The height of the atomic age! Monsters get bigger and stompier! Xenophobia and flying saucer sightings rule the day. And a dramatic change is on the horizon.
In Episode XXIX, Mike and Eric explored the return of the horror movie to the big screen, with landmark films such as The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and The Thing From Another World. Movies moved to the suburbs and the drive-ins. The children born in the post-WWII era are now growing up. And it becomes abundantly evident by 1956 to 1958 that the Matinee Era had hit its zenith. Scary movies could be done on the cheap, and could make small studios viable. Big movie studios, if they put their weight behind a horror property could create landmark films. Giant creatures of all types roamed the Southwest, from THEM! (1954), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), Attack of the Colossal Man (1956), Rodan (1956), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Attack of the 50 ft. Woman (1958), The Black Scorpion (1957), The Killer Shrews (1959), The Giant Behemoth (1959) and The Giant Gila Monster (1959). It’s rather remarkable the planet managed to survive such a scourge! In a time when everything was theatrically released and no straight to streaming or video existed, all of these monster attractions got theatrical releases, and kids, like Mike’s mom Diane, would drag their parents with them for the Saturday afternoon showing of The Crawling Eye. And, for less than 25 cents for a ticket and treats, it was an easy way to entertain the kiddos. Compared to the 1940’s, this was a virtual flood of titles, each of them claiming to be more amazing and more astonishing than the movie showing in the next theater over.
Bigger was better in the mid-fifties, but the decade offered up several noir pieces that were outliers to the Matinee Era, Night of the Hunter was a frightening stage thriller would have been perfectly at home in the Val Lewton 1940’s films, had the Code allowed for the level of violence that it brought. Curse of the Demon was a beautiful if exposition heavy horror-noir movie that both captured the essence of the 1940’s horror movie but also suggested the more Satanic offerings that would arrive in the 1960’s. Science Fiction had a heavy influence in this era as well, and the mad scientist had not completely gone away, even if most scientists in the Matinee B-film era were observers, explaining for our young audiences some pseudo-science claptrap that made total sense in the context of mega-bug-monstrosities. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the epitome of the Red Scare metaphor, and it was tremendously effective.
The Matinee Era managed to cross over into the 1960’s, but 1960 was a watershed year that changed film and steered horror into what we know today. Things that are truly visceral and frightening were on their way. The Europeans were coming, and so were their willingness to push the boundaries of the Hays Code, and America was ready. British studio Hammer and William Castle’s AIP got their studios up and running in the late 50’s and updated the Gothic horror that was introduced in the 1930’s, but now in color and with BLOOD. Their opening salvo of movies like The Horror of Dracula, featuring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and Vincent Price’s the House on Haunted Hill were predictors of the mainstream horror films of the next decade. Price had supplanted Karloff (now mostly on TV) and Lugosi (still active in terrible fare like Plan 9 from Outer Space) as the new face of horror, even as the films of the era were driven by giant beasts, but some of his best work in horror was yet to come.
The creature feature fare still existed into the 60’s, but it got pushed further and further into the B-movie back-lot. Much like grunge managed to sweep out the spandex metal era from the music scene in the 90’s, the new edgier films swept out the big clunky monsters. The appetite for giant radioactive beasts seemed to wear out its welcome as soon as it arrived. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, right?
The era died out having a good time though, going to the beach with films like The Horror of Party Beach, The Beach Girls and the Monster, Monster A Go-Go, and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, because what’s more fun that surfing and swamp monsters? I know, right? None of those movies can even remotely get close to be considered classics, but they were the last remains of what The Creature From the Black Lagoon dragged in. They were left behind as a gold mine for outfits like Mystery Science 3000 to lampoon. Nothing is as easy a target as a man in a rubber suit who can’t see out of the mask. The big monster landscape was ceded to the Japanese, who continued to give us great monsters with Mothra (1961), and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)… both of whom I am thrilled to see in the upcoming Godzilla, King of the Monsters (2019).
So listen in and discover what we consider the peak and the close of the era.