We know the greats; movies like Metropolis (1927), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977).
And there are those films which maybe didn’t achieve cinematic greatness, but through their inexhaustible watchability became genre touchstones, lesser classics but classics nonetheless, like The War of the Worlds (1953), Godzilla (1954), Them! (1954), The Time Machine (1960).
In the realm of science fiction cinema, those are the cream (and below that, maybe the half and half). But sci fi is one of those genres which has often too readily leant itself to – not to torture an analogy — producing nonfat dairy substitute.
During the first, great wave of sci fi movies in the 1950s, the target audience was kids and teens. There wasn’t a lot in the way of “serious” sci fi. Most of it was churned out quick and cheap; drive-in fodder, grist for the Saturday matinee mill.
By the early 1960s, that wave had crested, and it wouldn’t be until later in the decade – when films like 2001 and Planet of the Apes (1968) not only revived the genre commercially, but earned it an adult stature it had never before enjoyed – that Hollywood would, again, begin turning out sci fiers in significant numbers.
But where I lived in New Jersey, the space aged, monster-riddled, mutant-filled, alien-infested thrills never stopped. That great reservoir of 1950s/early 60s cheapies helped fill the hours for our local independent TV stations (being part of the humongous New York City market, we had three indies along with three network affiliates). There were even dedicated sci fi/horror slots on Saturday night when the kids were sure to be home which meant, come Sunday, we were together on the streets, laughing about the goofy bits, awed by the cool parts, and recreating them both. Saturday afternoon we got the new stuff in matinees at the Elwood Theater just a few blocks away, and Saturday night we got the oldies in our living rooms.
Every great once in a while, one of those made-on-a-shoestring memories resurfaces on TCM. Some are as corny as I remember them, some considerably worse. But some, well, I realize the reason the memories have hung with me so strongly was that somehow – despite the threadbare budget, the often outrageous plots, and the painfully, plainly awful special effects – something clicked. Maybe a director, for all the limits he had to work within, showed a bit of style, or maybe it was the actors, B-talent to be sure, but taking the proceedings serious enough to sell it to an undiscriminating young mind. Whatever, something worked. And maybe it’s no more than nostalgia, but when I see them again, whatever it was that worked then still works for me.
And even if it is nostalgia, well, that’s ok, too. Herewith 10 of my favorites that didn’t make the great and near-great lists, but I think might still give you a little kick some Saturday night.
After all that reflective talk about low-rent sci fi cheese and drive-in fodder, I feel a bit hypocritical bringing in this slickly produced, intelligent, Computer Age take on Frankenstein. Still, it was a movie overlooked in its time (Universal, unsure of how to market the pic, dumped it on the market with little support dooming it to a came-and-went release) and undeservedly forgotten.
Colossus is a massive supercomputer created by Dr. Forbin (Eric Braeden) to handle the country’s national defense. But Forbin has built his thinking machine too well. Given the goal of preventing war, Colossus calculates the most effective way of doing so is by subjugating mankind, threatening nuclear destruction if the nations of the world don’t obey, promising The Millennium if they do.
What keeps Colossus from being just another computer-goes-berserk “Star Trek” episode is the smarts and style with which Sargent and Bridges come at the project (no surprise: Sargent would go on to win several Emmys and DGA awards for his work in TV and also direct that tangy paean to dysfunctional New York, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three , while Bridges would move up to director with films like The Paper Chase  and The China Syndrome ). Sargent/Bridges lean heavy on the adult drama and avoid the cheap thrills to turn in a taught thriller about cold-hearted logic run riot.
Nobody got more bang on screen for his few bucks than that maestro of the matinee, the doyen of the drive-in, the godfather of grindhouse cinema, the King of the Bs himself, Roger Corman. X is one of his best, up there with his better Poe adaptations.
Ray Milland is a doctor looking to advance OR technique through a serum granting surgeons X-ray vision. He tries his serum on himself, and, though it works, he finds it uncontrollable. After Milland accidentally kills a fellow doctor, he goes on the run, trying to hustle enough money to continue his research first as a carnival act, then as a faith healer. An attempt to quickly put the necessary funds together by using his power to game a Vegas casino leads to a police chase and a car crash. A dazed Milland, his mutated eyes now filled with a sickly black tissue, staggers into a revival tent where the preacher chastises him for his “false visions,” commanding, “If thine eye offends thee…pluck it out!,” a call his congregation takes up as an ugly, horrifying chant.
Despite its obvious budget limitations (you can tell the overturned cheap sedan Milland crawls from is not the flashy Lincoln he supposedly wrecked), X’s screenplay by Dillon & Russell is an unsettling, sometimes near poetic platform which Corman ably runs with. I remember Milland, unable to sleep at night because he can see through his eyelids and every one of the grubby tenement apartments above him; him waxing eloquent about being surrounded by a “city of the dead,” its buildings stripped of their exteriors (Corman used the girder skeletons of unfinished buildings shot through a distortion lens), its inhabitants walking skeletons; and that final, chilling scene in the revival tent where Milland testifies to seeing “Farther than time itself.” More character-driven than most Corman films, and genuinely disturbing not through grisly effects but through its ideas, X is a movie you’ll still see playing behind your eyes when you try – unsuccessfully – to sleep that night.
3- The Lost Missile (1958). Directed by William Berke. Written by John McPartland, Jerome Bixby, and Lester William Berke (the director’s son, he took over directing when his father died after the first day of filming).
An alien missile becomes trapped in Earth orbit. The atmospheric friction from its incredible speed throws off enough heat to incinerate everything within a five mile-wide track. Conventional weapons are useless, prematurely detonating against the million degree heat wave. With New York in the missile’s path and just hours from destruction, scientists race to launch a nuclear warhead whose blast can reach through the heat track and destroy the missile.
I don’t know what the budget on this pic was, but when I was talking about sci fi cheese, this is what I was talking about. Missile was evidently made as cheaply as you can make a movie without it looking like some Ed Wood monstrosity. It’s 70-minute running time is padded out with more Defense Department stock footage than a “Why We Fight” documentary, the plot is held together with stretches of somber narration, and the bargain basement not-so-special effects include obvious paintings and puffs of smoke blown in front of the camera. And that’s not even getting into the cornball turns the script takes, like a nuclear warhead escorted by a single jeep being waylaid by a bunch of leather-jacketed toughs. Seriously?
But even as a kid, I thought there was something…haunting about this modest little thriller. Maybe it was the unknown nature of the threat (we never learn the origin of this stray missile, or even if it’s manned – I used to toy with that thought; a trapped crew just as appalled by the destruction they’re causing as those on the ground), or its inexorability – its steady, unstoppable progression around the globe, a countdown of destruction ending with Earth a cinder. One of the times that grim voiceover (by an overwrought Lawrence Dobkin) works is when it projects the missile’s timeline forward, counting down the days the major cities of the world have left.
Or maybe it was its unique feeling of melancholy. I remember the people of Ottawa (the missile’s first urban casualty) hunkering down for the missile’s arrival, there being no time for an evacuation. One guy on the street hears some whimpering, finds a couple of lost kids, and huddles down with them to await the inevitable. It’s also the wedding day for rocket scientist Robert Loggia (in one of his earliest roles); a wedding that never happens. Loggia has to abandon his wife-to-be (Ellen Parker) to take the “baby warhead” whose protective case has been compromised to the rocket base and install it even though it means exposing himself to lethal radiation. The movie climaxes with Parker standing alone in an open field, shrieking as she witnesses the atomic blast which will destroy the alien missile…and which signifies the death of the man she was to have married that day.
For whatever reason, people remember The War of the Worlds, they remember The Time Machine, but somehow this rich-looking, utterly charming Wells adaptation seems to have slipped down a black hole.
A modern day moon landing (or rather a not-bad 1964 guess at what the 1969 moon landing would look like) discovers that English explorers have already been there – over 60 years earlier! Space agency officials run down the lone, aged survivor (Edward Judd). As a young, wannabe playwright dodging creditors, he found himself living next to an obsessive, eccentric inventor (wonderfully kooky Lionel Jeffries) who invents a substance which can block the effects of gravity. They venture to the moon where they find an underground civilization of insect-like beings. The exuberant adventure takes a darker turn when Jeffries has to explain mankind’s warlike existence to the head moon bug (“This isn’t an audience!” Judd warns him, “It’s a trial!”), and inadvertently brings about an extinction level event…through a case of the sniffles.
A strong cast, a still impressive production (even more so for being rendered on a fairly modest budget), special effects which still hold up (particularly stop-action master Ray Harryhausen’s “moon cow” and master bug inquisitors), and the delightfully winsome details of a Victorian era trip to the moon make this an unjustly forgotten class act.
This one’s a bit of a cheat, coming from my college days (I can’t think of it without remembering a certain pungent, herbal scent wafting through the theater; FYI, I did not inhale), but it does qualify as a neglected if not forgotten bit of fantastical fun.
If you know anything about animation, you know Bakshi is the man who single-handedly made the medium grow up with his feature debut, the X-rated Fritz the Cat (1972). Bakshi’s career has had more misses than hits, though oddly, his biggest hit – an uncharacteristically turgid, animated version of the first half of The Lord of the Rings (1978) – seems to have been forgotten. Just as well because as ambitious as his LOTR was, and as provocative and controversial as Fritz was, I think Wizards is his most enjoyable flick.
Wizards is a wonderfully chaotic blend of LOTR fantasy tropes, sci fi, 1970s pothead grooviness, street corner humor, war movie clichés, casual eroticism, parody, satire, allegory, God knows what else. I wouldn’t call it great cinema, or even great animation, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
In a post-apocalyptic world, fairies, elves, and the whole magical tier of existence has reasserted itself on Earth. Two brother wizards, one good (the cigar-chomping Avatar, voiced by Bob Holt), one evil (Blackwolf, voiced by Steve Gravers) have already fought one war for dominion over the earth ending with Blackwolf’s defeat and his banishment to the land of Scortch. To rally his army of demons and monsters, Blackwolf uses Nazi propaganda films dug up from the ancient ruins. Energized by images of a fanatical Hitler and the WW II blitzkrieg, Blackwolf and his minions again go to war against his brother.
With his limited budget, Bakshi relied heavily on rotoscoping for his battle scenes – drawing over live footage culled from movies like Zulu (1964), El Cid (1961), Patton (1970), and The Battle of the Bulge (1965) – but his additions (devil’s horns on tankers, glowing eyes in the dark silhouette of a WW I pilot) turn what could seem like a cheat into a series of striking animated images.
What gives Wizards a feel like few other fantasies – a distinctly adult feel, by the way – is Bakshi’s streetwise sensibility which reaches its defining moment in the movie’s climax. Avatar’s long quest ends with a face-off with Blackwolf. The austere, towering evil brother seems ready to zap away his pudgy little brother. Avatar flashes his sleeves with a magician’s flourish, announces “Here’s a trick mom showed me when you weren’t around.” He pulls an automatic pistol from his sleeve – “Oh, yeah, one more thing: I’m glad you changed your last name you sonofabitch” – and puts two bullets through his brother’s heart.
Ok, it ain’t exactly Tolkien or even Lucas, but I still consider it a great “Oh yeah!” movie moment. I can just see Avatar saying, “Hey, Frodo, ya don’t like it? Then just kiss my dimpled wizard’s ass!”
There’s something about Brit cinema from the 50s and early 60s. Think of The Entertainer (1960), or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). It always looked – especially in black and white – a bit grimier and grittier than American cinema, a bit tougher, more bleak. Even when it was sunny, it always seemed to be a damp fall day, the farm fields empty and trees bare. That same gray pall is at work in X giving it a marked visual contrast to its Southern California, antiseptically sun-baked American counterparts.
A radioactive, possibly sentient mud (yeah, you read that right) has found its way from deep in the earth to the surface, and it falls to scientist Dean Jagger, assisted by investigator Leo McKern, to try to destroy it.
Sangster was one of the engines behind the success of the legendary Hammer Studios. After a stint as assistant director, he turned screenwriter with X, then went on to write many of Hammer’s signature redos of classic gothic horrors like the Frankenstein and Dracula tales. Despite its out-there concept, Sangster delivers a smart, well-built script. It may not be saying much, but if you’re going to do a sci fier about thinking mud, this is as good as it gets.
Another refreshing difference between Brit sci fi of the period and its American opposite numbers: there’s not a lantern-jawed hero scientist to be had, nor is there any curvy girlfriend or hotsie-totsie helpmate wife to conveniently turn her ankle in the path of the oncoming goo. Instead, the Good Guys are led by bald, middle-aged Jagger backed up by stout, rubber-faced McKern; both of them first rank character actors. Sangster’s script, low-key performances eschewing the usual sci fi hysteria, and that raw-November-day look: X never feels as slight as it is.
Yeaworth and Simonson had previously scored a surprising success with The Blob (1958). Though they never had another hit as big (how do you compete with a pile of Day-Glo pink ooze?), this is actually the better film (which, I grant, isn’t saying much).
Robert Lansing is a scientist at a private research lab. His brother (James Congdon), another scientist, takes a job alongside, bringing with him his own pet project: a device – which has only worked successfully once — allowing solid objects to pass through each other. Lansing gets the device to work, allowing him to pass through objects, but he can’t control the process. It begins aging him and any attempt to touch another human being is lethal.
What makes this small-scale thriller work is Lansing. “Star Trek” fans might remember him as
Gary Seven in the episode “Assignment Earth” which had been intended as the launch for a spinoff series which never happened. Lansing always had a quiet intensity about him, and no matter the material – as the lead in the TV version of “12 O’Clock High,” the mysterious “Control” in the series “The Equalizer,” Gary Seven, or here as a driven but not mad scientist – he played with absolute conviction. It’s his performance more than anything else which “sells” this diverting piece of decidedly human-sized sci fi.
With sci fi and fantasy such a cornerstone of the current studio theatrical business, it might be hard to fathom there was a time when it was hardly the go-to genre for the majors. It was often bargain basement stuff ground out for the kids. But every great once in a while, a studio would see the potential in the genre to showcase the movies’ ability to take us anywhere. And that’s the case with this lavishly-produced tale about a journey into inner space.
It’s the Cold War and both Our Side and Their Side have the technology to miniaturize anything: missiles, ships, whole armies. The catch is neither side has found a way to keep things shrunk for more than an hour. The one scientist who knows that secret defects to the U.S., but, before he can share his knowledge, he’s critically injured in an assassination attempt which leaves him comatose, his life threatened by a blood clot inoperable through conventional means. But a special team, shrunk to microscopic size, traveling through the scientist’s blood stream in their itty-bitty sub, might be able to save his life from the inside!
Fleischer was a solid craftsman whose filmography includes A-caliber releases ranging from Disney’s family adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), to the Kirk Douglas bit of sword-swinging swagger The Vikings (1958), to the provocative adult drama of The Boston Strangler (1968) and Compulsion (1959), and he’s helped out here with an exceptional cast of pros including Stephen Boyd, Arthur Kennedy, Edmond O’Brien, Arthur O’Connell, and the always fun-to-watch Donald Pleasance.
I concede this A-caliber feature isn’t exactly cheese factory stuff, but I include it here as a reminder of what pre-CGI Hollywood could do. For me, Fantastic Voyage still inspires awe when you realize this journey through the body had to be made with incredibly detailed miniatures, some amazing full-sized recreations of a “landscape” every bit as bizarre and alien as the surface of some foreign planet, and an enormous amount of technical skill.
No offense, computer geeks, but next to what these guys accomplished with hammers and nails, CGI razzle-dazzle loses some of its dazzle.
Mr. Sangster is at it again, taking some sci fi hokum and making it play through sheer craftsmanship.
Forrest Tucker is a scientist called to the Swiss Alps by an old associate (Warren Mitchell) who thinks a situation might be developing on Mt. Trollenberg similar to one Tucker found (and was professionally discredited by) in the Andes several years ago. Mountaineers have been disappearing or found decapitated, and seemingly stuck in place on the upper slopes is a radioactive cloud. What’s hiding in that cloud? Surprise! Crawling Eyes (the title didn’t give it away for you?) – aliens that look sort of like giant-sized, one-eyed octopi.
Alright, it sounds silly, but Sangster’s script and Lawrence’s disciplined direction give the film a deliciously restrained, moody build-up, and the actors – particularly Tucker – give nicely shaded performances. Lawrence really nails it the first time we see one of the invaders; Tucker has run back to the evacuated village to grab a little girl left behind, scoops her up in the lobby of the local inn just as the front doors come crashing down to reveal one of the veiny-eyed uglies.
The short money kills the third act climax and it’s hard not to laugh at the stupendously awful miniatures, but up until then, you’re surprised at just how well this creeper plays out.
You can’t do a piece like this and not include at least one Japanese monster bash. Made two years after Godzilla (and released the same year the U.S. version of Godzilla opened on this side of the Pacific), Rodan was one of the earliest Godzilla clones, the first Japanese beastie flick shot in color, and arguably the last one where the involved parties tried to take the goings-on seriously. After this, it was flame-eating flying turtles, and 12-inch high girls singing to giant moths and… Well, you know.
Out in Japanese mining country, a particularly deeply-dug shaft is bringing trouble: disappearances in the mine, mangled bodies. The authorities eventually find the mine has released some Buick-sized prehistoric insects, but that’s just the start of this poor little hill town’s troubles. Turns out the insects are, in turn, food for a pair of gigantic, prehistoric reptiles which have been resurrected in caverns beneath a dormant volcano.
Like the Godzilla prototype, Rodan has a disciplined, slow build up with a pretty good mystery going in the first act: people disappear from the area, a strange flying object is sighted high in the skies over Japan (one of the screenwriters was supposedly inspired by a late 1940s true story of an American fighter pilot who died in a crash while trying to pursue a reported UFO). Of course, once the Rodans reveal themselves, the flick looks like any other Japanese creature feature: guy in a rubber suit kicking the hell out of an H-O-sized model of a city while toy tanks and jets bang away at it with fireworks. Actually, all the city-razing and tiny blasting tanks are impressive in a chintzy, low-rent kind of way.
But the finale takes an oddly melancholic tack (again, just like Godzilla). The military tries to seal the Rodans up in their home caves, but the explosions jumpstart the nearby volcano. One of the Rodans is crippled and can’t fly away. Its mate, rather than escape, flies circles above, the reptiles calling back and forth to each other. The volcanic fumes become too much for the flying Rodan and it falls to earth where it’s consumed by flaming lava along with its partner. Over this, one of the bystanders provides an awed voiceover, something like, “And I wondered if I, a twentieth century man, could die as well.”
Despite the toy missiles going off, the volcano looking like backyard fireworks, and all this pseudo-majestic drivel about how bravely the two rubber monsters are dying, there’s still something, well, affecting about it…at least there is when you’re 12, you’re susceptible in that way that happens when you’ve stayed up too long trying to catch the end of the late movie, and you’re still open enough to take the emotional ride with damned near anything.
The fun wasn’t over when “The End” came up. Even before you stumbled off to bed, your head was already looking forward to that next-day get-together with The Guys; the one where you’d rehash the cool parts, mock the bad ones, then replay the whole thing out in someone’s backyard under the summer sun.
- Bill Mesce