I’ve been binging science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural-themed horror films and/or short TV series from the 70s lately. Among other things, I’ve watched nearly all nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. I don’t really mean to re-evaluate the Hugos per se–they’re just a good starting point for coverage of some things fans in the 70s were aware of and a familiar format for looking at SF/F media year by year. So more or less following Hugo eligibility rules–mixing and matching versions of the rules that have changed over time–I’ve organized my own list of favorites below. For each year, I’ve selected 4-6 ‘nominees’ plus a ‘winner’ or top pick(s) in bold.
Donkey Skin, a.k.a. Peau d’âne (Letterboxd) – Jacques Demy’s campy musical adaptation of the classic fairy tale about a king who decides to marry his daughter is a delight, full of odd whimsical bits and great songs. Yeah, in theory, the theme is super cringeworthy–certainly worth being aware of beforehand–but the movie gets through the premise with some plainly absurd set-up scenes and some mock seriousness from legendary actor Jean Marais and soon moves on to much more charming scenes featuring Catherine Deneuve and Delphine Seyrig. I especially liked “Les Conseils de la fée des lilas” (“Advice from the lilac fairy”) but “Le Cake d’amour” (“The cake of love”) is a classic for good reason.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (Letterboxd; trailer) – An AI-themed thriller with a straightforward premise (the AI gets out of hand), the story nonetheless remains reasonably taut and occasionally surprising. In 1971, it was nominated for the Hugo but lost to “No Award,” which I think is a shame–the ballot that year was weak, but Colossus was decent and might be better remembered had it won. I don’t know that I’d ever heard of it outside of the Hugo nominee list, though it’s based on a novel.
The Owl Service (IMDb) – A languid yet engaging mini-series for children that draws on Welsh mythology and New Wave cinematography, this story about the youngest generation of two intertwined families and the extent to which they’ll re-enact a certain myth as the previous generation might also have done is based on the novel by Alan Garner (also known for The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, etc.) and stars Gillian Hills (also known as the singer of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” etc.). The first three of its eight episodes aired in 1969, but according to Hugo rules today, it’s the last episode that establishes the year of eligibility.
The Vampire Doll, a.k.a. 幽霊屋敷の恐怖 血を吸う人形 (Letterboxd; Trailer) – A spooky modern day Gothic horror mystery, comparable to an especially compelling Hammer film, the story begins with a young woman worried about her brother, who hasn’t been heard from since he went to visit his fiancée … This is the first of Michio Yamamoto’s Bloodthirsty trilogy, and like all three films, it stands alone, it’s pretty good, and it has a vampire theme in common with the others–in this case, not a very typical vampire but close enough.
Blind Woman’s Curse, a.k.a. 怪談昇り竜 (Letterboxd; Trailer) – A gang of women with dragon tattoos, following their leader who was cursed by a black cat following an incident in which she accidentally blinded another woman, are hunted by that blind woman in the midst of an ongoing gang war. The supernatural theme is a little tangential yet frequently evoked, and this film is just wild–yeah, it’s as disjointed as it sounds, but it’s still a blast.
A Touch of Zen, a.k.a. 俠女 (Letterboxd) – One of the very best wuxia movies–a great story, beautifully filmed, that combines over-the-top action with a sort of Gothic setting (an abandoned fort rumored to be haunted) and eventually at least one supernatural element that is kind of awesome. Watching this led me to watch several other King Hu films from the 70s, and among them, I did really like The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) and especially Raining in the Mountain (1979), although these aren’t SF/F aside from a few heroic leaps.
The Andromeda Strain (Letterboxd; Trailer) – After a satellite crashes near a small town in New Mexico, everyone nearby seems to be dead. The team sent to recover the satellite seems to be dead too. From the opening scenes exploring the extent and causes of these mysterious events to the methodical research scenes forming the bulk of the movie, this remains a pretty gripping SF medical thriller almost 50 years after its release. It’s based on the novel by Michael Crichton, but Crichton himself wasn’t yet a screenwriter or director.
Brother John (Letterboxd; Trailer) – A magical realist film written and directed by guys who are not themselves African American, this story about an African American man with a mysterious past and inexplicable intuitions may evoke a problematic trope and/or romanticize resilience to racism–I’m not sure. At the same time, I thought it was a compelling story about someone who has seen too much, and it focuses on its many Black characters and offers little redemption and no forgiveness to white people.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah, a.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster or ゴジラ対ヘドラ (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Wonderfully dark and at times psychedelic, this is definitely my favorite kaiju movie from the 70s. There’s not a lot to say about the plot–you guessed it, Godzilla fights a Smog Monster–but the Smog Monster is an odd opponent, the fights are very moody, and the incidental material focused on humans is more engaging than usual. Kaiju movies aren’t supposed to aim for dark or psychedelic, I guess, but someone forgot to tell Yoshimitsu Banno, who evidently tried to make this one more interesting–more violent, weirder, etc. And yeah he basically got fired for it, but I think he was on the right track.
The Lady Hermit, a.k.a. 鍾馗娘子 (Letterboxd) – Another excellent wuxia film, this one focuses on two women swordfighters and the vow they share to kill a bad guy named Black Demon. The supernatural theme here is light, but it exists, among other things in a clear discussion of focusing your qi to achieve essentially magical power. But the strengths of the film definitely lie in the interpersonal relationships and the colorful and surprising action/violence.
Cuadecuc, Vampir (Letterboxd; Trailer) – An enthralling, hypnotic sequence of black & white film shots–in many cases, lingering to the point where they resemble ‘stills’–capturing eerie moments in the production of an ordinary horror film (in fact, Count Dracula from 1970, which has its moments, though it’s definitely not necessary to watch it first). Cuadecuc is less of a documentary and more of a cinematic SF/horror-themed experiment, in the same ballpark as Tscherkassky’s Cinemascope trilogy. The soundtrack varies from ambient to drone to white noise. At 66 minutes in length, just settle in for something kind of like a dream–an awesome, mysterious dream–about having been involved in making a vampire flick.
* Following current Hugo rules for the maximum number of nominees in a year, I’ve listed my six top favorites from 1971, but the fact that it has never been translated gives me an opportunity to mention a seventh favorite without counting it against the total: La Brigade des maléfices (IMDb) – “The Hex Brigade” is a light occult detective / police procedural show. As its intro says, Inspector Martin Paumier is the “Holmes of fairyland, Maigret of modern witchcraft.” He’s an eccentric who hangs out in a caftan talking to his sidekick Albert and an African gray parrot until a case comes in that the police can’t crack. His cases put a modern spin on fairies, demons, Venusians (!), vampires, and ghosts living in and around Paris, and the stories are all fun. France’s Institut national de l’audiovisuel has put the first two episodes on Youtube, and the other four are available on INA’s subscription-based website.
Solaris, a.k.a. Солярис (Letterboxd) – Strange things are happening on the dilapidated space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Well, not too strange. I thought I had heard Tarkovsky’s film based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem was difficult to follow, but it was mostly pensive and enigmatic–what’s going on is eventually explained, even if it’s a bit fantastic. Anyway, I also found the neglected, messy, furnished yet nearly empty space station pretty striking–in some ways like an abandoned 70s office building, which is kind of funny to imagine floating around in space. It felt like a response to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and yep, Tarkovsky thought 2001 was “cold and sterile.”
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, a.k.a. 子連れ狼 三途の川の乳母車 (Letterboxd; Trailer) – OK, either this film–the second in a series of six based on the manga–is retroactively in a fantasy world because the sixth entry is definitely fantasy or it’s on the border between SF and fantasy thanks to its hero’s advanced weapons gadgeteering, but I have to count it here, because it’s amazing. Ogami Ittō is an itinerant assassin, a dropout from high society where he’d been an official executioner before he was framed for a crime, and he wanders Japan with his son, hunted by the clan that framed him and taking assassination commissions for a price that includes hearing the reasons for the contract. In this episode, his work is repeatedly interrupted by a bunch of other assassins–mostly women–who are likewise amazing. It’s a rich spectacle of bloody and improbable violence mixed with colorful characterization.
A Warning to the Curious (Letterboxd) – A classic ghost story by M.R. James, adapted for television as part of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series, this is a scenic yet occasionally chilling story that–like many stories by M.R. James–combines antiquarian research with supernatural encounters. Worth it even just for the muted coastal vistas.
Slaughterhouse-Five (Letterboxd; Trailer) – A faithful adaptation of the novel by Kurt Vonnegut and also a decent film, I think this rises above simply being an illustrated guide to the story of a man famously ‘unstuck in time’ and conveys its poignancy reasonably well. Hugo voters seem to agree–they gave it the award. On the other hand, the satellite roles that women play in the story–revolving around the hero and defined by their relationships with him–contribute an atmosphere of self-involvement that either undermines its kindness/wisdom or perhaps deflates it with implied but too subtle self-deprecation.
The People (Letterboxd) – An appropriately quiet, low-key adaptation of Zenna Henderson’s People stories, this made-for-TV movie accurately captures the gentleness and deep empathy that the source material is all about. So while the production values may be low and the action unhurried compared to Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), a movie with similar science fiction themes, I think it’s a much more emotionally engaging work, and it exemplifies a pleasant sort of naturalism common in 70s movies: a life-like tempo, not so obviously driven by scene goals and plot beats.
The Exorcist (Letterboxd) – Adapted from a novel, this is an ur-text of horror cinema–well-filmed, scary, and worth watching for all the famous scenes but also for carefully composed incidental material. But I hadn’t seen it since I was probably a teenager, and I was surprised on re-watching by how much it’s also a fairy tale / allegory about families trying to cope with severe mental illness. The daughter is prescribed Ritalin, Thorazine, etc. without success, and her exorcism is neither a direct nor an unambiguous move toward religion for relief.
Westworld (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Written and directed by Michael Crichton, this well-known film about a theme park based on super science accidentally allowing its creations to get out of control has a good bit in common with … The Terminator: there’s a slow but relentless pursuit of humans by an expressionless yet charismatic gun-toting android dressed in black, and some of what happens along the way is similar too. Of course, it’s also similar to Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park. Anyway, as its own thing Westworld is pretty entertaining, even if it isn’t the kind of fast-paced blockbuster it may have influenced.
The Wicker Man (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Is it a mystery? Is it a musical? Is it supernatural-themed folk horror? All of the above, I guess–The Wicker Man is a strange treasure. A policeman visits a tight-knit island community to conduct an investigation in search of a missing girl, and what he finds there is certainly unreal, though inspired by folk traditions across Europe such as those evoked in Charles Fréger’s 2010-2011 “Wilder Mann” project.
Idaho Transfer (Letterboxd) – More low key 70s naturalism, in this case directed by Peter Fonda, this is a very quiet, neat little time travel / survivalist film set near Idaho’s Craters of the Moon lava fields in the Snake River Plain, and the landscapes are to a great extent the stars of the movie, because the acting is mostly untutored and the action is paced realistically. Anyway, at a tiny research facility in Idaho, people in their late teens are employed as time travelers, because anyone older would be injured by the process. Then, the plot of the film is really set in motion when the government comes to shut down the facility.
World on a Wire, a.k.a. Welt am Draht (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fairly long, two-part, made-for-TV film that prefigures both The Matrix in wondering about whether we live in a virtual reality and Inception in showing people moving up and down a ladder of unrealities within unrealities. I suspect the story could have been told more briefly to good effect, and yet I enjoyed seeing the themes I associate with much later films explored at length with 70s design sensibilities and atmosphere.
Céline and Julie Go Boating, a.k.a. Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Letterboxd) – Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of Jacques Rivette–his films vaguely resemble LARPs (live-action roleplaying games) in that they involve some improv based on an outline, as well as costumes and FX resembling LARPs too. But they’re like very odd, low key, and thoughtful LARPs, and the outcome in this case was frequently charming. Two women starting a relationship together each visit a house that casts them back in time and/or to an alternate reality to play a role in a set sequence of events that they can’t fully recall upon exiting the house. The mystery unfolds very gradually (it’s a long movie), and it becomes sort of meta-fictional–but also fun, as the main characters laugh together and enjoy what they’re doing.
Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, a.k.a. 子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎 (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Among the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, Baby Cart at the River Styx (see 1972, above) is undoubtedly my favorite, but this sixth and final installment is the only one to include explicit supernatural elements alongside the somewhat advanced weapon gadgetry, and it’s pretty good too. It’s definitely not the right place to start with the series though. The main clan that’s out to kill Ogami Ittō is running out of family members to send against him, so its leader speaks to his estranged/unacknowledged son–who is himself leader of the Underground Spider clan and by the way also an insane necromancer–and hyperbolic violence ensues.
Morel’s Invention, a.k.a. L’Invenzione di Morel (Letterboxd; Trailer) – In a story based on the novella of the same name, a castaway(?) lands on a desert island and makes several discoveries: a strange building, inexplicable machines, and–eventually–a bunch of well-dressed people who seem unreal. I have to say the first half of the movie was beautifully filmed yet so slow-paced and intentionally obscure that I nearly lost interest. But around the midpoint, what’s going on was given some explanation, and in the end it turned out to be a very neat film, full of allegorical potential, not least to do with movie-making itself. I can’t remember another movie that turned my opinion around so sharply.
Space is the Place (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Sun Ra’s trippy introduction to his own personal mythos, this film has a great Afrofuturist design aesthetic and delivers a strong positive message of Black liberation. Villains of the story are overtly misogynistic, but that too is resolved by the end. There isn’t a whole lot of plot overall, but it’s an engaging fable with plenty of surprising imagery. I wasn’t aware beforehand, but it turns out Sun Ra was pretty serious about his connection to outer space in a way that reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s seriousness about the paranormal–but Sun Ra makes it into something very hopeful.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, a.k.a. No profanar el sueño de los muertos (Letterboxd; Trailer) – By far my favorite zombie movie from the 1970s is The Grapes of Death (1978), but I appreciated several things about this one too: the soundtrack, the eerie countryside, the flash photography scenes, the zombies’ eyes, and a plot that negotiated its many character clichés into something reasonably effective in the end.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Letterboxd) – Well, this held up. To be clear about where I’m coming from, I can’t recall listening to the Monty Python albums, never finished watching the TV show, etc.–I wouldn’t say I’m much more than casually familiar with their work. And I also find it pretty hard to talk about movies that are deeply welded into the history of pop culture–like, what is left to say? But this movie is so rapid-fire witty that I do appreciate its influence, and things like the absurd humor of Lancelot’s ultra-violence still seem very contemporary.
Chac: The Rain God (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Chilean director Rolando Klein’s remarkable Mayan language (Tzeltal) film with Mayan actors portraying a story connected with Mayan folk beliefs about divination is notable too for its brief recitation by campfire of the main story of the Popol Vuh. Compare the movie with the Harvard Chiapas Project (e.g. the ethnography of the Tzotzil community Zinacantán and its critique) if you’re interested in a non-fiction perspective on the area from near the same time, because the movie is highly fictionalized with magical meteors, mythical mountain men, a shape-changing Jesuit(?), kookaburra(!) sounds in the jungle, and so on. Categorizing it as fantasy or even folk horror seems right. On the other hand, it’s mostly low key and well constructed, and it seems committed to locally-informed storytelling.
The Stepford Wives (Letterboxd; Trailer) – An adaptation of the novel about a community where women’s conformity to stereotypes seems to be enforced by super science (or something), I think this film is often taken as an instance of second wave feminism, which certainly influenced it, and it stands up pretty well as light entertainment. At the same time, it was created by men (e.g. screenwriter William Goldman, more well-known as the author of The Princess Bride), and it was received poorly by feminists such as Betty Friedan, who among other things saw it as co-opting the movement. So while I liked Stepford more, I think it’s worth comparing it to 1974’s The Cloning of Clifford Swimmer, directed by Lela Swift: both stories have a similar science fictional premise, but in Clifford Swimmer the lens remains focused on a critical representation of the title character’s sexism, abusiveness, etc. in contrast to his simply kind and reasonable clone, where The Stepford Wives manages to spend a lot of time representing stereotype/male-fantasy versions of the women it ostensibly supports.
Infra-Man, a.k.a. 中國超人 or essentially “Chinese Ultraman” (Letterboxd; Trailer) – I’m not usually a fan of so-bad-they’re-good movies, but I’ll make an exception here, not just out of nostalgia. When Princess Dragon Mom awakens from 10 million years of slumber and sends out her army of monsters to dominate humanity, a local scientist turns a volunteer into a superhero to take them all on. Infra-Man was by chance the first PG movie I saw in theaters–I remember the newspaper ad and begging my parents to let me see it–but I had basically zero recollection of the film itself. On re-watching it, I found it to be very silly: a completely ludicrous mishmash of Ultraman, Kamen Rider, kung fu films, and 50s science fiction films. But it’s also so campy and inventive that it’s pretty fun to watch.
The Changes (Letterboxd) – In this BBC children’s mini-series based on a trilogy of books by Peter Dickinson, an eerie magical apocalypse causes white and/or Christian people in the UK to be repulsed by technology. A white schoolgirl is separated from her family and takes up residence with a small Sikh community, still able to work with technology, and this is by far the best part of the series: the ‘moral’ to it is very basic and minimally tolerant, but the characters seem portrayed with genuine sympathy, and the plot unfolds with a thoughtful naturalism to it. The rest of the series is more cliché–particularly the ending–but a lengthy section to do with a witchcraft trial develops with a mix of clichés and some additional, more engaging naturalism.
The Little Mermaid, a.k.a. Malá morská víla (Letterboxd) – This beautiful, dreamy, Czech version of “The Little Mermaid” is one of several great Czech fairy tale films from the 70s, including Three Wishes for Cinderella (a delightful girl-power version of the story, repeatedly shown at Christmas), Beauty and the Beast (which makes the beast into a wonderfully creepy crow-person), and How to Wake a Princess (which is sweet and light). But what makes The Little Mermaid notable are its long undersea segments–like a strange ballet in soft focus–and the fact that it pulls no punches in its depictions of longing, frailty, disappointment, and tragedy.
The Signalman (Letterboxd) – A classic ghost story by Charles Dickens, adapted for television as part of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series, this is a creepy, foggy enigma–very effective. Only 38 minutes long, it would compete for the short form Hugo today, but in the 70s, it would have competed right along with feature films–and maybe should have, given that all the actual nominees on the 1977 ballot lost to “No Award.”
The Magic Blade, a.k.a. 天涯明月刀 (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Delightfully silly wuxia movie in which the complicated set-up mostly resolves to a series of mini-boss fights followed by a final boss fight, but swordplay combines with comedic Holmes-like deduction scenes and Bond-like gadgets (sometimes magical? close enough) to keep changing things up in interesting ways. Aimed at adults for sure, yet colorful and absurd.
Freaky Friday (Letterboxd) – The classic story of a young woman who mysteriously changes bodies with her mother is a cultural touchstone, and I suspect it has a hard time living up to the awareness viewers bring to it. But compared specifically to live action fantasy films from the 70s–and especially other Disney films from the time–I found it very enjoyable. There’s surprising depth in some interactions that feel intentionally deflated, where another film might have committed too straightforwardly to the joke, and I think a key moment occurs when the mom inhabited by the daughter rejects the school principal’s attempt to psychoanalyze her Freudian slip–a transposed reference to her husband/father–as if the film itself (incidentally, written by a woman, based on a novel by a woman) wants to reject obvious readings. The second wave feminism criticizing the husband and demonstrating the wife’s under-appreciated knowledge of history seems straightforward though. Anyway, like any good Disney movie from the 70s, it ends with a wacky car chase, and it’s fun.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Letterboxd; Trailer) – It’s easy to see why Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of the novel by Walter Tevis was nominated for a Hugo: David Bowie is a perfect fit as the main character–an alien stuck on Earth is a close match for his own Ziggy Stardust persona–and the film’s depictions of loneliness are frequently poignant. Dry landscapes traversed by a strange figure … A man watching a dozen banal TV shows on different TVs at the same time … Weird, clinical close-ups of Bowie … Frustratingly, the alien’s resentment toward his situation also manifests as misogynistic contempt–an attitude also found elsewhere in the film–and several scenes are pretty tense. But Candy Clark’s performance is good too, and her character’s arc is easy to sympathize with. At some level the film is an allegory about self-absorption and self-pity as obstacles to human connection, and she’s definitely not the problem.
Star Wars (Letterboxd) – What could I possibly have to say about Star Wars? I did re-watch it for this project, but nothing non-obvious came to mind. Yeah, it’s not like most 70s SF/F. It’s very fast, like a comic book trying to press as much world and story as possible into every panel. It’s unconcerned with coincidences like whether it ‘makes sense’ for the Death Star to be at Alderaan, for the heroes to pop in right after Alderaan’s destruction, or for the Death Star to travel onward to Yavin so quickly yet find the rebels ready for a fight. That all just needs to happen for the story to work, and the story is compelling enough that we rationalize it automatically. Its special effects are tremendous. And in general, its visual language synopsizes fifty years of pulp fiction space operas in two hours.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Letterboxd) – As a kid, I didn’t appreciate Close Encounters all that much–Star Trek and Star Wars had fixed in my mind much of what I wanted from science fiction media, so Close Encounters seemed too human, too focused on Earth, and not adventurous enough. As an adult, I find it astonishing: thanks in part to Spielberg’s later success but also thanks to its own achievements, Close Encounters feels like an 80s blockbuster, dropped squarely into the 70s. Its enigmatic moments of fear, wonder, and exaltation all still work just great.
Suspiria (Letterboxd; Trailer) – A young woman arrives at a mysterious ballet academy on a dark and stormy night and finds herself embroiled in something very strange … Known for its remarkable use of color and a number of unusual death scenes, Dario Argento’s classic of supernatural horror is loosely inspired by Thomas de Quincey’s essays / prose poems / opium visions gathered in Suspiria de Profundis, and it’s a masterpiece of Gothic and/or Decadent film-making. I think I agree with folks who distinguish it from giallo movies of the 70s, which may have supernatural elements but even then tend to have more pulp crime tropes. I mean, Argento was a leading figure in giallo films too, but compared to the other supernatural gialli I watched for this project, Suspiria does stand out for the influences it draws on and what it makes out of them.
Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea, a.k.a. Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem (Letterboxd) – This is a silly but delightfully complicated Czech time travel comedy–the kind of time travel movie that heaps paradox on top of paradox for fun to arrive at some ingenious outcome. In this case, the story starts a bit worryingly with a plot to help Hitler win WWII, but it quickly turns into a different set of problems while mocking Nazis in a familiar, satirical way. Anyhow, if there’s an earlier film that has as many interlocking time loops, I’m not aware of it, but I guess there are a lot of time travel films from prior decades that I haven’t yet seen.
House, a.k.a. ハウス (Letterboxd; Trailer) – As I mentioned above, I’m not really into so-bad-they’re-good movies, but there’s a case to be made that House is just plain good, because it’s substantially aiming at a representation of the childhood fears of the director’s pre-teen daughter. From that perspective, the fact that it looks like a goofy G-rated movie gone deeply, horrifyingly wrong in a surreal, hilarious, gross-out kind of way is perfect. Imagine a low budget Japanese ‘idol’ show innocently wandering into the plot of Evil Dead II–that’s not exactly House, but perhaps it conveys what an odd blend of styles it is.
Mind-Slaughter (Worldcat) – A short film about terraforming Venus, made by Kentucky Educational Television as part of a series called “The Universe & I,” I have to include this both out of nostalgia and because it’s solid, old school, thoroughly didactic “hard” SF teaching kids about the greenhouse effect, the effects of sulfuric acid, and that kind of stuff. For 20 minutes, the narrator reflects on his growth as a scientist, the project he led to seed Venus’s upper atmosphere with algae, and the twist that made him regret it all. I remember watching it in middle school, and the impact on me as a young SF fan was huge.
Future Boy Conan, a.k.a. 未来少年コナン (Letterboxd) – This ~12 hour anime series based on a post-apocalyptic novel for young adults is often called Hayao Miyazaki’s directorial debut, because it’s the first long work he was responsible for from the start, and it has a lot in common with his later work: children full of innocence, roaming beautiful green countryside or adventuring underwater; a ruined world, destroyed by superweapons; insect swarms; odd flying machines; food scenes; blank-faced masks; and many moments of compassion and bravery. It’s not just for Miyazaki completists though–it compares very favorably with anime being made today.
The Grapes of Death, a.k.a. Les Raisins de la mort (Letterboxd; Trailer) – The title sounds silly–at least in English–but The Grapes of Death is no joke. A pesticide used in the vineyards around a small town in France turns local residents into zombies who terrorize a young woman trying to visit her fiancé at the winery, and it’s pretty intense. The zombies are fairly disturbing–in fact, if I have a criticism of this film, it’s that it relies on disfigurement for too much of its horror–but many scenes are low-key creepy and atmospheric in a way I really appreciate: the scenes out in the countryside are even beautiful. Director Jean Rollin is better known for admirably weird vampire movies that tend to emphasize
nudity imagery over storytelling, but this film was well-constructed and just terrific overall.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Letterboxd; Trailer) – The well-known story of a silent alien invasion, based on both the novel and the first film version, I remember being terrified by some portions of this as a kid, probably via the ABC Sunday Night Movie broadcast. As an adult, I think it has some creepy moments, but what’s most striking is its atmospheric approach to the eeriness of modernity: the pervasive sound of garbage trucks, paranoid phone conversations, dangerous traffic, the health department as a hegemonizing bureacracy, and crowds in general–all looking very 70s. I like how they wrapped it up too–unforgettable.
The Medusa Touch (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Both a psychological thriller and also an SF/F story about psychic powers, this film has a lot to do with the extravagant and towering anger of the main character, and it’s a good role for Richard Burton–not many actors could make an allegory about narcissism as watchable. Apparently the novel the film is based on is part of a series featuring the same police inspector, and he’s certainly the more likable character.
Alien (Letterboxd) – Alien feels so familiar that I don’t even know what to say about it. On re-watching it, I guess I was struck by how many elements of it would show up again in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: the nature of one crew member; his sudden violence; the grimy industrial feel of the set; the interplay between strobing colors and shadow; the main character being hunted in a final showdown; etc. Incidentally, when watching Dark Star (co-written by Dan O’Bannon), I was struck by how many elements of it would show up in Alien, though in vastly more serious and polished forms (e.g. a starship on a long-range mission; its sort of blue collar, matter of fact, and even morose crew; an alien getting loose on the ship and becoming a problem for a crew member to hunt down …).
Stalker, a.k.a. Сталкер (Letterboxd) – Andrei Tarkovsky’s sublime reinterpretation of one of my favorite science fiction novels, Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, hints at some of the more animated and violent dangers of the book but focuses on developing its sense of dread and creating an industrial/nuclear waste aesthetic, years before Chernobyl would give the world a Zone in real life. It’s a long, mysterious, and pensive movie in which relatively little happens, but to my mind, the time passes quickly: in the Zone, every step you take is supposed to be made very carefully, and it’s as if Tarkovsky made every shot count with similarly precise care.
Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, a.k.a. 哪吒闹海 (Letterboxd) – Based on chapters 12-14 of the 100-chapter 16th Century novel Investiture of the Gods, this Chinese animated film is beautiful throughout and often surprising. It’s the story of a young hero who angers the dragon king who lives under the sea, and it’s full of fantasy imagery and colorful layouts. A scene in which the young hero kills himself (albeit temporarily) could be traumatizing to children, if not adults, but good fairy tales are sometimes harsh and strange.
The Brood (Letterboxd; Trailer) – David Cronenberg’s psionic-powered divorce story eventually makes a hard swerve into body horror, because of course it does. That’s not my usual cup of tea, but in this case, it works like a fairly conventional horror movie: something strange is going on, some people get attacked, maybe there’s some connection to a mad scientist guy–the very 70s smooth-talking pseudo-psychiatrist type wearing a turtleneck–etc., etc. It’s well-filmed and mostly not too disturbing, and along the way, any number of psychoanalytically-relevant topics arise, making the movie interesting to consider–though it may also be some sort of personal jab at Cronenberg’s ex-wife.
The Very Same Munchhausen, a.k.a. Тот самый Мюнхгаузен (Letterboxd) – There have been quite a few film adaptations of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel of tall tales (illustrated version), including two in 1979: the fairly straightforward and untranslated French animated film, Les fabuleuses aventures du légendaire Baron de Munchausen, and the more interesting Russian live-action film, The Very Same Munchhausen (sic). The Russian version is not very literal. It’s low key, low budget, as silly and verbal as you’d expect from a Munchausen story, and also reliant on the charm of the principal actors. Furthermore, in the second half it takes a fairly serious satirical turn, encouraging people to hold on to what they know is true regardless of state pressure–a message that seems surprising in a Soviet-era TV movie.
A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist (Letterboxd) – This short film by Peter Greenaway is a cerebrally funny, tongue-in-cheek commentary on a series of “maps” (essentially, close-ups of abstract art) that the narrator used on an imaginary trip through mostly made-up places. It’s very inventive and vaguely reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, so I’ll call it fantasy. The best lines from it would have fit in something much shorter than its 41 minute runtime, but sprinkling them around in something rambling and hypnotic works here too because the art is nice.