Get your Geiger counter out, and ready that rad suit, as The Scariest Things talks about the Matinee era of Horror, the second great era for genre films!
Emerging out of the wilderness after a decade-long absence, horror films took on a decidedly cheesier form after World War II. The Hayes Code was still in effect, but producers managed to figure out the boundaries of acceptability for the masses. Monstrous destruction was now acceptable, and a little sexiness didn’t hurt, particularly on the bottom line. Visible blood was still verboten, but this era would begin to test the boundaries of sinister, that wouldn’t really show itself until the Europeans re-emerged as players in the genre, and Alfred Hitchcock changed all the rules in 1960. In an era eerily similar to current trends, movie makers were competing with television, now a fixture in most American households. In order to attract an ever-younger audience, the 1950’s saw a change in how you saw movies. The heady 1940’s noir horror films took a literal back seat to the new breed of monsters, as suburbanites flocked to drive-in theaters or watched in 3-D as the studios switched from the notion of going to the movies as a night at the opera, to becoming a day at the circus. Enter, the matinee feature!
Now, rather than the villains being the scientists themselves, many of the horror movies had the scientists as the protagonists, or at least, as observers and narrators of these new tales of mass destruction. The mad scientist was now confined to the role of bystander, as the villains now came from space, or emerged from the atomic wasteland. The movies also took on a look very different from the stage sets of the Universal monster films of the 1930’s, as much of the horror moved outdoors, and the monsters got decidedly larger. (And the studio budgets for lavish sets diminished.) The arranged marriages and ladies-in-waiting so often used in the 1930’s movies gave way to women as scientists, keeping the romance but changing the roles slightly of the players. This was a curious trend considering the domestic nature of the time for most post-war women… but an encouraging trend nonetheless. Pin-up girls on posters were also prevalent, lest you think that a truly progressive era had dawned.
As the budgets shrank, as profits soared. Every bean counter in Hollywood wanted to find the next Beast from 20,000 Fathoms that could be done on the cheap, and for every Creature of the Black Lagoon that had a significant studio backing, there were ten movies like It! The Terror From Beyond Space, with discount monster costumes and cardboard looking sets. When a big studio went into the genre, the larger budgets usually spelled success. Warner Brother produced THEM! Universal, though having largely gone away from their baroque monsters of the 30’s flourished with the new ground rules. Many of the great hits of the era were theirs. Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Touch of Evil, and The Deadly Mantis kept Universal’s claim on the horror genre through the decade. Have no doubt, horror was back in business, and big time in the matinee era. Sadly, though, venerable RKO led off the decade with the hugely influential The Thing From Another World, but by the middle of the decade, the production house that gave us King Kong and Cat People was a studio in ruins. Numerous smaller studios popped up to take advantage of the new sensational environment. Companies like Malibu Productions (Invasion of the Saucer Men, The Amazing Colossal Man), Los Altos Productions (Not of this Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters), and Sunset Productions (It Conquered the World, I was a Teenage Werewolf) proliferated in the 50’s. Quantity swamped quality in this era, but the kids ate it up, even if they laughed more than they screamed during the movies.
Listen in, as Eric and Mike discuss start of the era, in Part I of our examination of the Matinee era of horror… a time when horror became fun again.