Monday, March 23, 2009

The 1950s creature features that spawned Monsters vs. Aliens

Posted By on Mon, Mar 23, 2009 at 9:01 PM

DreamWorks’ computer-animated spoof Monsters vs. Aliens, opening Friday, harks back to the famed sci-fi creatures that invaded America's drive-ins in the 1950s. Fifty years ago, filmmakers had the power to transmogrify unconvincing make-up and tiny models into imaginative horrors that embodied a host of American anxieties over the atomic bomb, the Cold War, the oppressions of conformity and technology run amok. The “Aliens” of the title, particularly a tentacled jerk named Gallaxhar, don’t seem to derive from any specific UFO film, but Dreamworks' five endearing Monsters are all based on unforgettable films of the era, some of which are true classics. Others, not so much.

Monster: The Missing Link, an amphibious man-fish (voiced by Will Arnett)

Based on: The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Any good? Lord, yes. Directed by Jack Arnold, The Creature of the Black Lagoon is one of the great, moody monster flicks of the 1950s. An ill-fated trawler full of scientists goes up the Amazon seeking evidence of a prehistoric “gill man,” and it feels like a journey into an archetypal jungle of the human psyche. Originally released in 3-D, Creature boasts a great rubber monster costume and suspenseful underwater-stalking scenes with a bathing beauty. Monsters vs. Aliens plays up the notion of the 20,000 year-old fish man by treating “Link” like an aging, out-of-shape jock (complete with chest hair).

Sequels/Remakes: Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). In the latter, surgeons give the gill-man lungs and a jump suit for no good reason. No remake yet, but one has been in the works for years.

Monster: Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D., a bug-headed, garbage-eating maniacal genius (Hugh Laurie)

Based on: The Fly (1958)

Any good? Yes. The Fly is famed for a freaky image near the end, in which a fly with a human head and arm squeaks “Help me! Help me!” when caught in a spiderweb. The rest of the film, however, resembles a murder mystery as a man (Vincent Price) and a police inspector try to figure out why a scientist died under a massive metal press. Flashbacks reveal that the inventor (David Hedison) suffered an accident with his teleportation device, switching head and arm with a fly in the booth. His loyal wife (Patricia Owens) tries to help her increasingly desperate, segmented-eyed husband until death does them part.

Sequels/remakes: Followed by Return of the Fly (1958), in which a bug-headed guy goes on a killing spree, and Curse of the Fly (1965), in which teleportation creates ugly mutants (but no actual fly-freaks). David Cronenberg’s thoughtful, disgusting remake of The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, is one of the most touching and well-written horror films ever made and even inspired a recent opera version by Howard Shore and David Henry Hwang. (I understand it features the lovely aria, "BZZZZZZZ.")

Monster: B.O.B. (for “Bicarbonate Ostylezene Benzoate”), a brainless but high-spirited gelatinous mass (Seth Rogen)

Based on: The Blob (1958)

Any good? It’s sillier than the The Creature and The Fly, but still qualifies as fun drive-in fare. More than the others, it caters to the 1950s burgeoning teen movie audience by casting Steve McQueen (actually in his late 20s) as a plucky teen-aged hero. “Steve Andrews” tries to convince the skeptical adults that a shapeless, carnivorious, ever-growing mass of glop is about to swallow the town. It builds to one of those “How do we kill it?” monster dilemmas that's always fun. Plus it has a catchy theme song, “Beware of the Blob,” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Monsters vs. Aliens borrows a famous shot of the Blob flowing out the double-doors of a movie theater.

Sequels/remakes: Larry Hagman directed the more comedic follow-up, Beware! The Blob (1972). The darker remake, The Blob (1987), starred “Entourage’s” Kevin Dillon and featured grosser special effects and the great tag-line, “Terror Has No Shape.”

Monster: Ginormica, a.k.a. Susan Murphy, a 49-foot 11 inch woman with super-strength (Reese Witherspoon)

Based on: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)

Any good? Lord, no. Alison Hayes plays a bitter heiress with a husband who cheats with a small-town floozy. It plays like bargain-basement Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? until a towering bald alien steals Hayes’ diamond, which, for some reason, causes her to grow to prodigious proportions. Her vengeful attack doesn’t come until the last 10 minutes, and features unintentionally hilarious special effects, including a paper-mache hand that looks like part of a parade float. Attack makes 1957’s The Amazing Colossal Man look like Oscar material, and would probably have been forgotten completely were it not for the completely misleading but iconic poster by Reynold Brown.

Remake: For Your Consideration’s Christopher Guest directed Daryl Hannah and Daniel Baldwin in HBO’s 1993 remake, which aimed for feminist metaphor and campy humor, but came up short on actual jokes.

Monster: Insectosaurus, a cowardly, 350-foot irradiated grub with a fuzzy gerbil face.

Based on: Probably Mothra (1961), but it could come from numerous giant-animal films, dating back to the terrific giant ants of THEM! (1954).

Any good? It's okay. Mothra serves as a reasonably memorable example of Toho film company’s kaiju, or giant monster genre. As opposed to radiation-based bruisers like Godzilla, Mothra is a force of nature that hatches from an egg on a mysterious island when two fairy-like females are kidnapped and forced to sing in a Japanese nightclub. Mothra trashes half of Tokyo as a train-sized caterpillar, creates a cocoon and then blows over the rest as a giant moth. Mostly Mothra is motivated by protecting its island worshipers or, more loosely, the Earth. You could say that Mothra is to Godzilla and the other beasts of Monster Island what Kanga is to Winnie the Pooh and the other childish playmates of the Hundred Acre Wood.

Sequels/remakes: The original Mothra skipped sequels but became a near-constant guest star in many subsequent Godzilla movies. Toho relaunched the big bug with Rebirth of Mothra and follow-ups in the 1990s.

Incidentally, if Monsters vs. Aliens is a hit, the inevitable sequel will have to dust off other creatures from the 1950s to join the monstrous dream team. May I suggest the vampire vegetable-man from The Thing From Another World (1951) and the emotionless pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)?

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