Film: When paranoia reigned and schlock filled the screens

Transvestites, cat-women and blobs from outer space- they all feature in a series of classic B-movies at the Barbican.
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The Independent Culture
OUT OF the ideological sludge of the America of the Fifties they came: monsters from the deep or the black lagoon, alien invaders and cat- women from the moon, murderous rock'n'rolling teenagers with appealingly Brylcreemed quiffs, along with beatnik menaces, into a sane, ordered society.

There are the gravity-defying breasts of the Jayne Mansfield lookalike Mamie Van Doren, and even Jayne Mansfield herself, as well as Communist infiltrators and infiltrated Communists, and legions of nameless weirdos threatening the neat symmetry of Mrs Eisenhower's front lawn.

As the transvestite director adjusts the falsies beneath his angora sweater and calls out "Action!" a nation trembles in the interval between the backyard barbecues, reading the funny papers and frying the Rosenbergs.

The Barbican Centre's cinema season Attack of the Killer Bs offers a true schlockathon of authentic Fifties paranoia and plain bad taste. From those old favourites you have loved, hated or sworn never to lock eyes with again, to the belated British premieres of films such as Teenagers From Outer Space (1959), whose promise of "See thrill-crazed space kids blast the flesh off humans!" is not to be taken lightly, the Barbican flicks are giving the big-screen treatment to material usually consigned to very-late-night television for the post-pub and club vindaloo set. On Sunday there's even the debut of a cinematic experience that television can never duplicate, when the B-movie serial-viewer Jonathan Ross introduces a double bill of the producer William Castle's The Tingler and The House on Haunted Hill, to be shown with specially adapted electric-shock-generating seats for that genuine tingling feeling.

As well as a round-up of the usual suspects, such as Ed Wood's authentically bad Plan Nine from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda?, there's also the serious cinephile's hard-to-track-down rarity in the director Robert Altman's debut feature The Delinquents (1957), an examination of juvenile delinquency cast in the mould of an exploitation flick and set in Altman's home turf of Kansas City. The fly-by-night fluff is also given a serious context with a showing of the ultimate teen angst movie, Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), where the studied curl of James Dean's upper lip, Natalie Wood's transcendental vacancy of expression and Sal Mineo's odd socks never fail to hit the correct emotional spot, no matter how often you've seen them before.

Tribute is also duly paid to the founding father of ironic schlock, the director and producer Roger Corman, with showings of the hilarious beatnik- murder horror A Bucket of Blood (although its even better companion piece The Little Shop of Horrors is unaccountably missing), and the apotheosis of that smoothie British actor Ray Milland in The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963), which is perhaps a little out of period for the season. The alien menace of rock'n'roll is covered by Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It (1956) where, in one of numerous visual puns, La Mansfield's breasts are likened to a pair of milk bottles, and the fairly anodyne Rock Around the Clock (1956) which will be very lucky to get punters ripping up the Barbican's seats this time around.

The tribute to the starlet Mamie van Doren (which sounds like an all- too-accurate parody of some French film festival's programme) results in showings of the pioneer women-in-prison movie Untamed Youth (1957) and the genuinely weird The Beat Generation (1959) which features the unlikely trio of Louis Armstrong, Jackie Coogan and Finnish glamour-puss Vampira. Finally, there are the old reliables of the period, The Blob (yes, it was Steve McQueen's debut but did you know it also featured music by Burt Bacharach?), The Thing, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the paranoia movie to end them all, Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The Fifties in the United States was a period of rigid conformity in which pop-sociological tracts of the time, such as David Riesman's book The Lonely Crowd and Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders pointed to real fears of alienation and anomie, or imagined attacks from subliminal advertising, and where the efforts of Senator Joe McCarthy to winkle out reds from under beds led to a widespread climate of all-too-true paranoia.

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers the aliens who were replacing ordinary Joes with emotionless dummies out of pods might have been a symbol of the Communist menace, but for the left-leaning director Seigel they were also an allusion to the far more dangerous conformity being imposed from the right. The monsters emerging from the sludge and the alien invaders from outer space were partly a collective unconscious fear of Communism contaminating the very mud of mid-century America, but they were also nightmarish visions of Freud's return of the repressed; the phantom imaginings of sex and violence that couldn't be acknowledged in the Eisenhower era, when Doris Day with all her clothes on was about as sexy as you could get.

While there had always been B-movie studios, such as the Republic set- up so beloved of Jean-Luc Godard, the popularity of drive-in movies - especially in the southern states - and the developing teen culture of the time, led to a new trend in cheap exploitation movies that could be programmed together as double-Bs without the need for a proper Hollywood A-movie at all.

Thus the brief reign of schlock producers like William Castle, Allied Artists, American International and Roger Corman, and in an equivalent move in Britain, Hammer films.

But after the golden years celebrated by the Barbican season, where did this wellspring of cheap production values schlock go to? To television, of course, which was just B-movies with a restricted aspect ratio. And you're still watching them now, night after night after night.

Attack of the Killer Bs is at the Barbican cinema, tomorrow until 3 September (0171-638 8891)