Gems of Fantasy and Science Fiction Films
Film comment by Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 1994, 2000, 2001, 2006, 2008, 2013 Mark R. Leeper
Available at http://leepers.us/forgot.htm
Every film fan likes to point others to films he/she has particularly liked that other people probably have not heard of. In my film reviews I like to occasionally make reference to some very good film that I doubt most of my readers have heard of and to which I would like to call some attention. There are a lot of decent films, and a handful of very good ones, that at this point may exist only in the film libraries of obscure television stations, and when these few prints disappear the films will be gone. I would like to generate some interest in some of these films, if not to help save them, at least to alert people that if they do get a chance to see these films, it is a rare chance and they should give them a try.
Of course, there are a lot of obscure films that are showing up on video today, many of them very poorly made films. It is ironic that some terrific films are being over-looked, but in each case I think I can understand why some producer would think the film would not sell well on tape. I still recommend these films highly to watch for. This list was composed in the late 1960s, but in the interim I have been adding to it, in some cases deleting, and in some cases re-adding. I had removed Quatermass and the Pit (a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth), still in my opinion the best science fiction film ever made, because it was no longer really obscure. But a few years have gone by and I have found a lot of people who do not know the film. Perhaps this list will help in some small way to make some of the films become more available and perhaps be discovered by new fans. Every one of these films had something unique that appealed to me. Not every film will appeal to every viewer. If these films had appealed to every viewer, it is much more likely they would still be around and popular.
It is of interest to notice how often the name Richard Matheson shows up in this listing. That is probably as it should be. Matheson is one of the great under-appreciated names in fantasy, horror, and science fiction. He has made a greater contribution than Stephen King, but most modern fans do not even know his name. This list was intended to bring attention to neglected films, but just as important, I hope it brings attention to a neglected man.
[Everything is available on DVD from Netflix unless otherwise noted.]
Director F. W. Murnau is best known for Nosferatu, the making of which was dramatized in Shadow of the Vampire. This is another fine film from him. There is a lot of good visual fantasy in this film version of the famous play by Goethe. There is a terrific image of the Devil spreading his cape over a village, and many other visual surprises throughout.
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
The story, based on a lesser-known novel by Victor Hugo, could be better, but Conrad Veidt is terrific in the role of a man whose face is carved into an obscene, huge, involuntary grin. This makes everybody interpret him as constantly happy. Veidt conveys a full range of emotions through his eyes alone. The grinning Veidt was the visual inspiration for Batman's foe, The Joker.
The Tunnel (1935)
This is a fascinating film about mega-engineering. The American title , The Transatlantic Tunnel, really tells it all . Bigger than life people work on what would be one of the greatest engineering feats of all time, a tunnel linking the Britain and the United States. There are lots of big drilling machines and big human drama to accomplish the marvel. The concept was seriously considered at one point, but advances in aviation made it unnecessary. [No DVD]
The Dybbuk (1939)
At times this is very slow but also at times a very effective horror film. This was a low-budget film done in Yiddish but is now restored and subtitled in English. The "Dance of Death" scene has become an eerie classic. The story deals with a man's soul returning from the dead to possess the woman promised to him and whom he loved. Most of the filmmakers died in the Holocaust shortly after the film was made.
The Seventh Victim (1943)
Other Val Lewton films get more attention but this film is blacker and bleaker than anything ever done in film noir is. This is a solid mood piece that stands above Lewton's other films. A woman searching for her sister runs afoul of murder and Satanists. The film ends up being a love song to Death.
The Man in the White Suit (1951)
This film is usually thought of as a comedy, one of a well-respected set from Ealing Studios that starred the great Alec Guinness. This is part comedy and part serious drama about the affects of technology on humanity. A brilliant but eccentric chemist invents a new fabric for the perfect suit, one that never needs cleaning and that will last forever. It should be a boon to mankind. But the one thing that warring labor and management seem to be able to agree on is that they don't want to be making perfect suits that never need washing and never wear out. The scientist becomes a pariah and then a hunted man.
Night of the Demon (a.k.a. Curse of the Demon) (1957)
This film has gotten some attention because of an allusion in a song in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but at the time of the original writing it was rarely seen. Now it is a little better known, but still not to the degree it deserves. That is a pity because it is quite a nice little supernatural thriller. It suffers a little from showing the audience too much too soon, but it still is suspenseful and well-written.
Village of the Damned (1960)
This film may be a better known among older fans, but not so much the young. John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos is the basis for this film of a village where strange things have happened. First everybody in the village blacks out at the same time. They when they regain consciousness, all at the same time, things seems normal. But they are not. All the fertile women of the village are pregnant. And they give birth to hive-minded genius children with strange powers. Are they good? Evil? Nobody is sure. The film suggested another story, Children of the Damned (1963), perhaps a sequel and perhaps not, in which a few children from all over the world have the same strange powers.
The Mind Benders (1962)
This film combines Cold War thriller elements with science fiction and a compelling human story. A scientist working on sensory deprivation commits suicide and is discovered to have been passing secrets to the Soviets. Was he to blame or could his mind have been twisted while under the influence of the sensory deprivation tank? The government investigator decides to experiment to find out. Another scientist working in the same field (played by Dirk Bogarde) is very devoted to his wife and family. Can the government investigators change that in his personality while he is in the tank? This film is well acted, enthralling, and atmospheric. [Currently no DVD, but available used.]
Night of the Eagle (a.k.a. Burn, Witch, Burn) (1962)
When Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont co-write a screenplay based on a novel by Fritz Leiber, you just naturally expect a good thriller. This story about an empiricist college professor discovering that his wife and several other professors' wives around him are actually witches. It is very well made and remains tense throughout. [No DVD]
Devil Doll (1963)
This is a wildly uneven film, but it has many very good moments. There have been several attempts to do the stories of ventriloquist dummies who have lives of their own. This is the most intriguing treatment of that theme. For once the secret of what is happening is not a let-down.
Unearthly Stranger (1963)
A secret project is working on space exploration right in the heart of London. The approach to exploration is a novel one. Rather than sending the whole human into space, they are working on a sort of technological out-of-body experience. One can project ones mind to another planet and there have it take on physical form ... invasion by mental projection and out-of-body experiences. The rub is that scientists on the project are being killed in some mysterious way involving super-high energy. And the wives of some of the scientists seem to have no background that project security can trace. The script is tense and the acting is quite good, with a cast that includes John Neville (A Study in Terror, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and Jean Marsh (Upstairs, Downstairs). (This film is so obscure that Leonard Maltin's usually very complete Movie and Video Guide overlooks it.) [No DVD]
L' Ultimo Uomo Della Terra (a.k.a. The Last Man on Earth) (1964)
One of the more negative aspects of this film is that it started the whole sub-genre of Living Dead and Zombie movies. It is a fairly effective adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, screenplay by Matheson himself. Matheson must have been disappointed with the film or with Vincent Price's performance since he had his name taken off of the film. He probably lived to regret that decision since this film is much more intelligent than most modern horror films and it is certainly better than the big-budget empty remake, Omega Man. One human remains alive while every other human dies of the plague, but returns as a sort of vampire. Now the one human rules while the sun is up, but at night is besieged by the dead. I saw it on a double feature with the above-mentioned Unearthly Stranger. Wow!
Crack in the World (1965)
The first and last ideas of this film are pretty silly, but in between this is a fairly exciting super-disaster film. A scientist uses a nuclear missile to open a passageway to the hot core of the earth. Like a crack in a car windshield, this fissure starts to spread threatening to break apart the whole world. Some of the visuals are spectacular. There is also some interesting human drama. [No DVD]
Dark Intruder (1965)
This film is only 59 minutes long and originally was intended as a television pilot, but was released to theaters to play with films such as William Castle's I Saw What You Did--which it far out-classed. Leslie Nielsen plays a detective in late 19th Century San Francisco whose foppish appearance hides a man very knowledgeable and adept in matters of the occult and the supernatural. A series of weird unsolved murders and a friend's blackout spells may be connected and have some occult significance. Mark Richman and Werner Klemperer also star. The latter, best known as the gullible commandant from Hogan's Heroes, does a terrific job in a sinister role. [No DVD]
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
This film had a few minutes of fame in the United States and has now dropped back into obscurity. In a neighborhood thought to be haunted a new tube station is being dug. In it they find skeletons that may be of very early man. They also find a sort of capsule that may have been a WWII flying bomb. What do a flying bomb, a haunted neighborhood, and early fossils of man have to do with each other. Nigel Kneale's TV play re-adapted to cinema by Hammer Films is perhaps one of the most creative science fiction films ever made. This is literally my favorite film of all time.
There has been a remake of this film. It is not nearly as good. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were always a hilarious comedy team with intelligent jokes. This is their best work of all time. This is a modern comic story of a wimpy counterman at a Wimpy Burger who sells his soul to the Devil to win his waitress who does not know he is alive. Along the way the comedy runs rampant with hilarious ideas, weird situations, and the repeated message that no matter how clever you are, the Devil is always more clever. This is one hilarious comedy.
The Devil Rides Out (a.k.a. The Devil's Bride) (1968)
Richard Matheson's very faithful adaptation of the black magic novel by Dennis Wheatley takes a science fiction-like approach to Satanism. It is fast-paced and at times fairly intelligent. As an economy measure they cheapened the effect of showing the Devil by not using a lot of special effects with the ironic effect that he seemed much more immediate and corporeal. This is one of Hammer's best horror films.
Witchfinder General (a.k.a. Conqueror Worm) (1968)
A vital and well-made historical fringe-horror film about one of the great villains of English history, Matthew Hopkins. Even Vincent Price does a reasonable acting job. The original musical score is actually quite beautiful, though there is a version with an entirely different and much less enjoyable score.
Satan's Skin (a.k.a. Blood on Satan's Claw) (1970)
In some ways an imitation of the style of Witchfinder General. A 17th Century English ploughman turns up the remains of a demon and the artifact exerts satanic influence on the children of the region. This is a very atmospheric film with an authentic historical feel. [No DVD]
Quest for Love (1971) (directed by Ralph Thomas)
This film is loosely adapted from the short story "Random Quest" by John Wyndham. Colin Trafford (played by Tom Bell) is a leading scientist at Britain Imperial Physical Institute when one of his experiments goes wrong. Suddenly he finds himself in a parallel London in a parallel Britain that has not been to war since the Great War in the early part of the century. In this world Trafford here is not a physicist, but a popular playwright. He is also now married to a beautiful woman (played by Joan Collins) whose life he has made miserable with his selfish ways and his philandering. Can Colin convince the world he is the playwright while convincing his new wife that he is different? Then there are plot complications that lead to a fast-paced climax across parallel worlds. Denholm Elliot also stars in the story which is part science fiction adventure and part love story. [No DVD]
Count Yorga, Vampire (1973)
This low-budget horror film redefined the concept of the vampire. As a reaction to the staid, hypnotic, and slow vampires of British horror films, this film makes most vampires fast moving predatory deadly animals who hunt in packs. At the time this was pretty scary stuff and the film still has a lot of its impact.
The Big Bus (1974)
Not very good as a science fiction film, but it is science fiction and it is a good film. Years before Airplane! was this film along the same lines and very nearly as funny. This is a satire of disaster films as the evil villain Ironman tries desperately to destroy Cyclops, the first nuclear powered bus on its maiden voyage from New York to Denver.
Phase IV (1974)
Two mutually alien intelligences are seen in the beginnings of a serious war. It is really more about how each side collects information about the other and uses its physical differences against the other. Ants somehow develop a gestalt mind and prepare to make themselves the masters of the world. Visually very striking with direction by visual artist Saul Bass (best known for creating arresting title sequences for other directors' films). There is also some terrific insect photography.
This fairly accurate adaptation of Algis Budrys' novel had film stock problems (!) and could not be released to theaters. That is a genuine pity. Cold War story of its near future has a scientist important to military defense in a bad accident. The East Germans get hold of him and return him to the West more prosthetic than living matter. Now the problem is, how do you prove that he is who he says he is? [No Netflix]
To the Devil, A Daughter (1976)
In spite of some scenes that are overly graphic for some viewers and a low-key ending, this is a fast paced supernatural thriller. The hero played by Richard Widmark is disreputable author of popular exploitation books about the supernatural. The villain played by Christopher Lee is a stop-at-nothing idealist trying to save the world in a dangerous experiment using dark forces. The writing is crisp and unusual.
The Last Wave (1977)
Australian Peter Weir build his reputation on this strange, mystical film about a lawyer who finds he might be the fulfillment of an Aboriginal prophecy. Images of nature out of balance and an intriguing story make this story a real spellbinder. This is a hard film to pigeon-hole and the intelligence of the writing never flags. This is a film of the quality of The Wicker Man, but one which has gotten much less attention.
Lots of films try to do Medieval high fantasy, but this is probably the best. With the death of a great magician, his young apprentice must see if he has mastered enough of his master's art to destroy a terrific dragon who is ravaging the countryside. There are lots of nice touches in the script and years later the dragon remains the best ever created on film.
George Romero says he got this out of his system and never has to make another film like Knightriders. What a pity! This was one of the best films of its year. Superficially this is the story of a traveling Renaissance Fair that features jousts on motorcycles. But it has some terrific characters and a theme of the struggle between integrity and commercialism and between idealism and practicality. And late in the film the viewer realizes that the film has also been doing something else all along--it would be a spoiler to reveal what. This is a neat piece of writing. [No DVD]
Very few fans are willing to look beyond the naked woman and the zombies to see what is one of the most bizarre and audacious concepts for any science fiction film. Vampires, we learn, are really beings that leak lifeforce into the atmosphere like a tire with a slow leak leaks air. They must replenish the force regularly or they die. Much as we put bacteria into milk to multiply and make yogurt or cheese, some huge, incomprehensible, amoral, alien race seeds earth with vampires. The numbers of these vampires will increase exponentially, leaking more and more lifeforce into the environment so the aliens can vacuum it up. [No DVD]
Okay, admittedly I do not like the last third of this film. Up to that point it is magnificent. This is the film that they had to patch together because of the death of Natalie Wood. Up to that point it is a superb examination of how a new invention--the electronic communication of brain sensation, electronic telepathy--is going to completely change the human race. Most films do not portray the R&D environment very well, this one does it nearly perfectly. You could make fifty films an never use up the implications of the premise of this film. [DVD, no Netflix]
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
I am not generally a fan of Ray Bradbury's poetic prose. In this film I can appreciate what he is trying to do and he does create a good suspense. Jonathan Pryce really projects malevolence as the owner of an evil carnival. This may be one of the most artistic horror films ever made. This film has several very good scenes and no bad ones. I really like a scene in which the evil Mr. Dark is tempting the Jason Robards character.
A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)
Hong Kong for a while was making its own horror film movement for their own audience. Their films are fast-paced, usually liberally laced with comedy and martial arts, but also having some interesting horror concepts. No one such film is all that terrific (at least among the films I have seen so far) but some are astonishing and full of unexpected touches. Look for the "Chinese Ghost Story" films, Wicked City, and Mr. Vampire (which must have a different name in China since it is really about Chinese "Hopping Ghosts"). [No current DVD]
The Runestone (1990)
Not a perfect horror film, but one with an intriguing idea and some decent humorous writing along with the horror. The ancient Norse hid a Runestone in Pennsylvania to be rid of the thing. It is the key to releasing the Fenris Wolf and bringing about the holocaust of Ragnarok. The stone is found setting in motion events that could bring the end of the world. Peter Riegert is great as a laconic policeman pulled into the proceedings. [No DVD]
The Rocketeer (1991)
Hey, my introduction to science fiction was with Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe, who flew with a rocket pack on his back. Those serials were tacky. This is what they would have done if they had a budget. We have a stylish look at Southern California in the 1930s with airplanes, movie stars, gangsters, and Nazi agents. In the middle of all this Cliff Secord finds a jet pack that lets him fly like Superman does. This film was popular in Japan, but never found much of a market in it native United States.
A strange but very good film from Mexico about an alchemist's invention that gives the user immortality, but only at the cost of making that person a vampire. An aging antique dealer finds the immortality device only to have it destroy his life. One of the most creative horror films to be made in years. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has a very creative eye. [No current DVD]
Dellamorte Dellamorte (a.k.a. Cemetery Man) (1994)
The Italians made the zombie movie that started the sub-genre, L' Ultimo Uomo Della Terra (a.k.a. The Last Man on Earth), it is appropriate that they also made the film that put a bullet into the genre. This film lampoons all the conventions of the zombie film by just accepting them and taking them deadpan. Francesco Dellamorte manages a cemetery so the important job falls to him to kill the dead when they come back. It is not the world's greatest job but someone has to do it and it does allow him to indulge in occasional necrophilia. Very strange film and at times very funny if you are not turned off by the subject matter.
Richard III (1995)
An alternate history science fiction film by William Shakespeare? I generally hate modern dress for operas and plays set in the past. Here it adds new meaning to Shakespeare's play. By setting Richard III in the 1930s, it becomes a stylish film of a fascist takeover of Britain. Ian McKellen is always great, but has never been better than as the elegant, malevolent usurper of the throne of England.
Kyua (a.k.a. Cure) (1997)
Even giving away the premise of this Japanese crime film probably gives away too much; however, since the film will probably almost never be seen outside of Japan, I will give the premise. The police have to solve a series of bloody murders, each with a different killer. The killers generally stay at the scene of the crime, but they have no memory of the crime, no motive, and are completely confused. Each case seems to be temporary insanity, but the pattern is too regular to be chance. One person is by force of will influencing chance passersby to become murderers. The process takes only an instant. Even knowing what is going on, the police are stumped how they can find the perpetrator and stop him.
Last Night (1998)
The film covers six hours, from 6 PM to midnight. Midnight is when the world comes to an end. How would you spend the last six hours of not just your life but the last six hours of the human race? The star, writer, and director is Canadian Don McKellar, who explores just that question in a film literally about the last night. This film is almost a loose and uncredited adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1953 short story "The Last Day." Still, McKellar manages comedy, drama, and a whole gamut of emotions. [DVD, but no Netflix]
Lake Placid (1999)
The fun of this film is not the monster, a giant crocodile, but the dialog as a mismatched group of investigators hunt for the creature in their local lake. The script writers formerly wrote for Northern Exposure and the dialog is very funny. The actual story of the film is just okay, but that is not why the film is worth seeing.
A horror film by William Shakespeare???? You better believe it. Broadway genius Julie Taymor (The Lion King) brings Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus to the screen as the sickest, most violent, most perverted most wonderful Shakespeare film ever made. Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal seemed like a pale echo of his blood-lusting character in Titus. Jessica Lange also stars. Sudden death, rape, dismemberment, maiming, cannibalism is all part of the story. And it is not toned down because it is for a Shakespeare audience. This noses out Richard III (above) as the best Shakespeare experience I have ever had. Much Ado About Nothing comes in third.
This film may not actually be written by Philip K. Dick, but it is very much a film on Dick themes and in Dick's style. It is, in fact, more in Dick's style than most films actually based on his works. The main character is a sort of nebbish who agrees to do some espionage for one of two competing mega-corporations. The task starts stripping away the layers of what he thinks is reality. If you like Dick or if you have worked for a major corporation, this one is well-worth a seeing.
The Man from Earth (2007)
Science fiction writer Jerome Bixby was completing the script for this film on his deathbed. He probably wanted to be remembered for this film, and he deserves to be. In the aftermath of a going away party the guest of honor discusses immortality with his friends and tells them that he is really a (probable) Cro-Magnon who never died. What follows is a discussion of immortality and of religion and of human history in general. How would someone who has lived through tens of thousands of years see history? This is a science fiction film without special effects. It is mostly just a bunch of people sitting on a floor and talking, but it is full of fascinating ideas. Perhaps this was intended to be a stage play, and the budget is low in spite of familiar faces in the cast. But this is a great piece of science fiction.
Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
This is a delightful animated film that tells the story of Sita from the Ramayana pnctuated with with a commentary and discussion by three very funny shadow puppets. Further commentary comes from songs bythe great jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. The whole production is beautifully animated and writtern with a real sense of humor. The production got entangled with legal issues and so is just given away free. It is available on YouTube at <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgQm3V3cuKs>.
[My thanks to Evelyn Leeper for researching availabilty and for editing.]