This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
The intermingling of horror and science fiction cinema is in full swing here in 1954, as the two genres combine to create some of the features we think of as being most indelibly tied to the imagery of “1950s monster movies.” The most prominent and long-lasting in its appeal and impact is of course Godzilla, given that it’s been receiving sequels for more than 65 years now, including 2019’s King of the Monsters. It’s hard to overstate what a persistent and foundational presence Godzilla has been in both Japanese and American pop culture, informing on some level every other representation of giant monsters in the years that followed.
In the moment, however, there’s little doubt that in the American market, the most immediately influential horror film of the year was Them! This tale of radioactive, giant ants laid the foundation for so many of the “big bug” and “radioactive monster” films that quickly followed that it was practically a complete template for every subsequent offering, from The Deadly Mantis to The Black Scorpion, The Giant Gila Monster and Empire of the Ants. These films weren’t exactly delicate in their nuclear age paranoia, and were less than scientific in their depiction of the effect of radiation on living tissue, but when you really get down to it, there’s nothing here any less realistic than the content of comparable, modern B movies like Birdemic or Geostorm. In any era, there will be audience members who would prefer to be titillated by the fantastically anthropomorphized worst case scenarios of current pop cultural fears, like giant monsters, rather than grapple with the reality of how things like nuclear proliferation or climate change might genuinely mean mankind’s destruction. In 1954, it was simply easier to dismiss a giant ant puppet than it was to dismiss the reality of Kruschev amassing an ever-growing nuclear arsenal. As ever, movies represented a brief respite from such harsh truths.
Other notables from 1954 include Alfred Hitchcock’s relentlessly entertaining, single-location thriller Rear Window, which is certainly horror adjacent but difficult to give the top spot in any kind of proper horror count-down; Gog, which set plenty of the tropes for future “killer robots on the loose” movies such as Chopping Mall; and Creature From the Black Lagoon, the oft-forgotten last proper entry in the original Universal Monsters cycle, filmed in 3D but largely presented in 2D thanks to the gimmick’s popularity fading into obscurity relatively quickly. Although the titular Creature, also referred to as “Gill-Man,” is typically counted among the earlier Universal Monsters, the film itself feels like something of an outlier—a would-be science fiction horror film with hints of an ecological message, hampered by dated tone and structure that feel straight out of the early 1940s. Thanks to the sight of the radiant Julie Adams in her iconic white bathing suit, though, the film has managed to retain a certain vivid place in the collective memories of those who came of age in the 1950s.
1954 Honorable Mentions:
Rear Window, Them!, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Gog, Target Earth, The Witch
Director: Ishirô Honda
Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla is one of the more unusual films to ever kick-start a franchise that has persisted for more than half a century, precisely because the franchise that was spawned from the film has so little in common, for the most part, with the original outing. When members of the American public hear the word “Godzilla” today, they think in terms of colorful kaiju battles, explosions, gaudy FX and silly rubber suits. That’s not Honda’s Godzilla—or as we should probably say, Gojira. His was a film with bleak, apocalyptic overtones; a meditation on the omnipresent anxiety his nation was experiencing, an inescapable awareness of mortality for the entire human race. You would not have walked out of a Japanese theater in 1954, thinking that the monster known as Godzilla would end up portrayed as a protector of the Earth—that’s a modern reclamation of how a technological discovery like nuclear power can be made to serve man, rather than destroy him. More likely, you would have seen Godzilla for what he was: An anthropomorphized figurehead of our swiftly approaching demise. And it would probably have scared the hell out of you.
As such, Godzilla truly is a genuinely spooky film at times—the only entry in the series, with the possible exception of 2016’s Shin Godzilla, that actually plays something like a horror film. One must keep in mind that it was released a mere 10 years after the first atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the blink of an eye. The nation had barely come to any terms with the civilian slaughter that ended the second world war, much less dealt with those feelings via the allegory of film. It all spills onto the screen in Godzilla, though, from the shots of bloodied civilians lying dead on their backs in the rubble to the cries of the wounded as they lay in overcrowded hospital hallways with no one to help them. These are the types of events that can be assumed to occur in any Godzilla film, but later entries in the series rarely have any interest in depicting that sort of human toll. It’s hard to focus on the petty thrills of kaiju combat, after all, when you’re considering how many innocent souls have been wiped out in each building that crumbles to dust.
The film’s human protagonists, likewise, are faced with the responsibility of making decisions that those citizens of Japan were denied in the war. The noble Dr. Serizawa resists all initial efforts to cajole him into using his newly discovered “Oxygen Destroyer” to combat Godzilla, believing that the effectiveness of such a device will only spur the creation of new and more terrifying weapons. He chooses to make the ultimate sacrifice, destroying his knowledge along with his life, to both protect his nation from the threat of Godzilla and ensure that no one else follows his own dark path to an apocalyptic conclusion.
If there’s one sequence in Godzilla that truly captures the mournful vibe, it’s the choir of young schoolgirls singing composer Akira Ifukube’s haunting “Prayer For Peace,” which infuses all the shots it overlays with an incredibly powerful, sobering feeling of gravitas. It confirms aurally that Godzilla, like so many other horror films, is ultimately about psychological trauma and the hope for healing and redemption, even if mankind as a species rarely deserves it.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.