Not until the mid-late 1950s did Hollywood realize there was a distinct teen audience for edgy genre films.
Historians usually credit Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson for being the first to recognize – and exploit – this audience of teens. It was American International Pictures (AIP), the company co-founded by Arkoff and Nicholson in 1954, which produced the first and greatest teen hits of the era.
The cigar-chomping Arkoff always enjoyed talking about himself. In his later years he spelled out (with, we presume, some exaggeration) his “ARKOFF formula” for a successful B-movie:
Action (which could mean high drama or a fast pace)
Revolution (controversy or originality)
Killing (at least a little violence, and each death has some meaning)
Oratory (well-written and quotable dialogue)
Fantasy (vicarious wish-fulfillment for the viewer) Fornication (sex appeal)
He also explained the refinement of the teen audience and why AIP movies tended to skew toward male teens:
a) A younger child will watch anything an older child will watch.
b) An older child will not watch anything a younger child will watch.
c) A girl will watch anything a boy will watch.
d) A boy will not watch anything a girl will watch.
So, at least for low budget B-movies, market them to a hypothetical 19-year-old male, and you’ll attract the largest number of viewers.
The formula worked well for 20 years and AIP found itself imitated many times, sometimes by big studios like Paramount. Eventually AIP was sold to Filmways, and Filmways itself was acquired by Orion. But AIP’s pioneering teen legacy remains a key component to 20th century genre film history.
What sorts of teen hits did AIP and its imitators produce in the 1950s? Some of the hits were hotrod pictures like the original The Fast and the Furious (1955), and a few were sci-fi pictures like Teenagers from Outer Space (1959). But most were teen horror.
I count nine 1950s teen horror films in total, the first five coming from AIP and the latter four coming from independent producers who jumped on AIP’s bandwagon.
I’ve written more about these films in my Claws & Saucers guidebook, but I wanted to group them here and consider how they were crafted especially for teens.
I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (June 1957)
Nearly all AIP’s horror hits were written, produced, or directed by either Herman Cohen or Roger Corman.
This first one, the trendsetter, the first picture to have the word “teenage” in its title, was a Cohen production. It originally played with Invasion of the Saucer Men, a sci-fi film also pointedly aimed at teens.
The best-remembered performance is that of Michael Landon (the Bonanza/Little House on the Prairie Guy, only 20 at the time). He’s very sensitive yet also very tough.
But the other great performance is Whit Bissell’s. Bissell is known (when he’s known at all) as a supporting character actor, but his cold-hearted authority figure was the perfect choice for a villain in a teen genre film.
I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN (November 1957)
After Werewolf was a monster hit (so to speak), it took AIP only a few months to create this follow-up.
Again it was a Cohen production, and again it featured Whit Bissell as an unscrupulous authority figure (a scientist) out to exploit America’s youth.
But it’s no hack job. The dialogue and acting are excellent. As in the Hammer Frankenstein films starring Peter Cushing, you’ll sympathize with the poor beast, but you’ll remember the mad doctor the most.
Several gory images – including a severed head – are among the most extreme of the decade.
BLOOD OF DRACULA (November 1957)
This one shared its original billing, its producer, and its director with I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. Again an insensitive authority figure (a teacher) toys with the life of an unsuspecting teen, turning the teen into a monster.
The key difference: it’s all female. The evil teacher is an amoral feminist and the teen victim is a high school chemistry student.
Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t know quite what to do with itself… is it scientific? …is it supernatural? The evil teacher isn’t developed enough.
But when the girl transforms into bat form (she’s more of a were-bat than a typical vampire), she looks impressively hideous.
HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER (July 1958)
Riding high after a year of hits, AIP got a little full of itself for this one. How so? It put “itself” into the picture by depicting tourists visiting AIP studios the same way tourists would visit Paramount, MGM, or Warner Brothers. Of course in real life, AIP was a tiny fraction of a large studio’s size.
As for the story, it’s another unscrupulous adult (this time a disgruntled ex-employee) abusing America’s teens for his own sinister purposes.
He controls the teens with hypnotic makeup, so, yeah, this one’s pretty campy. For teen appeal, young John Ashley (later famous for exploitation films made in the Philippines) sings “You’ve Got to Have Ee-ooo” with sexy gal dancers.
It originally played with Teenage Cave Man, a sci-fi fantasy also (obviously) aimed at teens. It was co-produced by Cohen and had the same director (Herbert L. Strock) as the Frankenstein and Dracula films mentioned above.
EARTH VS THE SPIDER (a.k.a. The Spider, September 1958)
This very fun picture was produced and directed by Bert I. Gordon (“Mr. Big” who just turned 94 as of this writing in October 2016), but distributed by AIP.
It’s filled with teen characters, dialogue, and songs. Famously, some of the slang is incorrect (e.g. “having a blast” is taken to mean having a bad time, when of course a “blast” really means slang for a great time).
But the action and special effects hold up well. The good guys spray the giant spider with DDT, back before they knew DDT was an ecosystem-destroying poison. But even the DDT isn’t enough!
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THE BLOB (September 1958)
The famous Blob was an independent production, and it’s the only color film on our list unless you count the brief color conclusion to How to Make a Monster.
It features Steve McQueen in his first leading role – playing a teenager at age 28. The small-town teens get rousted (good naturedly) by a local cop. Later, their concerns about a space monster get dismissed by the authorities.
But, wouldn’t you know it, after the monster grows large enough to threaten the whole town, it’s the teens who find the One Thing that can beat it.
Catering to the target audience, The Blob also featured a dancy theme song by Burt Bacharach who later wrote “Close to You” and “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.”
FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (December 1958)
This independent Astor production is the first teen horror film to get notably exploitative and sleazy, at least in comparison to its predecessors. The monster is plainly gross and gory looking. And several good-looking ladies are ogled by the camera in revealing outfits.
But just before the hour mark it’s got an incredible teen BBQ dance party with a jazzy Beat band that makes the film feel good-natured and sweet. The mix of hideousness, sweetness, and campiness is perfect.
So it’s not a high quality production, but it’s possibly the most entertaining movie on our list. It features John Ashley from How to Make a Monster.
THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (June 1959)
This one sounds fun, but it’s the second worst picture on the list, second only to Teenage Zombies covered below. The gila monster never appears giant, and it gets scant screen time (compare it to the spider from Earth vs the Spider which seems to be on screen as much as possible). There’s too much boring talking.
But for teen appeal, it’s got hot rods, auto shops, and handsome Don Sullivan who sings two fun songs, the first one a capella while working on a car, the second one with a ukulele to entertain a girl with polio. It’s got occasional fun dialogue, like teens grumbling about “Old Man Harris” and other adults.
As with other movies on the list (The Blob, most notably), it’s got nostalgic appeal with the classic Middle America small town setting.
TEENAGE ZOMBIES (April 1960)
Another independent production. Yes, it was released in Spring 1960, but it was filmed in 1959 so let’s include it as the last film on our list.
The main appeal is handsome Don Sullivan from Giant Gila Monster, but he doesn’t get to sing here. Actually he doesn’t get to do much of anything, since almost nothing happens.
Some teens get captured by unscrupulous adults – but here it’s Eastern Bloc agents, so the film doesn’t really fit the teen horror pattern.
The “zombie” stuff is really mind control. A non sequitur gorilla makes the picture feel like it’s from the 40s. It’s very bad and boring, but the final minute features a decent convertible.
So the last on our list is the least, but almost all the other Teen Horror Films of the 50s are still fun today.