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I Like Big Bugs and I Cannot Lie

I Like Big Bugs and I Cannot Lie

September 18th | 6 Movies  

It’s the stuff nightmares are made of: You’re peacefully going about your day when all of a sudden a giant insect attacks you! Where did it come from? How did it get so big? Why does it want to murder you? These rather outrageous questions and plots were ripe for exploration in sci-fi movies of the 1950s and early 60s. In fact, the fear, anxiety and insecurities that grew during the postwar period regarding atomic energy, communist infiltration and other timely topics proved perfect projections to play out on the big screen through this genre.

The six sci-fi films TCM celebrates tonight find familiar creatures inexplicably transformed into powerful, world-ending threats. The kicker? They’re usually brought to life by mankind’s so-called scientific advances.

In Them! (1954), police are perplexed after finding a young girl evidently suffering from shock wandering the New Mexican desert. Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon) are called in, and their research leads to a horrifying conclusion: Radiation from early atomic tests spawned giant mutant ants that are preying on humans. Consequently, scientists and police must swiftly track down queen ants before they reproduce and potentially destroy the human race. 

Frequently heralded as the first of the big bug movies, Them! was initially envisioned as a 3-D color film. However, Warner Brothers chief Jack Warner nixed both ideas to cut costs. They spent a lot on marketing, though. In fact, WB pulled off what was believed to be the most sophisticated TV and radio campaign to that time to distribute Them! across the nation upon its release, an unusual practice for the time. The picture played in over 2,000 theaters within a month of its opening, which helped make Them! the studio’s highest grossing picture of 1954.

Common worries of the day pervade Them! “When you disrupt the world with the kinds of bombs that we were releasing, it’s only going to do more destruction to the Earth,” co-star Joan Weldon remarked years later, confirming director Gordon Douglas’ anti-nuclear theme. The Hollywood Reporter also observed this in their review, noting “the story closes with the pleasant thought that there’s no telling what further mutations might evolve from subsequent A-bomb explosions.”

Them! was the first of only seven special effects credits for Ralph Ayres, who later worked on The Wild Bunch (1969). Twelve-foot creature models were crafted to create the illusion of ants dooming mankind. However, since the models were restricted in movement, larger replicas of an ant’s head and forequarters were utilized for close-ups.

Crossing state lines into Arizona, Tarantula (1955) begins with the discovery of a deformed body in the desert. The man was a research scientist, and he and his colleague Dr. Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) were concocting a nutrient that would act as a new food source to humans to combat overpopulation. It works on test animals—they grow rapidly—but it’s not ready for mankind yet. Following an attack on Deemer in the lab, a giant tarantula escapes, and it’s a race against time to kill the deadly spider as it continues to grow and prey on locals.

Tarantula had a sci-fi heavy hitter in its corner, director Jack Arnold, fresh off helming classics It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Arnold worked with Robert M. Fresco to adapt his teleplay “No Food for Thought,” which aired on the anthology TV series Science Fiction Theatre the same year, for the big screen. In contrast to many other big bug movies that blame radiation for the unleashing of deadly animals upon the world, the culprit in Tarantula is a visionary remedy for a real-world problem. Though things still go horribly awry, the admirable intent is there.

Special photography in Tarantula was credited to Clifford Stine, and co-star Mara Corday, who played research assistant Stephanie Clayton, remembered some of the effects employed years later. One process entailed capturing close-up footage of actual tarantulas climbing over balls of cotton that was composited onto matte frames. The result: The terrifying creature appeared to scale hills! In select shots where only part of the spider was visible, gigantic prop legs, hair and all, were used instead.

Also starring Corday, The Black Scorpion (1957) takes place following an earthquake in Mexico. Geologists Dr. Scott (Richard Denning) and Dr. Ramos (Carlos Rivas) investigate the ensuing destruction and random occurrences, some of which prove unusual, like the sudden formation of an active volcano. Eventually, it’s determined that gigantic scorpions are hiding in the volcano, and scientists and the military must annihilate them before the deadly creatures destroy Mexico City.

The Black Scorpion was filmed in Mexico in small villages and General Hernán Cortés’ former home, according to Corday, who co-starred as ranch owner Teresa Alvarez. Corday also recalled that Edward Ludwig frequently chose screaming as his mode of directing, which upset her and the Mexican crew on set. Veteran cinematographer Lionel Lindon shot the movie one year after filming Around the World in 80 Days (1956), which he would go on to win an Oscar for.

Speaking of veterans, animation pioneer Willis O’Brien of King Kong (1933) fame lent his talents to The Black Scorpion, along with animator Pete Peterson. The combination of O’Brien’s groundbreaking stop motion animation, miniatures and a prop headpiece suggested a higher degree of violence than was normally shown on screen during this time. (O’Brien’s genius particularly shines in a chilling cave battle between a scorpion, worm and spider—all of enhanced size, of course.) Many reviews praised the picture’s optical effects, with Boxoffice writing they “make more realistic than usual the outsized monsters indicated by the title, which in this instance get away from the overworked mutation approach.”

Jumping from land to air, The Wasp Woman (1959) centers around Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) and her flagging cosmetics company. To boost sales, she hires Dr. Zinthrop (Michael Mark), who claims his serum made from queen wasps’ royal jelly can reverse aging. Starlin funds Zinthrop’s research with one stipulation: that she be the test subject. As her physical appearance begins to change, her personality does too, and Starlin soon starts randomly morphing into a deadly wasp-like being.

Director Roger Corman based The Wasp Woman off an article he read about a beauty cream made from queen bees; from there, he melded themes of scientific experimentation gone wrong and the cold-bloodedness of capitalism. “Wasp Woman was a deliberate commentary on corporate politics,” he asserted. “I thought about why a character who was aging might want to look young: partially for ego, but partially for financial reasons.” 

Corman maintained his signature fast and cheap style on The Wasp Woman, finishing the movie in about a week for $50,000. As one might imagine, that left little room for special effects. With that, the giant wasp with a woman’s face on the movie poster translated to the screen as Cabot donning a black ensemble (complete with heels!), oversized hairy gloves and a crude wasp headpiece. While the costume may not be convincing, the melted chocolate the actress kept in her mouth to simulate blood after biting a victim was effective. “What we did for Roger Corman—I mean, things that you could never do in a real studio but you did for this guy! Everything seemed unreal with him,” Cabot recalled years later. She loved the challenge that Corman’s style and the role offered her, adding: “Then, to be a monster—one of the very few female beasties in movies—was great fun.”

Taking things international, Mothra (1961) unfolds in Japan, where typhoon survivors are discovered on Infant Island, an atomic testing site, miraculously unharmed by radiation. No one thought the island inhabitable, so an expedition sets out and uncovers incredible things, including a native tribe and two twin fairies (Emi and Yumi Itô of the pop duo The Peanuts). When Kurâruku Neruson (Jerry Itô), an evil businessman from the fictional country Rolisica, kidnaps the fairies to exploit them for entertainment purposes, they telepathically seek help from their island goddess Mothra to save them. 

Mothra stands in stark contrast to other big bug sci-fi entries in a few ways. First, while Mothra touches upon heavy themes, including nuclear apprehension and international relations (pointedly displayed in Rolisica, a mix of ‘Russia’ and ‘America’ in Japanese), the blending of fantasy and comedy elements keep the tone light. This is particularly evident in the fairies’ storylines and comedian Furanki Sakai’s journalist character. Second, Mothra is ultimately revealed as a benevolent liberator who saves the fairies and brings them back home. “We wanted it to be brighter, nicer,” director Ishirō Honda remarked.

Special effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya claimed the visual concept for Mothra, which morphs from a larva to a moth, came through a dream. Initially, his sketches captured a more unpleasant-looking animal, but as the screenplay developed, the caterpillar and moth’s looks turned more spectral. Countless miniature sets were utilized, one of the most striking being the four-year-old Tokyo Tower in the Minato Ward, which was constructed in 1/100th scale to allow a four-foot-long mechanical caterpillar to make its way through the city. On the other end of the size spectrum, a gigantic caterpillar costume, the biggest Toho Studios ever created for a ‘monster,’ (said to have measured somewhere between 23-40 feet long) was crafted for action scenes and necessitated the skills of six to eight operators. The team also created three models of the adult moth with varying wingspans, attaching wires to the wings to make for the smooth appearance of flight.      

Traveling from Japan to the British Isles, The Cosmic Monster (1958), released in Great Britain as The Strange World of Planet X, finds Dr. Laird (Alec Mango) conducting risky experiments with magnetic fields that compromise the Earth’s ability to protect itself from cosmic rays. Sure enough, cosmic radiation strikes the planet, resulting in a horde of large mutant insects, among other deadly things. Meanwhile, Mr. Smith (Martin Benson) mysteriously arrives and positions himself against Dr. Laird’s work, eventually revealing himself to be an alien from Planet X—and perhaps the only being who can save Earth from Laird’s manic ambitions.

The Strange World of Planet X debuted on British TV as a seven-part serial in 1956 and was adapted into a science fiction novel by writer/actress Rene Ray the following year. It’s been postulated that the ‘X’ in the original movie title, along with one particularly gruesome scene, may have been a ploy to ensure an X certificate from the British censors. Other British sci-fi films, such as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), leveraged this rating to attract movie-goers, but by all accounts, The Cosmic Monster did not fare well at the box office.

The Cosmic Monster went all in on the big bug front. Instead of focusing on one type of murderous creepy crawly, the film features a host of them— roaches, centipedes, grasshoppers and even amphibious salamanders—but they don’t appear until two thirds into the running time. The special effects credit here goes to Les Bowie, who began his career as a scenic artist. Bowie eventually opened his own effects company specializing in matte paintings, miniatures and trick effects. In The Cosmic Monster, he utilized special photography along with mattes and rear projection to create the insect illusions.