Attack Of The 50ft Icons
By Caroline Rennox
There’s plenty of examples of movies where the extremes of scale are the main attraction. Films like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) all show us the wonder and terror of the everyday world when it’s distorted in size. These are movies about finding the fantastic in the mundane, where normal rules are suspended and quick-thinking and bravery are all that stands between you and death by giant ant. For movies about the macro side of the scale, we tend to see less focus on the world but on individuals made monstrous by their size. They’re more often about giant animals or genuine monsters, like King Kong or the numerous behemoths that populate kaiju movies. When it’s our fellow man that’s the star attraction there’s more room to play around with our various tropes regarding giants. Is our giant a terrifying, unstoppable brute or a clumsy, ungainly simpleton? Moreover, it gives a chance to provide the giant with a little more depth and allow the audience to step into their enormous shoes.
One of the first and biggest successes of the genre was 1957’s The Amazing Colossal Man. Directed by Bert Gordon, who became known as ‘Mister BIG’ for his association with these macro-monster movies, the film’s effects were an achieved using rear projection, where scenes are filmed with the actors standing in front of a screen in which previously filmed footage is playing. It’s a technique that can have variable success- the ghost-like appearance of the titular Colossal Man is a common problem.
The movie milks its giant gimmick for all the freakshow fascination that it possibly can- marvel as the giant drinks from a barrel as if a dainty mug! Recoil as he tears apart the icons of the Las Vegas skyline! Beneath all the spectacle, however, is a rather slow and sombre tragedy with a great deal of pity for its man made monster. The story centres around Lt. Glenn Manning who is exposed to radiation during testing of a plutonium bomb (he would’ve been absolutely fine if he’d just stayed in that shallow trench with the other soldiers!). The radiation causes his growth via some biological technobabble and Manning is increasingly tormented by new freakish body. There are signs though that his torment isn’t only caused by his new monstrousness, he’s shown dreaming vivid flashbacks to the war- watching friends die and killing the enemy in blind terror. Manning’s horror at being thought a freak of nature is linked directly to his trauma and fear of what the war has made him. It’s that same fear that led him to leap out of the trench into certain death if it mean being able to save the pilot who’d blundered into range of their atomic test.
Despite his devoted fiancé Carol sticking by and supporting him throughout, Manning begins to lose his mind and goes on the rampage through Nevada. He’s completely disconnected from the tiny world around him, confused and angered by the people fleeing from his path. Finally, unable to tell friend from foe and beyond saving, Manning is cornered by the military and plunges to a certain death in the Boulder Dam.
Of course, that certain death wasn’t enough to stop the inevitable sequel that the movie’s success demanded, and a disfigured Manning appeared again in War of the Colossal Beast where he finally met his end via high voltage power line- a death that would become a staple of the subsequent giant monster movies. Gordon went on further to shoehorn his trademark into the the 60’s teen movie cult classic Village of the Giants where a group of partying teenagers grow big and trash a town after ingesting a mysterious goo.
Perhaps more well remembered than the Colossal Man is the 1958 movie that cashed in on his success- Attack of the 50ft Woman. Featuring the added novelty of a female protagonist, the 50ft Woman is a genuinely iconic character. In fact, my childhood love of these movies was re-ignited after I saw our local Fopp selling a t-shirt with the fantastic poster for the movie- the one where the bikini clad giant straddles a highway picking up cars in an exciting scene that in no way happens in the film.
It was an odd film to go back and re-watch. Female power fantasies of the big and burly type aren’t often seen in cinema and I’m sure my childhood self was mainly enamored with the idea of being a massive lady who could smash things. In truth, we only see the our leading lady in her full 50ft fury in the last few minutes of the film and it feels a poor revenge for what she goes through in the preceding hour.
Our heroine is no tragic war hero this time- Nancy Archer is a wealthy heiress with a history of mental illness and alcoholism. Manning’s faithful and true fiance is replaced by a philandering husband, whose cheating is done in plain sight of everyone in town and who starts plotting his wife’s murder as soon as he might be able to get away with it. Nancy seems to be seen as a laughingstock by the whole town, who are more than happy to write off the alien encounter that seals her fate as a booze fuelled delusion. Even the 50ft Nancy gets patronised by her doctors, sedated and tied to the bed by men who believe that “When woman reach the age of maturity, Mother Nature sometimes overworks the frustration to the point of irrationalism”.
Nancy Archer spends Attack of the 50ft Woman patronised, cheated on and humiliated. Her enormous growth turns her into the public freakshow that Manning was terrified of becoming and her final revenge lasts mere seconds before she’s sent into electrified oblivion.
I suppose you could say that Nancy’s true revenge has been in her staying power as a monster movie icon- she’s shown up in all but name in many forms since her 1958 debut, from cartoons to music videos. The giant woman can be an icon for female power and wrath but more often than not she’s also a source of titillation. Notorious schlock icon Roger Corman even got on the act producing 1995’s Attack of the 60ft Centrefold - which is exactly as classy as it sounds - and 2012’s Attack of the 50ft Cheerleader - which features a much Youtube’d scene in which the expanding breasts of our heroine pop out of her shirt.
A possible antidote to all of this comes in the form of Christopher Guest’s 1993 HBO remake of the original Attack of the 50ft Woman. The film is a lot funnier than the original and has a lot more compassion for its leading lady, played this time by Daryl Hannah. Hannah’s performance deftly retains the movie’s tongue-in-cheek tone whilst anchoring it with her transformation from sweet, downtrodden victim to a woman whose new-found size leads her to rediscovering her confidence and finally becoming the woman she always was inside. Even Harry’s mistress, Cristi Conaway’s Honey Parker, gets a little more depth than her 1958 version- yes, she’s still a jealous would-be murderer but at least this time she’s motivated by a lust for the power denied to her by the men in this one-horse town, and not a desire for shiny trinkets.
The 1993 version of Harry, however, manages to be even more awful than original, not least because of a truly sleazy performance from Daniel Baldwin. This Harry is actively trying to harm Nancy, not just thoughtlessly hurting her with his adultery and indifference to her suffering. In a thematically relevant twist, it turns out he is competing with her own father to keep her mentally off balance and under the thumb. When the newly enormous Nancy suggests that her new situation might lead revitalise their relationship he mocks her relentlessly until the stress caused by her anger causes her weak heart to give out. Thinking she’s dead, the scumbag gleefully runs off to start his new life with Nancy.
It’s in the last act of the movie that this version finally manages to give this 50ft woman the triumph she deserves. We get some great shots of Nancy stomping through town and fighting off military attack choppers but this Nancy isn’t out for revenge. Her newly discovered realisation that it’s the men in her life who need to change has given her compassion for the unenlightened. She even lets Honey go, urging her to reform- “Don't be stupid your whole damn life. You're better than they are, you're smarter than they are, and you know more than you think.”
Eventually, succumbing to the overwhelming firepower sent against her, Nancy collapses into the town’s surrounding power lines as per the giant movie monster tradition. But this time she escapes death, beamed into space by the same aliens who started her on this new path, with Harry firmly grasped in her hand.
The final scenes wryly drive home the movie’s feminist themes. Harry is now trapped on the spaceship in a small room with three other kidnapped men. At the mercy of their enormous female captors, these men are trapped in an endless group therapy session until they can work through the toxic ideas at the heart of their version of manhood. Hilariously, for these men, traditional masculinity is a literal prison. As Nancy tells him “It’s a whole new universe Harry, and it’s up to you to catch up with us”.
Monster movies have long entertained and frightened audiences but they’ve also allowed us to explore some of the fears that lurk at the heart of our society, throwing up a funhouse mirror reflection of what we are and what we might become. They can be revenge fantasies and symbols of power for the powerless. They can offer up a plea of understanding for the unknown. The giants of the movies I’ve talked about here are terrifying to the people confronted by them but also driven by their own terror. The tragic ends of these monsters suggest only one solution when you find your compassion waning in the face of fear - think big.
*It may or may not also be available to view for free on youtube*