Best Discoveries of 2021: SF and Horror
I place science fiction and horror together since they were often connected in the days of early cinema, a time when scientific discovery (real or imagined) sometimes conveyed a sense of horror. We still see that from time to time. The days of Boris Karloff as a mad scientist have not completely left us, and you’ll see some of those films listed below. Yet some horror films require little or no hard science (again, real or imagined) whatsoever.
Yet horror is a genre I continue to struggle with. I participated in my first Hooptober event in 2021, which didn’t solve my horror struggles, but I learned quite a bit during the process, which you can read about here.
I watched a lot of horror (and some sf) this year, but this is the best of the lot. I hope you enjoy this list and find a few movies to check out. Please let me know what sf/horror titles you enjoyed this year.
Space is the Place (1974) John Coney (Criterion Channel)
Previously discussed here
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) Terence Young (Warner Archive Blu-ray)
A true horror classic: the tremendous Hammer version of the Frankenstein tale starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Amazing that I’d never seen it before. The Warner Archive two-disc Blu-ray contains a wealth of extras I can't wait to explore.
Viy (1967) Georgiy Kropachyov, Konstantin Ershov (Tubi, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, UK)
Based on the story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol, this Russian folktale/horror film still impresses after more than 50 years. In the 19th century, a young seminary student finds himself the cause of a young woman’s death. The girl’s father promises the student a reward if he will stand vigil and pray for her soul for three consecutive nights, otherwise his punishment will be great. I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s worth the wait, especially since much of the lead-up to those three nights is somewhat glacial, yet often humorous. In many ways, this movie reminded me of The Fearless Vampire Killers (also released in 1967). Severin Films released a Blu-ray of Viy in 2019, and Eureka had a Region B limited edition (now sold out), but still offers a standard edition.
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) Michael Curtiz (Warner Archive Blu-ray)
Several of my online friends were excited when I posted that I’d purchased this film as part of the recent Warner Archive sale, and now I know why. Lionel Atwill stars as Ivan Igor, a master sculptor who operates an impressive wax museum in 1921 London, yet his partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) isn’t impressed, since all the Londoners are bypassing this museum in favor of another one across town featuring more lurid and macabre characters. After Worth torches the place for the insurance money, nothing - and no one - remains. But 12 years later Igor shows up in New York with a new, improved museum. And those figures certainly do look lifelike, don’t they? Mystery of the Wax Museum uses two-strip Technicolor (which may take some viewers awhile to adjust to), and co-stars Glenda Farrell as sassy newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey, a woman trying to save her job, and Fay Wray as her roommate. I can’t wait to explore the disc’s two commentaries by Michael Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode and UCLA preservationist Scott MacQueen.
These Are the Damned (aka The Damned, 1963) Joseph Losey (Hammer Films: The Ultimate Collection Blu-ray box set, Mill Creek)
Previously discussed here
The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) Nick Grinde (Karloff at Columbia Blu-ray set, Eureka, UK Region B)
Boris Karloff plays Dr. Henryk Savaard, a scientist who has discovered a way to restore life to the dead. Charged with murder for a patient he was prevented from resurrecting, Savaard is sentenced to hang. When his assistant Lang (Byron Foulger) successfully brings him back to life, Savaard takes revenge on the jury members who convicted him. Or does he? This one is an awful lot of fun, and Karloff has a field day during the film’s final act.
Phase IV (1974) Saul Bass (Kanopy)
The sole directorial effort from Saul Bass, Phase IV often looks and feels like The Andromeda Strain (1971) with ants. The ant population in the Arizona desert is evolving and adapting to surviving anything the local human population can throw at them. Leading this charge are scientists Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and James Lesko (Michael Murphy), who have some serious thinking to do to solve this problem. If you’re into sf and haven’t seen this one, you should.
Bad Ronald (1974) Buzz Kulik (Warner Archive DVD, library)
For quite awhile you’re not certain whether you should or shouldn’t be rooting for Ronald Wilby (Scott Jacoby), a real mama’s boy who’s socially inept, but has a bit of a talent for art and a love of fantasy literature. As such, he’s made fun of by the rest of the kids. One such kid taunts Ronald, who responds by shoving her, accidentally killing her. Ronald’s mom (Kim Hunter) tells him to hide in a rather large space behind the walls of their house. For a TV movie, this gets really creepy and disturbing, and while it’s not a great movie, Bad Ronald is effective, especially for a TV horror movie. Try to watch this on the Warner Archive Blu-ray. The DVD is atrocious.
Dementia (1955) John Parker (Criterion Channel)
Dementia is not to be confused with Dementia 13, Francis Ford Coppola’s low-budget film from 1963, so no, Dementia 13 was not the twelfth sequel to Dementia. (Don’t give ‘em any ideas…) But what is this 1955 film? Film noir? Horror? Both? Neither? It’s a black-and-white dream/nightmare focusing on a young woman, played by Adrienne Barrett (in her only screen appearance) who walks the streets at night through a maze of murder, maiming, and mayhem. The film really has no plot, but that’s okay. The visuals are crude but effective. Dementia features no discernible dialogue, but rather sound effects and a weird musical score by George Anthiel. I don’t have time to cover the history of this film, but you can read more here or pick up the Region B Blu-ray from the BFI.
The Devil Commands (1941) Edward Dmytryk (Karloff at Columbia Blu-ray set, Eureka, UK Region B)
What a weird movie… Boris Karloff plays, guess what? - a mad scientist, Dr. Julian Blair, who believes he has discovered the ability to read and understand brain waves. When his wife (Shirley Warde) dies in a car accident, Dr. Blair goes to insane lengths to continue his experiments, calling on the assistance of a phony medium (Anne Revere). As weird as it can be, but I loved it.
The Ghoul (1933) T. Hayes Hunter (MGM DVD)
Okay, so he’s not quite a mad scientist here, but rather a mad Egyptologist. Professor Henry Morlant (Boris Karloff) is about to die, but gives specific instructions to his assistant Laing (Ernest Thesiger) on how to make sure Morlant dies with an ancient Egyptian jewel in his hand, a jewel which will resurrect him if it is offered up to the Egyptian god Anubis. But Laing gets greedy, steals the jewel, and opens the door to all sorts of shenanigans. This early Brtitish horror venture is often dismissed, but I had a great time with it, particularly getting lost in the wonderful cinematography by Günther Krampf. The film also features Cedric Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson. I watched it on an MGM DVD which looks pretty good, but the UK company Network released a Blu-ray that I’m going to pick up soon.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) Kim Jee-woon (Kanopy)
I saw a lot of disappointing horror films during Hooptober, but now we’re headed in the right direction. The first of two Korean films in this list, A Tale of Two Sisters is the powerful psychological horror tale of siblings Su-mi (Jum Jang-ah), returning from a mental hospital, and Su-yeon (Im Soo-jung). When the girls are reunited at their country home, they meet their father’s new wife, Eun-joo (Kim Kap-soo). This is far more than a wicked stepmother movie, although it is certainly that. This is a complex, but rewarding horror film, highly recommended.
The Wailing (2016) Na Hong-jin (Amazon Prime)
This movie will mess you up. A series of brutal murders in a mountainous South Korean village is blamed on the arrival of a mysterious Japanese stranger (Kunimura Jun). Police officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) investigates the case, finding it stranger and weirder as he learns more about the murders. I hesitate to tell you much more. This film has so many layers, tones, and incredible moments, all of which add up to an unsettling experience you won’t forget.
Audition (1999) Takashi Miike (Kanopy)
Widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) makes one bad decision stretched out over nearly two hours. He decides to have an audition, ostensibly for a female role for an upcoming film, but he’s really looking for a new lover. Aoyama’s choice is indeed bad, but not stupid, reckless, or necessarily foolhardy. It is an action taken out of longing and desperation. We know it’s an unwise venture, but the buildup to the consequences of Aoyama’s decision is a slow descent, arriving at a powerful payoff that lingers in the mind for days, maybe weeks and months after the film is over.
The Funhouse (1981) Tobe Hooper (Amazon Prime)
Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse is just what you’d think, but there’s much more going on here besides four teenagers who take a dare to spend the night in the local carnival funhouse. The Funhouse is an unfairly neglected film in Hooper’s filmography.
Dune: Part One (2021) Denis Villeneuve (Regal Waugh Chapel & IMAX)
While I stand by my belief that the full force of Frank Herbert's novel remains unfilmable, this is an admirable effort and probably as good as we’re ever going to get. There's simply too much in the novel to properly translate to the screen, yet the script isn't dumbed down, it's just incomplete. Yet it’s marvelously enjoyable.
Next: Saddle up, it’s time for Westerns.