Science-fiction movies in the 1950s were preoccupied with two main concepts: aliens and radioactive monsters.
Although alleged UFO sightings go all the way back to the days of the Puritans, 1947’s Roswell Incident firmly cemented the idea of “flying saucers” in the American consciousness. In 1955, the start of the “Space Race” between the USA and the Soviet Union only accelerated the obsession with space aliens. The only question was who would make contact first—humans with aliens or aliens with earthlings?
In 1945, after the USA ended World War II by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the planet had entered an entirely new and terrifying phase—for the first time in history, humans had developed the ability to wipe out humanity. Science was only beginning to understand the devastating effects of nuclear radiation.
Combine the morbid fear of radioactivity with the public fascination with space aliens, and you have the perfect recipe for 1950s sci-fi films.
Here are the standout films from that unique genre that serves as a time capsule into the American past and would greatly influence later American folklore such as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.
A flying saucer from deep in outer space lands straight on the Mall in Washington, DC. As US soldiers surround it warily, a peaceful-looking humanoid man named Klaatu emerges, walks down a ramp, and addresses the crowd. Behind him stands a large steel robot named Gort. Klaatu tells the assembled crowd that aliens have grown concerned with Earth’s acquisition of destructive technology, and if the earthlings do not decide to join their intergalactic brethren and promise to be peaceful, “Planet Earth will be eliminated.” A soldier shoots Klaatu, wounding him slightly. Responding to this, Gort sends out his death ray, vaporizing all of the soldiers’ weapons. Klaatu explains that Gort is merely one member of an army of super-powerful robots capable of destroying the world if the earthlings do not agree to their terms.
An astronomer comes to the horrifying realization that a star named Bellus is on a collision course with Earth and will destroy it in less than nine months. He makes his plea to the United Nations but is at first scorned. But then, as the star gets closer, several catastrophes hit the planet such as tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. Realizing that the planet is doomed, a small cluster of scientists work on a spaceship that will only be able to safely carry about four dozen people to the planet Zyra, which orbits Bellus and has a climate similar to Earth’s. What ensues is a struggle to see who gets on the spaceship and who is left to perish here.
While looking out his window one night, a young boy named David McLean witnesses a spaceship crashing in a sandpit outside his home. He rushes to tell his father about it. Although skeptical, his father goes to investigate but doesn’t return until late the next morning, at which point he is suddenly cold and rude to his son. David notices that other townspeople are acting the same way and starts suspecting that aliens are taking over the bodies of humans in his town. He enlists the help of a female doctor and an astronomer to help turn the tide against the aliens. At one point, they fall into the sandpit and see the Martian leader, who is encased in a bulb of glass and has a giant green head with tentacles emerging from it. The leader is assisted by huge green men with emotionless eyes like those of insects. Will David, the doctor, and the astronomer be able to repel the Martian invasion against seemingly impossible odds? The film was remade in 1986 with the same title and directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame.
Filmed on a budget of only $16,000 and featuring one of the most preposterous “aliens” in film history—a man in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet on his head—Robot Monster routinely ranks near the top of nearly every “Worst Films of All Time” list. The story involves an invasion by these furry space creatures who have sent a death ray that has annihilated everyone except the last family on Earth. But then the alien—who calls himself “Ro-Man” and distinguishes himself from “Hu-Mans”—develops a crush on the family’s young beautiful daughter. Ro-Man stays in a cave whose entrance is guarded by soap bubbles and communicates with another actor in a gorilla suit and diving helmet that he calls “Great Guidance” through a device that looks suspiciously like an early 1950s television set. He shows the humans that the Ro-Men have already sent giant dinosaurs to the planet to cause chaos and death. It is never explained why the aliens spared only one family, but most of the film’s 62 minutes center around the tension of whether the family will get out alive.
In this, the first of many great “giant radioactive creature” films of the 1950s, the earliest atom-bomb tests near Alamagordo, NM have transformed common desert ants into gigantic mutant ants that attack every human in sight. When several people in a small desert town wind up missing, the FBI is sent out to investigate. They find that there is a subterranean nest of the giant mutated ants and proceed to kill them all—but not before realizing that two queen ants had flown the coop and hightailed it to Los Angeles in order to hatch more giant ants. A horrified scientist utters these words toward the film’s end: “When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”
The first of what would be countless Japanese “giant monster” movies lasting all the way into the 1970s, Godzilla is set in Japan, the only country that has ever been attacked with nuclear bombs during wartime. The film was released only nine years after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by US forces. After a string of ships are mysteriously sunken near Odo Island, a team of investigators are sent to the island. They discover that recent H-bomb tests in the Pacific have roused a prehistoric oceanic dinosaur from the ocean’s floor. Godzilla is 164 feet tall and is not content anymore merely to sink ships—he goes on land and destroys several houses on Odo Island. When the Japanese military attacks him, he goes to Tokyo and lays waste to the city. The only thing that will be able to stop him is a young scientist’s “Oxygen Destroyer” weapon, which he hesitates to use because it is potentially far more destructive than the nuclear bomb.
A group of scientists who are searching for fossils in the depths of the Amazonian jungle discovers a fossilized claw that is hundreds of millions of years old. Seeking to find more fossils of this type, they plunge even deeper into the Amazon, all the way to the legendary Black Lagoon, a place to which many humans have ventured but from which none has ever returned. To their horror, they discover that a prehistoric Gill Man lurks the lagoon’s depths and will not let them go quietly. As seems to be the case with all monsters from 1950s sci-fi movies, the creature falls deeply in love with a human woman on the crew.
Dr. Doug Martin (Peter Graves) is an atomic scientist who keeps having flashbacks of men with bulbous eyes as large as ping-pong balls. He claims that after he was injured in a plane crash, these strange aliens abducted him and performed surgery on him during which his heart was resting on his chest. As proof of the surgery, he displays a large L-shaped scar on his chest. Concerned that he may actually be telling the truth, government officials give him a serum that forces him to be truthful. They record his testimony. The aliens told him that they are from a planet whose star is dying, and they wish to relocate to Planet Earth. They intend to transport all one billion members of their planet to this world. During Martin’s travails, the aliens take him through an underground cave showing them all the giant monsters and 80-foot cockroaches they plan to inflict upon the Earth should the foolish earthlings seek to deny them entrance.
A spaceship crew ventures out to investigate what happened to the members of an expedition to the planet Altair IV twenty years prior. Escorted from their ship by a friendly robot named Robby, they find only two survivors—Dr. Morbius and his beautiful young blonde daughter Altaira. Morbius had warned them against landing on the planet and that he cannot ensure their safety, but the crew gradually realizes this was only a ruse—Morbius has been spending the last 20 years researching a powerful ancient civilization that perished 200,000 years ago, and in his studies he’s discovered a secret with immense power that he does not wish to share with anyone.
Something strange is happening in the small town of Santa Mira, CA—people are reporting that their friends and family members are suddenly acting emotionless. Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) initially scoffs at the claims until he discovers that there are actually seedpods in the town containing doppelgängers of people he knew. The film becomes yet another 1950s sci-fi trope where aliens are inhabiting the bodies of earthlings to save their own race. McCarthy becomes hysterical when he first comes to the realization of what’s happening and is confined to a mental asylum. But then his psychiatrist discovers a truck containing humanoid seedpods and decides to contact the FBI. Things only spiral downward from there, with one of the final scenes showing Bennell hysterically running through traffic in LA and trying to alert startled motorists that “They’re here! They’re here!”
Extraterrestrials, alarmed that their own star is dying, come in battalions of flying saucers to conquer the Earth and repopulate themselves there. Dr. Russell A. Marvin and his wife Carol encounter a flying saucer while driving through the desert and accidentally use a tape recorder to tape one of the aliens’ messages. When Marvin finally realizes he’s been playing the tape at the wrong speed, he hears the message and learns that the aliens wish to meet him secretly. They want him to schedule a meeting with Earth’s leaders to discuss a potential alien takeover, but they want it done silently so that there isn’t mass panic all across the planet. What Russell and Carol don’t realize is that the aliens don’t seek a peaceful resolution—they want to wipe out all of Earth’s inhabitants, including them.
In what features possibly the most ridiculous movie monster of all time—a huge walking tree stump with human eyes and a beating heart—From Hell it Came is set in a remote South Pacific island where the natives are suffering an attack of the plague. The island’s prince has wrongly been executed by a rival and a witch doctor during a coup attempt, and he is reincarnated as a “Tabanga,” a vengeful animate tree stump of indigenous folklore. Will visiting American scientists be able to save everyone, or will Tabanga have the last laugh?
During a military drill in which a nuclear blast is being tested, Lt. Colonel Glenn Manning (Glen Langan) realizes that a pilot has crashed right near the ticking bomb. Against orders, he rushes out to save the pilot, only to be exposed to massive atomic radiation. Miraculously, he doesn’t die, and all of his scar tissue heals. But then he starts growing…and growing…and growing. Doctors realize, though, that his heart and circulatory system are not keeping pace with the rest of his body, which eventually grows to fifty feet tall, and that Manning is doomed to at first go insane and then die from his condition. During a visit from his girlfriend Carol at a point where he has grown to 18 feet tall, Manning desperately asks, “What sin could a man commit in a single lifetime to bring this upon himself?” Eventually driven mad, he escapes the giant circus tent in which military officials are keeping him and heads toward Las Vegas, where he trashes several famous casinos before a final battle with military forces. A sequel, War of the Colossal Beast, was released the following year and depends largely on stock footage from the first film.
In stark opposition to the genre of giant atomic creatures, The Incredible Shrinking Man takes the opposite tack—Scott Carey was exposed to a nuclear mist while on vacation in a cabin cruiser. Months later, he was accidentally doused with insecticide while driving. A few days later, he realizes that his clothes are getting looser and suspects that he’s losing weight. At a routine medical checkup, he learns that he is two inches shorter. And he keeps shrinking—all the way down to six inches tall, at which point his wife uses a dollhouse for his shelter. But one day while his wife is away, the family cat attacks him and drives him from the dollhouse. Now only three inches tall, he escapes to the basement, where he temporarily feels safe—until he finds himself preyed upon by a spider that is larger than he is.
An odd melding of the giant-radioactive-vengeful-creature genre and a woman’s-revenge movie, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman stars Allison Hayes as Nancy Archer, a wealthy alcoholic socialite whose husband Harry (William Hudson) is cheating on her with the town hussy, Honey Parker (Yvette Vickers). After a UFO encounter on a remote desert road, Nancy tries to alert authorities and friends, all of whom brush it off and assume that her alcoholism has her hallucinating. But one thing they can’t ignore is the fact that she’s grown to fifty feet tall—and is seeking vengeance against her philandering husband and the woman who’s stolen him from her.
A young Steve McQueen stars as Steve Andrews, who along with his girlfriend Jane (Aneta Corsaut) see a meteorite crash outside their small rural Pennsylvania town. When they go to investigate, they meet an old man who has some kind of red, jellylike substance attached to his hand. They escort the old man to a doctor, but when both he and the doctor disappear, Steve and Jane conclude that a monster is afoot. The Blob eats everything in its path by enveloping it in its red slime, growing stronger with every conquest. Steve initially is met with skepticism by the townsfolk, but after The Blob attacks a movie theater filled with patrons who’d only wanted to watch the Bela Lugosi classic Daughter of Horror, they join him in his quest to vanquish The Blob before it consumes the entire world. The film was remade in 1988.
After deliberately crushing her husband Andre (Vincent Price) to death in a mechanical press, Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens) explains to her brother and a police inspector what led her to such a drastic measure. Andre, she explains, was a scientist who was working on a teleportation device that could transport matter from one location to another by disassembling it and then reassembling it in the new location. After success with inanimate objects and a few small animals, Andre decided to experiment with a human. But when his test subject is no longer available, he attempted to transport himself. But a small fly accidentally entered the same chamber as he did, and when he wound up in the other chamber, he was half-human and half-fly. Tormented by the transformation, he asked his wife to kill him. The Fly was remade in 1986 starring Jeff Goldblum.
Like Robot Monster, this is another film that routinely ranks near, or at the very top, of “Worst Films of All Time” lists. Directed by the legendary B-movie schlockmeister Ed Wood, Plan 9 involves a confusing mishmash of a plot in which aliens attack the Earth and seek to conquer the planet by robbing graves and animating the dead. Bela Lugosi died shortly after filming began and is replaced by a Dracula character who is much larger than Lugosi and always covers his face with his cape. Horror movie stalwart Tor Johnson stars as one of the open-mouthed reanimated zombies along with Maila Nurmi, AKA Vampire, who was the stylistic template for Elvira, the “Mistress of the Dark” from 1980s horror and comedy films. Some of the worst special effects of all time (the “flying saucers” look like dinner plates covered in aluminum foil) make this thoroughly enjoyable if you like the “so bad, it’s good” genre.
Other 1950s Sci-Fi Movies
- Destination Moon (1950) is based on a script by famous sci-fi novelist Robert Heinlein and focuses on four men who are financed by private industrialists rather than the government to make the first successful moon landing.
- It Came From Outer Space (1953) is based on a short story by Ray Bradbury and tells the tale of a couple of stargazers who witness a spaceship crash-landing in the desert and the weird things that happen after this event.
- The Beast With a Million Eyes (1955) an extraterrestrial monster with, you guessed it, one million eyes lands in the California desert and makes life hell for a farming family.
- It Conquered the World (1956) in this film by Roger “King of the B Movies” Corman, a well-intentioned scientist (Peter Graves) helps transport an alien from Venus to Earth for the purpose of removing emotions from people, but it doesn’t end nearly as well as he’d hoped.
- Kronos (1957) a gigantic faceless black rectangular robotic creature is sent by aliens to Earth, where it only gains strength by being attacked because it is an “energy accumulator.”
- The Crawling Eye (1958) a one-eyed space creature inhabits the mist of a small Swiss village and murders humans via decapitation.
- I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) has a plot similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers in that aliens inhabit the bodies of humans, who still appear to be human but start acting in odd ways.
- Fiend Without a Face (1958) a science conducting telekinetic experiments adjacent to a nuclear power plant accidentally creates super-intelligent invisible creatures that terrorize the locals.
- The Angry Red Planet (1959) a crew of earthlings land their spaceship on Mars and discover it’s not only literally red—a red glow was achieved by a process called “CineMagic”—but there are horrifying giant creatures to contend with such as a giant “bat-rat-spider-crab.”
- Teenagers From Outer Space (1959) juvenile-delinquent space aliens land in the desert outside Hollywood and begin to wreak havoc.