In the ’50s horror and sci-fi crossed paths once again (these movies all owe something to Frankenstein, book and movie), to the extent that it isn’t always obvious how they should be categorised. One movie that had a foot firmly in both genres was Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, wherein a town’s population is gradually replaced by Pod People, i.e. perfect duplicates, created from pods, to replace humans. They are physically identical but are missing something: they seem to lack basic human emotions.
Horror movies, looked at in context, can be interesting records of a generation’s fears. It is no secret what the greatest influences on these movies were: nuclear weapons and the Cold War. If the monsters of the ’20s and ’30s were in part a response to the casualties of the First World War, the ’50s horrors played more on a persistent paranoia. It has been argued that the movie is about McCarthyism, a satire on the fear of Communism in America. It certainly can be read as a satire, but it may have truly played on people’s fears about Communism subverting the American lifestyle, and the notion that the enemy may look and sound just like you. A more fashionable modern reading is that the pod people don’t represent the communists, but the American public, duped by Joseph McCarthy and not thinking sufficiently for itself. It could be, as has been claimed, that all these parallels are unintentional, and the filmmakers were just trying to scare you, but the story simply lends itself to allegory, and perfectly tapped into the fear of a nation.
As with Cat People, the movie works mostly on suggestion; when a person is replaced, they look exactly the same after all. Like many good horrors, its intention isn’t to startle you, but to plant seeds (or pods) of doubt in your mind. ‘They’re here already!’ as Kevin McCarthy (no relation) screamed. ‘You’re next!’ As with Caligari, a concerned studio insisted on having a ‘framing device’ bookending the movie to cushion the blow, although in this case it doesn’t add any new elements and is simply not necessary, nor is the narration.
‘In my practice I see how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly, not all at once,’ muses Kevin McCarthy’s character, Miles, a doctor. People are being replaced, atom by atom, memory by memory, until their personalities are all the same. The special effects of movies from this era are mainly very dated (though still, particularly in the case of Ray Harryhausen’s, quite striking), and many of the films that have lasted are the ones that were able to avoid the need for over-the-top effects. The basic conceit of “Body Snatchers” means that few effects are called for, because it makes the everyday unsettling. By the end, all it takes is for the characters to fall asleep for them to be replaced. They’re here already. You’re next.
Apart from the many horror/sci-fis (for which “Body Snatchers” represents the high point), the ‘50s offered a late, and brief, return to form for both Universal monsters (with The Creature From The Black Lagoon, 1954) and Jacques Tourneur (Night Of The Demon). Monster movies had evolved: films such as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) in America and Godzilla (1954) in Japan connected the rise of these monsters to atomic tests. In the Frankenstein tradition, the monster had come from within us.
Meanwhile in Britain, Hammer studios effectively mixed sci-fi and horror in the first two Quatermass movies, which I highly recommend, based on the popular TV series. When these proved to be surprisingly successful, Hammer made the transition to full-blown horror. Hammer produced a series of movies inspired by the Universal pictures, but with a) blood, b) more obvious sexual undertones and, occasionally, overtones, and c) colour (specifically Eastmancolor, which is lush to the point of lurid). They kicked off the run in 1957 with The Curse Of Frankenstein, probably the second-best of the Frankenstein adaptations for my money, followed by Dracula (1958). Both starred horror-icons-to-be Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. These are two of the best, but the series continued well into the ’70s with versions of Universal’s The Mummy and an almost endless run of sequels to these flagship franchises. Amongst the others worth checking out are The Nanny (1965), Frankenstein Created Woman, Quatermass and the Pit (both 1967), The Devil Rides Out (1968) and of the later pictures, Dr. Jekyll And Sister Hyde (1971). Hammer has recently been resurrected, producing the recent Let The Right One In remake (Let Me In) and the soon-to-be-released adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.