Arguably the greatest of the giant monster movies came not from the US but Japan, a country with a truly horrifying atomic experience. Born in the wake of Hiroshima and America's nuclear tests in the Pacific, Godzilla (1954) was an avenging devil rising from the radioactive ashes of the atomic age, a dark nuclear parable in a solemn key. It spawned endless sequels and fellow giant monsters like Rodan (1956), Mothra (1961), and the jet-propelled flying turtle Gamera (1966), a poor cousin to Godzilla that became a hero to children and was then revived in a superior trilogy of adventures in the 1990s. (See the Godzilla primer for more details.)
Jack Arnold, the director of the rangy but likeable Tarantula, also contributed one of the genuine masterpieces of the genre: his adaptation of Richard Matheson's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). The title is pulp but the story of a man who suddenly, inexplicably begins to grow smaller after drifting through a radiation cloud is compassionate and intelligent, a portrait of a man who becomes alienated from his own everyday world as he changes. The special effects are tremendous, of course, as once harmless household realities become life-threatening hazards (his battle with a spider, armed only with a sewing needle, is thrilling), but it's the marriage of the physical and the metaphysical that makes his drama so affecting. Bert I. Gordon's The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), rushed to production to cash in on the success, is hardly in the same league but it remains Gordon's most interesting film: the stress and the alienation turns this hero mad and thus into another rampaging creature. And of course, there is Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), for which the title pretty much speaks all on its own.
On the more extreme end of the atomic scare film was the end of the world scenario. On the Beach (1959), Stanley Kramer's adaptation of the Nevil Shute novel, is the most famous of these. Set in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, this heavy-handed, star-studded drama sinks in its own sense of importance (it is rarely filed with the science fiction films in video stores). Less heralded but more interesting are films like Five (1951), The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1959), the dramatically tepid but conceptually compelling This Is Not a Test (1962), No Blade of Grass (1970) and Peter Watkins's searing "documentary of the future" The War Game (1966), a devastatingly bleak and unnervingly realistic portrait of what the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust might really look like. Stanley Kubrick, not one to follow fashion, turned mutually assured destruction into a nuclear satire with the black comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964).
The nuclear holocaust drama gave way to other fears in later years but the genre continued to deliver through the decades. The satire and cynicism run deep in A Boy and His Dog (1975), which creatively preserves the tone and attitude of Harlan Ellison's science fiction novella while reworking the details. Don Johnson is a feral human led by an erudite and insightful telepathic dog who lets his libido lead him from the mercenary post-apocalyptic surface world to a sallow underground recreation of "the good old days."
Mad Max (1979) is a kind of Death Wish in a lawless future, with Mel Gibson as a street-calloused cop driven to bloodthirsty revenge with his souped-up hot rod Interceptor as his weapon of choice. George Miller spins the premise into post-apocalyptic drama of good vs. evil and community vs. chaos in a world where gas is gold and speed is power with The Road Warrior (1981). The ultimate comic book film turns Gibson into the latest dark hero in a line that stretches back through Clint Eastwood's "The Man With No Name," John Wayne's Ethan Edwards and the good-bad guys of the silent era, William S. Hart and Harry Carey, while adding a visceral punch that still packs a wallop.
It Came From Within
Atomic fears gave way to other, more unsettling poisons and diseases in the 60s. In The Last Man on Earth (1964), adapted from Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and remade as The Omega Man (1971), a plague has practically killed off of humanity and turned almost all of the survivors into biological vampires. In George Romero's influential Night of the Living Dead (1968), perhaps the first truly modern American horror film, the dead rise to eat the living due to fallout from a space mission. While the viral cause is merely a foggy assumption in Romero's film (he made it more explicit in the conspiracy thriller The Crazies, 1973), it's the gripping mystery at the center of The Andromeda Strain (1970). Methodically directed by Robert Wise from an adaptation of Michael Crichton's all-too-plausible novel, science is at the forefront of this science fiction thriller as scientists race the clock to understand the alien microbes that have decimated a desert town, before it mutates and spreads.
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