We all remember those long-ago nights when we tearful, pyjamaed and barefooted infants, rushed into our parents’ bedroom seeking the ‘there, there – it’s only a nightmare’ comforting reassurance. We don’t remember learning the word ‘nightmare’ or what those terrors were. We only remember the losing control of ourselves.

Such reawakened behaviour is the gift of the horror moviemaker. Unburdened by whys and wherefores or plot denouement, his only function is to frighten – his only permissible end is that the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Creature from the Black Lagoon or The Mother In Law That Couldn’t Die dies.

The routine 1950 ‘B’ horror movie, the product of the USA, ironically was an escape from the restive psychoses of a post-war generation and the fear engendered by the threat of nuclear war in a divided East-West world.
Such movies as I Married a Communist and The Red Menace (both 1949), although blatant American scaremongering, really belonged to the horror genre. Because 1949 was the year the Russians acquired the nuclear bomb.

Better by far then to seek comfort in horrors we could pretend to control, such as celluloid scientists or pesky outer space monsters than from some nuclear Armageddon that we instinctively dared not even contemplate.

Consequently these almost-adolescent fears translated into ‘monsters, beasts, creatures, mole people, cat girls, the undead, blobs, giant leeches, snow creatures – even vampiric uncles’. None of these creations had an ordinary address like Aughnacloy or Ballynatubbrit, but rather resided in another world, a black lagoon or forbidden planet.
The kind of movie we’re talking about controlled itself by its low-life budget. It would always score over a trip to the ballet or the art gallery because its mere existence created a new – if dubious – art form. Confinement of horror movie subjects to the outlandish helped with the low budget.

After all, until November 1957 who but Laika the Russian space dog had ever existed in space let alone outer space? And the deep end of the swimming baths, or catching your big toe in the hot spout was as near to nautical or black lagoon horror as we ever wanted to be.

Between 1951 and 1959, 86 horror movies were released. Of particular interest were those 1950’s budget horrors that were graced by unknown actors whom the combination of accident, sex appeal or talent made future famous stars. October 1951 saw the release of the first of two ‘bride’ movies. Bride of the Gorilla starring Barbara Peyton, Lon Chaney Jr., Raymond Burr (future Perry Mason) and Tom Conway (George Sanders’ younger brother).
In a Latin American plantation Burr (Barney) murders his elderly boss to have rumpy-pumpy with shapely Barbara Peyton (Dina Van Gelder).

As a punishment a witch doctor casts a spell on Burr that causes him to turn into a gorilla-like beast (as if he wasn’t beastly already). When Conway and Peyton become suspicious of Burr’s anti-social behaviour (wouldn’t any respectable gorilla?) Burr is caught raving and about to kill Peyton when Conway shoots him. One way to stop Burr being Barney.

Both Barbara Peyton and Tom Conway had ends more horrifying than those of a horror picture. Barbara appeared in 14 movies, was married five times and had affairs with Howard Hughes and Bob Hope then died a hopeless alcoholic at 39. Moustachioed Tom Conway similarly had marriage and alcohol problems. He reckoned he’d made $900,000 over an eighty movie and TV career. Discovered in a $2-a-day room in some California flophouse, he died from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 62.

On November 23, 1951, Lippert Pictures released Superman and the Mole Men. Reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane visit the little town of Silby where they were drilling the world’s deepest oil well. The drilling has disturbed the home of small, bald glowing humanoids who normally only surface at night. Their glowing presence has frightened the night watchman to death, which in turn scared the townsfolk who form a mob intending to kill the strange visitors.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own