It’s 1950s American cinema, and a different kind of horror has arrived. The problem is that the characters are not quite sure what it is they are frightened of. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel, 1956), the people of Santa Mira, California have noticed a slight change in the behavior of their loved ones. They still look, talk, and act in the same way, but something is not quite right about them. Two years later, The Blob (Yeaworth, 1958), offered an even more confusing kind of terror to a small town in Pennsylvania. This time, the residents can at least see their enemy. However, they still have no idea what the blob is, what it does, what it wants, or what they can do to stop it. In The Fly (Neumann, 1958), Helene Delambre is trying to work out what is wrong with her husband, and why he will not move the sheet that covers his head.
The Fly (1958)
The dynamic apparent in these three films offers a clear insight into the changes that the Hollywood horror genre underwent throughout the 1950s. Pre-World War II, the monsters of the screen were the classic kind: Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, or the Mummy. They were expressionistic, fantastical, kept at arm’s length by the gothic imagery that surrounded them. The 1950s, however, brought a science-fiction horror to the familiar backdrop of American suburbs.
Most of the prevailing analysis has attributed this shift to a psychological transition in the post-WWII Western world, explored directly in Peter Biskind’s 2016 book "Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties." The Cold War-era fear of the bomb had changed society’s concept of terror. The fear of the unknown, and of the outsider – common themes within horror throughout the genre’s history – had become even more prevalent as anti-communist paranoia spread throughout the United States. The tension associated with the frigid conflict only exacerbated this feeling, leaving Americans feeling fearful of anyone who was not clearly on their side.
The Blob (1958)
These films were made over sixty years ago, and yet they still have the same impact on audiences as they did at the time. This points to a universal horror; far removed from the Cold War, McCarthyism, and communist paranoia, these films still manage to make viewers feel uneasy. All three have been subject to remakes and sequels attempting to modernize their original premise. What is it about them that makes the terror so timeless?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, Don Siegel’s classic film begins with Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) being held in custody, demanding to be listened to. The film follows his recollection of the events in his hometown, Santa Mira. He explains that, upon returning from a conference, he received a number of calls from patients asking him to inspect their family members, whom they insist have been replaced by someone else.
Of course, Dr. Bennell is initially dismissive, reassuring their concerned relatives that they are fine. However, when a body appears at the home of his best friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan), he becomes suspicious. Miles eventually discovers that giant seed pods are producing exact copies of people in the local area. These replicas are then replacing the original person when the human falls asleep. The pod people are emotionless, acting solely out of survival instincts – and their desire to take over every person on earth.
A typical reading of this plot has considered it as an anti-communist analogy. The lack of individualism displayed by the pod people could be considered an expression of communism’s ability to remove personal autonomy from its population, leaving them as mere reflections of humanity who serve their group as a whole, rather than as individual people with their own desires. Another popular interpretation of the film sees this lack of personal identity as a comment upon the McCarthy era and the totalitarian approach Senator Joseph McCarthy took to generating a Hollywood blacklist as part of a wider Communist witch hunt.
Whichever reading you believe in seems to depend upon your interpretation of the debate scene, in which Dr. Dan Kauffman and Jack Belicec (both pod-people at this moment in the film) try to convincRe Miles to stop resisting and join them. Their argument is for a world without love, ambition, desire, or faith, because “without them, life is so simple.” Miles fights back against this view, contesting that “only when we have to fight to stay human, do we realize how precious our humanity is.” This scene has been read as either an attack on communism's tendency to root out individualism, or a confrontation of the tyranny of McCarthyism, and its refusal to allow a difference in political opinion.
Whatever ideology you subscribe to, there is a more universal point being made by the film: how American society handles the threat of totalitarianism. By the end of this scene, Miles and Becky Driscoll (the woman he loves), have realized that they are the only remaining free-thinking individuals in the whole of Santa Mira, and in this way, the film is about the terror the individual faces when challenged by an oppressive and tyrannous community.
By setting the film in a small town, this is made to be even more frightening. Miles, as the local doctor, is a popular member of the community. He knows most of the residents by name and is trusted by all of his patients. This not only gives him a position of authority (one which he will eventually lose when the community turns on him), but it also gives him a deeper understanding of the town as a whole. In a small, tight-knit community like Santa Mira, the local doctor has a key role in offering medical support and advice to anyone in the town, and therefore he is able to feel central to the society.
As this position is slowly undermined, Miles feels uneasy. He loses his authority as the pod-people begin to take over the town. Eventually, it is Miles himself who is being seen by medical professionals, in another town, who believe he has gone insane. This demise is really a loss of social standing. With his influence and resources removed, he is henceforth unable to command his own independence.
The Blob (1958)
In contrast to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the protagonists in The Blob immediately believe in the threat that their town is faced with. This is because they have seen it first-hand. On a late-night drive, teenagers Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) see a meteor crash nearby. Upon investigation, they find that a strange blob-like creature has arrived on Earth and is attaching itself to an old man.
This film’s threat is similar to the one in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in that it is an extraterrestrial invasion of a small American town. However, it differs in its representation of the threat. The blob is not a sinister, invisible, subtle villainous prescience like the pods in Siegel’s film. It is a large, visible, ugly, expression of horror. The terror in this narrative seems to come from the young protagonists’ inability to convince members of authority – mainly the police and their parents – that the threat exists.
Sergeant Jim Bert (John Benson) has already had enough of the youngsters’ antics when the film begins. Most of the officers have made their minds up about Steve in particular, and assume they are the perpetrators of an elaborate prank. By the time the adults of the town have accepted that the blob is a real danger, it has grown in size. People have been completely engulfed, and a major strategy of attack is needed to rescue the locals from the alien creature.
In this way, The Blob can be seen as a typical "battle of the generations" narrative. The younger characters become more and more frightened as they realize that they cannot rely on the help of the older cohort. The young people must then plan to fight the blob on their own. Fifties films like The Wild One (Benedek, 1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955) brought the concept of the misunderstood teenager to the Hollywood screen, and The Blob can be considered as one of the first films to adapt this story type into the horror genre. It’s a source of timeless, universal terror, as younger people everywhere fear the loss of their protection by adults.
This film has perhaps the most positive conclusion of the three, as the adults eventually listen to the teenagers and help them defeat their common enemy. The union of these two groups is something that sets the film apart, giving a more optimistic tone to its final act. The two generations come together to fight against the blob, putting aside their previous issues for the good of the society they coexist within. This is a step beyond the usual teen-sploitation narrative which puts the rebellious young in opposition to the authoritative older generation by exploring the possibility of a union between the two in a time of crisis.
Although this film may not deal with its issues as subtly or indeed as convincingly as Invasion of the Body Snatchers did two years previously, it still serves as a melodramatic exploration of the dangers that different generations can face if they refuse to understand and accept each other.
The Fly (1958)
Perhaps the most out-and-out science-fiction of all three of these examples, The Fly centers around the final days in the life of a scientist in Quebec. André Delambre (David Hedison) has been killed by his wife Hélène (played by Patricia Owens), who crushed him with a hydraulic press. His brother, François, endeavors to find out why she did it. Eventually, Hélène explains the story, as a flashback begins.
André has been working on a transporter device, which he tests on inanimate objects. Having developed more confidence in his technology, he decides to try out the machine himself. However, a fly gets stuck in the chamber with him, resulting in a fusion of the two beings. This results in André transforming into a kind of human-fly hybrid, which he eventually reveals to his wife. The fly, on the other hand, has also taken on human features, including his head and left arm. His brother, wife, and son work together to try and find the fly in order to reverse the process.
The Fly is the only one of these examples that deals directly with science as a potential subject matter for horror. Undoubtedly, this is related to the increase in hostility toward the advancement of Cold War-era technology. In a time in which the atomic bomb was the most prominent existential threat, people were understandably suspicious of science, and any suggestion that it had an innate importance in society.
However, this theme is not limited to the 1950s. In fact, it was not even new in the fifties. The cinematic terror of science-gone-too-far can be traced back all the way to the Frankenstein films of the 1930s and the German expressionist films of the twenties, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, 1920) and Metropolis (Lang, 1927). They, too, warned of the dangers of scientific advancement in the wrong hands. Four years before The Fly, the release of the first Godzilla (Honda, 1954) had also tackled similar themes.
The ideological discourse surrounding the idea that “just because we can, we should” has been debated on screen for many years. Sci-fi horror continued to tackle the issues surrounding "bad science" with body horrors such as X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (Corman, 1963), Re-Animator (Gordon, 1985), and of course David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, which all owe a great debt to Neumann’s original film. The threat of man’s attempts to interfere with the natural order of the human body has likewise become a popular topic (as seen with Cronenberg's latest). We can understand why then, that despite its cold-war context, The Fly (much like Body Snatchers and The Blob) has been able to maintain its legacy.
Products of Any Time
All three films are timeless in the way that they represent the fears of humanity. The themes explored in these films can be analyzed in order to find their subtextual meanings in a turbulent time in human existence. The results may be fascinating, and even alarming. However, what makes these films last in the psyche of anyone who has watched them is not the viewer’s understanding of the times they were produced, but rather the way that they manage to still frighten us to this day. All eras of horror deal with the existential threats that their society faces. The eco-horrors of the twenty-first century such as Annihilation (Garland, 2018) and Crawl (Aja, 2019) deal with the shift of global consciousness in the face of climate change. What keeps the horror genre popular is its ability to use these contextual fears to frighten audiences in any time period.