The other day I wrote about how when I was growing up in Oglesby, Illinois I used to watch Family Classics on WGN-TV every Sunday afternoon during fall and winter.
While Sunday afternoons were usually reserved for “family classics”, Saturday afternoons on the other hand were all Sci-Fi.
For about 3-4 hours on a Saturday afternoon, WFLD-TV Channel 32 served up a cornucopia of Sci-Fi gems from episodes of The Outer Limits to classic science fiction and “B” movies from the 50s. Saturday afternoons were spent with Godzilla and friends as well as a host of giant spiders, grasshoppers and other atomic age mutant creatures and visitors from other galaxies.
Of course, there were some classic Sci-Fi movies from the 50s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, Forbidden Planet, Them and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Inasmuch as these films defined an era of atomic energy and the “red scare” these were some fun films as a kid even if some of the hidden meanings and themes were lost on you. Years later, when I got into watching films more and talking about them with friends and colleagues—not to mention studying film for a few semesters at Southern Illinois University—that’s when a lot of those themes started to make sense.
It’s no wonder that to this day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains one of the definitive “red scare” Sci-Fi films of that era.
Be that as it may, back when I was a kid watching all those Sci-Fi flicks the only thing that mattered to me was just being entertained and perhaps, fueling my own imagination. Week after week it was one monster, mutant insect, or alien after another. Sometimes, I wondered if such creatures did exist.
Some of the films were good; others were bad—very bad. Take for example, The Cyclops (1957) one of those atomic-age films about the side effects of radioactivity and one that I watched last weekend.
Susan Winter undertakes an expedition to a remote area of Mexico, hoping to find her fiancée, Bruce Barton, who’s plane-crashed there some time ago. The area is suspected to have a good supply of uranium, so Susan has promoted this to wealthy Martin Melville to get money for her expenses. In addition to Melville, she is accompanied by guide Russ Bradford and pilot Lee Brand in his small-engine craft. But the plane crashes, stranding the four in an isolated valley, which they soon discover is highly radioactive and inhabited by mutated life forms—giant insects, enormous lizards, and a 25-foot-tall human male with a deformed face and just one eye.
Pretty scary stuff, huh? Well, not really, but what is interesting is this same popular radioactive theme with insects, reptiles, and humans growing big which brings me to the film I watched today (and one I haven’t seen probably since I was a kid) The Beginning of the End.
Reporter Audrey Ames is driving along a highway in Illinois when she is stopped by the military. She then finds out that a small town was destroyed and everyone has seemingly disappeared. She then goes to a lab run by the Department of Agriculture. While she is there she meets the lab’s director, Dr. Ed Wainwright. Ed then tells her that strange things have been happening ever since he discovered that a bunch of grasshoppers managed to get into a silo containing a batch of radioactive wheat. They soon discover that the grasshoppers have grown to monstrous proportions and not only are devouring the local vegetation, but have developed a taste for human flesh as well. Now the locusts are marching towards Chicago and the military is threatening to destroy the city with the atom bomb.
Sounds like it would make for a pretty scary movie, but sadly it is a rip-off of a better bug flick, Them. Interestingly, James Arness who starred in that classic Sci-Fi flick is the brother of Peter Graves the lead in the Beginning of the End. Nonetheless, the film is fun to watch even though the rear projection special effects of the giant grasshoppers are archaic (and hilarious to say the least) by today’s special effects standards, but that is what makes the film a B movie classic.