DISCOVER--the top twelve very best 1950s sci-fi movies

by jonabbott56 | created - 01 Jan 2013 | updated - 28 Jan 2016 | Public

If you're ready to investigate the sci-fi films of the 1950s, there are dozens of 'em, and even some of the dreck has entertainment value. But if you want the very best, this is where you start, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

This list is in alphabetical order, but the top three are The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, and This Island Earth, with Them an easy no. 4.

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1. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

Approved | 80 min | Adventure, Horror, Sci-Fi

6.7
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 6.7/10 X  

A ferocious dinosaur awakened by an Arctic atomic test terrorizes the North Atlantic and, ultimately, New York City.

Director: Eugène Lourié | Stars: Paul Hubschmid, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey

Votes: 5,428 | Gross: $5.00M

Although the silent version of The Lost World dallied with the idea, this is the first and the best of the dinosaur-rampaging-in-the-city movies, and the template for all imitators (of which there were many). Stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen went on to do the effects for It Came From Beneath the Sea and Twenty Million Miles to Earth, both which would be on this list if it was longer.

2. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Approved | 79 min | Horror

7.0
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7/10 X  

A strange prehistoric beast lurks in the depths of the Amazonian jungle. A group of scientists try to capture the animal and bring it back to civilization for study.

Director: Jack Arnold | Stars: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno

Votes: 19,990 | Gross: $1.30M

The infamous Gill-Man makes his first appearance. There are two sequels, the enjoyable Revenge of the Creature and then the less-loved Creature Walks Among Us.

3. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Approved | 92 min | Drama, Sci-Fi

7.8
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An alien lands and tells the people of Earth that they must live peacefully or be destroyed as a danger to other planets.

Director: Robert Wise | Stars: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe

Votes: 68,429

In my opinion, the most perfect sci-fi film ever made, a near-flawless story in which a flying saucer lands smack in the middle of Washington. The alien emerges with a towering intimidating robot... and an ultimatum. The rubbishy remake misses the point completely, and shows just how good this original was.

4. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

Unrated | 83 min | Action, Sci-Fi

6.4
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Extraterrestrials traveling in high-tech flying saucers contact scientist Dr. Russell Marvin as part of a plan to enslave the inhabitants of Earth.

Director: Fred F. Sears | Stars: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis, Morris Ankrum

Votes: 5,726

There aren't as many outright flying saucer invasion films as you might think, just this one, War of the Worlds, and The Mysterians. Most involve covert operations like Invaders from Mars, This Island Earth, or no. 13 on this list of twelve, the chilling and disconcerting Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This, however, is classic 1950s pulp sci-fi mayhem, as saucers buzz the world's most treasured monuments and make a mess of Washington, while conveniently posing for photos at all the great landmarks like all good tourists before smashing into them. Robot shell suits, ray guns, flying saucers running amok, what's not to love?

5. Forbidden Planet (1956)

G | 98 min | Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi

7.7
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A starship crew goes to investigate the silence of a planet's colony only to find two survivors and a deadly secret that one of them has.

Director: Fred M. Wilcox | Stars: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens

Votes: 37,806 | Gross: $3.00M

A little slow in places, and I personally hate the dreary electronic score, but the visuals are superb, and certain set pieces are legendary. Watch for the invisible energy monster--if you know what i mean. Anyhow, you can't ignore the film that inspired the two top SF TV shows of the '60's, Lost in Space and Star Trek, visually inspired the Time Tunnel base and the first Daleks story in Doctor Who, and almost certainly the Kree in Lee and Kirby's iconic Fantastic Four comics... and gave us Robby the Robot and provided numerous props for later films and TV's Twilight Zone...

6. I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)

Not Rated | 78 min | Horror, Sci-Fi

6.4
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Aliens arrive on Earth to possess the bodies of humans. One of their first victims is a young man, whose new wife soon realizes something is wrong with him.

Director: Gene Fowler Jr. | Stars: Tom Tryon, Gloria Talbott, Peter Baldwin, Robert Ivers

Votes: 2,070

Behind this wonderful title is one of the most adult and creepy of the 1950s sci-fi films. Most sci-fi films of this period offer a ten-year-old boy's view of male-female relationships, but this Outer Limits-style alien invasion story is the decade's single exception. A B-movie to be sure (the day for night filming is a disaster), but great monsters, great visuals, and never a dull moment. Pure pulp. Wallow in it.

7. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Passed | 81 min | Horror, Sci-Fi

7.7
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When Scott Carey begins to shrink because of exposure to a combination of radiation and insecticide, medical science is powerless to help him.

Director: Jack Arnold | Stars: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Paul Langton

Votes: 12,969

Melancholy tale of a guy who comes into contact with a mysterious cloud and subsequently starts getting smaller and smaller. intelligent, thoughtful, and still full of jeopardy and incident, it provides the requisite adventure while giving food for thought. Easily miles ahead of all the other mini-men sci-fi of the '50s, although the 1940s Doctor Cyclops and 1960's pilot for Land of the Giants have their own special qualities. Downbeat but inspirational.

8. Invaders from Mars (1953)

Approved | 78 min | Sci-Fi

6.5
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A young boy learns that space aliens are taking over the minds of earthlings.

Director: William Cameron Menzies | Stars: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson

Votes: 5,842

A little boy sees a flying saucer land near his house, and then his parents and neighbours start behaving strangely. He's all alone, and nobody will believe him. This is wonderful stuff, a surreal dreamlike fantasy with amazing visuals from a kid's perspective of the adult world.

9. It Came from Outer Space (1953)

Approved | 81 min | Horror, Sci-Fi

6.6
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A spaceship from another world crashes in the Arizona desert and only an amateur stargazer and a schoolteacher suspect alien influence when the local townsfolk begin to act strangely.

Director: Jack Arnold | Stars: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer

Votes: 6,753

Friendly aliens my ass. It's weird how certain misconceptions just get repeated over and over ad infinitum, without anyone revisiting the film to check it out. Loads of reference sources will tell you that the aliens in this film are peaceful and non-hostile, but nothing could be further from the truth. Body-stealing blobs accidentally crash on Earth in the desert, and abduct the local yokels' forms while trying to fix their spaceship and move on. Makes no sense if you think about it. Surely they make stuff on their homeworld to their own specifications? The kindest thing that could be said about them is that they're misanthropic, isolationist, callous, and selfish... Pipe-smoking scientist understandably can't get the authorities to take his word for it. Lots of fake scares for 3-d. Dig that groovy theremin, standard for 1950s SF.

10. Them! (1954)

Approved | 94 min | Horror, Sci-Fi

7.3
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.3/10 X  

The earliest atomic tests in New Mexico cause common ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters that threaten civilization.

Director: Gordon Douglas | Stars: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness

Votes: 16,393

The first and best of the giant bug movies, and the template for all those that followed. Giant ants stalk the desert, the skies, and then the sewer system of a major city. Pre-CGI special effects done the hard way. Don't mock, marvel.

11. This Island Earth (1955)

Approved | 86 min | Horror, Mystery, Sci-Fi

5.9
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Aliens come to Earth seeking scientists to help them in their war.

Director: Joseph M. Newman | Stars: Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason, Lance Fuller

Votes: 7,423

Just about every cliche of 1950s pulp mag sci-fi is here in living colour, from the glowing saucers, high-domed aliens, death-dealing disintegration rays, and bug-eyed monsters to the square-jawed scientist and hero-worshipping assistant. Absolute heaven from start to finish, you must see this film. And don't be put off by the nerds who diss the bug-eyed, claw-mitted mutant--or Mu-Tant as the lead insists on pronouncing it. This film would be dead and forgotten without him. Pure, undiluted pulp sci-fi pleasure from start to finish; don't just watch it, roll about in it and rub it all over yourself...

12. The War of the Worlds (1953)

Approved | 85 min | Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller

7.1
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A small town in California is attacked by Martians, beginning a worldwide invasion.

Director: Byron Haskin | Stars: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite

Votes: 27,448 | Gross: $4.36M

Still the best space invasion film for my money. The necessary changes from the novel have made the film more credible and timeless, and the ending is just so right. The combination of giving an overview of an entire world under attack while following one couple's story is also well managed, a personal experience within the big picture. Design, execution, sound effects, aliens--all ten out of ten. Wonderful.

Jon is not on Facebook, but can reply to comments here, at the base of this list.

Obsessed with the popular culture of the 1960s and surrounding decades, Jon Abbott has been writing about film and TV for over thirty years in around two dozen different publications, trade, populist, and specialist. He is the author of several books, including

Irwin Allen Television Productions 1964-1970, Stephen J. Cannell Television Productions: A History of All Series and Pilots, The Elvis Films, Cool TV of the 1960s: Three Shows That Changed the World, and Strange New World: Sex Films of the 1970s.

See his Amazon author's page, and his other lists on the IMDB, all under the pre-fix DISCOVER.