Although we are not scraping the bottom of the 1950s science-fiction film barrel just yet, you can see patches of wood below as we dig through ten sci-fi flicks that have significant deficiencies from a creative or technical standpoint. In other words, now we are starting to get into what for many viewers epitomizes 1950s sci-fi flicks: cheap and cheesy.

These ten flicks are not quite lame and tawdry, but neither do they exhibit narratives or performances that could redeem a film in the way that they could for the last ten films we explored. However, we are now confronted with the reality of 1950s science-fiction cinema: A lot of films made in the genre were made quickly and cheaply to cash in on the demand, and they lack distinction, dubious or otherwise. As we look at these ten not-so-good films and certainly at the ten bad films in the next installment of the series, we will see that each film must have had some mark of notoriety to differentiate it from the mass of simply unremarkable—did someone say simply terrible?—films.

One film that probably belongs in this group but is not described below is When Worlds Collide, another technically splashy effort from producer George Pal released in 1951: As a star approaches Earth and promises imminent annihilation, efforts begin to construct ships to rescue a lucky few amidst growing panic and chaos. Among the cast are incipient 1960s sitcom mainstays Frank Cady (Sam Drucker from Petticoat Junction and Green Acres), Larry Keating (Roger Addison from Mister Ed), and Hayden Roarke (Doctor Bellows from I Dream of Jeannie). However, I did not include it below because it's been years since I've seen it, and I've been unable to get hold of a copy to view it again, so I don't feel that I can describe it adequately nor justify why it should be included.

This underscores the approach of the lists in this 1950s science-fiction cinema series, either the previous Ten Good Ones and the Ten Pretty Good Ones or the subsequent Ten Bad Ones: I don't claim that these lists are definitive, only representative. Furthermore, they are all spurred by my abiding affection for 1950s science-fiction films, whether outstanding or dire, and their underlying social, political, or scientific themes of atomic anxiety, Cold War tensions, and an overall fear of the unknown along with the more positive themes of progress and exploration.

Presented in chronological order—and with no spoilers!

Unknown World (1951)

Unknown World

Updating Journey to the Center of the Earth with Atomic-Age anxiety, Unknown World uses its modest cast and budget (it was filmed in black and white) to deliver an unlikely but mildly entertaining science-fiction tale about underground exploration. There are a few good reasons why this film could register highly on the Cheese-O-Meter: Its premise of drilling to the center of the Earth is barely plausible; the effects hardly support the premise; and the performances are uniformly unremarkable. However, Unknown World makes its clarion statement—nuclear holocaust could render life on the Earth's surface impossible, forcing humanity to seek refuge deep underground—while not embarrassing itself along the way.

A faux newsreel opens Unknown World—hey, it worked for Citizen Kane, right?—and sets the stage with the threat of nuclear war that could render global extinction. This worries scientist Jeremiah Morley (Victor Killian), who has implored in vain for government funding for an expedition to drill beneath the Earth using a "cyclotram," a submarine-like craft designed to bore through rock. However, adventurous newspaper heir Wright Thompson (Bruce Kellogg) is willing to finance the venture for Morley and his team of scientists—provided he can tag along. He soon becomes a rival, along with Andy Ostergaard (Jim Bannon), for the attention of team doctor Joan Lindsey (comely Marilyn Nash) as they drill many hundreds of miles toward the Earth's core.

The science is suspect, particularly during the hasty conclusion, but Millard Kaufman's workmanlike script thoughtfully explores the psychological pressures the crew faces along with the physical hazards—an element that is often ignored, or handled melodramatically, in many movies (remember Steve Buschemi in Armageddon?)—while director Terry Morse prunes the dead spots in his pacing. Location shooting in Carlsbad Caverns lends Unknown World a veneer of authenticity, and Morley's quest to find an underground Eden evinces chimerical poignancy during the climax, but let's be honest: Unknown World never rises above mediocre in its execution and impact.

Why this film is notable: Unknown World's inner-space exploration influenced subsequent science-fiction movies including 1966's Fantastic Voyage, particularly in its craft design and crew composition of one woman and several men, and 2003's The Core, which featured an expedition to the Earth's core also using a rock-boring vehicle. And despite the splashy effects in The Core, many viewers did consider it to be simply a boring vehicle.

Invaders from Mars (1953)


With a premise and a production budget that threatens to derail it at any moment, Invaders from Mars takes an off-kilter approach to standard science fiction fare. Young David McLean (Jimmy Hunt) swears he saw a flying saucer bury itself in the sand behind his house early one morning, and when dad George (Leif Erickson) investigates and eventually returns with an unusual mark on the back of his neck, he's a changed man—for the worse. Soon mom Mary (Hillary Brooke) joins dad, and Freudian and Cold War subtexts vaguely inform David's attempts to warn the town.

Boasting a background in production design, director William Cameron Menzies gives Invaders from Mars, filmed in color, a deceptively bucolic look, the better to suggest David's perspective in Richard Blake's screenplay, from a story by John Tucker Battle. Jailed when he tries to tell the police what happened, David manages to convince examining doctor Pat Blake (Helena Carter); they take their concerns to astronomer Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz), who initiates action against the strange invaders who suck unsuspecting Earthlings into their underground maze of tunnels harboring their spaceship. Soon Colonel Fielding (Morris Ankrum) is leading the military against the invaders amidst a wealth of stock footage to delight any Pentagon promotional film.

Young Hunt avoids both excitability and precociousness while the adults keep pace before Invaders from Mars goes into a tailspin with its hokey ending. The British didn't like it—the alternate U.K. version sports expanded exposition in scenes shot after the American release (with obvious continuity errors) and a different, albeit abrupt, conclusion. Its dreamlike atmosphere can help Invaders from Mars cover a number of deficiencies, and Menzies's tempo keeps the action from dragging, although its modest resources keep this a modest, if unusual, film. Just hope that sometimes dreams don't come true.

Why this film is notable: With the narrative's point of view coming from young David, living in a prototypical 1950s Anytown, USA, Invaders from Mars plays like Our Town collided with War of the Worlds. Also unusual is that young David gets jailed by the police just for reporting the flying saucer, which subtly underscores the theme of communist invasion and oppression that informs so many 1950s sci-fi films.

It Came from Outer Space (1953)


The ululating Theremin reverberating through It Came from Outer Space announces an archetypal science-fiction film from the 1950s, and indeed more Cold War anxieties manifest themselves here. Outer Space, scripted by Harry Essex, is based on a Ray Bradbury story that embodies Bradbury's simplistic platitudes, in this case, the arrival of aliens near a small Arizona town seems initially terrifying but really serves to deliver an ethical lesson to humanity.

Director Jack Arnold wastes no time delivering the action—an opening romantic moment between John Putnam (Richard Carlson), a writer and amateur astronomer, and his girlfriend, schoolteacher Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush), is interrupted when a fireball streaks across the sky before exploding in the desert not far from Putnam's home—but this is a thin story that seems stretched to cover the still-modest running time. Exploring the crater left by the fireball, Putnam encounters what he thinks is an alien spaceship but when a landslide buries the craft, he struggles to convince the townsfolk of his discovery. Meanwhile, townsfolk such as telephone linemen Frank (Joe Sawyer) and George (Russell Johnson) disappear, only to reappear but behaving strangely.

Carlson carries the film on his manly shoulders, demonstrating why he was a B-movie stalwart, but the narrative is slight and predictable. The reveal of the aliens is anticlimactic, while their point-of-view menacing reflects the 3-D presentation of Outer Space's original release. Cast as Putnam's antagonist, town Sheriff Matt Warren, Charles Drake fills the skeptic's role with obligatory friction; meanwhile, comely Rush avoids scenes in which she falls down while running in high heels, but her role is still little more than ornamentation. Doing what he can with so little (no surprise that it was filmed in black and white), director Arnold honed his skills with It Came from Outer Space, a weak, though not bad, sci-fi tale.

Why this film is notable: Director Jack Arnold got his woodshedding out of the way here before delivering, the following year, one of the most iconic sci-fi/horror films of all time: Creature from the Black Lagoon (which made our list of Ten Good Ones). Arnold's economy and pacing developed from helming films like It Came from Outer Space. Also, a decade before he became Roy Hinckley—better known as the Professor—on Gilligan's Island, Russell Johnson had to cut his teeth in flicks like this one. (This won't be the only time we see Johnson in this series.) Finally, Barbara Rush is purty—real purty.

Stranger from Venus (1954)

Stranger from Venus

You can't blame Patricia Neal too much for phoning in her role as Susan North in Stranger from Venus. After all, this science-fiction suspenser cribs its premise from The Day the Earth Stood Still, the 1951 classic that co-starred Neal in a role that also saw her befriend a benign alien arrived on Earth to warn its people of the consequences of its actions. However, this alien (Helmut Dantine) arrives in slightly more modest circumstances, which underscores the overall scaling-down of Stranger from Venus due to its narrative and budgetary deficiencies. (And, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, it was filmed in black and white.)

As the Stranger's spacecraft descends to Earth, it causes Susan to crash her car en route to the country inn where she is to meet her fiancé Arthur Walker (Derek Bond). At the inn, everyone is amazed that Susan survived the crash with hardly a scratch, although attention soon turns toward the Stranger whose arrival director Burt Balaban tries to cloak in mystery with some obvious camerawork. Of course the Stranger has powers that healed Susan, and soon the area is being cordoned off as interest in the extraterrestrial visitor increases. Unfortunately, Hans Jacoby's script, from Desmond Leslie's story (appropriately, Leslie was a ufologist), apart from its astronomical error, seldom stretches further than depictions of British drawing-room discussion prevalent at the time, and the Stranger's reveal and subsequent climax lacks impact.

With his accented voice and quiet earnestness, Dantine is generally credible as he and Neal try to strike romantic sparks, but Balaban's lethargic pacing, with Eric Spear's score surprisingly submerged, keeps Stranger from Venus from striking any cinematic sparks. Cyril Luckham carves a niche as the country doctor, but the supporting cast is competent but anonymous. With passable performances and a plausible storyline, Stranger from Venus doesn't embarrass itself although it hardly makes the Earth stand still.

Why this film is notable: Not only is Stranger from Venus a passable knock-off of the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, it managed to poach one of its stars, Patricia Neal, in the process. Stranger from Venus also manifests that peculiarly British tendency to center the story around an isolated country inn and have the characters talk about what is happening instead of showing what is happening; we will see this tendency done with even greater diminishing returns in our next installment.

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)

It Came from beneath the Sea

Not even Ray Harryhausen can keep It Came from Beneath the Sea afloat, even though this black-and-white science-fiction thriller was launched to showcase the celebrated stop-motion animator's technical abilities. Those were better presented in his previous The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms; in fact, both films share the same premise: Irradiated beastie terrorizes humans, but instead of a dinosaur attacking New York City, here we have a giant octopus menacing San Francisco.

Both films do feature typecast stalwart Kenneth Tobey as the forthright military man forced to collaborate with the scientists, although Beneath the Sea does provide some enlightenment—the key egghead is Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue), working professionally with fellow marine biologist John Carter (Donald Curtis). When something attacked his nuclear submarine, Commander Pete Mathews (Tobey) works with John and Lesley to identify it—and of course becomes smitten with no-nonsense Lesley, who struggles to convince Navy brass of their irradiated-octopus theory, stirred from the Mindanao Deep by hydrogen-bomb testing. It's only when ships and bathers begin to disappear that the authorities are persuaded, and the film girds its loins for Harryhausen's spotlight in the finale.

Harryhausen's stop-motion and models are less involving and convincing than previously, giving It Came from Beneath the Sea a tired, familiar feel echoed by the perfunctory script by Hal Smith and George Worthing Yates and listless direction by Robert Gordon, which leaves Mischa Bakeleinikoff's pervasive score to carry the dramatic weight. Domergue squares her shoulders for her substantial role, mixing professional competence with requisite feminine wiles; her Lesley uses both with Pete and with a shipwrecked sailor reluctant to admit he saw a sea monster. By now, Tobey has his part down cold; he's reliably acceptable. However, both tread tepid water in It Came from Beneath the Sea, which gurgles slowly beneath the surface.

Why this film is notable: For a 1950s sci-fi flick, Faith Domergue gets a part that is significantly more substantial than the usual role of the woman who falls down while running in her high heels. (She will tend to do that more in a film from our next installment.) And she doesn't swoon too much over Kenneth Tobey, who also appeared the last time It Came from Beneath the Sea was made, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Both films also feature the handiwork of stop-motion animator extraordinaire Ray Harryhausen, although the special-effects master has been much better elsewhere.

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Last modified on Friday, 18 August 2017 13:26

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