Most of us know the classic Universal horror pantheon, from Lon Chaney’s Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Phantom Of The Opera to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s lumbering incarnations of Frankenstein’s monster and The Mummy through to Claude Rains’ urbane Invisible Man and Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man. Later generations swapped these Old World ghouls for serial killers hunting virginal babysitters in the suburbs, adding the likes of Norman Bates, Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, Leatherface, Pinhead, Hannibal Lecter, and Candyman to the rogue’s gallery.
These violent psychopaths, maniacs and mama’s boys are supposed to bring life to our most primitive fears and yet we often become oddly attached, allowing them to survive beyond their respective franchises as pop culture icons and achieve a weird degree of immortality as stock Halloween costumes and collectible action figures. No matter how drawn out and creatively bankrupt their series’ become, no matter how exasperated we are with Freddy Kreuger’s wise-cracking or rap video appearances, our love never dies.
This instinct can teeter towards the insane: Godzilla was honored with Japanese citizenship earlier this summer.
But aren’t these fiends becoming just a tad over-familiar by now? Isn’t it time we cast off the hockey mask and opened our hearts to some fresh terrors from the inky depths of the id?
There’s certainly no shortage of pre-existing alternatives. The great B-movies of the 1950s, for instance, yielded an array of fantastic creations, most of which somehow failed to achieve the same degree of break-out success or crossover notoriety.
This might be because the Bs are routinely laughed at for their weak production values, rubber lizard suits, hub-cap flying saucers, leaden dialogue, worse acting and overt period sexism. All valid objections, but it’s a great mistake to dismiss the genre outright. Many of these pulp entertainments are packed with visual invention and the best address Western Cold War anxieties about Soviet invasion, ideological brainwashing, and The Bomb in a refreshingly un-ironic manner, however obliquely. Even when their antagonists are ludicrous mutant leechmen played by two stunt guys wading around a Florida swamp in full-body bin liners, they can still speak to our collective unconscious about the horrific possibilities of unchecked nuclear waste.
While those slippery customers may not cast the B-movie in its most flattering light, let me introduce you to three sadly neglected horrors from its ranks that are every bit as deserving of your affection as the blood-spattered old stagers of slasher film lore.
Robot Monster (1953)
First up, Ro-Man. Essentially a gorilla with a TV set or diving bell on his head, the eponymous villain of Phil Tucker’s glorious sci-fi cheapie was played by one George Barrows, an actor never out of work from the day he wisely shelled out for his first ape costume. Thereafter Hollywood’s go-to simian impersonator, Barrows was noted for his nuanced chest-beating in films like Gorilla At Large (1953) and Black Zoo (1963), and on TV in everything from The Addams Family(1964) to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1966).
If you’ve never seen Tucker’s 3D post-apocalyptic romp, Ro-Man is a cold rationalist who has been sent to destroy earth by his superiors, blowing up major cities with his ‘Calcinator’ death ray so that national governments will blame one another and retaliate with h-bombs, thereby provoking the human race into wiping itself out before we can become sufficiently technologically advanced to carry out our own inevitable future program of interplanetary imperialism. A quite brilliant plan, although Ro-Man has failed to count on a family of plucky survivors who have developed a serum that makes them immune to the Calcinator’s effects.
In particular, the peculiar feminine charms of scientist Alice (Claudia Barrett), who charms the big lad’s heart. Love struck, Ro-Man begins to questions his orders, with dire consequences.
Tucker’s film was shot in four days in Bronson Canyon, California, for just $16,000, eventually turning a profit of $1m. The 25-year-old director was upset by critics’ reaction to Robot Monster and (unsuccessfully, fortunately) attempted suicide.
There is much to mock here, from the ludicrous shots of Ro-Man wandering the hillsides looking more ponderous than menacing to the absurd quantity of unrelated footage involving blasted cityscapes and brawling stop-motion dinosaurs spliced in from other movies like One Million B.C. (1940), Rocketship X-M (1950), Lost Continent(1951), Flight To Mars (1951), and Captive Women (1952), all as incongruous as anything in Ed Wood’s Glen Or Glenda (1953). The heroine, meanwhile, gets tied up twice, a move no screenwriting class would sanction and “the Automatic Billion Bubble Machine” must surely be one of the most useless pieces of gear an astronaut was ever saddled with.
For all that, it’s a charming piece of work and Ro-Man himself remains a wonderful creation. His love for Alice recalls King Kong’s infatuation with Fay Wray and some of the dialogue it inspires is unintentionally hilarious (“Suppose I were hu-man… Would you treat me like a man?”). Required to spend much of his time in a cave lair Skyping his line manager, known as The Great Guidance, Ro-Man eventually experiences a full-on emotional awakening: “To be like the hu-man, to laugh, feel, want, why are these things not in The Plan?” His boss finds Ro-Man’s hormonal dithering insufferable and promptly zaps him for refusing to kill Alice.
Despite having caused the evisceration of the entire human race and having brutally strangled a little girl in a field (a nod to Karloff in James Whale’s seminal 1931 Frankenstein), this dirty ape unexpectedly dies a tragic figure, his dawning feelings of love and his daring to question authority ultimately signing his death warrant.
Devil Girl From Mars (1954)
Another horn dog from beyond the stars is Patricia Laffan’s titular Martian succubus in this unusual British example of the B picture.
Nyah, for it is she, lands on earth in a spaceship that resembles some crucial washing machine component with a robot familiar in tow named Chani, hard to distinguish from a waddling fridge freezer. Aiming for London, Nyah finds the city’s smoggy atmosphere too dense to pass through, landing instead in the Scottish Highlands and declaring her intentions to a pub full of bemused locals. We learn that she is on a mission to recruit earthmen to repopulate Mars, which has just undergone a quite literal battle of the sexes, the menfolk having finished on the losing side of this gender war and been entirely vanquished by their Amazonian opponents.
Surprisingly, the male regulars of the Bonnie Charlie are not quite so keen to comply with her sex slavery agenda as you might have expected from an inn full of red-blooded Scots.
Amusingly close in plot to Jonathan Glazer’s art house hit Under The Skin (2014) with Scarlett Johansson, this lusty little film is utterly dominated by Laffan’s Nyah. Clad in a PVC mini skirt and cape with matching hood and knee-high boots, the actress is magnificent in the role, never once raising a smirk at the inherent ridiculousness of the whole endeavor. Her arched eyebrows, mesmeric gaze, Roman nose and imperious posture command the screen, leaving the likes of John Laurie from Dad’s Army utterly lost for words.
In truth, David McDonald’s thriller is often dull, with too much time devoted to the assembled characters haggling over which of them will be the sacrificial lamb that agrees to go with Nyah as a ploy to sabotage her plot. One is sorry to see them succeed at the expense of this magnificent dominatrix. The fact that Devil Girl From Marswas based on a stage play, meanwhile, is simply beyond belief.
The Brain From Planet Arous (1957)
Finally, meet Gor, a levitating translucent cerebrum with an eerily echoing voice whose ship crash lands in – wait for it – Mystery Mountain, allegedly somewhere deep in the California desert. Having escaped from prison on his home world, Gor takes possession of local physicist Steve March (the craptacular John Agar, a B mainstay and husband of Shirley Temple) and immediately busies himself plotting world domination. Until, that is, he finds himself sidetracked by the shapely curves of Steve’s much-patronised fiancée Sally (Joyce Meadows).
More rampantly sex mad than either Ro-Man or Nyah, Gor is quickly aroused to the pleasures of the flesh, telling the helpless Steve: “I chose your body very carefully. Even before I knew about Sally. A very exciting female! She appeals to me. There are some aspects of the life of an earth savage that are exciting and rewarding. Things that are missed by the brains on my planet Arous.” He’s an absolute hound, in other words.
Gor, wearing Steve like a favourite pair of overalls, has designs on the global military-industrial complex, which he plans to seize command of so that he can train earth engineers to build him a replacement rocket, which he will in turn use to return to and conquer Arous and thereafter rule the galaxy with his superior intellect. Nuking buildings with radioactive lasers fired from Steve’s eyes is enough to convince the relevant generals as to the seriousness of his intentions and it seems that only the intervention of Vol, a second brain sent down to capture Gor, can save the day. Which he does – sort of – by possessing the mind of George, the March family dog.
A fugitive from justice and a deranged megalomaniac with no respect for the dignity of man, the worst thing about Gor is still that he insists on referring to himself in the third person. I suppose we have to excuse him for being egocentric on the grounds that he’s a giant hovering brain. Gor mostly appears in the film as a ghostly presence super-imposed over a background, until the climax when he exits Steve’s body and is finally rendered as a four foot helium balloon with lights attached. Steve duly buries an axe in Gor’s Fissure of Rolando (you’ll have to look that one up), slaying the prick in the manner of Red Riding Hood’s gallant woodsman.
Gor is an important figure in B-movie legend – pivotal in the brain horror sub-genre, see also Donovan’s Brain (1953) with future First Lady Nancy Reagan – but harder to love than either Ro-Man or Nyah. This is true of the film too. It’s fun, but its idiocy is notorious: as Steve and his soon-to-be-dispatched assistant run their Geiger counter over gamma radiation at Mystery Mountain, the men observe: “Those rocks weren’t here last winter!” Nevertheless, its director was above average: Nathan Juran (billed here as Nathan Hertz) won an Oscar for his art direction on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley in 1941 and would go on to helm Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman in 1958.
Gor may be a pompous ass but, in a roundabout way, his tyranny could have led to peace on earth. A Soviet ambassador says of his plans: “Russia would never allow it!” Gor coolly responds: “There will be no Russia.” No more nations means no more Cold War and one would have to assume there would be a fairly major resistance movement against the implementation of Gor’s catastrophic plan. And, as Independence Day (1996) taught us, there’s nothing quite like an extraterrestrial invasion to unite humanity against a common foe.
Ultimately, it’s probably a mistake to make any great claims on the B’s behalf. They’re not now and never were knowing Pop Art deserving of retrospective reappraisal. Nor do they deserve the smug “so bad it’s good” appreciation of the wrong sort of fans, a snide modern attitude kickstarted by the publication of Michael and Harry Medved’s book The Golden Turkey Awardsand the founding of New York’s Worst Film Festival in 1980. What they are is lively escapism, fun spectacles produced quickly and efficiently in adverse circumstances to sell popcorn to youthful Saturday afternoon audiences. The lackluster effects and limited acting they contain are heartening because they offer hope to the amateur, their D.I.Y. sensibility as democratic as the resulting aesthetic is winningly haphazard. The likes of Ro-Man, Nyah and Gor deserve your love and resistance is futile, puny earthlings.