While the first few years of the 1950’s were slowly leading up to making it the decade of sci-fi (and not just in movies, but in books and TV and comics as well), 1953 is the year it all broke open – wide open.
Several films that are considered by many (myself included) to be near the pinnacle of the genre – The War of the Worlds and Invaders From Mars highest among them – were released during this break through year of sci-fi movies.
The most famous of these sci-fi cinematic pinnacles is undoubtedly The War of the Worlds.
From H.G. Wells’ original 1898 novel to Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast, all the way to Steven Spielberg’s surprisingly well-done 2005 remake, this tale of alien invaders landing in the Garden State and trying to take over the world, is one of the most iconic stories in genre history. Hell, even Superman himself had to battle these bastards when DC Comics transferred the story to Metropolis, and one can see more than just a nod to the story, especially the 1953 film version, in Tim Burton’s heee-larious satiric romp, Mars Attacks!.
This story of alien invaders and the humans who had to fight almost insurmountable odds to defend their world is at its best in Byron Haskins’ 1953 version. Haskins, who would go on to direct one of my all-time favourite films – sci-fi or not – the 1964 cult classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars (available in a gorgeous Blu-ray edition from the fine folks over at Criterion), creates tension galore, while also handing us some of the best special effects of the day.
With sinister looking space ships (a design reused in ten aforementioned Robinson Crusoe on Mars), Haskin’s f/x crew were hell bent on making sure The War of the Worlds looked like nothing else that came before it.
An interesting sidenote involves the sound of the film. Haskins’ foley crew created the sound of the ship’s weapons by striking a a high tension cable wit a hammer. This sound was then more famously used as the sound of photon torpedoes in Star Trek: The Original Series. Forget wondering why these torpedoes make a sound in the void of space though. But I digress.
My other favourite sci-fi film of 1953 is also a tale of invaders from Mars, hence the title, Invaders From Mars, but instead of an all-out attack, in this film we get invaders taking over the bodies of innocent humans. In what can be seen as a precursor to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though not to the harrowing creepiness of that film, Invaders From Mars tells the tale of a lone child, whose parents have been taken over by aliens, who must convince others that the Martians are here and we are all in danger. It is a fun – and for a child seeing it for the first on late night TV (as I did), quite scary – motion picture event.
Other notable sci-fi films of 1953 include such fun films as It Came From Outer Space and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms – the latter of which was directed by Jack Arnold, who would go on to direct such classics of the genre as The Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man.
We also got a pair of Abbott and Costello comedies, whereupon the duo meets Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and go to Mars, as well as such, not-so-good but still quite fun movies, such as The Magnetic Monster, Project Moonbase and the horror hybrid, Donovan’s Brain, starring Nancy Davis, the future first lady of the United States. But, by far, the worst film of 1953, and possibly one of the worst films ever made, is a fun little diddy called Robot Monster.
Sometimes called Robot Monster 3D, for reasons that I am guessing you can figure out on your own, is the story of the alien Ro-Man Extension XJ-2, who has destroyed all human life on Earth, except for eight humans, using the Calcinator Death Ray. The survivors include an elderly scientist, his wife, two daughters and son, his young assistant and a pair of pilots. All eight have developed immunity to the death ray since receiving an experimental serum developed by the scientist. The movie shows how Ro-Man must hunt down these survivors so he can fully eradicate the human race.
Considered by many to be one of the worst films ever made (it was highlighted in an early episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000), Robot Monster is so so bad that it is great fun to watch.
Featuring a monster/alien that is basically, thanks to an extremely low budget and a director without much imagination or creativity, a guy in a cheap gorilla suit with a space helmet head (and yes, the suit’s zipper is visible throughout), the film is so much fun to laugh at that you would never know it was never meant to be funny. But damn, is it ever heee-larious.
Well, that’s it for the year 1953. Next time I will be back with a look at 1954, and the big films of that year, which include Disney’s version of Captain Nemo and his crew, a bunch of giant mutant ants (I love love love this movie), a certain creature from a certain Black Lagoon, and a big-ass atomic-radiated dinosaur taking down Tokyo. If you want to get another view of the sci-fi films of the greatest of decades, check out a piece I did for Anomalous Material, entitled, appropriately enough I suppose, The 10 Best 1950’s Sci-Fi Films. Until next time…