Stephen Hunter Recommends
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953, 80 minutes) -- This is certainly the best of the '50s monster pics, so astonishing in 1953 that it was Warner Bros.' leading moneymaker of the year. It essentially established the formula: Atom bomb test, prehistoric beast unleashed, strange episodes of destruction, kindly scientist with babe assistant, attack on city, destruction by wonder weapon, coda: "Possibly there are some things God does not want man to know." The monster, stop-motion- animated by effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, is tame by today's standards but astonishing by the standards of the '50s, particularly in its big walk across New York's West Side. "Beast" is the ultimate out-of-towner in for a wild weekend. Directed by Eugene Lourie.
It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955, 79 minutes) -- You'll never order calamari again! Another Harryhausen stunner, it followed almost the same format. The It-boy, however, was a giant octopus about the size of the Hindenburg, and the town he trashed was 'Frisco. Like 'em squishy, wet, mucus-y and with suckers the size of a Volvo? Here's your hero, then. The number that this long arm of God's law does on the Golden Gate Bridge is terrific -- skroonk! the bridge crumples -- and it finally wraps itself around a clock tower for a good night's sleep. Too bad the Transamerica Pyramid building wasn't around in 1955; that would have been cool. Also, '50s tough guy Kenneth Tobey got one of his only two starring roles before he segued over to "Whirlybirds" fame on the small screen. (The other was "The Thing," not a monster movie but a creature movie, an entirely different kettle of ectoplasm.) Directed by Robert Gordon.
Them! (1954, 94 minutes) -- This one works a clever variation on the above themes: The monsters are giant ants -- not animated but full-size mechanical gizmos powered by off-screen stagehands -- hiding in the sewers of Los Angeles. We -- the human race, as represented by authority figures James Arness and James Whitmore -- have to go after them and fight them on their own terms, in a dark and shadowy maze where they can spring out and chew you to pieces. With enough wine in me, I can be counted on to go all weepy at Whitmore's death by mandibles -- he was (sob! gasp! waaah!) saving a little kid! It was far more disturbing to me as a kid than Old Yeller's. Directed by Gordon Douglas.