In which the author talks about being a lifelong SF movie freak and updating his seminal SF compendium Keep Watching the Skies! for the new millennium
Bill Warren certainly could have rested on his laurels. Way back in 1982 and 1986, Warren published his exhaustive, two-volume survey of the golden age of science fiction film, Keep Watching the Skies!, a book that has assumed biblical stature for an untold number of genre enthusiasts. With the gusto of a fan and the sharp-eyed insight of a critic and historian, Warren masterfully wrote about hundreds of films made between 1950 and 1962 — the good, the bad, and the unwatchable — and he did it in an age when many titles were still difficult if not impossible to find on home video, making his feat all the more impressive in retrospect. Those two books, bound in yellow cloth that’s now typically tattered and scuffed with wear, were arguably the definitive reference on 1950s sci-fi.
This isn’t a rehash, it’s a reboot; the text contains an abundance of new production details and other information plus appendixes on “The Great Pretenders” (films that appear to be sci-fi, but by Warren’s yardstick are not); announced-but-unmade sci-fi films of the 1950s; the sci-fi exploits of the Bowery Boys; remakes; sci-fi serials; and more. The book is as engrossing now as years ago, when the original volumes were discovered (as I, and many other readers found them) tucked away in the reference section of the local library.
Born in 1943 and raised in Gardiner, Oregon (a small community north of coastal Coos Bay), Warren was first exposed to science fiction film via The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). He began a correspondence with Forrest J. Ackerman and, after moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, worked as Ackerman’s assistant for a time. He has been a newspaper film critic, reported for a number of genre magazines, and is a regular contributor to Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. His other books are Set Visits: Interviews with 32 Horror and Science Fiction Filmmakers (McFarland, 1997), which includes chats with Christopher Lee, Sam Raimi, Francis Ford Coppola, and Joe Dante, among others, and The Evil Dead Companion (St Martins Griffin, 2001), an outgrowth of his friendship with Sam Raimi.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Bill and I have been acquainted for more than a decade, and I’ve enjoyed hanging out with him and his wife Beverly many times over the years. Bill graciously mentioned me in the acknowledgments to The 21st Century Edition for some minor tidbits of information I may have sent his way, but none of these coincidences color my strong enthusiasm for the book. The achievement speaks for itself.
STEVE RYFLE: What motivated you to revisit and revamp the book after 20-plus years?
BILL WARREN: Bill Thomas [Warren’s research assistant, a scholar of SF and horror movies] and I had long talked about doing another book probably of about the same length, but it had been so long since I’d embarked on such a lengthy process that I thought maybe I could “warm up” by revising Keep Watching the Skies! Also, by now (or at least when I began the rewrite) I’d been able to catch up with almost all the movies I covered, and there had been several related books that provided new or at least more information. McFarland had already published updates of some of their books, so I thought this would be a relatively easy sale, and it was. I didn’t realize the project would be as massive as it became.
Were there films you’d been unable to cover the first time, corrections, etc.?
There were definitely some movies I did catch up with, but they’re scattered over 20-plus years of time, and I can’t really identify them now. There are a few I hadn’t heard of at all the first time around, and so they’re in there now. I did make a few errors, some of which I corrected for the second printing of the original volumes [in 1997], such as my prematurely killing off Betsy Jones-Moreland. The other errors were mostly matters of dates and spelling. I think I explain in the introduction to the new book that Tom Weaver’s interview books were a major impetus to my doing a revision of Keep Watching the Skies!; his interviewees provided a lot of useful and/or interesting information.
Did you find that your opinions about any of the films had changed much?
Nope. They didn’t change because they’re still the same movies and I’m still the same person. They didn’t significantly change from the opinions I held back in the 1950s, except in degree. Then I regarded the most interesting SF movies as the best movies ever made.
The year-by-year format was something of a signature of the original edition ― why make such a drastic change?
I don’t consider it drastic, really; the book is what it contains, it is not the order of the material in it. There were a few reasons to adopt the new approach, one I’d prefer not to mention in print, but the other most basic one was ― I’d already listed them year by year; the alphabetical approach is, obviously, the format many such books adopt, and I thought it reasonable.
Your writing style has certainly influenced other writers covering similar ground, but who influenced you? You have cited Pauline Kael, James Agee, and Forry Ackerman as inspirations ― were there others?
Incidentally, I’m flabbergasted, nearly disbelieving, that I have had any influence at all on writers who came after me. (Hmmm ― that may not be exactly the right phrase.) I do know that Scotty Spiegel treasured the first two yellow books, and that the late and painfully missed Tim Murphy [Warren’s late friend and respected genre aficionado] tried to collect every movie I covered in the books. That amazed and pleased me, and really was a major impetus in doing the rewrite. I am so dreadfully sorry that he didn’t live to see the final book, though I did send him by e-mail the entire text.
Your writing has an unabashed enthusiasm, and yet you do not withhold strong criticism from films that deserve it. It’s this combination of the emotional and the rational ― the fan who can express what a film means to him personally and the critic who can explain what’s right or wrong with it ― that appeals to your readers. What are your thoughts on this?
You’re not the first to have pointed this out to me, but I found this idea puzzling then, and I find it puzzling now. What’s so unusual about regarding your younger self as someone worth quoting? Maybe I am unusual in remembering very clearly how I reacted to these films back then, but that’s probably an illusion. My memory isn’t all that good ordinarily. Yes, I do have strong personal attachments to and feelings about these movies, but I assume that everyone does, if they stop and think about it. And I think bringing those out in books like mine (although I don’t think there really are other books quite like mine; it’s so damned obsessive and thorough) is exactly what any writer should do. I’ve been hoping for a book like this on the B-Westerns of the ’40s and ’50s (I don’t care about the earlier B-Westerns; not my time), but so far one hasn’t appeared. These were not the only movies that affected me this strongly — musicals did it, too, but my interest in them wasn’t as intense (the good ones jazzed me up as much as the SF movies did; it’s just that the lesser ones were of little interest, unless they included a lot of tap dancing).
The new edition is both massive in size and majestic in presentation, with big, beautiful illustrations on glossy paper, whereas the original two volumes were rather no-frills. There is a wonderful new cover by artist Kerry Gammill. What can you tell us about the design?
Not a blessed thing. You’d have to ask McFarland about that side of things. Initially, I wasn’t at all sure how long the book would be; I thought it might end up shorter than the originals (and that was actually my initial intention). Then they sent me a proof of Kerry’s wonderful cover ― a proof of the entire dust jacket itself, so I could see how thick the book was going to be, and what its dimensions were. I was amazed, astonished, delighted — I had begun to cautiously think that McFarland was regarding the book as something special, but it wasn’t until they sent the dust jacket that I began to realize what they had in mind. I think it’s the first McFarland book with a dust jacket, and the first with a red silk bookmark, too, an extra touch that floored me. Yow.
What are the most significant revisions that readers of the first edition might notice?
I don’t know what they’re likely to notice first, but the movies about which I have the most interesting new information include Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds, and my pet, Forbidden Planet.
Would you give us some details about the new material on these films, and how you discovered the new information in the intervening years?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers: I was approached by a bunch of friendly guys working for one of the companies that made the extras material for DVDs — documentaries, commentary tracks, that sort of thing (which, alas, now seem to be vanishing). They were doing all the extra material for a DVD release of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; one thing they had filmed was Joe Dante, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter driving around Southern California visiting Body Snatchers locations. The guy in charge of all this had visited the college in the Midwest where producer Walter Wanger had left all his paperwork. He xeroxed all their holdings on Body Snatchers — then re-xeroxed the whole bunch for me. There were several variations on the script, lots of casting ideas, notes about the possible involvement of Orson Welles and/or Ray Bradbury, and so forth. I had a great time poring over all this.
The War of the Worlds: I had the opportunity to write about the three remakes released the same years. And Tim Murphy turned up an especially interesting photograph, of George Pal proudly displaying a production painting of one of the Martian war machines — which clearly has the tripod leg design from the novel.
Village of the Damned: This time it was the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that had the treasure trove of scripts, from the very earliest by Sterling Silliphant, in which the lead character was to have been played by Ronald Colman, on up through various alterations in approach (including a ghastly treatment in which the children are outright, specifically evil in a very melodramatic manner).
Another addition to the new edition, “The Great Pretenders” appendix, is sure to be a bit controversial. You’ve concluded that more than a few well known movies generally accepted to be sci-fi don’t truly belong in the genre, and therefore are not covered in the main text. There are even a few films that were covered in the original editions but not this time. Would you explain your rationale?
People have given me grief over not including The She-Creature — Kerry Gammill originally included her in his cover drawing. But the movie is fantasy, not science fiction; though the She-Creature is from the primordial past, she’s a bleedin’ ghost, for crying out loud; the movie is mostly a ripoff of the Bridey Murphy phenomenon, which to my mind is also fantasy. (This also applies to The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a fantasy, not SF.) Actually, most of the movies whose lack of inclusion annoyed some people were a matter of U.S. release dates. There are a scattered few — only a few — that did take a little explaining to omit, especially those I included myself in the original book. But these movies are in that appendix, and I also added anew some movies to the main section of the book that I’d missed the first time around.
The golden age of science fiction film began with landmark movies like Destination Moon (1950) and ended with dreck like The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) and Eegah (1962). Great and terrible films were certainly scattered throughout the period, but your book chronicles the genre’s gradual burnout into repetitious, low-budget films aimed at, as you say, the “teenage and hick” audiences. What factors were most responsible for this downfall?
I tried to cover the question of the rapid decline in quality in one or more of the introductions; the main reason was that this was a golden goose whose eggs a lot of uncaring people wanted. The decline was due almost entirely to desire for profits (not exactly greed). I think the biggest decline, and I noticed it while it was going on, was in the late ’50s, early ’60s era. It didn’t really make me think that SF had reached an expiration date; genre films were, at the same time, undergoing something of a shift in content, from science fiction (including SF-horror) to fantasy horror, such as the Hammer Films and Roger Corman’s Poe series. Horror simply took over from science fiction.
By the mid-1950s SF film tropes were well established ― the black and white documentary look, the desert settings, the scientist/brass buttons guy/lady scientist triangle, etc. Can you point to one or two specific films that are the genesis of these rituals?
The scientist-as-hero trope was firmly established by movies like It Came from Outer Space and The Magnetic Monster; the woman assistant (often with a masculine name) was solidified by Them! The desert setting was also prompted by It Came from Outer Space and Jack Arnold’s later Tarantula. But mostly the desert was used because it’s nearby and therefore cheap. Some of these were just reflexes, attempts to imitate a better original because the newer filmmakers don’t really know why the earlier movies were successful, and are therefore copying stuff without understanding why it was used originally. This applies to the woman-with-a-masculine-name gambit; in earlier movies, the hero has heard that a scientist with a masculine name will arrive soon — then is annoyed to learn it’s a woman. Later films began with us seeing the woman scientist with a masculine name, so there’s no surprise at all involved. Them! didn’t reveal beforehand that the menaces were giant ants (though the posters and trailers depicted insect-like monsters); it was part of the plot. But The Deadly Mantis baldly tells us in the title that it’s about a giant praying mantis ― and yet the movie treats the revelation that it is a mantis as if it was a major surprise, including to us in the audience.
Other writers have made much of the fear of radiation and atomic warfare as a subtext of 1950s sci-films, but you have downplayed this and argued radiation was little more than a gimmick to create the monster or whatever the problem was. What, in your opinion, distinguished a purely gimmick-driven film from a serious sci-fi film (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc.)?
A good example is Curse of the Faceless Man. I relate in the book how when I finally saw the evasive movie at the Gordon Theater, when the term “radioactive embalming fluid” was mentioned, I groaned out loud, amusing several friends. But it was an authentic, heart-felt groan; until that point the movie played as though it were fantasy-horror rather than SF horror, and therefore could be avoided. The reason some people have said that the fear of radiation and nuclear attack pervaded movies of the ’50s is that they are looking at them overall (and not just SF movies, either); I was looking at just SF movies on a one-by-one basis, and so was viewing them with a different perspective. I wasn’t trying to analyze the decade, just these kinds of movies in that decade.
There were several notable big-budget studio films made well into the ’60s. Why did you choose not to include those in your study?
I simply had to find a place to mark the end of the 1950s SF movie trend; it did start in a specific year, fortunately for my sake, 1950 itself; the trend didn’t end neatly in 1959 or 1960 (or 1961), but kind of sputtered out with still a fair number of SF movies being produced. It seemed to Bill Thomas and me that 1962 was as good an ending point for the book as was available; there is something arbitrary to the choice, but it was one we had to make, and I think I do justify it reasonably thoroughly in the book itself.
Had King Kong not enjoyed such success in its 1952 re-release, what would have happened to science fiction films? Might there never have been a Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, no big atomic bugs or, perish the thought, no Godzilla?
Good question. I’ve never really thought about it, but it is true that The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms seems to have gone into at least pre-production before the reissue of King Kong. Some have, I think rather eccentrically, pointed to Unknown Island as the real precursor of Beast, but not I.
You mention “scoffers” in the audience back in the day. How did they differ from the MST3K types, who seem to greet anything old and low-budget with contempt and ridicule?
I disliked the approach of Mystery Science Theater 3000; it was predicated on the cynical premise that all of these movies are really garbage, even those that some people like, and that it’s not just okay but actually expected for people to make wisecracks out loud. The attitude seems to have been that if a movie was cheap enough, there’s no way an intelligent or at least hip person could regard it with anything but contempt. My objection to MST3K isn’t so much that they made fun of these movies, but that they established a very solid belief that there was no way to regard these movies other than with contempt.
Are you at all concerned that future generations may tend to view the classic period through this cynical lens?
No, not at all; MST3K was a phenomenon of its times, strongly depending not just on the roster of public domain movies, but on the fact that most of these movies were relatively inaccessible. Now, damned near every genre movie is accessible; people have had the opportunity to see them undiluted, as it were. There’s actually a kind of rebound — those people of today who are interested in these older movies tend to embrace all of them, even the likes of Frankenstein’s Daughter and The Giant Claw. To me, this they’re-all-great attitude is a mystery, but it is out there.
Make no mistake about MST3K: according to a TV Guide interview, the head guy behind the series felt these movies needed to be greeted with derision, that there was no other response possible from an intelligent person such as him.
How and why did science fiction become such a personal passion for you?
Growing up well before the age of on-demand everything, you obviously went to great lengths in order to pursue this passion.
Often, I tried to stay awake to see desired movies on the late late show; I also sometimes set the alarm to get me up in time. At the time, NBC’s daytime drama Matinee Theater was running (rather surprisingly) adaptations of Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, The Invisible Man, etc. It’s amazing how often those coincided with me getting just sick enough to stay home from school (I learned to hold the thermometer close to glowing light bulbs) and yet not too sick to watch something on television. I had to talk someone into taking me to movies that played on school nights, like The Creature from the Black Lagoon; my dad took me to that one, then bowed out in the future. This sort of thing went on until high school; I still couldn’t yet drive, but my new friend Richard North, then a senior, not only could drive but had his own car, and he loved this stuff, too. So we sometimes headed off to Coos Bay, North Bend, or Florence to see movies we knew damned well weren’t going to play in the Reedsport-Gardiner area. Sometimes I got to see movies on the weekend down in Coos Bay or North Bend if I could persuade my mother to do some shopping at that time. She’d leave me off at the theater, pick me up later. In those days, you could simply buy your ticket and walk directly into the theater; a very (very very) common phrase heard in those days but no longer was “This is where we came in.” Finally, I got a driver’s license; I usually tried to persuade a friend to go with me on the 30-mile-or-so trip down to the Coos Bay area, but sometimes went alone. Once, the family car ran out of oil on my way down there; I didn’t want to miss the movie so I kept going. Eventually, smoke emerged from the hood and the car shuddered to a complete halt still several blocks from the Port Theater. My parents came to get me (and the car) in the other family car. My mother said, through gritted teeth, “At least I hope the movies were good.” Since they were (as I recall) Dr. Blood’s Coffin and The Snake Woman, I had to tell her that no, they really weren’t very good — but quickly add that nonetheless, I was very pleased to have seen them. I didn’t have a car in college, but I did have a bicycle; usually the movies I wanted to see were merely in downtown Eugene, not that far from the University of Oregon campus. A couple of times they were in Springfield, several miles away, but I diligently pedaled over there to see them.
Today with Facebook and whatnot it’s possible to connect with entire communities of like-minded people in an instant. Did you feel isolated growing up, not having many people to share your interest in SF with?
Isolated? I usually felt like the only person in the entire goddamned world who really liked this stuff, at least enough to jump through hoops to see it, to collect scrapbooks of clippings, to even read oddball magazines at the high school library to find out what to look for. Sure, there were other people at the theaters, but they didn’t seem anywhere nearly as interested in the movies as I was. This was even more true of science fiction books, which I read omnivorously. I always checked out new science fiction books from the public library in Reedsport, part of the circulating collection of the Oregon state library system. I read so many of these that I was once told, to my annoyance and surprise, that I had read my way completely through the Oregon state library’s holdings in science fiction. It is true that they had no books at all from small-press publishers like Gnome Press, but there were still plenty of others. I also read all the horror collections, mostly by August Derleth. For reasons I am not clear on now, I tended to avoid science fiction magazines; I think it was a matter of expense ― I only had so much money, so I spent it on comic books and SF paperbacks, assuming (naively) that any really good stories would eventually turn up in anthologies or author’s collections.
What is your assessment of modern, big-budget remakes of classic genre films like War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, etc.?
What films should be remade, and which should not?
Although I think it’s inevitable, I am opposed to a remake of Them! because so much of the effect of that movie depends on when it was made. As I understand it, the special effects now seem to draw derisive laughter, which is a damned shame, but probably the way of the world. Some problems with a remake are that obviously the surprise ― they’re ants! ― factor would be completely gone. The special effects would be all CGI, and we would lack that sense of reality the original movie had, despite the laughter of audiences today: when we see that ant come over the hill and look down at Joan Weldon, it was incredibly, amazingly real ― because it was real. That was a big prop ant right there on the same sand dune as the actress. The movie has almost no optical effects (at least not involving the ants); everything was done live in front of the camera (probably because it was originally scheduled to be in 3D). Still, there are rumors of a remake.
I think a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon is inevitable, and, I think, inevitably will be very bad, no matter how swell the Creature suit looks. That’s because originally they designed the Creature to look like a real cross between a human being and a fish (or frog); they didn’t design it specifically to be scary and menacing. But those are precisely the elements a new Creature suit (and it has to be a suit at some point) would be designed to demonstrate. I’ve seen a fairly recent photo of a proposed Creature suit; it’s all long fin spines, clawed hands, a fanged mouth (the original Creature didn’t even seem to have teeth), a glowering face. It looks exactly like what it is: a handsomely designed monster suit.
At last report, Forbidden Planet wasn’t being remade; instead the idea is to film the prequel, which I think is an awesomely misguided idea, for the same reason that the prequel to Carpenter’s The Thing (which I believe has just finished shooting) is a terrible idea. Both stories can end only one way: in mass killings of almost every character we care about. (In the case of The Thing, every character period.) In Forbidden Planet, we will have to see the crew of the Bellerophon arrive at Altair 4, to see them discover the underground machines of the Krell, and then to see Morbius subject himself to the Plastic Educator, and almost die. Finally, there has to be some kind of cataclysmic encounter that leads to the Bellerophon survivors trying to escape in their ship — with all of them, and the ship, being destroyed. Back on the planet below, Morbius and his wife gaze up in sorrow and wonder and horror. What a bang-up ending for a movie. Yowzah.
But in terms of movies that should be remade: I think the basic premise of Attack of the Crab Monsters, which isn’t giant crabs, should be trotted out again. That is, things that eat people, absorbing their minds and making them part of the devouring one’s body. Many minds at once. All with the memories and personalities of the human beings intact, but now with the motivations of the carnivorous creatures. Also, Kronos could be expanded into a big-scale, all-stops-out, special effects everywhere you look, epic. Not flying machines, but giant robots here to collect something or other.
One of the things I appreciate most about your writing is that when conflicting information exists, you present all sides of the story. In your essay on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) you note that the film was variously interpreted as a critique of McCarthyism, of fascism, of conformity, but correctly point out that it’s really open to interpretation. Why do you feel it’s important to be even-handed, anti-dogmatic in your reading of a movie?
In that particular case, I was amused by how strongly some of these views of the movie diverged ― couldn’t have been farther apart. This also amused Don Siegel, who of course had his own view that had little to do with the attack-on-Commies concept or the attack-on-the-U.S. concept. His view was largely that it was an attack on conformity, but of course, what he was really trying to do was make a good, scary movie, and he succeeded. I never, ever try to present myself as the Last Word on any of these movies, or on any other movie, for that matter. It’s important to be relatively even-handed because any damned fool can see that most movies give rise to opinions that often strongly diverge; the opinions are often held by people at least as smart as I am, so who am I to declare them wrong? I’m with Don Siegel on this one: if someone can get whatever reading out of a movie they choose to, and can intelligently support their opinion, that’s fine, very good in fact. Doesn’t have to be my opinion.
What do you make of the tendency to read coded political messages, intended or not, into SF films that were clearly produced for mass-market entertainment?
Sometimes that sort of thing really was intended by the filmmakers; it’s just about impossible to regard Red Planet Mars as anything other than an attack on Soviet Communism. Other movies clearly have agendas, like say The Manchurian Candidate (the original), even if the agenda itself isn’t clear (often it’s not intended to be). But I do think that to try to read some kind of overt political message in most of these movies is a major mistake. Just because the head scientist in The Thing has an astrakhan hat is not because Howard Hawks wanted to view him as a representative of the Soviet Union, with, therefore, the movie itself being a big coded political message. In the 1950s, one hardly had to hide anti-Communist messages in anything. Offhand, apart from the handful of anti-Communist 1950s SF movies (The Whip Hand is another), I can’t think of any that really did have what I consider deliberate anti-almost anything messages; it was easier to convey a message directly.
On the other hand, if that’s what floats your boat, have at it. Doesn’t do anyone any harm, and as long as you do it quietly and don’t scare the horses, it’s fine. Just do not insist that your unusual reading of one of these movies is clearly what the filmmakers must have intended; simply say that the movie can be interpreted that way.
The stars of the genre were great B-level actors ― the Kenneth Tobeys and John Agars. Who are your favorites?
In the early 1950s, I was sure that Richard Carlson was the best actor in the world, and often said so. This had little to do with Carlson’s acting abilities, and everything to do with the fact that he was in the kind of movies I loved. Some of these actors, yes, turned up in these films fairly often, but that most likely was more a matter of the budget level than that any producer was seeking to identify his movie as a science fiction outing just by casting John Agar. I don’t think any actor sought being typed as a sci-fi guy. Except for Carlson, I didn’t seek out SF movies I might otherwise have ignored just because such-and-so was in it; I saw SF movies because they were science fiction, and look, there’s that guy again. On with the show. Actors on this level I did enjoy included William Schallert, Dabbs Greer, other character actors of that type — people who were always pretty distinctive.
In a way, Keep Watching the Skies! is your autobiography. The book is filled with so many personal details, such as where and when you saw a film, who you saw it with, how you reacted.
I wanted reading the book to be fun. I didn’t want to grind any axes, promote any causes, expound any theories; I just wanted to write an entertaining, informative book about these movies I loved so passionately.