When my college professor (who happens to be a Times columnist and writer for Shore Magazine) Philip Potempa said I could have one of his installments of his Shore blog Of Notoriety to write about whatever I wanted to, I decided to follow my love of films.
"Attack of the _______" and "Invasion of the _______" are just a couple of the classic templates for sci-fi titles of the 1950s and 1960s.
I am a big fan of these low-budget, cheesy gems because:
1. They're unintentionally funny.
2. They're sometimes legitimately good films.
3. They're simply fun to watch.
My love for these kinds of films came from an evolving interest in everything schlock. It began with a still-thriving love for 1970s exploitation films (and its various sub-genres: blaxploitation, sexploitation, nazisploitation) and eventually stretched over everything under the b-movie umbrella.
Because I couldn't get enough of the bad special effects and subpar acting, it's natural that I started to get a craving for science-fiction pictures from the 50s and 60s.
Of course, you run a risk when you get into these kinds of movies.
Like Forrest Gump's chocolates, you don't quite know what you're going to get.
The best moments are when you watch films that are either "so good, it's good" or, my favorite, "so bad it's good."
An example of the former, is 1956's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Great acting, good-for-the-time special effects, and fantastic directing combine to make this a film worth watching.
I've been watching a lot of these movies over the past couple of months. Through my Netflix account and various DVD collections I own, the amount of schlock I have at my fingertips seems infinite. One of the films that really impressed me and immediately found a place in my top five favorite films of all time is 1962's "The Brain That Wouldn't Die."
A black and white picture, "The Brain That Wouldn't Die," has everything I look for in a sci-fi b-movie: elaborate sets, outrageous plot and a towering heap of over-the-top acting.
The film follows an eager surgeon who spends his time outside of his day job experimenting with limb and organ transplants. While on a drive to his laboratory with his girlfriend, he loses control of the car and flips it of the road. He gets up to see that his girlfriend has been decapitated. He then takes her head, wraps it in a blanket and takes it to the laboratory. He keeps her head alive using a serum he invented (of course) and the majority of the film revolves around him trying to find a "suitable" body to attach the head to.
The focus switches between his hunt, and the head's actions at the laboratory. She wishes her boyfriend would have let her die and soon finds two failed experiments: the doctor's assistant--whose transplanted hand is now unusable--and a deformed creature who is kept behind lock and key in a closet. She finds that she can communicate with the creature and plans a revolt against the doctor.
"The Brain That Wouldn't Die" is the epitome of b-movies.
If you are looking to get into these films, this would be a great place to start.
My favorite thing about these movies--besides the actual films--is the posters.
Because the budgets on these movies were usually small, the poster was what the filmmakers had to use to hook audiences into seeing them. Besides being well drawn and colorful, what's most fun about these posters is the fact that the scenes depicted in them are usually never in the movie.
It's the equivalent of seeing a trailer for a contemporary film only to find that some of the scenes in the trailer weren't actually used in the final cut of the film. I can't imagine moviegoers of the 1950s and 1960s not feeling duped after seeing these films. Good examples of these sensationalistic posters are the posters for "Attack of the Crab Monsters" and "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman."
When talking about schlock sci-fi cinema, Roger Corman must be discussed.
When people think of cheesy special effects and low budget production values, they're most likely going to think of Corman.
With such films as the previous mentioned "Attack of the Crab Monsters" (1957) and "Not of This Earth" (1957), Corman's films define the genre.
"Attack of the Crab Monsters," a film about a group of scientists who travel to an island inhabited by giant crabs, left me wanting more.
The downside to this film is that you don't really care about any of the characters. They're introduced, they fight, they die, and at the end, you don't even flinch.
However, it is a fun film to watch. And that's what these films are really about: having fun.
Of the Corman films I have seen, my favorite is "Not of This Earth."
The film is about an eccentric wealthy man who is in need of a blood transfusion. We then discover that he is an extraterrestrial being who was sent to earth to see if human blood could sustain his species. Always wearing dark sunglasses, he only takes them off when he wants to kill somebody--as his eyes have the power to end somebody's life if they look at them.
Unlike "Crab Monsters," Corman does a great job in establishing his characters so that the audience actually cares about them. You want to see them get out of the situation alive. "Not of This Earth" is a great film to start out with when getting introduced to Roger Corman's work.
One of the most recognizable titles in this genre is 1958's "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman."
And it's actually a pretty good movie.
The story involves a wealthy woman who has had a history of mental health problems. One night, while driving down a stretch of road, she sees an alien spacecraft land in front of her. A giant hand comes out of the craft and tries to reach for her diamond necklace. Her history of various mental states results in nobody believing her until they see it themselves.
Because of the exposure to the spacecraft, the woman grows to an enormous size and decides to get revenge on her cheating husband and his mistress. This movie is fantastic from start to finish. Even if you're not a fan of sci-fi films, this is one to put on your list because it's so cinematically important.
An interesting side note to this film: actress Yvette Vickers, who played the mistress, was recently found mummified in her California home.
Science-fiction b-movies have a special place in my heart.
They're funny, intriguing, and unintentionally charming. I would love to see a marathon of these play at the 49er Drive-In Theatre in Valparaiso, since the drive-in theater venue is where these films were born and first appreciated.
They weren't considered high-art when they were made, but I would argue that they are now. It's art made with low-budget and the lack of complex technology. In our world of CGI, most of us have lost the appreciation for practical effects. I will always stand by my statement that practical effects look far more realistic than CGI.
So, make a bowl of popcorn, turn off the lights, and take your mind away to worlds of giant people, giant bugs, and aliens of unknown worlds.
You'll laugh, you'll roll your eyes, but--most importantly--you'll have a good time.
• Rob Onofrey of Valparaiso is a college senior studying communication and journalism at Valparaiso University. He can be reached at Rob.Onofrey@valpo.edu.