First, a few ground rules: No dinosaurs.
They're supposed to be big. There is nothing unusual about
a big dinosaur. Now, a giant ant, that's a different story.
And we'll relegate the scope of our scrutiny to the 1950s,
thus eliminating Mothra, Konga, and a horde of others.
Sadly, this also excludes King Kong, but he's received
more than his share of critical attention over the years.
10. Giant Gila Monster (1959)
Ken Curtis and Ray Kellogg, the production team
who brought you the Killer Shrews, fashioned this
flimsy story of a big lizard marauding through a desert
town. For once, nukes weren't to blame for the scaly killer's
tremendous size. It seems that minerals in the soil ignited
his growth spurt -- or at least the sheriff thinks so. Countless
Matchbox cars were destroyed during filming. Not a good
movie, but a fun one.
9. The Black Scorpion (1957)
Stop-motion pioneer Willis O'Brien of King
Kong fame, animated the titular menace. His efforts
are largely spoiled however, by close-ups of the scorpion's
papier-mache head that make him look as though he'd overdone
his mascara that morning. Thank God stalwart Richard Denning
is on hand to save the day -- and nearly the film.
8. The Deadly Mantis (1957)
The one real clunker of producer William Alland's
prodigious output, which included beloved titles such as
Creature From the Black Lagoon and It Came From
Outer Space. Process shots of the mantis on the march
are never convincing and often humorous, and grainy stock
footage of fleeing Eskimos hardly bolsters credibility.
Hero Craig (Peter Gunn) Stevens is eventually able
to fry the big bug after sealing him in the Holland Tunnel.
7. Amazing Colossal Man (1957), War
of the Colossal Beast (1958)
Both Amazing Colossal Man and its seamy
sequel, War of the Colossal Beast, were produced
by the king of drive-in gigantism, Bert I. Gordon. He and
his wife Flora are responsible for the rather crude process
shots, and in many scenes we can see right through the big,
bald giant. In the initial film, he's blown from the Hoover
Dam by a barrage of cannon fire. In the follow-up, he commits
high-voltage hari-kari by seizing an electrical line.
6. The Spider aka Earth vs. the Spider
Gordon strikes again with this torpid
tale of an outsized spider emerging from his cave to terrorize
a small town. At one point, his dazed carcass is dragged
to the high school gym, where's he's reanimated by the
wail of Skip Young's jumpin' rock band. Ed Kemmer strives
to bring credibility to the goings on and, all told, what
emerges is one of Gordon's more enjoyable films.
5. Beginning of the End (1957)
A horde of gargantuan grasshoppers is poised
to devour Chicago in a film devised and directed by -- who
else -- Bert I. Gordon! B-horror mainstay Peter Graves is
on hand to lead the counter-assault on the windy city, luring
the large locusts into the depths of Lake Michigan. Gasp
as several postcards depicting the Wrigley building are
nearly devoured by the marauding insects.
4. Them (1954)
First and maybe the most intelligent of the big
bug movies, this film is structured more like a murder mystery
than a flat-out horror flick, with killings and clues gradually
leading to the revelation that gigantic ants are responsible.
A wonderful cast, including Edmund Gwenn, James Whitmore,
James Arness and Joan Weldon, lends immeasurably to the
film's allure. In retrospect, the big ants are a disappointment,
but it's still a terrific ride.
3. Tarantula (1955)
Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold
deliver rock-solid thrills. Still among the scariest bug
movies ever made, it's tautly paced and tempered with good
performances from Leo G. Carroll and John Agar. The desert's
sense of mystery and seclusion is exploited to good effect,
and the FX work holds up admirably. Clint Eastwood is the
steely-eyed jet pilot who bombs the big arachnid into submission.
2. Giant From the Unknown (1958)
not a big bug or a nuclear-enhanced guinea pig. He's just
a really big, really mean guy reanimated by a bolt of
lightning after a 500-year snooze. Wouldn't that tick
you off? Of all the films ever made about gigantic, bloodthirsty,
zombie conquistadors, this one is easily the best. Its
novelty endeared it to me years ago. Directed by no-budget
maestro Richard Cunha (She Demons, Missile to the Moon),
it features a familiar cast that includes Ed Kemmer, Morris
Ankrum, Sally Fraser, Bob Steele and, sporting make-up
created by the legendary Jack P. Pierce, Buddy Baer as
Vargas the Giant.
1. Monster That Challenged the World
Not a bug, not an arachnid, but a giant mollusk
spawned in the depths of California's Salton Sea. Tim Holt
leads another likable cast that prominently features Hans
Conried in a serious turn as a frazzled scientist. Scenes
of the king-size caterpillar capsizing boats are quite effective.
Director Arnold Laven dishes up the entire film with an
applaudably atmospheric panache. It's puzzling that this
movie is so often overlooked by genre critics and fans.