Now we get to the really fun part of this, er, appreciation of science-fiction films from the 1950s: the bad ones. Yes, these are the films about which you cannot say that the acting "could have been stronger," or the effects "lacked realism," or the story seemed "weak." These films are so lacking in quality that you can safely say this: These films are sci-fi stinkers.

Or as Frank Zappa put it, these films all exhibit "Cheepnis," the name of his song saluting sci-fi stinkers that first appeared on the Mothers' 1974 live album The Roxy and Elsewhere. As Zappa explained in the introduction to "Cheepnis," "the cheaper they are, the better they are," and while he noted that a film's budget, or lack thereof, is not necessarily a factor in its exhibiting "Cheepnis," it does help.

The ten films in this, our final list of 1950s sci-fi films, not only have "Cheepnis" but also some kind of lasting notoriety. Because—let's face it—there are a lot of bad science-fiction films and not just from the 1950s, and I'll leave it to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, to memorialize those. For example, The Giant Gila Monster (1959) is certainly bad—the special effects include an obvious model train and an ordinary lizard in a diorama to make it seem "giant"—but no one in the cast had any fame nor went on to any fame, the narrative and dialogue are not memorably atrocious, so it is merely bad but not notably so.

This leaves us with the ten films below. As with the previous lists of films in this series—Ten Good Ones, Ten Pretty Good Ones, and Ten Not-So-Good Ones—these are not the only ten films that qualify. For instance, It Conquered the World (1956), the film Zappa describes in the introduction to "Cheepnis," should be on this list: It is memorably bad, with a monster that does need to be seen to be believed; it was produced and directed by Roger Corman; and the cast includes Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible), Beverly Garland (numerous television roles), and Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [1966]). However, it has been ages since I've seen it, and I could not find a copy to watch as I was writing this, so I cannot comment fairly on it.

That leaves us with the ten films profiled below, science-fiction horrors from the 1950s that remind us with almost every frame how hard it is to make a good movie—and how easy it is to make a bad one. Still, they are to be enjoyed for their glorious incompetence.

Presented in chronological order—and with no spoilers!

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)

Cat-Women of the Moon

The term "camp" tends to get overused—and misused—almost as often as the notorious term "ironic," and Cat-Women of the Moon tests this premise: Perhaps some will find the dubious storyline unintentionally hilarious or the prosaic performances over the top, but others will find this black and white thriller simply tedious, with no covert mirth hidden within its mercifully short running time.

To its credit, Cat-Women does get down to business immediately: The first rocket to the moon is en route when the film opens, with the five-person crew recovering from the traumatic launch. Commander Laird Grainger (Sonny Tufts) is no-nonsense while his navigator, sole woman Helen Salinger (Marie Windsor), is enigmatic as they approach the moon.

On the moon, the crew discovers a cave that not only has a breathable atmosphere but signs of civilization. At this point, the low-budget Cat-Women, with its nondescript sets and costumes and lackluster performances, conveys no sense of wonder at all—and then we get the Cat-Women. The last of a dying civilization, the eight Cat-Women telepathically manipulated Salinger into leading the crew to them so they can steal the crew's rocket and escape to Earth. Some of the men succumb to their wiles; others resist; and Salinger is caught in the middle.

Cat-Women is a truly bad film: The story, by producers Jack Rabin and Al Zimbalist and written by Roy Hamilton, evinces no excitement, plausibility, or interest. Plodding mediocrity lacking even melodrama does not qualify as camp—this one isn't even worthy of ridicule. The Cat-Women look fetching in their catsuits, but that is as campy as this deathly dull dud gets.

Why this film is notable: Pumping up the sex appeal was hardly an unknown tactic before Cat-Women of the Moon, but its use here seems pretty transparent—there is no story here, so why not make the challenge the Earthlings must overcome comely women in form-fitting outfits?

Sonny Tufts was a career supporting actor with a brief spotlight during World War Two as there was a temporary shortage of handsome leading men; he appeared in such notable films as The Virginian (1946) and The Seven Year Itch (1955). Victor Jory, another of the crewmen, was another Hollywood background fixture who had a minor role in Gone with the Wind (1939). Marie Windsor, a ringer for Agnes Moorehead, became known as the "Queen of the B's" because her career was primarily spent making low-budget films. She appeared in a number of film noirs including a compelling performance in one of the great "little noirs," The Narrow Margin (1952), which influenced The French Connection (1971) among other films.

Cat-Women of the Moon was directed by Arthur Hilton, and although this bomb is hardly a gold star on his résumé, Hilton was better-known as a film editor who garnered an Academy Award nomination for his work on The Killers (1946). Elmer Bernstein composed the film's score—and Cat-Women is hardly a gold star on his résumé. However, Bernstein was embroiled in the anti-communist McCarthyism of the 1950s (actually, he had run afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee) and found himself slumming for a time. Bernstein went on to win an Academy Award for Best Film Score for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and would be nominated another 13 times for films such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and True Grit (1969).

Finally, the premise of Cat-Women of the Moon was just so enthralling that it was remade five years later as Missile to the Moon, and that was so brilliant that it too makes our list of ten bad ones. Read on!

Devil Girl from Mars (1954)

Devil Girl from Mars

This one screams camp: A supercilious fetish queen from Mars, Nyah (Patricia Laffan), crash-lands near a remote Scottish inn, having come to earth to find males with whom to mate because men are dying off back on the Red Planet. This premise got inverted a decade later in the truly awful Mars Needs Women (although it did inspire an amusing, if obscure, song by Peter Wolf), but credit Devil Girl from Mars with the idea first.

What makes Devil Girl from Mars charming is that it is essentially a parlor story—it was originally a radio play—in which the cast tries its best to sell the drama, but, really, nothing much happens here. Nyah's robot companion, Chani, is laughably bad, a bargain-basement Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but the sight of Laffan in her tight black vinyl outfit is some compensation.

It's almost too easy to lambaste the film, shot in black and white, because it is so sincerely incompetent, with game actors trying—sometimes too hard—to inject life into the thin story and plodding direction. Devil Girl practically broadcasts its schematic: At a remote inn on the Scottish moors, various individuals gather, including Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court); Robert Justin (Peter Reynolds), an escaped murderer returning to his love, Doris (Adrienne Corri) the barmaid; and reporter Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott) and scientist Arnold Hennessey (Joseph Tomelty), both searching for a meteor reported to have landed near the inn.

However, it's not a meteor—it's the spaceship damaged by the meteor that lands near the inn. Emerging from the spaceship in her tight vinyl outfit is statuesque Nyah, who had planned to land in London before being sidetracked by the meteor. Coolly sneering her superiority as she places a force field around the inn, she contemplates the menfolk for harvesting while the humans try to stop her. Except for a couple of set pieces with the preposterous-looking Chani, the action is largely missing, supplanted by the various human subplots that lapse into melodrama, including plans to "trick" Nyah. On the other hand, even rubber fetishists need a sci-fi flick they can call their own.

Why this film is notable: Devil Girl from Mars does play like the distaff, evil flipside to The Day the Earth Stood Still while offering inspiration for Mars Needs Women a decade later.

Patricia Laffan had a prominent role in the big-budget epic Quo Vadis (1951) although after Devil Girl her film roles began to dry up and she found herself on television instead. Both Hazel Court and Adrienne Corri were mainstays in British film and television as respected character actresses; Corri appeared in Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Clockwork Orange (1971).

The film score was done by Edwin Astley, who went on to write the distinctive themes for the British television shows Danger Man and The Saint.

Award-winning American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler (Kindred, Lilith's Brood) was inspired to become a writer after watching Devil Girl from Mars: After seeing it, she decided that she could do much better. Proof that roses can bloom from fertilizer.

Bride of the Monster (1955)

Bride of the Monster

Although not as celebrated as his 1959 opus Plan 9 from Outer Space—and "celebrated" should be recognized here as an indication of notoriety—director, producer, and co-writer Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster is technically the better film: more cohesive, better directed, and more effective overall.

Granted, this is a matter of degree: Plan 9 is spectacularly, historically dreadful while Bride is merely deficient in every area of filmmaking. The sets are functional but tacky; the story, by Wood and Alex Gordon, has a semblance of logic but folds under even cursory examination, and Frank Worth's busy, journeyman score cannot buttress every conflict and emotion; the acting, although consonant with the story, cannot thus rise above mediocre; and the execution echoes all these elements—it works for what it's given, but it's given precious little to work with.

In a swamp outside town, exiled scientist Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) and his mute, hulking assistant Lobo (Tor Johnson) try to create a race of atomic supermen from unfortunates who stray onto the swamp. Reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King) investigates and is promptly captured by Vornoff. Her boyfriend, police detective Dick Craig (Tony McCoy), goes after her. Also pursuing Vornoff is Professor Strowksi (George Becwar) from Vornoff's homeland, eager to put Vornoff's research to nefarious use. And there's your story, filmed in glorious black and white.

More has been done with less, and that was Wood's problem in a nutshell: He wanted audiences to invest in his make-believe as he did himself, but he couldn't produce even one facet to justify his inspiration. Lugosi reaches into his stock repertoire (Dracula [1931], White Zombie[1932]) without descending into parody, but he cannot do much surrounded by amateurs. Too solidly earnest to be camp, Bride of the Monster, not as awful as Plan 9 from Outer Space, languishes in its infamous shadow.

Why this film is notable: Unlike his notorious "appearance" in the later Plan 9 from Outer Space, Bela Lugosi is front and center in Bride of the Monster. For the man who delivered one of filmdom's most iconic characters, Count Dracula, his penultimate performance is here. "Pull the string!" (Lugosi's final performance was in 1956's The Black Sleep. He died that year.)

Bride of the Monster generated retrospective attention following the release of the 1994 Tim Burton biopic Ed Wood as a significant portion of the film covers the making of Bride including its spotlight on Martin Landau, who portrayed Lugosi in Ed Wood, and who won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance. After seeing Landau thrash around in a shallow pool with a rubber octopus, seeing that scene in Bride of the Monster can only enhance its specialness (even though Lugosi never actually did the scene himself).

This Island Earth (1955)

This Island Earth

You can see why riffers Mystery Science Theater 3000 chose This Island Earth as its target for its 1996 feature film Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie: This splashy science-fiction adventure—This Island Earth—has a strong surface sheen but it doesn't take much to spot its shaky credibility, particularly its glib bad science. Furthermore, lurking beneath that surface is the kind of B-movie melodrama designed to buttress a thin narrative nonetheless burnished with some fairly decent special effects for the period.

Rex Reason—yes, that is his real name—stars as Cal Meacham, a lantern-jawed physicist who, while piloting his on-loan F-80 Shooting Star back to Southern California, encounters strange intervention that keeps his jet fighter from crashing. Hardly fazed, he and assistant Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) order a kit from a strange catalog and soon build themselves an interocitor, a strange communication device with potentially lethal properties. It's all been a test devised by Exeter (Jeff Morrow), a strange man recruiting top scientists for a secret project. Intrigued, Meacham joins, whereupon he meets fellow scientist and former fling Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), acting strangely, who, along with scientist Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson), warns him that something strange is going on with Exeter's project, such as a pet cat patrolling the premises and named Neutron because he's "so positive"—wouldn't that be Proton, then?

Don't get charged up because that's not the only factual lapse in Franklin Coen and Edward O'Callaghan's journeyman script, adapting Raymond Jones's novel: More science gets bruised as Adams and Meacham are taken to Exeter's besieged planet Metaluna, at war with Zagon and thus desperate for Earth's help—and more. Reason is reliably bland while Domergue, unlike her scientist in It Came from Beneath the Sea, is mostly eye candy. Filmed in Technicolor, This Island Earth looks deceptively swell, but even cursory engagement reveals the flaws—and the silhouettes of mirthful mockery.

Why this film is notable: Being chosen as the film subject for narrative parody for Mystery Science Theater 3000's first (and only) feature-film release carries with it an honor, even if the MST3K team did shorten This Island Earth for Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (or MST3K: TM, if you prefer). Remarkably, critics at the time of the release of This Island Earth and retrospectively have praised it.

Faith Domergue, who was once a girlfriend of Howard Hughes's, was another studio-system ingénue tapped for stardom, but her career didn't blossom despite roles such as that opposite Robert Mitchum and Claude Rains in the tepid film noir Where Danger Lives (1950). Her appearance here in This Island Earth didn't help, either, although we have seen her act much more effectively in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), one of our ten that are not-so-good but not yet truly bad. Russell Johnson became famous as the Professor on Gilligan's Island although he too made the ten-not-so-good list in It Came from Outer Space (1953).

The producer of This Island Earth was William Alland, who produced a pair of films that made our previous lists, the aforementioned It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), one of ten good ones. Alland was also an actor, most notably in Citizen Kane (1941): He plays reporter Jerry Thompson, who investigates Kane's life, and whose face is never seen clearly—he is shot from behind and in long shots with his face in shadow. Whether he wanted to hide his face after This Island Earth is not known.

The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)

The Brain from Planet Arous

Technically, there are two brains from planet Arous, but two heads are not better than one in The Brain from Planet Arous, a low-budget science-fiction thriller that features passable performances by the leads to try to compensate for the ludicrous effects. The premises in Ray Buffum's skeletal script are shaky enough, but the superimposed images of a giant brain with eyes and a big helium balloon depicting the terror about to conquer the earth are clearly risible and hardly convincing.

Scientists Steve March (John Agar) and Dan Murphy (Robert Fuller) detect unusual radiation readings coming from Mystery Mountain, so they trek to the desert to investigate. Inside the mountain's cave they encounter Gor, a giant floating brain that kills Murphy and inhabits March. Meanwhile, March's fiancée Sally Fallon (Joyce Meadows) grows suspicious of March's behavior and Murphy's disappearance, so she and her father John (Thomas Browne Henry) explore the cave and encounter Vol, another floating brain who explains that he is pursuing Gor, a dangerous fugitive from Arous. Then, to keep tabs on Gor, Vol inhabits . . . Sally's dog. Will they be able to stop Gor/March, who has revealed its power to world representatives and is threatening to unleash it further?

Faced with such preposterousness, Agar still manages to juggle Gor's manic maliciousness with March's hero's goodness along with a sly fillip—inhabiting March, Gor develops a lust for Sally, which only adds to the unintentional mirth. (By the way, "Arous" is pronounced "Eros.") As Sally, Meadows plays it straight, the competent fulcrum of the story. But although veteran director Nathan H. Juran keeps the story on track—despite Walter Greene's generic score—The Brain from Planet Arous is both weak and ridiculous. Scene to see: To alert others to Gor's only weakness in a book on human anatomy, Sally draws an arrow pointing to the cerebral feature the Fissure of Rolando, and then labels it as being Gor's "Achilles heel." From head to toe, The Brain from Planet Arous is woefully brainless.

Why this film is notable: John Agar began with a promising career, appearing in the Westerns Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and the war film Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) (notable as one of the very few films in which John Wayne's character—oops! No spoilers!). He was also married briefly to Shirley Temple. Robert Fuller, whose character is killed off early, survived his association with Brain to become a television fixture, notably on Emergency!.

Director Nathan H. Juran won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction of a Black and White Film for How Green Was My Valley (1941). As a director, his caliber was closer to The Brain from Planet Arous although he did direct Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), which was one of our not-so-good ten.

A snippet of The Brain from Planet Arous can be seen in the montage used in the opening credits for the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle.

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Last modified on Monday, 11 June 2018 23:12

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