The 1950s and 1980s tend to be the most nostalgically idealized decades in U.S. history by a particular subset of Americans (coughwhitepeoplecough), their visions of white picket fences or kids on bikes in suburbia, respectively, a visual shorthand for uncomplicated safety and comfort. That image also makes them easy to subvert, and while modern-day films like the upcoming Don’t Worry Darling and shows like Stranger Things poke holes in the images of those decades through genre and the benefit of hindsight, the contemporary genre films of those eras smuggled in their own commentary with surprising depth and astuteness.
In fact, there exists a rather perfect collection of six sci-fi horror films that act as cultural flashpoints for both decades. The three from the ‘50s—1951’s The Thing from Another World, 1958’s The Fly and The Blob—all feature creatures who pose an external threat of either invasion or dehumanization. Meanwhile, their ‘80s remake counterparts—1982’s The Thing, 1986’s The Fly and 1988’s The Blob—pay homage to the original creatures but mutate their origins and purpose into something far more internal, the allegory of their threat acknowledging the role humanity plays in their existence.
The ‘50s were, in hindsight, a time of cultural repression, so the culture had to find alternative means of expression. Where music eventually exploded into teenage rock n’ roll rebellion, cinema addressed themes of alienation, social justice, and other such commentary in ways that would subvert the (still in operation) Hays Code of censorship. One such method was through genre material, which is why The Thing from Another World, The Fly and The Blob are all unabashed B-movies; the rationale was that censors and the less intuitive audience members would simply dismiss the films on a surface level while everyone else engaged with the social and political issues they bring up.
That’s not to say the films are dialectics or—to use an obnoxious present-day buzzword—“elevated” in any way. They are first and foremost out to entertain, thrill, and shock, and they do a pretty damn good job of it, too. Yet their cheesy veneer effectively hides their more subversive content. The surface concepts of these films are strictly sci-fi: in The Thing, an alien creature discovered in the ice by an Alaskan expedition led by Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is found to feed on human blood, and even though the creature appears humanoid, its sole mission is to wipe out all human life it encounters. In The Fly, André Delambre (David Hedison) is attempting to manufacture a way of instantaneously transporting objects and people, only to have his head and arm switched with that of a common housefly when one sneaks into the transporter while he’s testing the device on himself. In The Blob, a group of lovable yet delinquent teens (led by Steve McQueen in his first major film role) witness a meteorite crash that harbors a gelatinous life form, a creature which rapidly begins consuming everything—and everybody—in their small East Coast town.
Each of these three films can be seen as an allegory for the perceived threat of Communism, a fear that was at a fever pitch during the ‘50s. “The Red Scare” was a phenomenon that had some basis in reality, as Soviet spies were clandestinely attempting to steal U.S. government secrets. Yet fear of an enemy country undermining or dismantling American authorities quickly grew out of control, turning into a full-blown hysteria that was more about deep-seated racism and a pathological need to keep American ideals intact, even when such ideals were oppressive or ill-defined (for an immediate understanding of this phenomenon, look at the way present-day political discourse has demonized certain terms and labels). There’s no doubt that directors Christian Nyby (The Thing), Kurt Neumann (The Fly), and Irvin Yeaworth (The Blob) were aware of this phenomenon, obliquely exploiting such fears in their films—the Blob is even a pinkish-red color, for instance.
Yet the films can also be interpreted as a reaction to the Red Scare phenomenon and its attendant paranoia stoked by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Each of the three creatures are pointed out as being no longer human: The Thing is described as having “No pleasure, no pain…no emotion, no heart,” The Fly no longer bears the kindness of the old André, and The Blob is a dispassionate eating machine. This seems like the filmmakers are criticizing the inhumane way McCarthy and his cronies demonized and slandered suspected Communists—not only was it effective (especially during Hollywood’s wave of “blacklisting” its artists), but it was efficient. As Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) observes in The Thing as he is seduced by the creature’s power, that lack of humanity makes it “our superior in every way.”
Whether intended as cautionary tales about Communists or McCarthyists, the three films undeniably position their creatures as an external “them,” forces that seek to invade, consume, and replace. The Thing and the Blob both originate from outer space, and even though André’s accident is more akin to the Victorian-era mad scientist moralizing of Dr.’s Frankenstein and Jekyll, the fly itself is seen as an external, corrupting force. The Fly’s suspicion of science seems to stem from the then-recent invention of the nuclear bomb, and the threat of invasion—if not outright devastation—from above at any moment is reflected in The Thing from Another World’s and The Blob’s aircraft-esque origins. All three films portray the “other” as something lying in wait, forces that will permanently change or eliminate humanity.
Roughly 30 years later, the American identity had been mortally wounded by the shame and failure of the Vietnam war, the scandal of Richard Nixon’s criminal activities while President, the rise of a deadly virus in AIDS (that was met with renewed bigotry against queer folks) and other events that caused the scales to fall from the country’s eyes. As Ronald Reagan attempted to build the country’s morale back up with a new wave of stifling and delusional Conservatism, America’s culture retreated into fantasy. Filmmakers met the rising interest in genre films with varying degrees of substance, and three of the most intriguing and powerful sci-fi/horror movies to come out of the decade were remakes of those same three B-pictures of the ‘50s.
As with their ‘50s counterparts, the three films are creature features first and foremost. Advances in special effects makeup and animatronics make the titular beasties look far more tangible, threatening, and believable than the charming but rudimentary versions seen in the ‘50s. Changes in censorship (bye-bye, Hays Code; hello MPAA) meant that the violence perpetrated by the creatures no longer need be relegated to bloodless or off-screen attacks. Thus, the three films are some of the goriest to come out of the ‘80s (and that’s saying a lot): each movie features a number of inventive and nightmarish ways the human body can be mutilated, corrupted, and transformed, making what was once thematic and subtextual visually explicit.
The three ‘80s versions are generally held in high regard as some of the best remakes ever made, and part of that has to do with the craft, care, and love with which their directors treat the material (as opposed to the ballyhoo-like cheese the ‘50s directors employed, even if that was de rigueur for monster movies of that period). The other reason is that the films’ thematic concerns and subtexts are not only products of that decade, but are powerfully deep and thoughtful enough to be just as relevant some 40 years later.
Directors John Carpenter (The Thing), David Cronenberg (The Fly) and Chuck Russell (The Blob) each make one major change to their monsters: the creatures now have far more internal concerns and origins. Even though The Thing is still found buried in a crashed spaceship by an Antarctic research team led by R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), the alien creature rarely becomes externalized. Instead, it “hides” inside facsimiles of organic beings, including and especially humans. When scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) has his fateful accident with the fly, his transformation into a human-fly hybrid is upsettingly slow and systemic, his body changing from within. Even though the blob is unleashed from what seems to be a meteor and the teens who witness it (played by Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith) aren’t believed by the local authorities until it’s too late, it’s revealed that this blob is not an alien creature but a biological weapon gone rogue—one created by the U.S. government.
Whether visually or within the text, the films present the monsters as something self-inflicted, the implication being that the real threats facing American society (if not humanity as a whole) actually come from within. This is seen in the worrying way people who are a part of the Thing don’t seem to know they’ve been assimilated until threatened, in the way Seth Brundle’s transformation affects his personality and ethics as well as his body, and in the way the government is more than willing to sacrifice the citizens of Arborville, California to the Blob in order to contain and cover it up (just as the Reagan administration attempted to clandestinely control the fates of foreign countries).
Moreover, where the final moments of the ‘50s versions see the monsters definitively destroyed (albeit leaving behind some troubling aftereffects), the endings of the ‘80s remakes leave audiences on a much more pronounced note of troubling ambiguity. MacReady and Childs (Keith David), the sole survivors of the Thing’s attack, are both uncertain of the other’s humanity. While Brundlefly is mercifully put to death at the hand of his lover, Ronnie (Geena Davis), her unborn baby carries his potentially altered DNA. A piece of the Blob remains in the possession of Reverend Meeker (Del Close), who seems to view it as a God-given force of Armageddon.
While general audiences and critics were mostly put off by the bleak visions of the remakes (of the three, only The Fly was well-received critically and commercially upon its initial release), all of them have endured to this day, their approaches still lauded for their craft and relevancy. Perhaps the most telling indicator of the difference between the ‘50s and ‘80s versions can be found in a pair of contrasting monologues from The Thing from Another World and The Thing. At the end of the 1951 film, Scotty (Douglas Spencer) gives a definitive if cautionary report of the film’s events:
“One of the world’s greatest battles was fought and won today by the human race. Here at the top of the world a handful of American soldiers and civilians met the first invasion from another planet…And now before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning: Every one of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”
While in the middle of the 1982 Thing, MacCready wearily records a journal entry summing up the plight of the men facing the creature:
“The storm’s been hitting us hard now for 48 hours. We still have nothing to go on…Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired. Nothing else I can do, just wait…”
Though terrifying, a threat from without can be faced and potentially overcome. A threat from within, however, is far more insidious and invulnerable. While humanity and specifically Americans were only just waking up to that reality 40 years ago, the threat from within ourselves is far more apparent to us now. To sum up using the unsettlingly existentialist taglines from each film’s marketing materials: terror has no shape, Man is the warmest place to hide, and we should be afraid—be very afraid.