Beginning Of The End
The staple of the flicks we used to watch as kids were the creature feature. Each Saturday we would go off to the neighborhood movie theater for an entire afternoon of escapist fun. There was always an action serial, a few cartoons, and a newsreel but what drew us budding cinephiles to that shrine of celluloid was the ‘B’ flick that served as the main attraction. The film was often beaten up and scarred from many showings around town, but we didn’t care. They were fun and a perfect distraction from the mundane. Typically the type of movie that enjoyed this placement was either science fiction or horror. In many cases, the line delimiting these genres were wonderfully blurred, and we got to be entertained by a cinematic combo platter. Usually, these flicks were made on shoestring budget and look like the principle photography obtained over a long weekend, but we didn’t care. In our pre-teen years, this was one of the few places we could go to escape parental supervision and enjoy some good old fashion fun. For many of us, the experience started us on the path of looking towards movies for entertainment that has lasted and increased over the years. The ability to enjoy these churned out movies might have tempered our generational reaction to the kind of movies frequently shown on the SyFy channel on Saturday night. Having begun a love of movies watching creatures with obvious zippers on their costumes of spacecraft visibly dangling from the fishing line we realize you don’t need state of the art computer driven effects to an enjoyable time. The younger mover goers were brought up with such amazingly realistic effects they were in many ways spoiled to the appreciation of a simpler time when the imagination of the audience was vital to the production. When on my fondest memories from that time became a treasured part of my DVD collection and is featured in a bout of retrospective viewing I get into with my friend; ‘The Beginning of the End.’ Albeit it is not a great film, but it is a near-perfect example of the fair we spent our allowance on each weekend.
Audrey Aimes (Peggy Castle) was an intrepid photojournalist trying to get a story that would give her a big break she has been anxiously awaiting. With her trusty camera in hand, she heads off to follow up a lead. On her way, she happens across a small town in Illinois that might be home to s story. The town destroyed and its entire population of 150 has disappeared without a trace. It looks like they were all mysteriously killed but what is exceptionally baffling is the fact the lush local fields were cut to the soil line. It seems that an unusually large swarm of locus consumed them, but certainly a swarm large enough to wreak this degree of havoc would have been seen and reported. Rebuffed by the military Audrey is certain the Army is deliberately concealing the truth. This does mark an early use of a conspiracy theory as a plot point. Not one to easily give up she heads off to the local United States Department of Agriculture office seeking answers. There she meets a scientist, Dr. Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves) who is more than willing to help. Her tight sweater might have helped Audrey’s case just a bit. Wainwright is studying the effects of radiation on the growth rate of fruits and vegetables in a bid to alleviate the growing problem of global hunger. He does note that recently some of his irradiated grain stores have been pilfered by locus but didn’t seem to place too much concern on the mater. This is the archetypical benign research scientist of the fifties. Although his goals are noble and his intent completely devoid of malice or evil an unforeseen side effect of his research no threatens to bring about the end of the human race. It is also practically mandatory that the agent of this unwitting cataclysm is radiation. The fifties were between the paranoia of the McCarthy era and the fear of the Cold War. There were efforts to find peaceful uses for atomic energy, but the general population still fixated on the destructive potential. Most creature features of this period used radiation to mutate some mundane creature or insect into gigantic and destructive size. Peter Graves has fought more than his share of giant insects. This seemed to be a family business for a while. His older brother, James Arness took on giant ants attacking Los Angles in the cult classic, ‘Them!’ In this case its locus in Chicago. The trope was basically "the giant [insect] destroys [major American city]." The filmmakers of the explored more variations of the theme than you might think possible and each week we took the’ subway in Brooklyn to see them.
One of the most important themes present in any traditional fifties creature feature is ‘if science made the mess it is capable of resolving it.’ Hereafter Bus sized grasshoppers all but demolish the midwest and laid that toddling town to waste Wainwright discovers a way to destroy them; sound. As any parent of a teenager will tell you sound can be exceptionally potent in its destructive potential. After capturing a live specimen, he fine tunes a device capable of drawing the swarm into the lake drowning them. One of the scenes that will remain in my mind all my life is when they turn on the speakers. They have a picture of the Chicago skyline with some grasshoppers crawling on it. When the speakers are activated, you can see them shaking the insects off the picture. This is cheap effects camp at its height, and we loved it.
There were a few other sociologically interesting elements in this film. For example, a woman in a job usually dominated by men. This began in World War Two when women had to take such jobs while the men were away at war. After a taste of this independence, many were reticent to return to the domestic kitchen. Those interested in fashion might be grateful that the lady’s undergarments that transformed breasts into pointy rockets are no longer in vogue. In any case, this is one to enjoy.
Posted 01/24/12 Posted 04/02/2018