Gloriously, the 1950s were the first unbrassiered awakening of naked anxiety in American pop cinema—independent production allowed for all manner of cheap and rangy films to be made outside of the studio factories, and the war-baby generation was entering its adolescent years, full on its way to becoming America's first Pain in the Ass Teenagers. On top of that, the nation itself was settling uneasily into a postwar affluence that insisted we locate life's meaning in our new Chevrolets, tract homes, washing machines, and televisions. But, as David Byrne would later sing, memories of a '50s—'60s Baltimore childhood swimming between his ears, "What is that beautiful house?" Only this era could have manifested something as absurdly iconic as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), a film less familiar by now than its notorious title and ubiquitous poster imagery, but itself such a bald-faced cataract of self-confessional dreads and social impulses that it's a wonder it hasn't spawned a subindustry of postmodernist academic attack to rival the junk heaps that have accumulated around Vertigo or Blade Runner.
We can assume the filmmakers—producer Bernie Woolner, screenwriter Mark Hanna, director Nathan Hertz (né Juran), grade-B hacks and industry wanderers one and all—were not exploring their own masculine phobias, but rather simply exploiting the new hormone-fueled drive-in market with a grabby title, a hunger for the nice return seen on 1957's The Amazing Colossal Man (also written by Hanna), and a predictably low budget. All of 65 minutes and available presently only in Warner's Cult Camp Classics DVD set, 50 Foot Woman is nothing if not the living realization of an American-Freudian wish-fear—a bedeviling nexus of mother hate, outrageous Oedipal lust, middle-class misogyny, marital discontent, sexual inadequacy, castration phobias, and socioeconomic self-doubt. Everything, in other words, that makes the modern American man tick.
A wealthy woman (Allison Hayes) with a dissolute and faithless husband (William Hudson) and her own history of booze and instability meets a vague alien presence on a night road (a giant white sphere, a giant hairy hand) and begins to grow. Simple as that—but who needs complications? Hayes's B-movie career was never the same; she became our angry dominatrix goddess from Mt. Olympus. Her growling puss and heaving torpedo breasts, filling the fake studio sky as she rips the ceiling off the honky-tonk in which her husband is loitering, triggered a semiconscious frisson in every male viewer, an expression and exaggeration of their own petulant, unvoiced, masturbatory desires for both fulfillment and punishment.
It's a shoddy film, naturally, but that is part of its nightmarish sheen—when the giant rubber hand (the production's one elaborate prop) enters the bar, going for Hudson's jerkoff spouse, it's a moment when midcentury pulp moviedom transforms itself into your own heart-racing and vaguely dangerous dreams. While hundreds of other deliriously gray '50s drive-in products have been forgotten, 50 Foot Woman persists in the cultural forebrain, like a moment of seismic self-revelation.