Since the earliest days of cinema the science fiction genre has flourished, capturing the imagination while commanding impressive box office receipts along the way. But not all great populist SF has been widely seen, become a large scale franchise, or been a big event film with A-list stars. Some get released and missed in the shuffle or get forgotten over the passage of years.
Great SF is often found in small scale indie film attire and art house dress or have been lost as the cult of admirers dwindled or got into something else. The following list guarantees an adventurous path of imagined futures, possible pasts, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, stinging satire and sometimes just some silly fun, but perhaps best of all is that many of these films are relatively obscure and are bound to be new discoveries for many of you. Enjoy!
10. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962)
This bizarro mad doctor picture is certainly nobody’s definition of “great cinema” but it is an odd and entertaining bit of curios that was part of the strange wave of science-of-the-living-dead films that followed for years in the wake of the James Whale Frankenstein films for Universal.
Wonderfully awful, B-movie director Joseph Green smartly cast TV actor Jason Evers as Dr. Bill Cortner and a deliriously campy Virginia Leith as the doctor’s hapless (and soon to be headless) fiancée, Jan Compton. Head’s up, one night the couple are en route to the doctor’s lab when they’re in a nasty car accident that results in Jan’s decapitation.
Dr. Cortner, an expert in transplants, figures aww what the heck, I’ll perform the first head transplant and get famous or some such. Soon our overconfident scientist is busy with keeping Jan’s head alive in his lab as he maps out the groundbreaking yet highly unorthodox surgery. First, however, he needs a body, and that brings us to Eddie Carmel as “The Monster”.
Carmel, for all you trivia fans out there, who in real-life suffered from a pituitary gland tumor, is best remembered as the subject of Diane Arbus’s famous 1970 photograph “A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents.”
9. Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)
Viewed today it’s fair to say that Hajime Sato’s melodramatic alien-vampire B movie Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is a pretty didactic picture. The film’s moralizing messages about human ignorance is heavy-handed to say the least, but it’s also fairly fascinating that this Japanese genre mashup is also a startlingly effective anti-Vietnam War fable.
The story, what little there is of it, concerns the survivors of a plane crash on an uncharted deserted island, who now have to contend with a bizarre blob-like alien that turns them into bloodthirsty vampiric predators. It’s all rather silly but is still a rather fascinating time capsule of late 1960s sci-fi horror and paranoia.
8. Island of Lost Souls (1932)
With an astonishingly great cast that includes Charles Laughton, Leila Hyams, Béla Lugosi, and Richard Arlen, this pre-Code SF horror spectacle is also highly notable for being the first and arguably the greatest screen adaptation of H. G. Wells’s classic 1896 novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”
This oft told tale concerns a shipwrecked lad, one Edward Parker (Arlen), who is adrift in the South Seas whereupon he’s rescued by an ocean freighter delivering animals to a creepy island owned by the mysterious Dr. Moreau (Laughton). As the story lurches forward we discover along with Parker that the not-so-good doctor deals in animal experiments and human torture in what a fellow wayward traveller named Lota (Kathleen Burke) refers to as “the House of Pain.”
Owing to still-shocking scenes of animal vivisection, Island of Lost Souls was banned in the UK for a quarter-century, and while that aspect of the film is horrific, there are redemptive aspects of the film.
Not only is Laughton’s performance chillingly theatrical (his creepy line delivery of “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” is another sequence that rattled censors back in the day), it’s Lugosi’s memorable utterance of “Are we not men?” that gave new wave legends Devo not only the title of their debut album (1978’s “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!”) but also lyrical inspiration for their celebrated B-side single “Jocko Homo.”
7. Frankenhooker (1990)
Suitably trashy, B-movie maven Frank Henelotter’s comical update of the Mary Shelley classic is as transgressive as his Basket Case trilogy (1982, 1990, 1991) and Brain Damage (1988), joyfully revelling in the requisite sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll while maintaining an impressive level of cerebral sleaze the entire time.
Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz) is a hapless medical school drop-out living in New Jersey where his fiancée Elizabeth Shelley (Patty Mullen, previously best known as a two-time Penthouse “Pet of the Month” model) is killed in a freak lawnmower accident during a cookout party. In order to revive Elizabeth, Jeffrey, going more than a tad loco in his mad scientist scrubs, opts to use body parts from New York City prostitutes to help give his future bride a “leg up” in the world and you can guess where things go from there.
Henenlotter, a New York-based filmmaker, somehow via his personable and enthusiastic love of all movies B, managed to get an enthusiastic endorsement from his pal Bill Murray who famously quipped, “If you see one movie this year, it should be Frankenhooker.” So take it from Peter Venkman, why would he lie?
6. Tetsuo II: Bodyhammer (1992)
Japanese auteur Shinya Tsukamoto had a significantly bigger budget for his cyberpunk body-horror follow-up to Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and the results are highly enjoyable for diehard genre fans. The log line spouts that cult-actor Tomorowo Taguchi, reprising his role from the first film, “is changing into a weapon… and he seems to like it!”
Both of Tsukamoto’s two Tetsuo films rank amongst the first industrial punk-rock horror movies ever to be made, and they offer up a sinister and scathing indictment of dehumanized Japanese masculinity from that late 1980s/early 1990s era. And Tsukamoto has an excellent understanding that science makes for a marvellous venue for the extraordinary as well as the grotesque.
Tetsuo II: Bodyhammer bludgeons the viewer over the head more than once, focussing our attention on the technologies that surround society and have overtaken our lives. Tsukamoto rather cynically suggests that these technologies are not only dehumanizing, but that they’re enabling, and evolving much faster than we are. How exciting and upsetting is that?
5. Night of the Comet (1984)
This neon-lit, tongue-in-cheek pastiche of Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Omega Man (1971) is buttressed by two strong female protagonists, in writer-director Thom Eberhardt’s influential post-apocalyptic party film, Night of the Comet.
Two headstrong teenage sisters, Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Samantha (Kelli Maroney), find themselves amongst a scant handful of survivors after a comet blows by the Earth, either reducing most of the populace to piles of dust or seriously effed up zombies. The two young women spend most of the movie either dodging or duelling the undead and some douchey scientists, and it all amounts to a surprising amount of fun.
Joss Whedon has proclaimed many times that Maroney’s 16-year-old Samantha was the basis for his vampire-killin’ creation Buffy Summers, so fans should take note and plan a sleepover with Night of the Comet –– you’ll have a witty, imaginative, occasionally scary, and enjoyably silly time.
4. Quintet (1979)
Robert Altman’s deliberately paced and altogether artful post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale confounded critics and audiences on its initial release, and it’s a crying shame that begs the question: can a reassessment be far behind for this overlooked gem?
Set in the distant future, during a new ice age, Quintet features an A-list international cast that includes Paul Newman, Bibi Andersson, and Fernando Rey, each vying for a meaningful life in a landscape of desolation and uncertainty. In a world buried beneath endless snow, the few survivors scavenge for what little food remains, journeying vast distances and ultimately ending up at the Hotel Electra where a deadly five-sided board game, “Quintet” is played.
In keeping with similar works from this period, specifically Images (1971) and 3 Women (1977), Altman instills a subtle greatness and obscure-yet-ever-building tension amongst these characters, their dreamlike environs, and a plot that is frequently clear as mud.
Quintet is a challenging watch, but a rewarding one for the patient viewer or those who enjoy the mysteries of a Möbius strip film, where the meaning must be puzzled out, wrestled, tamed, dissected, and discussed. A treasure.
3. The Quiet Earth (1985)
“God blinked and the whole world disappeared,” utters Joanne (Alison Routledge), one of only three survivors of a strange energy experiment gone terribly awry in Kiwi filmmaker Geoffrey Murphy’s (Goodbye Pork Pie) tour de force sci-fi foray, The Quiet Earth.
Inspired by Craig Harrison’s 1981 SF novel of the same name, Murphy’s film is a survival epic comparable to George Romero’s apocalyptic undead films in that man’s experiments have led to our destruction.
Scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence, brilliant), part of the international consortium energy program dubbed “Project Flashlight”, awakens one morning to find the city he lives in deserted. Not just the city, he soon discovers, but the entire world.
Everyone is gone and Zac’s search for survivors will only be hindered by his own potential mental collapse. It’s an apocalypse with a surprisingly light touch and some slick psychology behind it that may just be your favorite of the last-man-on-earth sub genre, and certainly a deserved cult classic that fans of The Twilight Zone are sure to relish.
2. Ikarie XB 1 (1963)
Anticipating, in mood, seriousness, and style, both Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), this overlooked celestial saga from Czechoslovakian filmmaker Jindřich Polák had a profound and resonant influence on the sci-fi genre.
Sleek and deeply philosophical, Ikarie XB 1 is loosely based off of the 1958 novel “The Magellanic Cloud” by legendary Polish writer Stanisław Lem. Set aboard the titular massive spacecraft in the year 2163, the Ikarie XB 1 is bound for Alpha Centauri, carrying within its hull is an international crew of forty men and women. How will they cope with the psychological pressures of their years-long journey? Well, it won’t be a cakewalk, that’s for sure.
Aided by Polák and his first-rate cinematographer Jan Kališ’s knack for stirring and powerful visual compositions, and shot in elegant CinemaScope, Ikarie XB 1, also known to English-speaking audiences as Voyage to the End of the Universe, is a beautiful and engaging SF spectacle that might just blow you away (with extra props for Zdeněk Liška’s amazing electronic score). Don’t miss it.
1. A Boy and His Dog (1975)
The joyfully detouring shaggy dog (pun intended) narratives in this curious cult classic sci-fi spectacle were written by the legendary scribe Harlan Ellison (“Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled”, “Deathbird Stories”), drawn largely from his 1969 novel of the same name.
Now, depending on who you ask, A Boy and His Dog is often thought to be the first post-apocalyptic genre film and may well have been responsible for the deluge of similarly themed films that flooded out afterwards (George Miller cites it as an influence on his Mad Max films, so there’s that, too).
Directed with an offbeat and eccentric sensibility by L.Q. Jones (Hang ‘Em High), this pitch-black comedy concerns Vic (a baby-faced Don Johnson), a horny teenager and now shady scavenger out to survive in the dangerous post-apocalyptic wastes of what’s left of the Southern United States. Keeping him company is Blood, his telepathic dog, voiced by Tim McIntire. When our unlikely duo stumble upon the sexy and suspicious Quilla June (Susanne Benton), a member of an underground society deep below the earth’s surface, Vic follows her down into the astonishingly surreal depths.
A Boy and His Dog is a strange and singular doomsday fable for fans of adventurous and strange SF cinema.