When we first started this podcast, one hundred thirtysomething episodes ago, we devoted specific shows to the best horror movies by the decade. We started with the Sixties, but we got called on that at one point by a listener who wanted to know what we thought were the best horror movies of the Fifties.
We have finally responded to that (hopefully) very patient listener, and enlisted the help of our old friend Phantom Dark Dave. Together, we wander through the cold war movies that scared a generation.
5. Godzilla (1954)
Is Godzilla the best film on this list? No. But, more than any other film in the genre, it spoke directly to global anxieties, became a phenomenal success, and changed the face of horror.
As Japan struggled to re-emerge from the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, director Ishiro Honda unleashed that dreaded kaiju—followed quickly by a tidal wave of creature features focused on scientists whose ungodly work creates global cataclysm.
Far more pointed and insightful than its American bastardization or any of the sequels or reboots to follow, the 1954 Japanese original mirrored the desperate, helpless impotence of a global population in the face of very real, apocalyptic danger. Sure, that danger breathed fire and came in a rubber suit, but history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.
4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Director Dono Siegel was the first filmmaker to bring Jack Finney’s Cold War nightmare to the screen. He wouldn’t be the last, maybe not even the best, but what he did with this eerie alien tale tapped into a societal anxiety and quickly became one of the most influential and terrifying films of its time.
Doc Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is just home from a short trip when he’s inundated by patients swearing their loved ones are not their loved ones at all. Sure, they look the same and have all the same skills and memories, but there’s no warmth, no passion.
With this, the fear that our very nation could be overtaken by an outside force – Russians, say, for terrifyingly immediate sake of argument – working its way through not by force, but by quietly taking over each and every person in one town, then spreading from town to town to town.
It’s the kind of insidious evil that fuels contagion horror, infestation horror, even demonic horror. But Invasion of the Body Snatchers spoke to a society’s deepest fears and became a touchstone for all SciFi to follow it.
3. Dracula (Horror of Dracula) (1958)
In 1958, Hammer Films began its long and fabulous love affair with the cloaked one, introducing the irrefutably awesome Christopher Lee as the Count.
Their tale varies a bit from Stoker’s, but the main players are mostly accounted for. Peter Cushing steps in early and often as Van Helsing, bringing his inimitable brand of prissy kick-ass, but it’s Lee who carries the film.
Six foot 5 and sporting that elegant yet sinister baritone, Lee cuts by far the most intimidating figure of the lot as Dracula. Director Terence Fisher (what?!) uses that to the film’s advantage by developing a far more vicious, brutal vampire than what we’d seen previously.
Still, the film is about seduction, though, which gives Lee’s brute force an unseemly thrill. Unlike so many victims in other vampire tales, it’s not just that Melissa Stribling’s Mina is helpless to stop Dracula’s penetration. She’s in league. She wants it.
Ribald stuff for 1958!
2. The Bad Seed (1956)
The minute delicate Christine’s (Nancy Kelly) husband leaves for his 4-week assignment in DC, their way-too-perfect daughter begins to betray some scary behavior. The creepy handyman Leroy (Henry Jones) has her figured out – he knows she’s not as perfect as she pretends.
You may be tempted to abandon the film in its first reel, feeling as if you know where the it’s going. You’ll be right, but there are two big reasons to stick it out. One is that Bad Seed did it first, and did it well, considering the conservative cinematic limitations of the Fifties.
Second, because director Mervyn LeRoy’s approach – not a single vile act appears onscreen – gives the picture an air of restraint and dignity while employing the perversity of individual imaginations to ramp up the creepiness.
Enough can’t be said about Patty McCormack. There’s surprising nuance in her manipulations, and the Oscar-nominated 9-year-old handles the role with both grace and menace.
1. Diabolique (1955)
Pierre Boileau’s novel was such hot property that even Alfred Hitchcock pined to make it into a film. But Henri-Georges Clouzot got hold if it first. His psychological thriller with horror-ific undertones is crafty, spooky, jumpy and wonderful.
And it wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the weirdly lived-in relationship among Nicole (Simone Signoret) – a hard-edged boarding school teacher – and the married couple that runs the school. Christina (Vera Clouzot) is a fragile heiress; her husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the abusive, blowhard school headmaster. Michel and Nicole are sleeping together, Christine knows, both women are friends, both realize he’s a bastard. Wonder if there’s something they can do about it.
What unravels is a mystery with a supernatural flavor that never fails to surprise and entrance. All the performances are wonderful, the black and white cinematography creates a spectral atmosphere, and that bathtub scene can still make you jump.