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The Best Discoveries of 2020: Science Fiction and Horror

Like many of us, I sought out a lot of comfort in my movie-watching, enjoying familiar movies and familiar genres. And sometimes not-so-familiar genres. I’ve always loved science fiction (hereafter referred to as “sf”) movies, but I’ve always had some reluctance to fully embrace horror. (Some of this I explored in “My Personal Journey in Horror” posts, Part I, Part II, and Part III.)

I expanded my horror watching, mostly during October, and am now willing to step outside my horror comfort zone more than I have in the past.

Yet for sf, I seem to be exploring one particular era: the 1950s. This is an era rich in fear and anxiety built around the Red Scare, the threat of advanced weapons, war, and generally out-of-control technology. I found myself drawn to the best and worst of these films, and even the stinkers are usually entertaining, sometimes even in ways their producers never intended. Bottom line: What you'll see here from both genres is mostly old stuff. Sometimes very old stuff. Got newer recommendations for me? I'm all for it. Send 'em on!

Although sf and horror are different genres, there’s often some overlap, or at least common elements going on, so I hope the purists from both camps will not unleash either monsters or ray guns on me.

Here’s what I enjoyed most in the order I saw them:


The Mole People (1956) Virgil W. Vogel (The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Vol. I DVD set)

A ‘50s sf movie that features a story both impressive and goofy. John Agar and Hugh Beaumont are two scientists who discover a lost underground civilization of very white people and mutant slaves. It’s not great, but it really turned my dials all the way up to 11, for reasons I’m not sure I can explain.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (TV 1973) John Newland (Warner Archive Blu-ray)

This is just one in a long line of good made-for-TV horror films that’s way better than it needs to be. Married couple Kim Darby and Jim Hutton move into an old mansion where weird things begin happening. A standard plot, but effectively done, definitely worth your time. Speaking of TV movies, here’s a book called Are You In the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999 by Amanda Reyes that I’d love to check out. (If you’ve read it, let me know your thoughts.) Maybe Santa will bring it…

Even the Wind is Afraid (Hasta el viento tiene miedo, 1968) Carlos Enrique Taboada (VCI Blu-ray)

Claudia (Alicia Bonet) and her friends are trapped at their exclusive Mexican girls’ boarding school after disobeying one of the rules of the overbearing headmistress Ms. Bernarda (Marga López). Claudia is convinced there’s a connection between the nightmares she’s having and a mysterious tower on the school grounds. Very atmospheric and enjoyable, this is one of my few ventures into Mexican cinema. The Blu-ray release from VCI, however, is problematic on multiple levels, mostly in sound quality, skips (not due to the disc, but issues with the original elements), and inaccurate (or missing) subtitles. It’s worth picking up on sale.

Village of the Damned (1960) Wolf Rilla (Warner Archive Blu-ray)

I thought I’d seen this before, but I’m probably getting it confused with its lesser sequel Children of the Damned (1964). Village of the Damned stands as one of the most effective British sf/horror films of all time, chronicling how a mysterious sleep overcomes a village, leading to the birth of several strange (and frightening) children. George Sanders is excellent as the professor trying to figure out what’s going on. This one will creep you out.

The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (El esqueleto de la Señora Morales, 1960) Rogelio A. González (VCI Blu-ray)

This fine horror/black comedy from Mexico is quite impressive. I’m not sure how, but it manages to exercise restraint while often going over the top to touch on issues of marriage, religion, money, community, and more. I’m delighted this film made it to Blu-ray. This is a barebones disc, but a far better presentation then the other VCI Mexican title I mentioned earlier, Even the Wind is Afraid (1968).

From Beyond the Grave (1974) Kevin Connor (Warner Archive Blu-ray)

This Amicus Productions horror anthology features four stories (all in modern-day settings) linked by a London antiques shop and its proprietor (Peter Cushing), who has an interesting way of getting even with customers who try to cheat him. Only one of the stories has a strong comedic element (also the story I found least effective), but all in all, the film is a fun ride. The cast includes David Warner, Donald Pleasence, Diana Dors, Lesley-Anne Down, Angela Pleasence (Donald’s daughter, who delivers the film’s creepiest performance), and many more.

The Monolith Monsters (1957) John Sherwood (The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Vol. 1 DVD box set)

Fragments of a meteor grow to astonishing proportions (just add water), threatening to destroy a small desert town. Way better than it sounds, I promise.

Quatermass II (aka Quatermass 2, aka Enemy From Space, 1957) Val Guest (Shout Factory Blu-ray)

The Quatermass universe can be a confusing one, but it’s well worth exploring. (I took a brief sojourn through it last year.) Brian Donlevy returns as Professor Quatermass for Quatermass II (or 2, if you prefer), playing the scientist responsible for the bizarre happenings in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). This time the professor investigates some strange goings-on at the remote research facility under his leadership. He’s shocked to discover that the prototype of the moon colony he’s trying to get funded has already been built in a nearby secluded area, all without his knowledge. Although not as compelling as The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass II is better than many sf films from this period and is definitely worth checking out.

Fantastic Planet (1973) René Laloux (Criterion Channel)

It’s difficult to find animated movies from this far back that still hold up today, but Fantastic Planet certainly does, primarily because it focuses on fundamental problems we’re still dealing with: racism, oppression, and human rights, to name just a few. Laloux only made three animated feature films: this one, Time Masters (1982) and Gandahar (1987). Fantastic Planet is the most well-known of the three.

The Gamma People (1956) John Gilling (Amazon Prime Video)

Part of my obsession with 1950s sf movies, reviewed here

All the Colors of Giallo (doc. 2019) Federico Caddeo (Amazon Prime, Severin Films Blu-ray)

My friend Michael C. recommended this introduction to giallo, a real blind spot in my cinematic journey, yet one I’m eager to explore. The documentary itself (in Italian with English subtitles) is available on Amazon Prime, but I also picked up the Severin Films Blu-ray, which includes not only the documentary, but four hours of giallo trailers including a commentary by Kat Ellinger. Stay tuned. You may see some serious giallo in the coming year.

Black Sunday (1960) Mario Bava (Kanopy)

A pre-giallo film from Mario Bava, whose work I’m enjoying very much. The witch/vampire story is fairly routine, but the atmosphere and cinematography (also by Bava) make this a real treat. More Barbara Steele, please.

Dr. Cyclops (1940) Ernest B. Schoedsack (Universal, The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Vol. 2 DVD box set)

Ernest Schoedsack, who co-directed the original King Kong (1933) knew a thing or two about special effects. This impressive-looking film (the first American horror film to use three-strip Technicolor) follows a group of scientists/explorers summoned to a remote area of the Peruvian jungle by the brilliant but whacked-out physicist Dr. Alexander Thorkel (Albert Dekker). Once their very simple assignment is finished, Thorkel dismisses the group, but after some snooping around, they discover what Thorkel’s really up to: using radium to shrink objects, animals, and people to one-fifth of their normal size. A forerunner to The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and the much-later Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), Dr. Cyclops is impressive for its time and is definitely worth a look, no matter how small you are.

The Car (1977) Elliot Silverstein (Netflix)

Previously discussed here.

The Night Strangler (TV 1973) Dan Curtis (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)

A different city and a different villain from 1972's The Night Stalker aren't quite enough to elevate this movie to the level of the earlier Kolchak entry, although the film attempts to up the ante via more of Kolchak's hijinks with the police and his editor (Simon Oakland). Unfortunately, that becomes tiresome quickly. The payoff, however, provides some very nice moments.

The Asphyx (1972) Peter Newbrook (Kanopy)

The Asphyx takes a good premise - What if you could capture the human soul at the point of death? - but doesn’t do nearly enough with it. Robert Stephens plays Sir Hugo Cunningham, a scientist/early photographer in Victorian England who makes the above discovery through a personal tragedy. The first hour plays reasonably well with some interesting period atmosphere and philosophical discussion, but gets derailed during the second half. Still worth a look.

The Man from Planet X (1951) Edgar G. Ulmer (Shout Factory Blu-ray)

Give Edgar G. Ulmer a week and a few thousand bucks, and he’ll deliver a movie that transcends its limitations. The Man from Planet X may not be a great picture, but it’s a fun entry in the ‘50s sf category. Days before a the mysterious Planet X is scheduled to pass dangerously close to Earth, Scottish Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond) and reporter John Lawrence (Robert Clarke) discover a crashed spaceship containing one of the most unique aliens in sf movies. The Shout Factory Blu-ray includes two compelling commentaries, one from Gary D. Rhodes and Arianné Ulmer Cipes (daughter of the director), and the other with author Tom Weaver, Joe Dante, David Schecter, and film historian Robert J. Kiss.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964) Roger Corman (Shout Factory Vincent Price Collection Blu-ray set, reissue edition)

Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death is a spectacle of color and weirdness. Vincent Price plays Prince Prospero, a sadistic ruler who terrorizes the local peasants, all the while living it up in his castle with all manner of shenanigans going on ‘round the clock. The film borrows from Poe’s short story of the same name as well as elements of another Poe story, “Hop Frog.” The film also stars Hazel Court and Jane Asher.

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Amy Holden Jones (Criterion Channel)

You’ve got the entire plot captured in the title. Valerie (Robin Stille), the new girl at a Los Angeles high school, isn’t invited to Trish Deveraux’s (Michele Michaels) slumber party, but instead keeps an eye on her kid sister (Jennifer Meyers) while a killer with power tools does his thing at the slumber party. Clearly inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), The Slumber Party Massacre isn’t as good as that film, but it’s still effective.

Son of Frankenstein (1939) Rowland V. Lee (Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection Blu-ray set)

Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), son of the original Dr. Frankenstein, returns to his father’s castle with no intention of carrying on his dad’s work, thank you for asking… Until he meets Ygor (Bela Lugosi). A terrific cast (including Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, and Josephine Hutchinson) and wonderful art direction make this well worth your time.

Deathdream (aka Dead of Night, 1974) Bob Clark (Criterion Channel)

Richard Backus stars as Andy Brooks, a young soldier who returns home from fighting in Vietnam. The only problem is his parents received a telegram stating that Andy died in combat. Oops. Something’s definitely wrong, but it’s not with the telegram. Deathdream is a powerful look at the way Vietnam ruined so many soldiers as well as an effective horror movie. Some may think it heavy-handed, but I would argue that Clark’s restraint is exactly right for the film. More here.

Death Line (aka Raw Meat,1972) Gary Sherman (Criterion Channel)

Black Christmas (1974) Bob Clark (Criterion Channel)

Frightmare (1974) Pete Walker (Criterion Channel)

Discussed in Part II of my journey through horror

Alice Sweet Alice (1976) Alfred Sole (Criterion Channel)

Also discussed in Part II of my journey through horror

Sweetheart (2019) J. D. Dillard (Netflix)

Previously discussed here

November (2017) Rainer Sarnet (Kanopy)

The Woman in Black (1989) Herbert Wise (Network UK Region B Blu-ray)

This wonderful British period ghost story deserves a wider audience and a full review, which I hope to write in 2021. The UK Region B limited edition sold out quickly, but the standard edition is excellent. If you have a region-free player, make sure you pick up the standard edition before it goes out of print.

Christine (1983) John Carpenter (Sony Blu-ray)

Depending on the day of the week/how I'm feeling/what I've had (or haven't had) to drink, if asked what I thought about this film, I could answer with either "Totally ridiculous," "Pure genius," or anything in between. I don't know why I waited 37 years to see it, but I'm glad I did, and I'll definitely watch it again.

X: The Unknown (1956) Joseph Losey, Leslie Norman

If you like the Quatermass films, you’re going to enjoy the early Hammer film X: The Unknown. (This was actually supposed to be a Quatermass film. For more on that, check out this article.) Near Glasgow, when a group of soldiers learning how to scan an area for radioactivity discover readings off the charts, the military brass calls in Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger, not exactly my idea of an action hero), working at the nearby Atomic Energy Laboratory at Lochmouth. Royston discovers that there’s something emerging from beneath the earth, and to borrow a line from The Thing (1982), “it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.” There’s a lot of talk in X: The Unknown and a long delay until we see “the unknown,” but the film contains great atmosphere and pretty good effects, especially for the time.

Next time: Westerns


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