Campy, Atomic-Themed Cult Classics From the 1950s

by Michael Bregeron

With the advent of the atomic age in the 1940s, paranoia and mutation took on a whole new meaning.

After the Trinity test in New Mexico (July 16, 1945,) and the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945), America engaged in massive atomic and hydrogen bomb testing over the next several years.

Each individual test was filmed with literally hundreds of cameras, both still and motion, stationary, and airborne. Where do you think the stock footage of specially planted trees swaying during hurricane suction from a nuclear desert test come from?

Entire tribes in the South Pacific were uprooted, in some cases paid to move as various islands and atolls were used as nuclear staging grounds. The military had remote controlled airplanes that would fly into mushroom clouds. Sacks collecting scientific samples and readings were attached underneath the aircraft, and after their remote landing these were removed by servicemen using a proverbial ten-foot pole.

Atomic tests were so common in the early 1950s that “The Today Show” actually broadcast a live atomic blast from Nevada set up by KTLA in Los Angeles, which had previously covered testing events.

A-bomb tests in Nevada from locations dubbed such illustrious names as Buster-Jangle, Tumbler-Snapper or Sunbeam became so normal that watching distant mushroom clouds in the dawn hours turned into a Las Vegas tourist attraction.

Movies of the day, both low budget as well as studio fare, explored the ramifications. The most popular genre would be mutated creatures that go on a rampage: think ants (“Them!,” 1952); grasshoppers (“Beginning of the End,” 1957); or sapiens (“The Amazing Colossal Man,” 1957), followed by the lone survivor/post-apocalyptic scenario.

Here are five films from the Fifties dealing with the above themes:

“Five” (1951) follows a lone woman wandering aimlessly across a barren landscape. A newspaper headline reveals an atomic disaster has wiped out humankind. Four other men will appear at the secluded house where she takes refuge.

“Five” comes courtesy of Arch Obler, who was a well-known radio producer and playwright. Obler’s offbeat horror radio series, “Lights Out,” had been a sensation for two decades. Obler also wrote, directed and produced “Bwana Devil,” what is considered the film that launched 3-D in the modern era (although not the first 3-D film). 

Obler directs “Five” in a manner that today would be called indie art house programming. The prime location was a guesthouse on Obler’s ranch that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The trailer for “Five” explores the dynamic of the film, revolving around the last woman on Earth inhabiting the frame with four male survivors, but at no point reveals that one of the men is black. Yet an interracial subplot looms large in the actual film.

By the end of the decade, two films would focus on post-apocalyptic milieus but with studio budgets that tend to elevate genre films to event films. “On the Beach” (1959) was based on a popular novel about the aftermath of nuclear annihilation and packed with stars and production value.

After nuclear fallout has taken out the Northern Hemisphere, the Australia government sends an American submarine to investigate radiation levels along the American West Coast.

The all-star ensemble includes Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins. Producer/director Stanley Kramer, known for his message films that included “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), infuses the film with a progressively nihilistic tone. The ending is a true downer where the survivors in the Southern Hemisphere await their fate from the eventual radioactive fallout, at least those who haven’t ingested suicide pills.

“The World, The Flesh and the Devil” (1959) starts with the survivor of a worldwide holocaust who happened to be trapped underground in a mine at the time of the extinction. Harry Belafonte was at the pinnacle of his stardom both as an actor as well as in his musical career where he was known as the King of Calypso.

Wandering into an empty New York City, Belafonte forges a temporary shelter and starts sending radio messages to any survivors. Soon Inger Stevens emerges, followed afterwards by Mel Ferrer, who arrives by boat. For a while the two men fight over the woman, only to eventually abandon their weapons after realizing the futility of their situation. Director Ranald MacDougall treats the racial nature of the movie with as much intelligence as any film of that time could muster. The closing shot has all three marching down a deserted street holding hands with the ending credit announcing “The Beginning.”

There are similarities between “The World, The Flesh and The Devil” and the recent “Z for Zachariah” (2015), although the latter’s three survivors are in a distant valley and not an abandoned city.

While “Five” is considered to be the first movie to deal with post-apocalyptic survival, another film, “Shape of Things,” a 1936 British film with a screenplay by H. G. Wells, also dealt with similar issues, although conceived before the atomic age.

While the fantastical nature of the storylines make these films primarily science fiction, they also bring to mind social issues. The lack of monsters forces the filmmakers to make choices based around character development rather than marauding mutations.

The opposite is true for our last two films, both of which utilized atomic fallout as a pretext for pure horror. “Attack of the Crab Monsters” (1957) actually starts with a montage of atomic explosions. A group of scientists testing atomic fallout on a South Pacific island discover a presence that communicates with them telepathically. Atomic metamorphosis has created crab monsters the size of bulldozers, and they’re vengeful.

Roger Corman helmed this crustacean thriller using a cast familiar to anyone who has seen a variety of low budget B-movies from the 1950s, including Richard Garland, Pamela Duncan, and most notably, Russell Johnson, who played the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island.” In fact, it’s Johnson who saves the day at the end by sacrificing himself when he electrocutes the remaining crab with a high voltage antenna.

As hokey and minimalistic as Corman films from the ‘50s tend to be, “Crab Monsters” stands leagues above the low-budget hijinks of “From Hell It Came,” a film literally so bad it’s good.

One reviewer at the time wrote “and back to hell it can go.”

The mythology of “From Hell It Came” stands above the actual execution of the plot. Scientists investigating fallout in the Pacific become involved with local tribe politics. An evil witch doctor has killed a local prince in a power grab, a death that involves phases of the moon, ritual sacrifice and sacred burial.

Only the “devil dust” a.k.a. atomic fallout causes his corpse to reanimate as a tree that grows out of his grave. The acting of both natives and white scientists and their wives is simply cringe worthy. The tree monster is just that — a guy in a tree costume.

What “From Hell It Came” lacks in any kind of realistic production value it makes up in camp effect. The sight of the walking tree with its painted squinting eyes carrying a victim with its flimsy branches to a quicksand trap induces guffaws. Add to the corny formula the name of the cursed tree, “Tabonga,” repeated by the natives as they flee from its to and fro gait, and you have an unintended but well-deserved laugh fest.

Every generation since the post-WWII era has had its take on the power of nuclear reactions, and movies always try to at least stay in step with the latest scientific discovery, although that isn’t always achieved to great effect.

The 1950s certainly had its allotment of realistic versus absurdly ridiculous interpretations of what happens when humanity fiddles with concepts of such catastrophic immediacy.

- Advertisement -spot_img


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here