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Kim Newman dares to check out this weekend's Classic Sci-Fi event
By James Whittington, Thursday 14th April 2022
Kim Newman

Respected journalist, film critic, and fiction writer Kim Newman takes us through the celebrated B-movies joining Horror for our Classic Sci-Fi Weekend event running from 16th-17th of April.

The Horror Channel returns to a decade riven with fears of devastating climate change, imminent global war, mutating diseases and general paranoia... albeit in black and white, with miniature effects and make-up masks rather than CGI and the kind of urgency that means world-menacing phenomena can be invoked, allowed to run rampage and then dispelled in well under ninety minutes of crisp, sometimes poetic, sometimes bombastic melodrama.

The times weren't really simpler, and neither were the movies if we pay close attention to what's always going on beneath the surface... where malign rocks run out of control and lost civilisations plot against us, or worry about the bugs under the microscope growing to titanic size and terrorising fleeing humans, often picking out tight-sweatered female laboratory assistants for particular attention while stalwart military men, scientists and civilian administrators do their best to restore the balance of nature.

Whether from Outer Space or Deep Below, the monsters are coming. And we're ready to sock them on whatever they've got that passes for a jaw. Buckle in for a wild - possibly atomic! - ride.

It Came From Outer Space (1953)
This opens with a blazing meteor zooming out of the screen (originally in 3D) to crash into the desert and then spins an eerie, unusual story (a screen original by Ray Bradbury, hence a few stretches of 'poetic' voice-over) about 'xenomorphs' stranded in the Arizona desert (yes, this is where the Alien franchise got the name from). The one-eyed, tentacled, fog-shrouded beings are barely-glimpsed, but the film makes extensive, precedent-setting use of the distorted subjective camera looming over screaming humans to convey the monster's point of view. Unlike most flying saucer scare films, the script is somewhat sympathetic to the aliens, who mainly aren't a threat to anyone and (like E.T.) just want to go home. However, one of the crew turns out to be a psycho who memorably impersonates the heroine, swanning about the edge of a crater in a chic evening dress while wielding a mean raygun. It has the tinny domestic scenes and off-the-peg performances typical of early '50s s f, but director Jack Arnold does wonderful things with the natural eeriness of the desert setting.

Tarantula (1955)
Professor Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) synthesises a formula designed to increase the growth of livestock. Struck down with a deforming disease which is a side-effect of exposure to the formula, he loses control of the experiment - and a spider grows to giant size. Director Jack Arnold returns to the desert for one of the best creepy-crawly monster movies of the 1950s. Mild-mannered Carroll, namechecked as 'over a barrel' in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is an unusually well-intentioned mad scientist, going the monster route as his features expand lop-sidedly before the business with the giant spider kicks in. John Agar is a two-fisted small-town hero and Mara Corday makes a fetchingly imperilled lab assistant, though the monster is actually done in at the end by napalm dropped from a jet-fighter by a young Clint Eastwood, who plays his entire part with a pilot's mask over his lower face. Stills tend to make the monster look like a giant puppet, but that only appears in a few inserts - for the most part, the creature is plated by a genuine arachnid optically inserted into the landscape or rampaging across miniature sets.

The Mole People (1957)
Though they didn't quite catch on in the way the Creature From the Black Lagoon did, the Mole People were one of Universal Pictures' serious attempts to expand their monster pantheon in the 1950s - the big-eyed, clawed, snouted critters featured in a photo-comic book that commands high prices on ebay and have been reproduced in licensed 'Universal Monster' action figure form alongside much higher-profile fiends. One hindrance to their pop culture visibility is that in the film they're mostly background minions, and all the drama is carried by other characters. In a throwback to the 'lost race' adventures of yore, intrepid John Agar and Hugh Beaumont delve deep into caves under a glacier and discover a civilisation of albino Sumerians complete with winsome handmaiden (Cynthia Patrick), imposing High Priest (Alan Napier, 'Alfred' to Adam West's Batman) and prophecy of doom. As is often the case, a hidden society lives undisturbed for millennia but revolt and natural disaster break out twenty minutes after contact with the modern world.

The Deadly Mantis (1957)
After an opening reel which consists of military stock footage and urgent narration about the United States' Northern defences - lots of planes flying over arctic wastes - an early instance of global warming exacerbated by volcanic eruption cracks open the ice... and a monster escapes. On the model of Them! and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the barely-seen fiend terrorises a few isolated communities and causes air and shipping disasters before we get a good look at it and realise it's a giant praying mantis. Note that the titles of the earlier films didn't give away the surprise the way The Deadly Mantis does. In the finale, the ravening insect mounts an attack on New York, counterintuitively crawling though a Manhattan Tunnel rather than flying over the skyscrapers. By 1957, a rigid formula had been laid down for giant monster movies and this sticks to it faithfully, with extremely stiff human actors like Craig Stevens and William Hopper in uniform or labcoat. However, director Nathan Juran and an expert effects team stage several unnerving creature encounters and rev up suspense - the idea of a big mantis is at once silly and disturbing, and again a combination of puppetry and nature footage creates a convincing illusion of monster menace.

The Monolith Monsters (1957)
The threat in 1950s science fiction was often animal (dinosaurs and big insects) or vegetable (pod people, the Thing From Another World)... but it could also be mineral. Here, a meteor crashlands in the much-invaded Southwestern desert and grows in size whenever it gets wet... leading to impressive, unusual, weirdly fascinating sequences of jagged black rocks growing like crystals in a sped-up nature film, becoming towering crags (ie: monoliths), then breaking apart and toppling over, often into rivers or during rainstorms so the whole creaking, crackling, creeping thing starts up again. Hero Grant Williams, the sometime Incredible Shrinking Man, is staunch and heroine Lola Albright gasps in horror and a rare nonsexualised alien menace, but they're upstaged by the metamorphic rocks. It's one of several monster movies in which paying attention during science lectures proves essential to mankindís eventual fightback against potential extinction. The next logical step was an evil liquid, which duly turned up in the classic The Blob.

Related show tags: IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, TARANTULA, THE BLOB, THE DEADLY MANTIS, THE MOLE PEOPLE, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS
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