Bright Lights Film Journal

Move Over, Godzilla! Killer Bugs, Babes, and Beasts in 1950s Drive-in Cinema

Nathan Juran's 1957 The Deadly Mantis

With the latest version of Godzilla opening on May 16, we were reminded of other 1950s drive-in “classics” featuring everything from irradiated giant bugs to women on other planets who look suspiciously like B-movie starlets. Mark Vieira’s fun discussion first appeared in slightly different form in Bright Lights in August 2004, but let’s face it, if giant praying mantises aren’t timeless, what is?

In early 1956, two mysterious men walked into the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry. Dressed in dark suits, they did not have the casual, carefree appearance of most of the museum’s visitors. They looked as if they were on a mission. Their expressions were serious, and they moved from display to display with an impatient energy. They rushed through the dinosaur dioramas, barely glanced at tarantulas in amber, and shook their heads at mounted ants. When they came to a preserved praying mantis, they stopped. A moment of silence ensued. The men looked at each other, then back at the mantis. They began to whisper, and one man scribbled on a spiral notepad. Then they turned away from thef display cases and hurriedly left the museum.

The two men were producer William Alland and screenwriter Martin Berkeley. Their mission was to find a creature that had not already served as the basis for a science-fiction film. A praying mantis could be their new “it.” Back at Universal-International, Berkeley sat down and typed out a “formula sheet,” a story breakdown based on the Warner Bros. film Them! (right) This insect fit the requirements of the formula, and in mid 1956, Universal announced a production called The Deadly Mantis, starring Rex Reason. Fresh from This Island Earth, Reason read the script and did not like the purloined formula. “To me it was very corny,” said Reason. “I knew that the monster would be the star, and I knew I was worth a little more than just to support a praying mantis.” (Weaver, They Fought, 240) Reason asked to be released from the film. He was released and then dropped from Universal’s payroll, along with most of its other contract players. In the world of low-budget horror and science fiction, a praying mantis was worth more than a whole roster of starlets. Teenagers did not care who was killed by the insect as long as someone was and they could scream afterward.

Another genre film released in the summer of 1957 was Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of the End. Instead of a giant mantis scaling the Washington Monument, the script called for giant grasshoppers to climb Chicago’s Wrigley Building. Animation was deemed too costly, so real insects would be used. Gordon needed two hundred grasshoppers, and not just any species would do; they had to be non-hopping and non-flying. “I had to get my grasshoppers from Waco, Texas,” said Gordon. “They had the only species large enough to carry focus. I could only import males because they didn’t want the things to start breeding. They even had someone from the agricultural department or someplace like that come out to take a head count — or a wing count.” (McGee, Faster and Furioser, 106) Duncan Parkin was an uncredited special-effects technician on the film. When he received the shipment from Waco, he made a grisly discovery. The grasshoppers had not adapted to their cramped quarters. During the trip, they had grown restive, quarrelsome, and hungry. “They began to cannibalize one another and eventually we were left with only about a dozen of them,” said Parkin. The remaining troupers were filmed walking on dry-mounted still photographs of buildings, which were cheaper than three-dimensional miniatures. (Parla, “Talking Eye to Eye,” 104)

The film was produced by American Broadcasting-Paramount Theaters, a company formed to supply more product to film-hungry exhibitors. “If AB-PT and its fellow theatermen regard Beginning of the End as the answer to the product shortage,” wrote Variety, “the motion picture industry might as well shut its doors this very moment.” (Warren, 438) Did audiences agree? Did they complain? No, they laughed. “Many in the audience finished the last ten minutes of this gripping drama in near hysterics,” wrote a critic. (Ibid) Gordon did not care, as long as they had paid to get in. “The movie audience these days consists almost entirely of teenagers,” he said. “Either they’re naïve and go to get scared, or they’re sophisticated and enjoy scoffing at the pictures. There isn’t much a teenager can scoff at these days, you know.” (Alpert, 86)

Seeing how profitable these cheap films were, a Pennsylvania distributor named Jack H. Harris thought he could make something better than the ones he was shipping to local theaters. He buttonholed his friend Irvine Millgate, who was a consultant to the Visual Aids Department of the Boy Scouts of America. They had contacts, they had skills, and they had seen these formulas over and over. Why not raise the money and make their own horror film? “Listen,” said Harris to Millgate, “what I want to think up is a movie monster that is not a guy dressed up in a suit — not a puppet — but some kind of form that’s never been done before. I want it to do things that will undo mankind if it’s not arrested or destroyed.” (Weaver, Interviews, 198) Of course, money was an issue, so the monster would have to be inexpensive. “I want the destruction to be something that Grandma could cook up on her stove on an experimental Sunday afternoon.”

Harris pitched his concept to a Methodist filmmaking group, Valley Forge Film Studios, convincing them that they could make better religious films with the returns from a secular film. A minister named Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. agreed to direct, and Harris raised $240,000. His cast included Steve McQueen, a relatively unknown TV actor, and Olin Howlin, a veteran character actor. His monster was born of another brainstorming session with Millgate. Reducing horror to a chemical composition, Millgate suggested a “mineral monster.” After consulting with the Union Carbide Corporation, Harris gave birth to the Blob, a rolling space monster made of silicone.

“We discovered that we could achieve varying degrees of consistency, from that of running water to hard glue,” said Harris. “Vegetable coloring gave it the red color. It got redder and redder as it grew and consumed more people. One thing we never resolved was, how do you keep the color in there? We just had to keep mixing it, like cake batter. Otherwise it would all settle to the bottom.” (Weaver, Interviews, 200) The scenes between McQueen and Howlin, in which the cheeky teenager comes to the aid of an elderly man whose arm is being devoured by the gelatinous Blob, were well played, but most of the film’s acting and production values were substandard. Harris’s audience did not care. He had purposely made teenagers the heroes of the film, and teenagers were his audience. The Blobultimately grossed one hundred times its cost.

As a distributor, Harris was, of course, aware of the shift in audience demographics. Theater owners would tell him before they would tell the trade papers. In July 1958, just before the film’s release, Newsweek magazine canvassed a number of exhibitors. Their opinions were illuminating: “I’ll say one thing for the horror pictures. The kids stay in their seats — none of this wandering around up and down aisles they way they do during a fancy drawing room opus”; “My audience — I hate to call them juvenile delinquents — but they seem to quiet down a bit when you give them a fairly good thriller. They really seem to be curious about what makes a monster, and how it works”; “As far as I’m concerned, a well-made horror film is better entertainment than a lot of the classy stuff I get. We get plenty of adult trade along with the youngsters. You see kids dragging their parents in for the show.” (“Monstrous for Money,” 84) Some of these parents must have cast longing glances at the exit when forced to sit through the inane movies that were oozing from the screen.

In 1957, Sam Katzman, who had been supplying Columbia pictures with an average of ten B films a year, followed his successful Earth vs. the Flying Saucers with another airborne menace. This time it was a huge bird. He could not impose upon Columbia’s special-effects department for The Giant Claw, so he shopped for a cheap alternative. “When I first met the film’s producer, Sam Katzman,” recalled actress Mara Corday, “he was so excited about the ‘Bird,’ and it seemed like something to look forward to. The special effects were being done in Mexico and the Mexican crew had given him the impression the ‘Bird’ would be very frightening, with superior special effects.” (Parla, “Beauty and the Beasts,” 110) Costarring with Corday was Jeff Morrow, who brought conviction to his scenes with the as yet unseen creature. “We poor benighted actors had our own idea of what the giant bird would look like,” said Morrow. “Our concept was that this was something that resembled a streamlined hawk, flying at such speeds that we could barely see it.” (Weaver, They Fought, 218) The film was nearing completion when Katzman’s “Bird” arrived from Mexico. It did not look like a hawk; it looked like a turkey. “Well, Katzman was shocked,” said Corday, “but he opted to accept the thing as a joke, because it was not economical to create a more realistic monster.” (Parla, “Beauty and the Beasts,” 110) Morrow saw the finished product, not in a studio screening room, but on the big screen. “I went to a sneak preview in Westwood Village,” he recalled. “When the monster appeared on the screen it was like a huge plucked turkey, flying with these incredible squawks! And the audience went into hysterics.” (Weaver,Science, 329)

The Milner Brothers’ 1957 film From Hell It Came was the strange story of a South Sea Islands prince who is executed by a witch doctor for fraternizing with American scientists. He then rises from the grave in the form of a tree to seek vengeance. Actor Gregg Palmer’s one scene as the prince would require him to lie in the center of the village, staked to the ground, with three chickens standing guard. In a hallway outside the producers’ offices, Palmer stared at his agent, Jack Pomeroy, and then asked him: “You want me to lay down and be staked out and have chickens around me? And then I turn into a tree? Come on!”

“Gregg, do this,” urged Pomeroy. “A lot of people are going to see this. Science fiction is coming around.”

As Palmer related: “The next thing I know, I was staked out on the ground and the chickens were all around me.” Palmer was lucky. He finished his role in one day. Someone else had to play the tree, though, wearing an eight-foot-tall costume. Former wrestler Chester Hayes was approached by director Dan Milner. “The producers needed someone who could walk in the costume as well as take the overall weight of it,” said Hayes. “I don’t know how much it weighed, but . . . it was not designed for casual movement or walking, even at the most reasonable pace.” (Parla, “Wooden Performance,” 62) As Tabanga, the tree monster, Hayes had to kill natives and carry women, all of whom had to help him balance and see where he was going. To complicate matters, the wire mesh inside the hot, heavy costume lacerated Hayes’s face, and its rubber legs started to tear. Between scenes, the tree monster languished on the sidelines while actors recited pages of plodding dialogue. “They would unintentionally forget me for a while,” said Hayes. “I’d be standing in that costume, waiting for my next call.” (Ibid) When Allied Artists released From Hell It Came, Hayes could not resist seeing it. “I was disappointed in the scenes that had Tabanga walking,” he said. “It appeared more comical than scary.” (Ibid) As his costume split its seams, audiences split their sides — laughing.

Hayes had his chuckles after filming was completed. Actress Beverly Garland could not wait that long. Having survived Roger Corman’s quickies at American International Pictures, she thought she had finally made the grade in The Alligator People (1959), a widescreen film that would be distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox. She was working with famous veterans; actors George Macready and Lon Chaney, cinematographer Karl Struss, and director Roy Del Ruth. Garland was unfazed by the film’s title. “Filming The Alligator People,” she said, “was like working on a ‘Double A Movie’ compared to working for Roger Corman.” (Brunas, “Inside the Alligator People,” 59) She did not mind splashing and falling through a swamp, but she had trouble with the scene in which she goes to a clinic where Macready is trying to help the Alligator People, the victims of a serum meant to reverse limb loss. “I walk in,” she recalled, “and here they have these guys in these long white robes with this kind of hat thing on their heads. And I tell you, they all looked like they had urinals on their heads! I started to laugh. Then Roy Del Ruth looked at them and it started to get to him, too.” (Weaver, Interviews, 165) The crew took three hours to film the simple scene because every take was ruined by someone bursting out laughing. “The hardest thing to do in that movie,” she remembered, “was simply to keep a straight face.”

Garland was portraying the wife of a man (Richard Crane) who is in the early stages of transformation into an alligator. The script called for her to be sympathetic, in spite of his reptilian appearance. “I just played her the way you would if you were married to an alligator,” said Garland, who got through her scenes successfully until, once more, something triggered her sense of the absurd. (Brunas, 59) “I had to be a bit romantic and console my poor husband,” she said. “This was when he was pretty much an alligator and I had to say to him, ‘I’ll love you no matter what,’ which I think took me a good half day to say. Laugh? I thought I’d die! They almost had to film that on the back of my head.” (Weaver, Interviews, 164) She did better in the film’s finale, when Crane, now a full-fledged Alligator Person, dashes heedlessly into the swamp and drowns in quicksand. Some viewers criticized the film’s sudden ending. “What were they going to do?” asked Garland. “Were they going to have us live happily ever after and raise baby alligators?” (Ibid)

Susan Cabot was part of Corman’s repertory when he started a new company called Filmgroup, and she starred in its first film, 1959’s The Wasp Woman. She played a cranky forty-year-old cosmetics executive who discovers a youth serum made of wasp enzymes. As an energized twenty-two-year-old, she is no easier on her employees. In fact, she turns into a wasp and assaults them. “I was supposed to bite their necks and draw blood,” said Cabot. “Roger wanted to see the blood. And so, as I attacked everybody, I had Hershey’s chocolate in my mouth, which I proceeded toblurp, right on people’s necks.” (Ibid) Writing in the Saturday Review, critic Arthur Knight had some harsh words for the genre. “The real horror is that these pictures, with their bestialities, their sadism, their lust for blood, and their primitive level of conception and execution, should find their greatest acceptance among the young.” (Alpert, “The Horror of It All,” 76)

Not surprisingly, the most primitive of these films cast women as monsters — and they were widely booked, as shown by the increasing involvement of the exhibitor in production. This was not the ivory-tower producer trying to raise the masses to his level. This was the bar making its own booze. One of Louisiana’s most prosperous drive-in theater chains was owned by the Woolner brothers. Bernie Woolner came up with an idea that he knew his young patrons would eat up, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and hired cinematographer Jacques Marquette to produce it. The first thing Marquette did was to hire himself as director of photography so that he could get into the cameramen’s union. Then he hired Academy-Award winning-art director Nathan Juran to direct. Juran asked if he could direct under a pseudonym, Nathan Hertz. “He didn’t want people to know that he would make that cheap a picture,” Marquette explained. (Weaver, Attack, 203)

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman was cheap indeed, filmed on side roads and in a private Hollywood home. The special effects were not unconvincing; they were risible, especially the scenes of the wealthy giantess (Allison Hayes) stalking the countryside. Marquette’s third-rate matte shots let the background show through her head. Her costume, supposedly made from bed sheets, looks like a beat-up diaper, and her best dialogue is an echoing refrain as she tears off the roof of a café to catch her absurdly unfaithful and abusive husband (William Hudson): “Harry! Harry! Harry!” Actress Yvette Vickers described the cheapness of the production: “When the fifty-foot woman started wrecking the café, I ran and hid under a table. All the people were screaming, lumber was falling into the room, and so on. As soon as the scene was over, one of the prop men came up to me and said, ‘Don’t . . . move.’ I looked around slowly, and there was a board with a nail through it, right at my ear.” (Weaver, Science, 373) Released in May 1958, the film’s bookings could barely satisfy the vacationing teenagers who wanted to see a giant rubber hand slide into the café and pull Harry to his doom. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, made for $88,000, grossed $480,000.

The woman scorned was a popular subgenre, as evidenced by the 1958 Queen of Outer Space. In this wide-screen color cheapie, producer Ben Schwalb and screenwriter Charles Beaumont tried to inflate a ten-page Ben Hecht outline into a Venusian epic. Hecht had written “Queen of the Universe” after a party joke gave him the idea of a planet ruled by women. The Queen of the title was a scarred, man-hating tyrant played by Laurie Mitchell. The actual star of the film was forty-year-old Zsa Zsa Gabor. The Hungarian beauty could not exactly be described as an actress, but she had decorated numerous films with her sloe-eyed indifference. Her real claim to fame was her tempestuous love life. While still married to her third husband, George Sanders, she had carried on a highly visible affair with the Dominican playboy, Porfirio Rubirosa. A much-printed photo showed her wearing an eye patch the morning after Rubirosa punched her in a jealous rage. “The fact that he hit me proves that he loves me,” Gabor rationalized. “A woman who has never been hit by a man has never been loved.” (Cohen, “The Legend,” 254) This type of publicity could not be bought, especially by a cut-rate outfit like Allied Artists.

When director Edward Bernds escorted Gabor to the Western Costume Company, it dawned on her that her wardrobe would be rented, not designed for her. The prestige she was bringing to this dubious project was to be matched with secondhand costumes! She told Bernds that she would not wear them; she had to have a designer. He tried to placate her with a more elegant selection. She threatened to quit unless her demands were met. Bernds turned her over to a company executive and headed for the nearest telephone. “This is our chance to dump her,” he told Schwalb. “If she wants to walk, let her walk.” (Weaver, Interviews, 57)

“No,” said Schwalb. “We need a star. Without a star, we haven’t got a picture. Look. Stars are that way. Humor her.”

Queen of Outer Space

Bernds eventually got some second-tier designers to keep Gabor happy, but only momentarily. The population of Venus was played by beauty contest winners, all of whom were decades younger than Miss Hungary of 1936. When their miniskirted forms attracted more attention from the crew than hers, she grew testy. “Ben went to the hospital with ulcers halfway through the picture,” recalled Bernds. “I was left to cope with her alone, and she damn near gave me ulcers.” (Ibid) The combination of a resentful star, a cast of non-actors, dirt-cheap sets, and a preposterous script overwhelmed any hope of creating a genuine genre piece. One exchange sums up the film’s attempts at wit.

“You’re beautiful,” says the Venus girl.
“You’re handsome,” replies the Earthman.

Said Bernds: “Trying to paste satirical material onto a creaky melodramatic structure just didn’t work very well.” (Ibid) Queen of Outer Space worked well at the box office. Perhaps it was to see the newfangled miniskirts. Perhaps it was to hear the only woman on Venus who spoke with a Hungarian accent. Perhaps it was the country’s newfound taste for ineptitude. If so, there were many more inept films. One of the poorest came from Universal’s shrinking feature film calendar.

The Leech Woman (1960) was another look at a woman pushed to monsterhood by the fountain of youth. In this case, June (Coleen Gray), the wealthy, aging, alcoholic wife of yet another uncaring husband (Phillip Terry), goes with him to Africa, where they discover that the fluid from a man’s pineal gland will temporarily reverse her aging. She forgets all about making her husband love her again. Suddenly, all she cares about is his pineal gland. She jabs a magic ring into it, rejuvenates herself, and takes off. Back at home, she almost succeeds in ensnaring her handsome lawyer (Grant Williams), but his fiancée (Gloria Talbott) shows up in the foyer with a gun. A scuffle ensures, and June dumps the fiancée in the hall closet.

While the two women were rehearsing the scene, the diminutive Gray said to Talbott, “I’m little, but I am strong.” (Weaver, Interviews, 340) Talbott had just done an episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive with Steve McQueen. In a fight scene with him, she had flipped him over her back. By comparison, the tiny leech woman hardly looked threatening. “But, by God, this little bitty person wasn’t kidding!” Talbott recalled. “She picked me up, threw me in the closet! Incredible. But she was very much a lady. I liked her and she was very good to work with.” Gray and Talbott both gave their roles more than the script or direction warranted, but the film’s most captivating performance came from seventy-three year-old Estelle Hemsley, who played the wizened, inscrutable African, Old Malla, with dignity and intelligence. There was little of either in the horror genre as the 1950s ended. Difficult financing and an easy audience had ruined it. A few miles away from the silly antics of The Leech Woman, on the MCA Revue lot, stood an old dark house where an eminent director was inventing a new type of horror film.

Works Cited

Alpert, Hollis, and Charles Beaumont. “The Horror of It All.” Playboy (Mar. 1959): 69-88.

Brunas, John. “Inside the Alligator People.” Filmfax 1, no. 4 (Oct.-Nov. 1986): 56-61.

Cohen, Gary. “The Legend of Rubirosa.” Vanity Fair 58 (Dec. 2002): 242-64.

McGee, Mark. Faster and Furioser. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1996.

“Monstrous for Money.” Newsweek (July 14, 1958): 84.

Parla, Paul. “Beauty and the Beasts.” Filmfax 59 (Oct. 1996-Jan. 1997): 108-111.

Parla, Paul. “Wooden Performance: Tree Monster Chester Hayes Speaks.” Filmfax 55 (Mar.-Apr. 1996): 61-63.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1997.

Weaver, Tom. Attack of the Monster Movie Makers. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1994.

Weaver, Tom. Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1988.

Weaver, Tom. Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes.Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1991.

Weaver, Tom. They Fought in the Creature Features.Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1995.

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NOTE: This article is reprinted from the author’s wonderful illustrated narrative history of horror and science-fiction from silent film to 2001Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic (New York: Harry Abrams, 2003) features many rare images, some of which are on view in this article. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.