In Part 1 (article below this one), we examined a few of the more memorable 1950s B-movies showcasing the plight of everyday people transformed into mammoth monsters after exposure to radiation — the vintage sci-fi equivalent of Miracle-Gro. But creative filmmakers didn’t limit themselves to giant-inspired screams on the silver screen. Sometimes they explored through monster movie magic what happens when people are either accidentally or intentionally made much smaller in size, making their otherwise normal surroundings horrifically gigantic.
One early Technicolor tale of tortured tininess was DR. CYCLOPS (Paramount, 1940), directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, who was co-creator of KING KONG. The title character, played with migraine-addled madness by Albert Dekker, is Dr. Alexander Thorkel, a world-renowned biologist who is conducting experiments with a natural source of radium he discovered in the South American jungle.
In the film’s opening sequence, Thorkel and a whimpering colleague, Dr. Mendoza, disagree over the morality of the experiments being conducted in secret. “You do not realize what we have here,” says Thorkel, reverently. “In our very hands, we have the cosmic force of creation itself. In our very hands, we can shape life, take it apart, put it together again, mold it like putty.”
"But what you are doing is mad,” pleads Mendoza, who steps between Thorkel and his equipment. “It is diabolic! You are tampering with powers reserved to God.” Like so many madmen given a taste of life-giving power, Thorkel would not be stopped. He kills Mendoza, and for reasons revealed later, summons three other scientists to make the long trip from the U.S. to join him at his jungle lab.
Hello, You Must be Going
The threesome adds another traveler along the way and arrive at the doctor’s compound excited about what they believe oh-so-mistakenly will be an opportunity of a lifetime. Presenting himself as a kindly good fellow, the bald, hulking Thorkel — with eyes made tiny by thick-lensed glasses fit for a welder — invites them to immediately join him in his work, much to their delight. He then apologizes that his failing eyesight demands that he have their assistance in examining some crystals through his microscope. Once they finish, he abruptly orders them to leave. Shocked and dismayed, they realize that it was his vision all along, literally, to get highly qualified experts to confirm his analysis, only to quickly return, solo, to his experiments.
The Pit and the Radium
Determined to find out exactly what Thorkel is up to, they discover he’s dug a pit out back behind his crude cottage that serves as a makeshift laboratory. Dangling on ropes halfway into the pit is a mysterious device that channels incredible radium-charged energy through cables and into a machine inside Thorkel’s lab that transmits life-altering atomic rays.
Their curiosity getting the best of them, the unwelcome visitors sneak into Thorkel’s cottage when he’s out back adjusting the radium-gathering device. In minutes, Thorkel stumbles in the back door. Initially outraged upon catching them going through his notebooks and other work, a maniacal look of embarrassment on his face can’t suppress sudden thoughts of sweet revenge. Though he sheepishly apologizes for his behavior, his evil plan has been formed. He would invite them to check out his atomic ray machine up close and personal, lock them inside and zap them all — shrinking them right out of their clothes.
The Slower They Fall
The remainder of the film is a cat and mouse game of Thorkel trying to catch his teeny victims who repeatedly escape. Though it’s a harrowing experience, the sight of little people scampering to and fro and wearing what look like doll-size hospital gowns, and in one case an adult diaper, detracts from the tension generated by the doctor. Also, from a scientific and biological perspective, much of the struggles the shrunken people experience in climbing up and scaling down the now monster-sized furniture, crates and doors wouldn’t realistically occur. According to a noted professor of biology, the smallest of animals can fall or jump from great heights with no threat of injury. For the brainiacs among us, this means as objects get smaller, gravitational pull decreases more rapidly than drag, so terminal velocity decreases (but I die-gress). Even with this minor shortcoming concerning biological facts, director Schoedsack, and certainly the actors, must have had fun blocking and carrying out the scenes that make this and similar movies such a delight for viewers willing to stretch (or in this case shrink) their imaginations. Even Thorkel confirms our fascination with things large and small when he says at one point in the film, “Strange how absorbed man has been in the size of things!”
Despite two of the little people being killed by Thorkel in his oafish attempts to keep his discovery a secret, DR. CYCLOPS ends on a positive note as the survivors stand tall and cause Thorkel to fall to his death in the radium pit. Slowly returning to normal size, they make the trip back home as the movie ends. As is the trend these days, a remake was at one time being considered, starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe in the title role.
Male Pattern Smallness
Perhaps the most highly acclaimed film examining the horrors of humans made miniature is special effects classic THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (Universal-International, 1957), directed by Jack Arnold (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, TARANTULA) and adapted by Richard Matheson from his novel. Its incredibly effective set design included gigantic props like a 15-foot mousetrap, an 18-foot pencil, a four-foot pin and a 40-pound pair of scissors.
Oddly, much of the attraction of the film is the inescapable empathy felt for Scott Carey (played convincingly by Grant Williams, who also narrates the story) as Albert Zugsmith’s production deals with the metaphysical aspects of the situation that go far beyond the typical fantasy thriller.
First exposed to a mysterious vapor when aboard a boat out at sea, and later accidentally sprayed with insecticide while driving, Carey soon begins slowly shrinking. Though his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) first thinks he’s imagining it, Carey notices that his clothes no longer fit. When the family doctor confirms that Carey is indeed shrinking about an inch a week, everything goes down hill from there. Carey is distraught and becomes the focus of worldwide media attention.
Tabby or Not Tabby
Nothing can stop the relentless, inexplicable shrinking of Carey’s body. His stature at first seems comical, but then at six inches or so becomes life-threatening as he narrowly escapes the jaws of Butch, the family cat, which had snuck in the front door accidently left open by Louise. Despite the blunder, she gets high marks for staying at her husband’s side (so to speak) and dealing surprisingly well with his childlike size and behavior. She would give up on Scott only after believing that Butch had succeeded in making a meal of her man.
Unbeknownst to his grieving wife, Carey has found relative safety in their cellar. But his new-found retreat becomes a house of horrors as his diminishing size makes finding basic needs like food, shelter, and warmth major obstacles. It is a world of utter loneliness that nearly defeats him. A battle he wins against a giant spider for a bite of stale cake appears to be his last moment of human dignity and triumph.
But not so. The film ends with Grant Williams verbalizing Carey’s feelings as he steps through the tiny holes of the cellar’s window screen and contemplates the universe: “And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All the vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!”
Less is More, More or Less
While there have been many modern-day, large-budget forays into the humans-made-small storyline (for example, HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS, 1989), the most enjoyable examples are still the classics of yesteryear. Few stack up to Bert I. Gordon’s manifestation of marionette madness ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE (1957), starring John Agar (see Scary Monsters #102 & #103 for more on this and other Agar films). And of course there’s the most unique entry of the 1960s: FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), directed by Richard Fleischer and featuring talent-stunted, doe-eyed Raquel Welch who’s on a team miniaturized for a seek-and-destroy mission into the bloodstream of a scientist patient suffering from a blood clot in his brain. They soon learn what would have been a more suitable title for the film: “When Corpuscles Attack!”
Long before “Super Size Me” became the mantra for fast food addicts craving a mountain of fries and sea of soda, the matter of size dominated the monster movie genre. In particular, the creature features produced during the 1950s allowed us to step outside reality and experience the catastrophic results – real or imagined – of livings things being exposed to radiation, experimentation or just plain misfortune. So grand were these B-movie epics concerning the plight of mammoth monsters gone amok or miniature people short on their luck that the silver screens of the neighborhood walk-in or drive-in theater seemed barely large enough to handle the subject matter.
While size was often the monster movie makers’ theme of choice, most compelling was the story of the larger-than-life human being. After quickly sprouting to enormous heights, not unlike the Jolly Green Giant, their diminutive loved ones, friends and (surprise) the military would have to deal with the consequences in ways both agonizingly emotional and charmingly amusing.
As these unfortunate souls grew, sometimes with their clothes magically resizing in real-time, the screenwriters had to ignore or perhaps never considered the biological ramifications. According to one noted professor of biology, concerning the long bones in the limbs of these giants, the changes in shape that accompany changes in size are not sufficient to compensate for the increased loads. For the layman, that means c-r-r-rack! The bones of a person whose height reaches multiple times normal size would probably break as they shakily take their first “baby” steps.
Thankfully, the movies we know and love from our youth weren’t intended to serve as a primer on biology. Our imaginations went wild as we suspended our disbelief, whether the actors’ crudely projected images were superimposed onto skylines and countrysides, or they stomped menacingly among miniaturized surroundings. Following are a few of the “standout” examples worth visiting once again.
A Woman of Stature
Other than her agent, acting coach and probably most family members, who would want to forget the husky-voiced, buxom Allison Hayes in Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (Allied Artists, 1958)? Best categorized as a bad yet beloved sci-fi cult classic, director Nathan Juran (credited as Nathan Hertz possibly to avoid ridicule) and screenwriter Mark Hanna did their best to play it straight by giving serious treatment to, well, a film with a budget of $88,000 proclaiming its 50-foot woman with a drinking problem and very bad attitude was “too much for any man”! The fact Juran and Hanna attempted to create serious cinema with this film, and failed miserably, is part of its lasting attraction, while the very forgettable 1993 remake starring Daryl Hannah went to great heights to reach new lows.
The movie begins with a TV announcer reporting with heavy sarcasm that a UFO has been spotted in various cities around the globe and is nearing Southern California. The mysterious orb, seen on screen dangling from visible wires like a Christmas ornament gone bad, settles onto the highway. Up drives Nancy Archer (Hayes) on cue, squealing in terror as her car careens off the road to avoid the orb. Unable to restart the stalled car, she jiggles her way out of the vehicle and barely escapes the clutches of a huge, rubbery looking “alien” hand, reminiscent of a kid’s costume accessory complete with hairy knuckles.
Cut to ultra-floozy Honey Parker (Yvette Vickers, Attack of the Giant Leeches, 1959) at “Tony’s Bar and Grill” unapologetically smooching with Nancy’s husband Harry Archer (William Hudson). An apparent low-life with plans to live the high-life once he gets a hold of his heiress wife’s millions, Harry whines to Honey with disappointment that the doctor trying to help Nancy overcome alcohol and a stint in a sanitarium is having too much success. Coos Honey: “Play the husband right to the end. When she’s in the booby hatch, throw the key away.” But Honey would soon “get hers” as the drama unfolds because, let’s face it, hell hath no fury than a 50-foot woman scorned.
Hoping to prove to everyone once and for all that she’s not crazy, Nancy makes two trips back to the desert to hunt down the “satellite” and 30-foot space alien giant (Michael Ross, a Dwight Eisenhower lookalike, who also plays the town bartender). Her first trip, led by a typical small-town rube, Sheriff Dubbitt, and his sophomoric sidekick, Deputy Charlie, comes up empty. But on a second trip, with Harry driving Nancy round and round through the hills for hours, there’s a sudden flash and the satellite appears. Harry barely has time to stop the car as Nancy leaps out the door screaming “I was right! It’s real! It’s real!” She reaches the satellite and maniacally pounds it, proclaiming she’s not crazy. Harry is close behind pleading “Let’s get outta here!” Just then the bald, surprisingly goofy-looking giant reaches down to grab Nancy. Using a revolver they brought with them, Harry fires several ineffective shots before scrambling, like the weasel he is, back to the car. Nancy’s desperate cries for help appear to speed his exit as his car leaves behind plumes of dust.
After a few more scenes filled with Harry’s annoying chain smoking and cocktail sipping, he and Honey try to leave town, but slick Deputy Charlie intercedes. He brings them to the Sheriff’s station where they learn Nancy was discovered lying unconscious on the roof of the pool house at her estate where the giant “dropped” her off. Nancy is brought to her bedroom under the doctor’s care for fear of radiation exposure.
In the meantime, Harry and Honey are through waiting to be together, so Harry agrees to Honey’s plan to give Nancy a fatal overdose of the doctor’s prescribed “serum.” When Harry sneaks into Nancy’s darkened bedroom to do the dirty deed, the nurse thwarts his attempt as they both shockingly discover Nancy’s grown to epic proportions. The on-screen visual clue to Nancy’s condition for movie goers is a huge paper mache hand and arm lying stiffly in the foreground. The nurse’s prolonged scream and facial contortions are nearly as comical.
Some time later, the nurse regains her composure and peruses stacks of boxes that have arrived at the Archer estate. “Doctor, the chains you were expecting are here,” she says very importantly. A delivery man reading from a shipment packing slip notes that the “meat hooks” are also in, and he questions the need for an “elephant syringe.” All in a day’s work, one would suppose, when you’re tending to the extraordinary needs of an extra jumbo-sized patient!
In yet another encounter with the satellite in the desert, Sheriff Dubbitt and the Archer’s butler actually board the space craft only to be chased off when “baldie” shows up wearing an outfit Robin Hood would be proud of and what must have been the costume department’s last remaining outfit.
Back at the Archer estate, the doctor and a heavily accented nutty professor deliberate ad nauseum over treatment options, followed by a far nuttier scene showing their expert use of the chains mounted in Nancy’s room to hoist her paper mache arm for injections. Minutes later, just as they decide the morphine is likely to run out, Nancy leaps from her coma shouting Harry’s name and bursts through the roof of the house. She shrugs through the utter destruction with perfect hair and an attitude, showing little concern or reaction from her new vantage point. After all, Nancy’s still wild about Harry. As she glides away on gams fit for a fashion show of the gods, she warns to no one in particular that she knows he’s “with that woman.”
Back in town, Nancy shows up at Honey’s hotel looking for Harry and starts to destroy everything in her path. She eventually finds him at Tony’s and kills Honey by casually dropping debris from the roof to crush her as she hides under a table. Nancy then lifts up Harry amidst a hail of gunfire from Sheriff Dubbitt and inexplicably heads to some high tension wires. The sheriff’s poor aim actually saves the day as he fires a shot that explodes a transformer, bringing a glowing Nancy to the ground. Lying dead with Harry in her right hand, her doctor ends the movie with: “She’s finally got Harry all to herself.” (See Scary Monsters #107 for a profile on Allison Hayes and her film career.)
Nuclear Roast Beast
Though missing the doomed romance storyline and scantily clad female giant of Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, legendary B-movie Producer/Director Bert I. Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man (American-International, 1957) gets major props for bringing the first gargantuan human to the silver screen.
Playing off the worldwide fear in the 1950s of nuclear holocaust and the horrors of radiation, The Amazing Colossal Man tells the story of Lt. Col. Glenn Manning (1940s B-movie leading man Glenn Langan) and his exposure to the full force of a plutonium bomb blast. The primary results are a third-degree “sun tan” and growth spurts that would level off at, oh, 60 feet.
Manning is slowly driven insane because his overtaxed heart can’t provide enough blood to his beach-ball-size brain. As a result, the Lt. Col. simply can’t get over his anger and altitude-driven attitude. This would result in arguably the most memorable moment in the film. When doctors (including William Hudson from Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman) attempt to inject a formula to halt Manning’s growth, he grabs the six-foot syringe and disdainfully tosses it like a dart, impaling a military commander helping out. An eventual fall off the top of the Hoover Dam appears to bring poor Manning (and the film) to a merciful end.
But wait, the Colossal Man may be down but not out. Gordon decides to do a sequel the following year, titled War of the Colossal Beast. The justifiably unheralded Duncan “Dean” Parkin plays Manning this time, a role that generously prolonged his brief film career. His only other acting credit was in The Cyclops (1957) as Bruce Barton, a man whose exposure to radiation turns him into a 25-foot, one-eyed giant. Lon Chaney Jr. has a supporting role.
As far as sequels go, War of the Colossal Beast has few equals. Not because it’s a landmark cinematic achievement, but because Gordon adeptly, and cheaply, incorporated quite a bit of footage from The Amazing Colossal Man to move the thin storyline along and, frankly, it offers an unprecedented amount of spine-tingling chills and thrills. The chills come from the beast’s nails-across-the-chalkboard moans, groans, screeches and screams in nearly every scene. The thrills are generated by the dialogue, with unintentional gag lines regularly offered up by Manning’s caring but helpless sister Joyce (Sally Fraser) and Maj. Mark Baird (Roger Pace).
Early in the film there are rumors of a giant beast with a voracious appetite hanging out in the Mexican desert. Says one guy: “He must be 60-feet tall!” Joyce gets excited. “My brother’s that tall,” she says. Later, a wide-eyed Mexican police chief drives a van full of bread into a clearing to flush the beast out of its hiding place in the hills. As the van bounces erratically along a dirt road, the chief tells his cohorts, “I’m driving this way on purpose. Giants can run fast. They have long legs.”
When they finally discover the beast is Manning after all, local and federal officials play hot potato between several departments with no one willing to claim responsibility for his care. Though the Mayor of Los Angeles would give in and allow an airport hangar to be used, his initial reply was: “We have no facilities for a giant here.” To which Maj. Baird says, “We can’t leave him exposed to the weather, even if he is a giant.” Joyce pleads, “He ought to be in a hospital (presumably a really big one) getting treatment.” Maj. Baird tries to reason with her, saying, “I’m afraid the world doesn’t look at a 60-foot man the way a sister does.”
Before the military can ship Manning out to an undisclosed island, he escapes the hangar and is on the loose in Los Angeles. “Where could he be?” asks Joyce, as if a 60-foot cyclops is hard to spot in LA.
Eventually Manning is spotted in Griffith Park near the Mount Wilson Observatory. Because he can, Manning lifts up a school bus full of screaming kids and taunts all the onlookers, including the army and its heavy artillery. Joyce dutifully screams as if talking to a child, “Glenn, put them down. Put them down. Try to think, Glenn.” This sweet yet annoying voice from his past seems to jog his memory, resulting in Parkin’s one non-gibberish line in the movie: “Jo-o-o-yce.”
Forelorn and dejected, Manning strides over to nearby high-tension wires and grabs onto them. As he welcomes a few fatal zaps, the movie magically turns to color for a few moments. Then, mysteriously, Manning disappears to end the film.
There are many more classic movies featuring super-sized monsters – both human and animal – available to enjoy and explore. Though they weren’t produced with today’s high-tech special effects wizardry, in many ways they are more entertaining.
Next time, in Part 2 of Monster Movies from Mammoth to Miniature (above), we’ll take a look at what happens when things get really tense and tiny.
It is that time of year for a little ho, ho, ho and Christmas holiday fun!
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a 1964 American sci-fi comedy film directed by Nicholas Webster, written by Paul L. Jacobson, and based on a story by Glenville Mareth. It stars John Call as Santa Claus, and features eight-year-old Pia Zadora as one of the Martian children. The film also marks the first documented appearance of Mrs. Claus in a motion picture (Doris Rich plays the role), coming three weeks before the television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which also featured the character.
This public domain film regularly appears on lists of the worst films ever made (which doesn’t come as a shock considering the film’s title) and is regularly featured in the “Bottom 100” list on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com). It also was featured in an episode of the 1986 syndicated TV series Canned Film Festival. The film took on newfound fame in the 1990s after being featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The film was also featured on Elvira’s Movie Macabre.