As a 10-year old boy, growing up in the early 1960s, I had some pretty strong feelings as to what constituted `good’ science fiction (and/or horror) movies.
I had great experience in the matter, as twice each week our local TV stations paid homage to the genre.
Friday nights at 11:30 pm was Shock Theater . . . which re-ran mostly old Universal Studios horror classics from the 1930s and 1940s. The Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein . . . and some newer Vincent Price movies of the 1950s, like The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, and House of Wax.
Saturday afternoons, on a competing station, came Terminus Theatre – usually a double feature sci-fi bill, featuring clean cut, square jawed, and stalwart scientists who battled giant locusts, tarantulas or Squid, and sometimes got the girl after saving the world.
My boyhood movie heroes were stars like Marshall Thompson, Peter Graves, Craig Stevens and Kenneth Toby.
I had little patience for the Japanese derivatives of Godzilla, although the original was certainly acceptable. Mothra and Gammera and their ilk were . . . well, silly . . . in my estimation. Those Saturdays when these pale imitations aired, I found diversion in books or playing outside.
Compared to most of the dreadful made-for-TV Sci-Fi movies that clutter the airwaves today, some of these old black & white (and occasionally color) movies of yesteryear come off as absolute masterpieces.
Of course, they weren’t all good. But grading on the curve helps considerably.
With that in mind, for the next few blog entries I plan to highlight some of the Sci-Fi and Horror `classics’ that are available online. I’ll finish off this series with handful of `they’re so bad, they’re almost good’ movies.
But let’s begin with some quality, shall we? And for that, you can’t do much better than Destination Moon.
Produced by George Pal, Destination was the first attempt to portray science realistically in a Sci-Fi movie. Robert Heinlein, the dean of Science Fiction writers, contributed heavily to the script and helped to keep the science on track.
You’ll find no monsters, no aliens, and no ray guns in this movie. Much like the William Lundigan TV series Men Into Space, which would follow in the late 1950s, this was an attempt at `adult’ science fiction. And it succeeds admirably.
There’s gentle comic relief provided by Dick Wesson as a reluctant last minute crew replacement, and a short animation featuring Woody Woodpecker (demonstrating the science behind rocket propulsion). This movie won the Academy Award for Special effects, and still looks good 60 years after it was made.
But more than that, this is the movie that launched a thousand (mostly inferior) space ships.
Destination Moon - George Pal
Speaking of inferior space ships . . .
In an attempt to cash in on the soon to be released big budget Destination Moon, Rocket Ship X-M (aka Expedition Moon) was filmed in 18 days and rushed to theaters.
A movie that even a 10-year-old in 1964 would find fault with, nonetheless, it was groundbreaking in its day. Rocket Ship X-M was one of the first movies with an anti-nuclear viewpoint (opposite of Destination Moon).
Science was notably missing from this fiction.
While headed to the Moon, the rocket goes into hyper=speed and after a few hours, lands on Mars by mistake. There, the scientists discover mutants living in caves, the remnants of a civilization destroyed by their atomic technology.
Boomers will find the presence of Lloyd (“Sea Hunt”) Bridges, Hugh (“Wyatt Earp”) O’Brien, and Noah (“Rockford Files”) Berry Jr. add to the addled-brained enjoyment of this `B’ movie.
Rocketship X-M - Kurt Neumann, Murray Lerner
In what would prove to be a forerunner to the successful movie and TV series Voyage to The Bottom Of The Sea, The Atomic Submarine pits the crew of a nuclear sub (which were just coming into service) against a mysterious force attacking vessels in the Arctic.
Hollywood stalwarts like Tom (`The Falcon’) Conway, Arthur (`Invaders from Mars’) Franz, and Dick (too many roles to mention) Foran, and everyone’s favorite nebbish Sid (“Make Room For Daddy”) Melton populate this sub-par adventure.
Relax, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.
The Atomic Submarine - Alex Gordon
In the wake of Godzilla, the 1950’s drive-in movie scene was populated by Flying Pterodactyls (“The Giant Claw”), Gi-ANTS (“Them!”), and lizards with pituitary issues (“The Giant Gila Monster”).
The best of the lot was undoubtedly Them! with James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, and Jim Arness. A film that remains remarkable 55 years after it was made.
While not quite in the same league, but a cut above most of the other creature features of the era, is The Beast From Hollow Mountain staring Guy (“Wild Bill Hickok”) Madison.
The first movie to combine wide-screen Technicolor and stop-motion photography, `Beast’ tells the story of a rancher’s battle against a prehistoric predator devouring his cattle.
The Beast of Hollow Mountain - Edward Nassour and William Nassour
If this sounds familiar, you may be remembering very similar movie made a decade later called The Valley of Gwangi.
Since it is difficult to judge the relative artistic merits of these movies without some basis of comparison, I offer The Giant Gila Monster for your consideration.
Fair warning. This is typical low-budget 1950’s Teenager-centric Drive-In Movie fare, starring no one you’ve ever heard of, filled with every cliché in a hack horror writer’s repertoire.
Special care should be taken when listening to the `Rock & Roll Hits' in the movie . . .classics like “The Gila Monster Crawl”.
Brain damage from watching it isn’t inevitable, but it is possible.
Giant Gila Monster, The - Ken Curtis, B.R. McLendon, Gordon McLendon
A half dozen Sci-Fi romps suitable for a rainy Saturday afternoon.
Next time, we’ll look at the horror side of the genre.