Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Neglected Gems of Fantasy, Horror, and Science-Fiction Films

Submitted by Mark R. Leeper

One of the things I like to do occasionally in my film reviews is to 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 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 them, it is a rare chance and you should give the films a look.

Of course, there are a lot of obscure films that are showing up on videotape 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. This list was initially composed in the mid-seventies, but in the interim I have been adding to it, and in some cases deleting. I have 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 is no longer really obscure. I take some pride that my efforts to bring this film to people's attention may be part of the reason it no longer is obscure in the United States. Perhaps this list will help in some small way to make some of the other films more available and perhaps be discovered by new fans. Every one of these films has something unique that appeals 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 list. 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.

Faust (1926)

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 Dybbuk (1939)

At times this is very slow, but also at times a very effective horror film. This was a low-budget film 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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Devil Doll (1963)

This is a wildly uneven film, but it has many very good moments. There have been several attempts to do 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 one's mind to another planet and there have it take on physical form. 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.

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, with the 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.

Dark Intruder (1965)

This film is only fifty-nine 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.

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.

Quest for Love (1971)

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 the 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 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.

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 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!, this film is 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.

Who? (1974)

This fairly accurate adaptation of Algis Budrys' novel had film stock problems and could not be released to theaters. That is a genuine pity. The Cold War story of the near future has a scientist important to military defense in a bad accident. The East Germans get a 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?

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 the 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 built 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 film 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.

Dragonslayer (1981)

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.

Knightriders (1981)

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.

Lifeforce (1981)

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.

Brainstorm (1983)

Okay, admittedly I do not like the last third of this film. Up to that point however, 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 and never use up the implications of the premise of this film.

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 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 films 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 hosts.

The Runestone (1990)

Not a perfect horror film, but one with an intriguing idea and some decent, humorous writing to go along with the horror. The ancient Norse hid a runestone in Pennsylvania to get 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.

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 1930's 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 its native United States.

Cronos (1993)

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.

Dellamorte Dellamore (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), so 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. A 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 1930's, 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. By force of will, one person is influencing random people to become murderers. The process takes only an instant. Even knowing what is going on, the police are stumped as to how they can find the perpetrator and stop him.

Last Night (1998)

The film covers six hours, from six in the evening until 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 un-credited adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1953 short story, The Last Day. Still, McKellar manages comedy, drama, and a whole gamut of emotions.

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 decent, but that is not why the film is worth seeing.

Titus (1999)

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, and 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, and cannibalism are all part of the story. And it is not toned down because it is for a Shakespeare audience. This noses out Richard III as the best Shakespeare experience I have ever had. Much Ado About Nothing comes in third.

© 1994, 2000, 2001 Mark R. Leeper

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