By Jerry Chandler
The first detonation of a nuclear weapon was conducted by the United States Army at 5:29 am on July 16, 1945. They used the code name of Trinity for the detonation. The name was inspired by the works of John Donne, a poet whose work often touched on the metaphysical and the religious. It was an interesting name as chosen by scientists for such an event; touching on concepts of the big bang and the creation of all things. For Hollywood, it inspired a bit of a different Biblical twist, the time of giant beasts.
The idea of splitting the atom and unleashing the terror of radioactive doom on mankind wasn’t quite scary enough for Hollywood. Writers decided that the true terror in the dawning of an atomic world was the effects of mutation on man and beast and insect. By mutation, I mean growing (or, in one case, shrinking) various subjects to quite unnatural proportions. While the human monster created by the power of the atom was popularized in films like 1957’s The Amazing Colossal Man, my true love of the atomic aged terrors unleashed by Hollywood, although not all of them were directly linked to the atomic tests, were the giant bug movies.
1954’s Them is probably the classic giant bug movie that more people know of and have seen than any of the others. There’s a good reason for that; it’s extremely well done. Besides, who in their right mind is going to pass up seeing the real Santa Claus taking on giant ants?
Them is at its heart b-movie, drive-in theater fodder, but the quality of the script and the actors caused it to stand head and shoulders above many of the similar films that would follow it over the decades. But it also kept its b-movie, drive-in theater daring-do and horror appeal. Certainly I have little doubt that some of the scenes in it were far more horrific for some movie-goers back in the day. A giant ant casually dumping parts of a human skeleton onto a pile of human bones as it cleans the remains of last night’s dinner out of the ant colony probably disturbed mainstream audiences quite a bit.
The story did a good job of dropping us into the mystery and then the action fairly early on. We get the war on the colony of giant ants and the destruction of the first atomic mutations in fairly short order, but then the movie turns into a more dramatic race against time movie as the threat of a new colony looms and a child’s life hangs in the balance.
The obvious stars of the film were not of the human variety, although the performances of James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, Onslow Stevens, and others were certainly top quality. No, the true stars of the film were and always will be the very amazingly well done for their time giant ants. Everything about them, from the look of them to the sounds they make, work perfectly for the film and arguably still hold up well to this day.
1957’s Monster from Green Hell played with the idea of atomic age mutations in a more old school way. The creation of giant monsters came not from our own adventures in splitting the atom, but from the cosmic radiation experienced via space travel.
A simple test, sending different animals or insects up with space launches to see how they handled life in space, becomes a nightmare when a rocket carrying wasps goes off course and crashes just off the coast of Africa. Slowly reports begin to come out of monsters terrorizing locals in an area near the surmised splashdown location known to the locals as Green Hell. Our heroes decide that these monsters must be their wasp test subjects based on reports of the deaths and the guess that large amounts of radiation would have made the wasps giants. They guess at this from an earlier revelation that minimal exposure to cosmic radiation caused a caused a newborn spider crab to grow more than twice the size of normal spider crabs.
Our heroes journey to Africa and find terrified locals who refuse to act as their guides. Eventually they shame some of the locals into taking them, but this lasts for only a short time. Eventually, it’s just our main cast vs some of the goofiest looking bugs to come out of the giant insect era of films.
The resolution of the film involves a lot of running from the giant, mutated wasps, a few explosions, and a dias ex machine resolution involving the location of the queen wasp’s hive and a volcano deciding to go boom at just the right moment.
The acting by the likes of Jim Davis and Barbara Turner is passible. The most important special effects of the film- the giant wasps –is horrible. The writing is laughable. I love Monster from Green Hell quite a bit, but only as a so bad it’s hilarious type of film experience. It’s the type of film that’s custom made for MST3K, but almost so bad you can’t make funnier jokes about it than what you’re actually looking at in the film itself.
I will say that it holds up today every bit as well as it did when it was first released. It was largely panned fans and critics alike back when it first made its way to the drive-ins.
Bert Gordon’s 1957… uhm… masterpiece… Beginning of the End gave us a scientist creating giant vegetables via radiation treatments. While crowing about his amazing discovery, a swarm of locust descend upon his giant crops and start eating them like there was no tomorrow. This results in a massive threat to life and limb (and Chicago) from the mandibles of giant grasshoppers.
It’s the film that helped to make Bert Gordon famous and set him upon a path of making both great and not so great films in the sci-fi/horror genre. It actually has moments where you can see it tapping into the cultural fears of the time with regards to nuclear radiation, chemical insecticides, and the dawning threat of invasive species, but, in reality, it largely only plays at touching on these matters with any real substance.
In the end, it’s an enjoyable film, but enjoyable for the fact that you’re looking at giant grasshoppers terrorizing the town. Even performances by Peter Graves and Peggie Castle can’t make you take most of it too seriously. The resolution of the film is essentially figuring out a way to make the insects more interested in checking out a possible mate than they are in staying away from two things that would be deadly to them.
It’s a film worth watching because it is goofy fun and it is an important part of that era’s science fiction boom and the giant insect explosion. It is probably not a film you will return to on a regular basis unless you, like me, are a little touched in the head.
Not every creature that crawled its way across a creature feature screening developed its unnatural size via radiation. While that well was gone to more than just a few times in the 1950s, 1955’s Tarantula went back to the classic formula of the mad scientist and his magical mystery brew.
You know, that’s one of those things that always ends up making you wonder just how mad the average mad scientist truly is. You’re injecting various critters and crawlers with a super serum designed to cause physical growth of insane levels. Maybe you’re doing it for what you view as ultimately a good cause, but why are you going to pick some of the deadliest creatures you can find as a part of your test group? Sure, a rabbit bigger than a VW Bug may in fact become a threat to life and limb, but it’s pretty much a guarantee that anything with eight legs is going to be deadly as hell about the time it’s too big to fit the average pet store aquarium. I mean, who sits there and thinks that the occasional accidental release of a lab animal is going to be okay when the test subject is one of the most dangerous creatures in its own little part of the natural order of things to begin with? And why the hell would you keep it in a glass cage?
Tarantula is actually one of the better giant insect movies of the era. It has a fast pace, it has very basic but watchable FX work, and the acting by the likes of John Agar and Mara Corday keep even the unreal grounded and believable. It’s also a film that, much like Them, uses the desert for maximum effect in order to create the appropriate mood. The film also does a good job of playing up the relentless, almost mindless, unstoppable threat that the ever growing tarantula is. Every plan, every idea, every attempt to stop the threat as it moves closer and closer to a major population center fails until the what was likely very spectacular for its time finale.
Tarantula, along with Them, is up there in my top five (hell top three) giant bug movies. However, much to the amusement of some of my friends and extended convention family, my favorite giant bug film is The Deadly Mantis.
!957’s The Deadly Mantis, while certainly a giant insect movie, isn’t actually a “folly of man” film. It actually follows the same basic concept (and storyline) of 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The monster of the film is in fact an ancient creature frozen in ice over the millennia, released when a chunk of glacier breaks loose and drifts out into warmer waters. Once freed and awake, the giant insect sets out on a path of destruction that leads it to the (then) modern worlds of Washington DC and New York.
The film has as many detractors as it has fans; perhaps more. Most of the acting is merely serviceable with only a few standout performances. The creature effects range from pretty good to pretty damned silly. The story was also told better in the aforementioned The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. But, damn, the film is just so much fun.
It also manages some legitimate moments of horror. An attack by the mantis on a bus as one example is quite effectively shot and the moments leading up to the attack would fit right in with some of the best moody horror films of the time. It also has more than a few moments of fun, square-jawed, daring-do to keep the film moving along.
All of these films and many, many more, whether or not they could all stand the test of time, were major building blocks in America’s boom period of nuclear paranoia monster films and the giant insect creature feature in general. It’s a subgenre of science fiction and horror that exists to this day. Over the years it has added in any number of creatures and insects into the mix, as well as returning over and over again to such favorites as ants and spiders.
These days the genre is largely the home of parody or low budget cable films that are forgotten as soon as the credits roll. Still, some films have come along that have managed to hit all the right notes and be amazingly enjoyable. One such film is the greatly underrated and not seen by enough people Big Ass Spider.
Seriously, if you’ve never seen it you have to watch it ASAP. It blends the right amount of humor, heart, and fun story together to make a great film. Plus, it falls under the folly of man header thanks to scientists and the military playing around with otherworldly things.
I love giant insect films. They long ago earned their spot in genre history and rightfully in serious film history. They bad ones can typically be counted on to at the very least be goofy, fun fluff. The good ones can stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the great films in genre history. All of them are worth checking out at least once.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.