The 1950s are considered the “Golden Age” of science fiction cinema, and that’s not just hyperbole. By many accounts, more than 200 sci-fi movies were released during that decade. And while the film industry had sporadically produced quality sci-fi in the years before—ranging from Aelita (1924) to Metropolis (1927), to The Invisible Man (1933)—it wasn’t until the 1950s that classic after classic began to arrive like riches from a long-lost hidden treasure.
And when we say classic, we mean films that essentially created the template for all science fiction movies that followed. Just look at this list. The first half of the decade brought us The Thing from Another World, When Worlds Collide, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, and Them!, while the second half ushered in This Island Earth, Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Blob, The Fly, and On the Beach.
Just below that murderer’s row of inarguable masterworks is another level of films that perhaps did not reach the same level of greatness, but were just as ambitious or imaginative in their own ways (there was also a lot of cheapo dreck churned out during the decade, most involving giant insects or little green men). To be sure, many of these films show considerable signs of age now, whether in their characters, their visual effects, or their pacing—-especially the latter when compared to today’s blazing blockbusters. But they also represent what made the 1950s such a pivotal era for the genre, and many deserve a second look.
This is in no way a complete list. So if you don’t see your Four Sided Triangle or your Caltiki, the Immortal Monster on here, we apologize. But each of the underrated films below deserve their own special place in the history of sci-fi cinema in the 1950s.
Destination Moon (1950)
Produced by George Pal and kicking off a run of sci-fi classics from him that included When Worlds Collide, The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds, Destination Moon can now be seen as a perfect launchpad (pun intended) for the “Golden Age” of sci-fi cinema. It was the first major film to approach concepts like space travel and moon landings from a decidedly scientific point of view, with no less an expert than sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein contributing to the film’s screenplay.
Directed by Irving Pichel, Destination Moon also posits that private entrepreneurs will ultimately fund space travel and sell it to the government, an idea that looks a lot more prescient in the age of Space X. While the plot may seem redundant today—the first manned mission to the Moon experiences all kinds of obstacles—and the effects dated (even in color), there’s no question that the film takes its subject seriously, marking a turning point for the genre onscreen.
The Man from Planet X (1951)
Director Edgar G. Ulmer, best known among genre fans for directing the 1934 Universal horror masterpiece The Black Cat, helmed this low-budget quickie (it was shot in six days), which ended up being one of the most unusual genre films of the ‘50s. It’s even argued by Bill Warren, in his definitive book on the era, Keep Watching the Skies!, to be the first Gothic sci-fi movie. Swirling in fog to hide the threadbare production, the movie follows some professors and a reporter in a remote area of Scotland who make contact with an alien being who may be scouting Earth in advance of an invasion by his dying world, which has entered our solar system.
The film has the stark look of the German films of the Expressionist era, and indeed Ulmer claimed that he worked on movies like Der Golem and Metropolis before coming to Hollywood. That influence would most notably be felt a decade later in the groundbreaking TV anthology series, The Outer Limits, which also probed the horror/sci-fi sweet spot. The rich atmosphere, empathetic portrayal of the alien, and overall intelligent approach to the material help this picture stand out more than 70 years later.
Invaders from Mars (1953)
We’ve already discussed Invaders from Mars to a much greater extent here. The fact remains that this independently produced tale from director and production designer William Cameron Menzie (which was more or less dismissed at the time as Saturday matinee schlock for kids) is now recognized as one of the most influential films of its era.
A little boy (Jimmy Hunt) sees a spacecraft land in his backyard and watches in horror as the Martians take over everyone in his town, his parents included. Is it all a dream or real? Menzies keeps us guessing with his surreal visual style and ambiguous ending; the result is a movie that feels like a kid’s nightmare come to life and remains a unique entry in the decade’s parade of classics.
It Came from Outer Space (1953)
The first sci-fi film directed by Jack Arnold—who would also helm classics like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and his masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man—It Came from Outer Space echoes The Man from Planet X by presenting alien invaders as more misunderstood than menacing. Based on a treatment by no less than Ray Bradbury, the film is set in a small Arizona town where the inhabitants gradually come under the influence of aliens in a ship that has crashed nearby in the desert. But the beings aren’t hostile; they’re merely borrowing the townspeople to facilitate repairs to their craft so that they can depart in peace.
It Came from Outer Space is a first in many ways. It was the first 3D sci-fi movie, and it was perhaps the first to present aliens that were completely non-humanoid, looking more like amorphous one-eyed horrors than the super-intelligent creatures they are. When their plan is discovered, and they learn of their impact on the town, the aliens offer to destroy themselves and their ship rather than continue, a proposal rejected by local astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson), who works to negotiate a truce between the town and the creatures. And he does: It Came from Outer Space ends on an optimistic note, making it one of the more humane genre films of its time.
The Magnetic Monster (1953)
Produced by Ivan Tors as the first in his unofficial “Office of Scientific Investigation” trilogy that included Riders to the Stars and Gog (both 1954), The Magnetic Monster follows two OSI agents (Richard Carlson and King Donovan) looking into a strange energy anomaly. It turns out to be a new radioactive isotope, which is doubling in mass and size every 11 hours as it keeps consuming energy and releasing deadly waves of radiation, threatening the very existence of Earth itself.
The Magnetic Monster is one of the most unusual sci-fi films of the era in that the title “monster” never truly appears onscreen. The premise is handled with intelligence and lots of tension, unfolding almost as a procedural, and the climax, which cleverly recycles about 10 minutes of footage from the German movie Gold (1934) as the scientists attempt to stop the isotope with a giant new generator, is genuinely exciting. There’s a bit of debate over who actually directed this minor gem: Curt Siodmak is the director of record, although Herbert L. Strock (who later directed Gog) was rumored to have taken over when Tors was displeased with Siodmak’s early footage.
Another film from producer Ivan Tors (but without recycled footage from a different movie), Gog is set at a secret scientific research center at which a space station is being built and conditions for space travel are studied. One by one, the scientists at the underground facility are being murdered, and an investigator (Richard Egan) sent to solve the crimes discovers that the supercomputer which runs the center, “the Brain,” is at the heart of the mystery. But who is controlling the Brain?
As with his previous sci-fi projects (including Riders to the Stars), Tors, who also conceived the story, puts a lot of stock in science fact, grounding his movie in a sense of realism that was lacking in many other pictures of the time. It may be exposition-heavy at times and certainly dated, but Gog still manages to maintain a decent level of suspense, punctuated by some shockingly brutal deaths.
The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
Based on a BBC serial written by the legendary Nigel Kneale, The Quatermass Xperiment (aka The Creeping Unknown) was one of Hammer’s first major forays into sci-fi/horror and launched one of the finest sci-fi film trilogies of all time (not counting the later, more humdrum fourth entry, simply called Quatermass). The film stars Brian Donlevy as rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass, whose experimental craft comes back from an orbital mission with two of its crew missing and the third taken over by an alien entity that begins to consume his body, growing and mutating as it does.
Tough-guy character actor Donlevy is miscast as the cerebral (and usually British) Quatermass, but his no-nonsense approach does gel with director Val Guest’s rapid pacing and tense atmosphere. Much better is Richard Wadsworth as the doomed astronaut, his face and movements projecting both his agony and the creeping takeover of his physical form. Somewhat groundbreaking in its time for Guest’s use of a handheld camera, The Quatermass Xperiment remains one of the most effective sci-fi films of its time, and it paved the way for the equally impressive Quatermass 2 and Quatermass and the Pit.
Another of Jack Arnold’s sci-fi films of the 1950s, this giant insect picture is less accomplished than either the movie it seems most influenced by (Them!) or some of Arnold’s other entries. A scientist named Deemer (an excellent Leo G. Carroll) is experimenting with an artificial nutrient that he hopes can feed the world, but it unfortunately causes acromegaly—an abnormal growth disorder—in Deemer’s assistants and eventually Deemer itself. Also affected is a tarantula that escapes Deemer’s lab and grows to monstrous size in the Arizona desert before beginning to munch on local people and animals.
Although it may be a lesser Arnold picture, Tarantula still benefits from the stark desert location (one of the director’s trademarks), the inherent creepiness of spiders themselves, and the shocking makeup of the acromegaly victims. Although since it’s a real disorder, this would be considered inappropriate today. The pacing and cast (Carroll excepted) are less effective, however, and in the end, Tarantula lands somewhere just below Them!, but still above inferior efforts like The Deadly Mantis.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers might have been directed by the now-forgotten Fred F. Sears, but the movie is remembered for the stop-motion animation by the legendary Ray Harryhausen, which brought the titular invading force to life in the skies above America and other countries. Hugh Marlowe stars as Dr. Russell Marvin, who sights the first flying saucer of an advance guard that ultimately leads to a full-scale assault on Earth by the robotic aliens, who initially claim to come in peace but quickly escalate things toward a full occupation of our little blue marble.
While The War of the Worlds had provided the template for the alien invasion movie a few years back, Harryhausen’s saucers were based in part on eyewitness accounts of alleged real UFO sightings; that and the aliens’ attacks on historic landmarks gave the film a fairly gripping “you are there” level of pseudo-realism that captured the imaginations of Saturday matinee audiences. The idea has stayed in the zeitgeist ever since, and certainly Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) is nothing less that a vastly souped-up version of the same story.
X the Unknown (1956)
Hammer sure liked its shapeless, amorphous monsters in the 1950s, and X the Unknown plays like a Quatermass thriller without Quatermass. (In fact, it was originally intended to feature Quatermass, but Nigel Kneale refused.) The lead instead is about Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger), who discovers that a primordial form of life—a huge, glowing mass—has been trapped under the Earth’s crust for eons. Now it’s awakened and is emerging through cracks in the surface to feed on radiation, frying up the residents of a local village along the way.
A straight-up monster movie with the then-common subtexts about radiation and its effects, X the Unknown, much like the Quatermass films, is fast-paced, intelligently mounted, and even a bit grisly for its time. Worth checking out, it marks a refreshing change of pace from many of the other sci-fi movies of the time, which largely centered around invasions or threats from space. This one came from right below our feet and our own distant past.
The Abominable Snowman (1957)
Marketed as an out-and-out monster movie, Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman is based on another TV serial written by Nigel Kneale and was directed by Val Guest, who also helmed the first two Quatermass films. The great Peter Cushing stars as botanist John Rollason, who reluctantly joins an expedition into the Himalayas headed by brusque American explorer Tom Friend (F Troop’s Forrest Tucker). Friend is out to prove the existence of the title creature, aka the Yeti, by capturing one live and basking in the glory of his discovery. The expedition naturally ends in disaster, although it becomes apparent that the Yeti themselves are much different than anyone imagined.
Cushing and Tucker are excellent, but Kneale’s original TV play (titled The Creature) apparently delved further into the motivations of the Yeti, an intelligent, ancient species waiting patiently to reclaim the Earth after humanity has destroyed itself. Some of this subtlety remains in the movie version, which remains a haunting, thoughtful piece despite the lack of real shocks and thrills.
The Monolith Monsters (1957)
One of the cool things about the sci-fi movies of the 1950s was the introduction of some very unique menaces, taking the genre beyond actors in green rubber suits and expanding the very definition of the word “monster” (see also The Magnetic Monster above). The title of this movie may also employ that word for marquee value, but the threat is both unusual and nightmarishly relentless: a meteorite crashes to Earth and explodes into fragments, which each grow into large structures when exposed to water that topple over, shatter, and begin the process again. And oh yeah, they begin petrifying any living thing in their vicinity.
The Monolith Monsters is based on a story co-written by Jack Arnold, and even though he didn’t direct it (that was handled by John Sherwood), the movie has all the Arnold trademarks: a desert setting, an isolated town, a scientific mystery, and a macabre series of deaths. The film also starred Grant Williams, who would go on to genre immortality less than a year later in Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. In this case, Williams and the rest of the cast are passable at best, as is Sherwood’s rather perfunctory direction, but the eerie premise makes The Monolith Monsters a worthy entry, indeed.
The Mysterians (1957)
Japan, of course, had its own genre boom going on in the 1950s thanks largely to the arrival of Godzilla and his many allies and enemies. But the big green guy’s studio, Toho, was also interested in producing the kind of large-scale sci-fi spectacle that Hollywood had been doing, only without kaiju stomping around. They settled on giant robots instead, controlled by helmeted aliens who want nothing less than to settle on Earth and get busy with human women in order to ensure that their species survives.
Directed by Ishiro Honda, with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya—the same incomparable team that created the initial Godzilla movies—The Mysterians is best appreciated for its visual effects and battle scenes, most of which involve the robot Mogera (which is, in the end, kind of a kaiju after all). The plot is a bit nonsensical, and its “we want your women” angle is certainly problematic, but the film still evokes the sense of nutty fun that the best Japanese kaiju films of the era were delivering as well.
It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)
Here’s the truth: It! The Terror from Beyond Space isn’t a great movie. Filmed in two weeks and running a scant 68 minutes, it’s okay. It’s a rather threadbare production in which a spaceship crew investigating the disappearance of a previous expedition to Mars learns that the entire crew of that ship has been slaughtered by a creature from the planet’s surface. That same creature stows away on the second ship and begins murdering its crew one by one.
The movie flies along quickly enough, and there are a number of eerie moments scattered throughout as the monster (played by stuntman Ray “Crash” Corrigan) stalks the crew and demolishes their defenses. But why It! is important to this discussion is because even a quick summary of the plot reveals that this movie was almost certainly the template for one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, Ridley Scott’s Alien, right down to the ending in which the airlock is blasted open to kill the creature. It! itself is influenced by The Thing from Another World and A.E. van Vogt’s 1950 short story “Black Destroyer” (which also inspired Alien), making it an important part of the chain building this particular tale to its ultimate form.
Fiend Without a Face (1958)
Based on a 1930 story called “The Thought Monster” by Amelia Reynolds Long (one of the first female sci-fi writers), the independent British film Fiend Without a Face features one of the decade’s most bizarre monsters: disembodied brains, with spinal cords attached, that have been inadvertently created by a scientist through his own thoughts. Nourished by atomic power from a nearby military base, the creatures rip out brains and spinal cords from living humans in order to enlarge their numbers.
The stop-motion effects are crude by modern standards, but Arthur Crabtree’s quickie direction is atmospheric and when the monsters finally become visible, there’s something surreal and nightmarish about them. The whole idea is grisly from the start, as the creatures dissolve into bloody puddles of viscera when killed. In fact, the film’s gory visuals caused a controversy at the time with the public, the media, and the British film censor. A pretty intense sci-fi/horror hybrid, Fiend Without a Face can pack a surprising punch.
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)
Despite its sensationalistic title, director Gene Fowler Jr.’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space is a gripping, atmospheric thriller that—with its bizarre aliens and subtext of psychosexual tension—could have easily been an episode of The Outer Limits a few years later. A young bride named Marge (Gloria Talbott) is distressed that after a year of marriage, her husband Bill (Tom Tryon) is completely cold toward her. Learning that other men in town are acting the same way, Marge discovers that they’ve been taken over by aliens who plan to breed with human women since their own females are extinct.
Dated values about marriage and a somewhat slow pace aside, I Married a Monster from Outer Space does have an interesting view on sexual politics and has a more intimate feel to its somewhat standard alien possession story. Talbott makes for a good heroine, and Fowler pulls off a number of striking, moody shots while the alien makeup is suitably grotesque. This is a nifty example of, like so many of the underrated genre gems of the ‘50s, never judging a movie by its title alone.