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The 50s B-movie



 "The proliferation of science fiction films is one of the most interesting developments in post-World War II film history. An estimated 500 film features and shorts made between 1948 and 1962 can be indexed under the broad heading of science fiction. One might argue convincingly that never in the history of motion pictures has any other genre developed and multiplied so rapidly in so brief a period. And, as Paul Michael comments, 'On a sheer statistical basis, the number of fantasy and horror films of the 1950s ... has not been equaled in any country before or since.' Moreover, Alan Frank observes that the 1950s 'saw science fiction at its peak in terms of sheer output and diversity of theme and diversification into various subgenres, notably the monster picture.'..."
 Thus begins Patrick Luciano's intriguing book Them or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion Films. From any perspective the emergence and popularity of low-budget Horror, Science Fiction and Monster movies in the 1950s was an extraordinary cultural fashion. One reason for their becoming fashionable was the emergence of a cinema based (or even led) by the development of new special effects: 'Monster' movies were an ideal form from which to display innovative novelties in film production. This is not, I would suggest, very satisfactory as a total explanation and, as we shall see, there is far more to these films than the prevalence of a fashion in film-making. Before proceeding, however, it is probably wise to list some of the key films included in Luciano's survey:
  The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
  The Thing (1951)
  The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
  It Came From Outer Space (1953)
  The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
  Them (1954)
  Earth vsthe Flying Saucers (1956)
  Creature with the Atom Brain (1956)
  The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
  The Incredible Shrinking Man ((1957)
  The Fly (1958)
  Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958)

For Marxist critics there has been a widespread and general tendency to see such films as thinly-veiled explorations or expressions of the hysteria and fear generated by the Cold War and the threat of that other 'alien Other', Communism. Mark Jancovich, in Horror, comments that the films "with which we are now concerned emerged during the Cold War, and the invasion of by an alien force, which they frequently feature, is supposed to represent fears of a Russian threat." However, he goes on to argue that, rather than being simple authoritarian fables and allegories of the need to meet the threat from communism (in which the 'monster' is portrayed as "something to be simply repressed or destroyed by the forces of order"), these narratives are more complex than this. They are, he suggests, concerned as much with "developments within American society as with the threat of Russian invasion", with the prevalence of forms of 'Fordist' social regulation and engineering, (relying on scientific-technical rationality) which accompanied the emergence of a regulated and ordered mass consumer society. The 'Invasion' and 'Monster' movies of the 1950s are, he concludes, far from being products of right-wing hysteria and anti-communist rhetoric, narratives preaching the necessity authoritarian resistance to the anarchy of communism: they are, he suggests, far more anarchic and libertarian in their conclusions than one might imagine in their presentation of the shadow side of "scientific-technical rationality". Looking in detail at the plots, narrative structures and forms of characterisation of such films one can see, Jancovich concludes, a barely-concealed preoccupation with social and political issues which were haunting America in the 1950s. A film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers can, he concludes, be read as

 "both pro-Macarthy and anti-Macarthy... because it is deeply concerned with a creeping conformity spreading through America, a concern that was shared by both the left and the right during the 1950s. For the right, the collective forms of social organization associated with Fordism, such as social welfare programmes, were indistinguishable from communism. These forms of social organization were a threat to American values, particularly American individualism. For the left, on the other hand, Fordist rationalization was a capitalist form of control and domination which was erasing the possibilities of resistance within the population."
 Whether viewed from the left or right, such readings emphasize the point that Fifties Horror B-movies are emphatically social and political narratives, with a social and political message behind the special effects.
 From a very different perspective, the psychological, these films can be read in a very different way, as demonstrated by Luciano's application of Jungian theory. Luciano attempts to show, by applying Jungian theories of the Collective Unconscious and Individuation, that such films were marked by a concern with the need to assimilate the unconscious 'other', a need and desire which marked American culture in the 1950s in response to growing disillusionment with science, technology, and scientific and instrumental rationality. The 'Monster Movies' of the 1950s are clearly attempting to deal, at some level, with a need to explore, however vicariously, the 'shadow' or 'dark' side of science and instrumental rationality, or they may reflect a less obvious (and almost cultural) neurotic interest in the threats to existing forms of social and political order, the cultural expression of a form of apocalypticism which pervaded American (and British) cinema in the 1950s, and which resurfaced in the disaster movies of the mid 1970s - Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, The Swarm, etc. He distinguishes his approach from that other form of psychological/psychoanalytical approach, the Freudian, and argues that:
 "...the qualities of both the horror film and the science fiction film are best appreciated in a psychological context, because each genre relies upon the projection of psychic material from the unconscious to elicit its meaning and value. Genre criticism has maintained that the monsters and aliens in both horror and science fiction are best seen as projections from the repressed unconscious described by Sigmund Freud. I contend, however, that these creatures in the alien invasion film are rather projections from the collective unconsciousness described by Jung. As such, alien invasion films are rich, in the Jungian sense, with universal symbols of transformation that evoke shared symbolic qualities in their audiences. Such mythic concepts as hero and context, death and rebirth hold fascinating truths for the films and for the audiences who watch them."
 These are, then, two very different approaches to the same material. Which, basically, do find the more convincing and appropriate? And why? Note that each of the two critical perspectives looks in detail at issues of narrative form and structure, characterisation iconography and imagery, narrative commentary, and the needs and desires of the audience. Watch the examples closely and see what you can obtain by similar forms of close critical scrutiny!

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