Hello, readers! It’s been too long since I’ve written a “Ten Percent” column and, while Ensley F. Guffey has done an admirable job of keeping the Ten Percent humming along, I was eager to get back to the game – although this column is going to change the rules of that game slightly.
As regular readers of this column know, we usually begin these “Ten Percent” columns with science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon’s famous quote that “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” Each column then goes on to examine an item of popular culture that isn’t crud, but is rather part of that tiny slice of work that shows the heights of human imagination and creativity that we call “the Ten Percent.”
Alas, this column is unconcerned with achieving that lofty goal. You see, my absence has not been due to a sun-drenched extended vacation, but rather due to a serious health issue that is now (thankfully) under control. Part of getting it under control involved weeks of exposure to radiation and that’ll get a girl to thinking. In my case, it’s possible that my thought processes mutated a bit, because I found myself pondering the odd wave of movies that centered around irradiated animals – true “creature features” – that flourished primarily during the 1950s and 1960s. At this point, we were living in a world that had seen the truly awful scale of devastation unleashed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by the Soviet Union’s frantic efforts to balance the arms race scales. Islands, deserts, salt flats – it seemed as if a nuclear test was being performed in every out-of-the-way spot. What if, filmmakers pondered – and with that simple question, dozens of “radiation pictures” were launched.
It should be noted that some of these are extraordinary films which smoothly rise above being mere “aarrgh!” entertainment. The original Gojira (1954) is a prime example. Made in post-war Japan, Gojira is no mere monster movie but instead is a thoughtful, serious commentary on the realities of living with a horrifically destructive genie that cannot be re-bottled.
The market for creature features was huge. In fact, Them! (which featured irradiated ants) was Warner Brothers’s top-grossing film in 1954. Popularity often breeds contempt and many, many more of these films were nothing more than cheaply-made drive-in theater dreck. A plethora of examples exist. I shall point out a few, but be warned – these movies should only be viewed by the strong of heart, for they all reach a depth of ineptitude that will boggle the mind of the casual viewer who expects a coherent plot or special effects that go beyond the construction skills exhibited by a band of fourth-graders eager to build a snow fort.
Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) involves a group of scientists who discover that the earlier, now vanished, group of eggheads have become food for two intelligent mutated giant crabs (is there another kind?) who can speak telepathically in the voices of their victims.
Attack of the Blood Leeches (1959) in which radiation-altered leeches in the Everglades develop intelligence and drag people down to an underwater cave to be slowly exsanguinated. So awful it was released under a number of aliases, including Attack of the Giant Leeches and She Demons of the Swamp. Don’t be fooled – this movie, regarding of the title it assumes, should be regarded as highly dangerous. Do not approach alone.
The Killer Shrews (1959) in which dogs are dressed in shrew costumes (or something like that) to illustrate the downside of animal experimentation. (Yes, not strictly radiation-centered, but really – this one is actually delicious in its awfulness. Plus, it stars James Best of Dukes of Hazzard fame. And it has enough of a cult following to have a 2012 sequel, cunningly titled Return of the Killer Shrews). This one was shown as a double feature with The Giant Gila Monster, in which a Mexican Beaded Lizard (not a Gila monster) attacks a model town and a toy train set, thereby disrupting a “record hop.”
Night of the Lepus (1972) in which mutated (although not irradiated) rabbits hop amok. Yes, rabbits against a miniature background. For some reason, both Janet Leigh and a post Star Trek DeForest Kelley signed on for this film that does no bunny any good.
The list goes on and on, especially if you expand out to include mutations caused by serums, or nuclear testing that shifts ice packs, tectonic plates, or sea beds to reveal hideously oversized creatures from the dawn of time.
But all of these – ALL OF THESE – pale in comparison to the bizarre delusion of filmmaking, the sheer inanity of plot, the utter disregard for the welfare of the audience that is 1957’s Beginning of the End. In this atrocity, Peter Graves (yes, Peter Graves from Mission:Impossible!) is an agricultural scientist who has the noble goal of feeding the world. To do this, he has experimented with using radiation as the ultimate Miracle-Gro to produce gigantic vegetables. It never occurs to him that his Green Giant-worthy veggies might attract pests like, say, locusts. Once these critters (who are monstrous enough in their unmutated swarm state) gobble a grain silo, they grow to gigantic size and head for Chicago. (As locusts do.) While the entire movie is cringe-worthy, seeing monster grasshoppers scale the Windy City’s skyscrapers is stunning – especially when you realize that the ‘hoppers legs aren’t staying on the buildings because they’re crawling on a postcard.
Really – this one is so bad that one wants to hunt the man down and demand that he account for his crimes. At the same time, you have to grant him a grudging (very grudging) respect for cobbling together the funding to make more than two dozen low-budget features. In addition to Beginning of the End, Gordon directed 1957’s The Amazing Colossal Man (forget eating your vegetables; it’s radiation that makes you grow!) and 1965’s Village of the Giants (teenagers grow to enormous size and then terrorize a small town. This one features songs!). What all these films have in common is that none of them launched a lasting career, although several promising ones may have been snuffed out through the sheer despair of appearing in them. Alas, history has no way to tell.
Okay, so these films aren’t the “Ten Percent” – in fact, they’re the antithesis of it. However, they are part of our cinematic heritage and they actually provide both an interesting window into post WW2 fears of what living in an atomic age could mean and also provide some exercise for the muscles used in eye rolling. So butter some popcorn, have a “bad movie” night, and be glad that you know better.
Thank you for indulging me and may all your bugs be radiation-free!
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.