Jack Arnold, a self-professed fan of science fiction, brought a dark sensibility to some of the best horror-tinged sci-fi movies of the 1950s.
Arnold directed several outright classics, such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and several minor classics: Tarantula (1955) and The Space Children (1958). While he collaborated with several different screenwriters in these efforts, including the estimable Richard Matheson, the consistency of these efforts make it clear that their intelligence and noirish qualities owed a great deal to Arnold.
Arnold’s best movies were awash with somber pyschological undertones. Monsters, mutants, and aliens all seemed to reflect some underlying unease. The Creature from the Black Lagoon plays out against a backdrop of complex sexual tension. It Came from Outer Space feeds off Cold War paranoia. The Incredible Shrinking Man is more about the helpless terror of a man losing a grip on everything in his life than giant spiders or mysterious radioactive clouds.
The overlooked gem, The Space Children, exemplifies Arnold’s touch. Like many of his other movies, it’s set in an isolated, remote locale, a secret rocket test site where scientists are ensconced with their families. Their children are neglected, abused, and just plain ignored, and one day they find a pulsing alien brain living in a cave by the sea. The alien convinces the children that the rocket being built on the base is a threat to the Earth’s survival, but when the kids fail to convince their parents to stop, the alien begins taking over their minds to take direct action.
With the theme of children struggling to make adults come to grips with potential armegeddon, The Space Children is reminiscent of Invaders from Mars (1953), but what distinguishes it from its predecessor is the notion that it’s the adults who are the villains, not the aliens. Arnold manages to combine both childhood alienation and the dangers of science deployed in the pursuit of paranoia.
Arnold never did much of distinction after The Space Children, going on to a prolific career as director of TV shows like Gilligan’s Island and the Brady Bunch. I believe that it was his love of the genre that made his sci-fi classics of the 1950s the best of the lot, and once he moved on (and the country’s tastes moved on) in the 1960s he never had any projects worthy of his intelligence and dark sensibility. In that way, Jack Arnold was a man very much of his time.