I’m not writing a post on 1958’s Attack of the 50-Foot Woman to make fun of the film. You can find that stuff anywhere. Oh, I’m not denying that this movie’s dumb, campy fun; or that its special effects, like that giant papier-mâché hand (hoisted up by chains and pulleys), are ludicrous; or that the sight of a fifty-foot dame trampling the scenery while bellowing “Harry!” loud enough to shake the birds out of the trees doesn’t send me rolling out of my own treehouse. Of course it does.
But there’s one moment that sticks in my craw when I watch. It’s a brief, devastating close-up of Allison Hayes’ Nancy Archer, who, when needled and mocked by her uncaring shit of a husband because she’s claimed she’s seen an extraterrestrial, sobs out an agonized apology—“I’m sorry, Harry, I’m sorry,” she wails, and you know those words are burning up her throat like acid. Amidst all the low-budget hoots, something real comes out of Hayes’ emoting there. I find that scene inexpressibly painful. Considering just how many people do believe in aliens, why should her claim be laughable? Just how fucking crazy is Nancy? Throughout the film she’s put down, sneered at, shamed, and stripped of dignity. Even a local TV news broadcaster makes fun of her. And now she’s humiliated into an apology for something she knows is true (and we in the viewing audience know also), in a film that plays her for laughs. Can you blame her for finally going on the rampage?
Hayes isn’t just picking up a paycheck in this film; she works at creating Nancy, at showing us this woman’s inner life. There’s a bit when Nancy tells her spouse why, after dumping him, she took him back. “Because I love you, Harry,” she says, and Hayes reads that line with the kind of flat cynicism you might hear from Sam Spade. I like that she does that. She doesn’t go for sentiment or pity or wounded nobility. Her eyes even go a bit dead on the line; her Nancy is aware that Harry’s a louse, and that she’s a fool for loving him. But Harry’s all she’s got. Here’s a wealthy woman with fifty million smackers, enough dough to fill several of her fifty-foot bras to the bursting point. But fifty mil gets you nothing but parasites. No one’s ever loved this woman for herself; she’s nothing but a fifty-foot dollar sign. So she tries to hold on to Harry because she wants something “all for myself.” Don’t we all? Nancy’s got everything in the world and it amounts to a hill of beans. If you take Nancy out of this dumb movie and plop her down in your real-life living room, with her real-life feelings, would she be that comic to you?
I’ll let you in on a secret as to why I watch schlock movies like Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, and why I write about them on my blog. Well, yeah, I enjoy them (I’m low-brow enough to come clean on that). But it’s also because of what they tell us about ourselves. Serious Art aspires to transcendence; Dumb Entertainment gets low-down and silly but, in the process, shows us the forest primeval. It’s all the primitive emotions we don’t want to admit to having. Beneath the schlock and the campy flash and the low-budget effects is a no-holds-barred look at human behavior. It’s not behavior the standard-bearers would approve of, but it’s what we recognize as happening on the inside, down deep in a molten, messy core of feeling, which can only be expressed at the furthermost edge of being. Where things tend to get pretty monstrous.
I’m not claiming hidden-art status here. Fifties schlock-fests are metaphors gone mad, outrageous and unbelievable. The movies are so far out, we can absorb, control, get a grip on, and keep our distance from their issues—although they stick in our mind. They make us laugh, but they also make us scream. In films like The Hideous Sun Demon, The Alligator People, The Amazing Colossal Man, The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Was A Teenage Werewolf/Frankenstein/From Outer Space, characters turn into alligators, wolves, or deformed eyesores, shoot up a gazillion feet or dwindle down to a molecule, or morph into trouser-wearing lizards whenever the sun shines. But under all the godawful make-up and wacky plot lines is always the question: “Is this me?” Are we, somehow, really these monsters? The Monster is the Other, the ultimate outsider, but he (or she, as the case here) usually starts out as one of Us. And the Monster, I contend, is Us as we feel in our guts—the outsiders, the freaks, the Others no one wants to deal with. That’s not a radical notion, but I think it’s one we have to be reminded of. There’s a reason why schlock is so popular; it shows us our own basic, muddled, chaotic selves, which we’re trying so hard to keep a leash on.
And what horrible, sloppy, confused feelings are at the boiling core of the Fifty-Foot Woman? She feels rage—something females are not allowed to express. When Nancy goes off the beam, she isn’t being assertive or powerful, like a man. She’s told she’s nuts. She’s given pills, poppers, sedatives, all to calm her down. When she isn’t swallowing pills, she’s guzzling booze; when she’s not boozing, she’s threatened with the booby hatch. At the heart of Nancy’s rage is her marriage, the solid civilizational base that 1950s American women were meant to aspire to. Underlining so many 1950s sci-fi/horror films are the miseries of marriage (check out my posts on Donovan’s Brain, The Alligator People, and The Leech Woman, for starters). It seems a subject that the Fifties could only approach as either being out of this world or produced in a mad scientist’s lab. The advantage of slipping such subject matter into a low-budget horror film is that filmmakers didn’t have to twist the material into an unconvincing happy ending for mass consumption, nor uphold it as a benign institution as a sop to Breen office policies. No, you could show the whole wretched thing falling apart, with no hope of putting it back together, as so frequently happens in real life. And you could always blame it on the Monster.
And Nancy’s rage is monstrous. Her gigantism, due to a huge alien’s curiosity (and her gallant hubby leaving her to said alien’s dubious mercies), brings out all the stop-gap measures. A couple of elderly shrinks show up, and diagnose her problem as “when women reach the age of maturity, Mother Nature sometimes overworks their frustration to the point of irrationalism.” Ah, yes, Mature Woman Syndrome. Ya can’t let these irrational mature women loose, can you? So Nancy must be subdued, contained, drugged, prescribed anger management. Out come the “gate hooks, four lengths of chain, forty gallons of plasma, an elephant syringe,” courtesy of Acme Medical Supplies (I have this mind-boggling notion of Wile E. Coyote serving as consultant here). She’s shot up, sedated, dosed with morphine, and literally put in chains, treated like a mad, bad thing right in her own house—the House, that overriding symbol of 1950s happy-housewifedom, where the little woman stays put with the kids, the meals, and the new leisure-making appliances. It was the place where real 1950s women did drink or take pills or go quietly mad, only there usually wasn’t a man from outer space around to absorb the shock.
I think one interpretation of Mature Woman Syndrome is that Nancy likes sex, only hubby Harry (William Hudson) is not around enough to please her. Nancy has an old-fashioned idea of monogamy, and that may be the source of her “overworked frustration.” An unusual feature of this film is its portrayal of women’s sexuality. It shows women enjoying sex, and enjoying expressing that enjoyment. As Harry undresses her, removing her garments piece by piece, Nancy responds viscerally—she relaxes, closes her eyes, nuzzles him, her face blissful. Maybe that’s why she sticks with the bum, he makes her feel good.
Hayes herself is a tall, busty, handsome woman, who moves her body like one who knows it’s a beautiful body and is not ashamed to flaunt it. When she walks, she throws her shoulders back like Hercules about to take on the Spartans. And when she grows to fifty feet, she moves, not like a Sherman tank, but like a weightless dream. Ok, I’ll grant you, that’s bad FX. Where’s the rampage, you might wonder? Shouldn’t she be stompin’ like Godzilla on Tokyo? But how fearsome should a female body be? Writ large, the Fifty-Foot Female is a giant Ondine; she seems to stride bonelessly, as if under water; she becomes elemental, part of a soft, lush nature, in contrast the dry desert landscape she crosses. Oddly, by busting out, she becomes idyllically feminine, as if finally realizing herself.
Though when it comes to sexual expression here, no one outdoes Yvette Vickers, who plays the town floozy. (I just want you all to pause here a sec and contemplate how this film gives you two, yes, two gorgeous B-Movie Divas in one package. Talk about a bang for your buck.) Yvette’s character is Archetypal Tramp. She travels between a divey bar and a divey hotel room, both spaces reeking of gin, smoke, and linoleum floors. She wears tight clothes and shimmys her torso like a desert mirage, and she is a GODDESS. Nobody, but N*O*B*O*D*Y, was hotter than Yvette Vickers. She moves in this film like no other actress in the Fifties. I don’t think any actress still comes close. She dances, slides, slithers, shakes, tosses her hair, rubs her skin, wiggles her ass like a maracas, and gives off heat like a sauna. She could melt formica. Her body always look soft and moist; she probably leaves a damp imprint on fabric wherever she sits. This is not June Cleaver. Yvette’s Honey (oh, what a name!) is a kind of 1950s dark wet dream, the anarchic underside to the decade’s emphasis on restoring sexual-familial-societal order after a devastating depression and a horrific world war. In hindsight, you could say Honey anticipates the 1960s: free love, sex-drugs-rock’n’roll, and the Sexual Revolution in one wriggly little bundle.
But Attack of the 50-Foot Woman is still essentially Fifties. There’s the fascination with satellites, spaceships, and what might come from Out There (the film was released a year after Sputnik); the cold-war fears of nuclear fallout (Nancy’s body, when recovered from the alien, shows radiation traces); the appeal to civil/governmental power when crisis looms (“We’ll have to notify the authorities!” shrieks a shrink when Nancy starts throwing her weight around); and the growing dominance of television (the film opens with a TV news broadcast on the sightings of a mysterious flying object; Nancy later hurls a drink at the TV when the same newsman mocks her in a report).
There are also the undertones, the darkness, the threats of chaos toppling a precariously held stability, which rumbled through so much of 1950s cinema. It wasn’t all sunshine and Doris Day (and even Day made dark movies). The director, Nathan Juran (who billed himself as Nathan Hertz because he didn’t want to be associated with such a cheap film), includes noirish shots redolent of a menace seething just beneath the celluloid. And one sequence in the alien spaceship is unsettlingly grotesque. The now-no-longer-disbelieving sheriff (George Douglas) discovers on the ship a set of glass globes holding diamond crystals; Juran, a former art director (Oscar for How Green Was My Valley), films the actor’s face distorted through a globe like an acromegalic mask. Maybe the monsters aren’t always the aliens.
And there’s the monstrous, dark desire of poor, frustrated Nancy, trapped in her suburban paradise and drinking herself into a stupor while her cheatin’ hubby frisks about town with trampy Yvette Vickers (didn’t anyone think of chaining him up?). You can read her sudden growth spurt as an elaborate revenge fantasy, or you can read it as a metaphor for what utter, in-the-bone misery can do to you: it makes you feel like a grotesque, like a freak, and like a Monster; who, when the well-behaved types, the ones with the pills and the psychiatric mantras, won’t listen, has to hit the screamin’ extremes to get heard.
So, yes, my darlings, of course I laugh when I watch the Fifty-Foot Woman thunder into town to trample down power lines and make a grab for heinous Harry (“HARRY!”) cowering under a bar stool. But it’s a laugh prompted in part by recognition. I know how the dame feels. The Fifty-Foot Woman—mon semblable, ma soeur!
This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fabulous Films of the 50s Blogathon, featuring blog posts by CMBA members on cinema of the 1950s. Please click here to read these terrific posts on the films of this interesting decade.
BONUS CLIP: The finalé of Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, featuring an ethereal Allison Hayes and a smokin’ Yvette Vickers: