THE MAZE: A Monster Who Thought He Was a Man. On American Science Fiction in the 50s

A Monster Who Thought He Was a Man
On American Science Fiction in the 50s
By Willow Maclay

In the decades before the 1950s American artists didn’t have a strong national identity when making science-fiction pictures in the same way that they did with the Western or the Musical. This changed with the escalation of the space race intermingling with the ongoing cultural effects of the Cold War, and this mixed further with fears of total Nuclear annihilation, which only became more pronounced in the following decade. The trends in science fiction and horror usually reflect the deepest concerns of the film-going public and in the 1950s there was a boom period for sci-fi which saw giant creatures ripping apart civilizations, people shapeshifting into abnormal persons, or even losing the basic identity of someone the other characters thought they used to know. All of this was deeply rooted in the American fear of communist takeover, which would be better resurrected and positioned today as a MAGA/Qanon conspiracy brainwashing of mom and pop, which is far more dangerous to Americans than communism ever was. The era saw numerous classics produced from heavy metaphors like Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Don Siegel’sInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars (1953), and Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). In addition to these fears of the other, and of nuclear annihilation, Americans were terrified of the corruption of the image they had endorsed as their very own dream. 

The nuclear family was in the cross-hairs of so many films from this particular era with strange bodily transformations, and aberrant sexualities (like monster fucking) percolating. William Cameron Menzies is perhaps best known as the production designer for Gone with the Wind (1939) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), but during this period he made a couple of very well directed pictures that traced the edges of those particular topics. His Invaders From Mars is one of the strongest of the foreign body menace pictures of the era, and his corrosive The Maze (also ‘53), gives not one, but two inexplicable transformations, which ruin the potential dream coupling of stars Richard Carlson and Veronica Hurst. The Maze would be Menzies’s swan-song as a director, but it is a fine final note, and a transgressive, strange one of closeted family secrets and shame. The American Dream of the 1950s was shoved head-first into a state of potential queerness by virtue of the evolving bodies and the corruption at hand with creatures not completely of this Earth. These movies persist as empathetic carriers for those whose bodies don’t fit the typical mold due to the nature of the sympathies that these movies have towards monsters.

Veronica Hurst plays Kitty and she is seen in a library reading a book called “Teratology: The Study of Monstrosities, Serious Malformations or deviations from the Normal Structure of Man” when her fiancé shows up one day looking as if he has aged 15 years in the span of a few weeks. The title of that book might as well be a thesis statement for the era. Gerald (Carlson) is her husband to be and has been whisked off to the estate of Sir Roger MacTeam when he hears of a family member’s death. It seems as though poor Gerald must now be the keeper of the castle which he has presumably inherited, and being near its grounds has caused him some great transformation. He doesn’t want Kitty to learn of any of his family secrets, or his own, so when she follows him to the castle he demands she leave, but she is a persistent woman and looks where she is told not to. For Gerald everything is at stake if the nature of his identity is found out, and this places him alongside other potential bearers of queer metaphor in genre cinema of the period, such as Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942), or Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941).

Hidden secrets bear fruit for potential queer metaphor, but so does the monstrously inclined work of Jack Arnold, who rivals Menzies’s abilities with his excellent string of sci-fi films including It Came From Outer Space (1953), The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Creature From the Black Lagoon is especially notable because it revived Universal’s seemingly dead dalliance with monsters after leaning on them in the 1930s and well into the 1940s, laying the foundation for the American horror film in the process. Creature is fitted from the King Kong mold of storytelling where sympathy has to be with the monster, even if he becomes violent and fights back. It is a colonizer fable of science run amok looking to ensnare an indigenous creature from its habitat in order to give it an autopsy in the pursuit of greater knowledge. It must be said that Arnold’s sympathies lie with the Monster and he gives the Creature a fair deal of close-ups as the boats of his would-be capturers summon a disturbance above his confused head. The best way to look at Creature From the Black Lagoon is to imagine yourself coming home from work one day only to find a dozen people have camped out in your living room and thrown all your stuff about. When the Creature becomes enamoured with the one woman onboard the ship of scientists and rogue spear-men much beauty is found in the way he is framed swimming alongside her a few feet below.

This image, along with King Kong’s relationship with Fay Wray, brings to life an entire subgenre of monster fucking. The otherness of monsters suggests a kink in brand new sexual possibilities for human characters bored with heterosexuality, and has been a constant throughout much of cinema history, even finding Academy Awards recognition in Guillermo Del Toro’s ode to wetness in The Shape of Water (2017). But in the 1950s it was still brand new fertile ground for more prickly analysis and possibilities, because if we were to all become something other than human when the bombs fell then fucking monsters would be a welcome past time indeed. The obvious signalling for any taboo sexual relationship of the period is the calling card of this particular brand of eroticism that crossed along lines of race and gender through metaphor in new and exciting ways. The problem, of course, was the monster would always be killed, but the moral center of these pictures was usually on the side of the monster and their love interest.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon has grace and fortitude and if Esther Williams was the first underwater star of Hollywood then this monster is  the second. The Creature lives out in the Amazon, and the encroaching of white intellectuals only adds to the films strengths as a colonizing metaphor. Strangely enough the film only falters when it tries to be scary; the score is over-used and tells the audience exactly how to feel. It is a blunt film, but not without its strengths. The sequel picture Revenge of the Creature (1955) strips King Kong for parts once again, as the monster is taken to the city and punished until he is understood. It is a lesser film without the same beautiful underwater cinematography, but its exploitation and pulling at our basic sympathies is felt in a visceral, jagged way.

Jack Arnold’s best work is The Incredible Shrinking Man, which finds a real terror in nuclear metaphors and the concept of individual identity evolving at a rapid pace when suburban everyman Scott Carey (Grant Williams) finds himself becoming smaller six months after being exposed to a mysterious radiation cloud while vacationing with his wife Louise (Randy Stewart). Unlike most of the films of this era Carey’s transformation is a slow one that is chronicled in pain-staking psychological detail. A man who was once a strong, protective husband-an ideal man for the 50s- is suddenly shorter than his wife. As more weeks pass he becomes even smaller and his more closely resembles the stature of a teenager and then a child. His perception of himself evolves with these changes, and Williams smartly recognizes that the psychological impact of his shrinking frame would make him more vulnerable, clinging to his wife who is now the family protector. The roles in their marriage shift until they are irrevocably broken when her husband is no longer an equal in the relationship, but has become someone she looks after, as if she were now the mother to her own husband. This is entirely perverse, but acutely observed, and because Arnold never treats the situation as anything less than the holy word, all of the eccentricities are felt, and none of it becomes comedy when it easily could have.

Upon growing smaller Carey finds himself drifting from his wife and he finds companionship with Clarice (April Kent), a little person working at the circus. Carey believes that his height ailments have stopped, and he begins a relationship with her, and she shows him that it isn’t the end of the world. Heck, he’s taller than she is, but after some time he finds himself looking up to her during one date, and he knows his trial isn’t over. Much of the effectiveness of Shrinking Man is felt through shots of forced perspective, analog FX, and visual composite shots, which make Carey’s situation feel troublesomely real. And like Carey, who is constantly transforming and readjusting his way of life, so too, does the film undergo a transformation from a psychological horror film of the human condition and into a survival film when Carey now has to fend off the advances of a household cat, and later, giant spiders. The effects in the latter part of the film are still jaw-dropping to this day and hold up alongside anything in the following decades. The conclusive battle with a spider over a bit of cake that has been left to rot in the basement is gripping. Jack Arnold milks it for all its worth with a tension and focus on the texture of the hyper-real effects and his dominating size in comparison to the ever-shrinking Scott Carey. And this adventure is also only a stand-in for his next journey, which is one of abstraction, as he becomes so small that his world is no longer recognizable, and everything is now alien as a result.

In the 1950s nuclear anxieties and the prolonged threat of Cold War annihilation found its way into movies, and much of this was coiled around the potential loss of ourselves, our neighbors and our world. It is incidental that these movies also brushed up against the monstrous identifiers of sympathetic queer viewers, who resolutely understood the crisis of identities and homes being at risk, but it is felt nonetheless. Jack Arnold and Carl Menzies made science fiction films with characters who couldn’t find themselves in the mirror, or were afraid of what that mirror might reveal, and their work has aged beautifully for that reason. As long as we’re terrified of our bodies, and our worlds, and the way they might change these films will always be relevant.