February 25, 2020

Shocking Scenes in 1950s Sci-Fi: Special “I can’t believe my parents let me watch that stuff!” Edition

In the all-encompassing, 24/7 infotainment/social media bubble we live in, the things that shock, frighten and disgust us keep changing and mutating like the titular monster in the remakes of The Thing from Another World. (Guess what -- since the original and the remakes didn’t shock or disgust us quite enough, Hollywood wants to do it yet again… yeesh!)

While the most extreme depictions of violence and dismemberment elicit yawns in Anytown USA, millions of Americans gasp and groan at the latest Trump tweet, then, like rats in a conditioning experiment in Hell, keep swiping at their feeds to be shocked all over again.

In simpler times, screen time meant shelling out a quarter at the neighborhood theater for a newsreel, a short subject, and a feature (or even two B pictures if your gluteus maximus could handle it). The things that spooked audiences of the 1930s and ‘40s -- like Jack Pierce’s 1931 Frankenstein monster make-up -- would be hard-pressed to nudge the films into PG territory today.

Still - Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)
Many people did not like how this scene ended.
Speaking of the original Frankenstein, that film might be the exception that proves the rule. The scene in which the monster inadvertently kills the the little girl who has befriended him by throwing her into the pond got the attention of several state film boards, which demanded that it (and another scene, in which Henry Frankenstein exalts that “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”) be cut. When Frankenstein was reissued to theaters the scenes were gone, and wouldn’t be restored until the 1980s.

Today there are no state boards demanding cuts to films, but most filmmakers don’t need censors or social media condemnation to deter them from killing off children in their movies -- that taboo is still going strong.

Eventually the classic Gothic monsters punched out on their time clocks, and the next shift -- the radioactive and space-traveling menaces of the atomic age -- punched in. There were plenty of monsters and horror elements in the new ‘50s & ‘60s breed, but most fans remember them for the thrills and not so much the chills (Them!, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla, and their ilk notwithstanding).

Publicity photo of The Duke, Malcolm & Esmeralda, hosts of the mid-1960s late night show Gravesend Manor
The Duke, Malcolm and Esmeralda of Gravesend Manor
(broadcast in central Iowa, circa mid-1960s.)
When I was in elementary school, I was lucky to live within the range of two TV stations that broadcast creature features. On Friday nights we’d get mostly sci-fi from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, including things like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Invisible Invaders, World Without End, etc. (I wish I could remember the name of the show). Then on Saturday nights the horror host ensemble of Malcolm, the Duke, Claude and Esmeralda at Gravesend Manor would introduce the old Universal classics that were part of the Shock Theater TV package. (I was even lucky enough to get a signed photograph of the cast from a friend whose dad worked at the station!)

At first it was like pulling teeth to get my parents to allow me to stay up, but I think when they realized I’d do anything for viewing privileges -- clean my room, eat my vegetables, do my homework -- they wearily relented.

There was one incident that no doubt had them rethinking the wisdom of late-night horror shows. My parents were entertaining guests upstairs, while downstairs my brother and I, already in our pajamas, were watching a Twilight Zone re-run. It was the classic episode with William Shatner as the nervous airline passenger who can’t get anyone to believe that there’s a gremlin on the wing of the plane, dismantling the engine (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," 1963).

William Shatner in the Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
"Hey buddy, do you have an extra set of earbuds?
I want to catch the in-flight movie."
When Shatner’s character drew the window curtain aside to see the hideous thing’s face pressed against the glass, we both shot up the stairs, screaming at the top of our lungs. It’s testimony to my parents’ stoicism that the “Nightmare in the Basement” incident didn’t end the horror show privileges right then and there.

I would get plenty more adrenaline rushes from the late night shows. The classic Universal monsters on Saturday night were more fun than scary. I especially liked the monster “rallies” -- Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein -- that featured monsters galore and were like professional wrestling matches in some dark universe.

Interestingly, it was the Friday sci-fi creatures, not the Gothic monsters, that more often haunted my childhood dreams. Of course, the sci-fi Bs had their share of lame, low-rent monsters that no self-respecting kid could possibly think were scary (see my last post for some examples). But once in awhile, I’d be cruising along, munching my popcorn and enjoying a seemingly innocuous sci-fi programmer, and bam!, it would hit me with a scene that would have me shaking under the blankets later that night. Some of the examples below I watched for the first time on the Friday night sci-fi show. I don’t think my parents had any idea how rough some of these movies were. After all, how bad could something called The Atomic Submarine be? If they’d known, I suspect the late nights would have been cut-off, and I might have grown up to be a stable, semi-respectable member of society. I’m so glad they never suspected a thing.

Disclaimer: The content below may not be suitable for all audiences, including, but not limited to, children, adults and other living things. The clips below are queued up to the scenes described in the text. Click the Play button if you dare!

The Angry Red Planet (1959): First man to be turned into jello salad

When I first saw this movie, I handled the Rat-Bat-Spider monster with equanimity. But the scene in which one of the astronauts gets absorbed and digested by the giant amoeba monster stuck with me for some time. In retrospect, perhaps the most shocking thing was the filmmakers’ decision to use their “Cinemagic” process, in which the scenes on Mars’ surface look like a glowing, red-tinted cartoon made by someone on LSD. Experience Cinemagic for yourself by playing the clip below! (Interesting facts about the making of Rat-Batty can be found at my post “How to Make a Monster.”)

The Atomic Submarine (1959): These are the voyages of the expendable crew members

Several years before the original Star Trek series, a hard-charging Captain led his men into a confrontation with a menacing alien intelligence and managed to get them killed in a variety of gruesome ways. In addition to the horrifying deaths in this scene, the shadowy, minimal sets and the echoing voice of the spaceship’s occupant set up an uncanny, surreal atmosphere.

The Crawling Eye (1958): If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…

This was my first introduction to headless corpses in the movies. The film teases the audience with a pre-titles scene in which a pair of mountain climbers haul up a fallen comrade dangling from a rope, only to find that he is **GASP!** missing his head, but it cuts to their reactions before we see anything. It delivers the goods midway in when rescuers find the headless corpse of another climber in a cabin. Even though the body is somewhat obscured by shadows, I had a hard time sleeping that night.

Fiend Without a Face (1958): This is Spinal Tap, 1950s style

A number of characters are choked to death in this film, at first by something invisible, but the creatures obligingly make an appearance at the climax, taking shape as brains with antennae sitting atop whip-like spinal cord tails. I chuckled when I first saw the stop-motion monstrosities, but stopped when one whipped its spinal cord around its hapless victim’s neck. The sound effects as the creatures lay siege to the house are both comical and hideous. (Find out more about how the “fiends” were brought to life in “How to Make a Monster.”)

Not of This Earth (1957): This was your grandpa’s Alien facehugger

When Ridley Scott’s Alien first came out, many thought it was strikingly original, but fans of old-school sci-fi were well aware that it borrowed liberally from such films as It! The Terror from Beyond Space and The Planet of Vampires. I don’t know for certain that Alien’s facehugger was inspired by the “flying umbrella” in Not of This Earth, but there are disgusting similarities between the two creatures. While no ravenous worms burst out of anyone’s chest in this movie, the blood that slowly seeps out after the thing envelops the doctor’s head and he collapses, is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine.


  1. This is a terrific post, Brian! I had the same experience growing up with horror and sci-fi movies playing on TV. From 1962-65 one of the local stations had a horror-host show called Way Out that played every Thursday night at 10:30. I was eleven years old in 1962. A school night, of course. But my mother was kind enough to allow me to stay up and watch. She had grown up loving the Universal flicks and she loved them, so she stayed up and watched with me. The host was named Trebor, Robert spelled backwards, and was one of the employees of the TV station. Anyway, that was the real beginning of my love of horror films, along with all the monster mags I was collecting. We also had an old B & W TV in the basement for a while and I would sometimes sit by myself watching horror films that played on Saturday nights. My all-time favorite "adrenaline" memory: watching Kharis the mummy come back to life in The Mummy's Hand! That closeup of his face as he rose up!! I'll never forget the chills that ran down my spine!!

    1. We were so lucky to have understanding parents who allowed us to stay up and watch these "disreputable" movies. That it was something you had to plan for and anticipate added to the fun. I feel sorry for today's kids - I can't imagine them looking back and fondly reminiscing about the Tik Tok videos they watched. ;-)