiend Without a Face (1958)
This is considered something of a cult classic amongst fans of early creature features, and sci-fi horror. But I'm at a loss for words as to why. This is a film that is almost completely inept, yet still mundane enough to keep from becoming an all time trash classic. The direction and cinematography are almost unbearably sloppy, editing is choppy, and the acting is atrocious from most of the cast. The plot is also a strange jumble of themes that never begins to make an logical sense, even by the standard of 50's sci-fi films. Perhaps the film's only point of real interest are the special effects which appear toward the end of the picture. This was one of the first films to feature uncensored gore effects, but the gooey stuff only flows forth from the monsters themselves, and they're brought to life using quaint stop-motion that fails to be effective at all. Perhaps some of the most cringe-worthy scenes are when the "fiends" attack the actors, and they shriek with all the conviction of planks of wood. All of this may sound entertaining to trash fanatics, but trust me, it's just grating. I'm at a total loss as to how this film managed to garner itself any sort of reputation. And completely beside myself that this dreck is included in The Criterion Collection.
This one stirred up enough controversy at it's release date that it was rated "X" in the UK. I'm not quite sure what warranted that, seeing as there's not so much as one drop of blood in the entire film. I suppose the concept was so disturbing back then that it seriously unhinged some folks, but I find even that, rather hard to believe. Nonetheless, the film has become something of a curiosity because of it's status. It's alright, but nothing fantastic. When it comes down to it, the whole thing feels like an overlong episode of The Twilight Zone, and not a particularly good one at that. The acting is good and there's a creepy score as well as some ahead of their time camera tricks, but the whole thing just ends up dragging on for too long without developing into much of anything. Nothing special here.
This film is a bit of an oddity. A Hammer film, released in between the studio's two hits; "Horror Of Dracula" and "The Curse Of Frankenstein", this is a period piece like most of their films, and directed and written by Hammer regulars Terrence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster. Yet, this film feels like no other Hammer film I have seen. Namely, because most of it's runtime is taken up by dialouge. The film's greatest flaw is that characters simply stand about, talking about what's happening, more than they spend time actually doing anything. There are but a few moments of actual horror or suspense, seeing as nothing much happens, just much talk of things happening. The film is sadly well shot, with beautiful lighting and color, as these attributes are wasted on nothing but static shots. Thankfully, the acting is very good. Anton Diffring and Arnold Marle are especially good, and the two are always impassioned and play off one and other exceptionally. Christopher Lee is also present, and Hazel Court is extraordinary eye candy. The plot toys with some interesting themes, but they are never explored. Only in words. And that makes for a fairly boring, wasteful motion picture.
This was the first horror film directed by William Castle, who would go on to make a name for himself as something of a horror film "showman", whose films always had a gimmick. In this film's case, it was a life insurance policy offered to every person who watched the film, as it may "scare them to death". Despite this silliness, for the duration of it's runtime, this is actually one of Castle's strongest films. I'm not a huge fan of his work, because of how incredibly silly most of his pictures are. But this one is dark, with a brooding atmosphere and full of controversial subject matter such as abortion, infedility and child murder. The tension is ratcheted up throughout, and the plot is filled with backstabbing and red herrings. Acting is also very good, and the main performers sell the emotional turmoil of the situation, struggling to find a man's daughter whom has been buried alive and will suffocate in four hours. Sadly, as good as the film remains for it's first hour, those final moments destroy all of the suspense and atmosphere that was flawlessly built up, with one of the stupidest, most hackeneyed twists I've ever seen. It's been some time since I can remember a film's final ten minutes completely butchering what, up until that point, had been a perfectly good film. I'd say it's worth watching for it's brilliant first half, but you're only, ultimately, setting yourself up for a huge dissapointment. What a shame.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
This is no doubt, the most infamous film that William Castle has ever directed. Castle was a showman and director who had been working in the industry since the 30's, but began directing and producing low budget horror pictures in the 50's, usually with a cheesy gimmick, to encourage audience participation. His films, by themselves, are very hit or miss. And though heralded as something of a horror classic in many circles, this is one of his weakest efforts by far. A supernatural horror film that never manages to be the least bit scary, instead only silly, but in the clunkiest, dullest way possible. All of the effects are painfully unconvincing, and most of them are unimaginative jumpscares, or end in prolonged shots of women shrieking like idiots long after they would've been running. The story never develops into anything, and is nothing but a skeleton to the hang the film's meat on, if you'll pardon the pun. There's a very good cast, featuring the always watchable Vincent Price, and Castle's direction is smooth. But there's nothing to really enjoy about this picture. There's nothing frightening about it, for one small moment, and it's campiness is the sort that is much more annoying than endearing. I suppose films like this were the beginning stages of when slick producers realized they could pump money out of moviegoers with manipulative, assembly-line type films. Today, it's as uninspired and infuriatingly predictable as the garbage it has inspired for decades.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
This is perhaps the most famous "So Bad, It's Good" film ever made. Directed, written and produced by master of unintentional hilarity, Ed. Wood Jr. himself. And this is still an enjoyably bad film, even if it seems like gold compared to Tommy Wiseau and Neil Breen films. We're used to such iredeemable slop being released today, that this film is actually much better than many of those that hold the title of "So Bad, It's Good" nowadays. It at least looks like a decently budgeted film and has some average, but tolerable cinematography. Make no mistake, that everything else about it is quite inept. Dialouge is absolutely hillarious, with such gems as: "Future events like these will affect you in the future." and "It's strange. The earth people, who are alive, are so afraid of the dead, who are not alive." Acting is also helter-skelter, editing and continuity have fallen into a black hole and the effects are downright laughable. The film does have noble itentions, with Wood making a commentary on the dangers of atomic weapons and mankind's obsession with violence and domination. But these themes are mused on briefly, then thrown to the wind as the shlocky nonesense re-commences. It's not the best bad movie ever made, but it's a classic of it's kind, nonetheless.
The Mummy (1959)
Out of Hammer's remakes of the Universal monster movies, this is most likely the least succesful. They would go on trying to create sequels to this film for the next two decades, but the franchise would never come anywhere close to the success of their Dracula or Frankenstein pictures. And this is not at all surprising, seeing as this is a very mediocre film. It's somewhat better than it's 1932 counterpart, in that we actually get to see the mummy for most of the film, and it's plot is more focused. But there isn't much plot to speak of, when all is said and done. It's an incredibly shallow film, with aboslutely no character devlopment and even less tension or suspense. The viewer will mostly just feel indifferent to the events happening on screen. Peter Cushing is wasted on a bland, completely lifeless role, while Christopher Lee is probably the best version of a vengeful mummy we'll ever get on the big screen. I don't know why it's so hard to pull off a good film about this subject, but this is yet another dissapointment.
The Tingler (1959)
Another of William Castle's "gimmick horrors", this one is no more effective than I have found his other films to be. It has only the distinction of being a little more silly and unbelieveable than his other efforts. The plot makes little to no sense, and is filled with red herrings and side plots that go absolutely nowhere. The film is mostly a series of audience manipulations, without a story to hold them together. Luckily, Vincent Price is there to keep things watchable, but it can become rather painful to see his talents wasted on such a stupid film. It treats it's audience as scientifically iliterate cannon fodder, and that's exacty what it deserves to be remembered as. This may be one of Castle's worst films, and in my opinion, that's saying something.
A Bucket of Blood (1959)
This was really Roger Corman's breakthrough success, paired with Little Shop Of Horrors which was shot directly after this one, using the same sets. Both of them share similar themes, but for my money, Shop Of Horrors is slightly better. This one is still a cult classic in it's own right, however. It holds up surprisingly well, considering it's beatnik themes and usage of fifties era social comedy, and serves as somewhat of a satirical look back at hippie culture. The comedy is charming, though not laugh out loud funny and there's some effective horror moments. Dick Miller is also fantastic in his first big performance. The only things holding it back are it's incredibly short runtime and a lackluster ending, but given it's time and budget constraints, these minor issues are forgivable. A B-movie classic.
Jack the Ripper (1959)
This film was lost for quite a long time, only to be restored and transferred to BluRay in recent years. And it's really quite a shame that so few ever had the chance to see this film back in the day, as I'm sure it would have a much bigger cult following, at the least by now. It's certainly one of the better Ripper films, and it's influence can be seen on a few of those that would follow it. It's a fluidly directed picture, with a large, wonderful cast of performers and well written characters that give life to the story. There are so many red herrings thrown in, that the film simply becomes a waiting game of seeing who the Ripper turns out to be, but the characterizations, surprisingly thoughtful social themes and some very effective stalk 'n slash sequences keep things interesting. It's a polished, effective film and one that never becomes boring to watch, even when concerning itself more with character than horror, and delivers suspense when it does. A truly overlooked gem, that deserves love now that it's been unveiled.
A quite comprehensive list of the horror films of the 1950's decade. Films I have both seen and want to see. Reviews will be posted as films are viewed. This is not a complete list, as there are some films I have no interest in seeing. If you feel something is missing, or would like to know my thoughts on a particular film that is not included, please inquire. Enjoy, and stay scared.
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