FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS seems like a near-perfect fit for MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Despite the show’s reputation for ribbing the worst cinematic atrocities on the planet, MST3K is often most entertaining when addressing a film that is technically competent, even watchable in its own right, but marred by dated attitudes, heavy-handed messaging, and/or overdone melodrama. This is why ROCKETSHIP X-M worked so well on the show: with no papier-mâché sets at which to hurl verbal bricks, the crew of the Satellite of Love instead offered up trenchant remarks regarding its 1950s world view, particularly the “white male reality” underlying the film’s attitude toward women. FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS is essentially a German-Polish variation on ROCKETSHIP X-M: filmed in 1960 as Der Schweigende Stern (“The Silent Star”), it offers bigger production values, including widescreen color photography and 4-track stereo sound, but its overly serious tone, heavy handed anti-nuclear message, and occasional soap opera melodrama cry out for the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 treatment. As funny as the results are, however, they are not quite as funny as they might have been.
One of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000’s most beneficial services is that it occasionally allows you to view films that you either want or feel obligated to see, while providing a laugh track to help you through the longueurs. With its elaborate sets, imaginative production design, and sometimes trippy special effects, THE SILENT STAR, in its original form, is visually interesting enough to warrant attention, and on-screen wisecracks from Joel, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo are just the thing to lighten up the dreadfully humorless tone of the original. What prevents this episode from reaching the absolute zenith of hilarity is that FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS is presented in its truncated American version. Given the MST3K format, with Joel Hodgson and his robot pals hurling peanut gallery insults at the screen, it was probably necessary to use the English-language version, but the bad dubbing – combined with the faded, pan-and-scan print – makes FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS look and sound like a cheap sci-fi flick – an obvious target that deserves to be pilloried, as opposed to a near-miss redeemed by MST’s 3Klaugh-alone camaraderie. Also, the shorter cut (79 minutes) deletes several potentially hilarious scenes: melodramatic moments meant to add weight to the story (such as one character’s suggestion that the ship’s lone female astronaut should be making babies instead of risking her life – “white male reality” indeed!), along with a pro-Soviet subtext that would have been rife for riffing. Even so, the Americanized version of FIRST SPACE SHIP offers plenty of opportunity for enjoyable nonsense. The pressurized space suits and other technology draw the inevitable – and perfectly appropriate – reference to the old Major Matt Mason toy line, while the ridiculous outfit worn inside the ship is likened to a teddy bear. The Venusian atmosphere, with its swirling gaseous colors is compared to “creamy nugget.” When one character foolishly manages to get himself run over by a harmless-looking robot, the doctor’s diagnosis of “internal injuries” sounds a bit too much like “eternal injuries,” prompting Joel to remark “Even in the afterlife?”
The interstitial segments (which could sometimes be hit and miss on MST3K) are enlivened by a running gag in which Tom Servo has had his “Sarcasm Sequencer” turned up. After 90 minutes of excessive iron (“Ooo, sign me up for more of that!”), the joke pays off when his head goes up in an explosive puff of smoke. (Don’t worry – he recovers.) Rare for MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, the episode ends with Crow T. Robot expressing some deserved praise for the film: “I liked the international flavor, and it had a lot of action”. There is no doubt that FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS deserves the MST3K treatment, but it is nice to hear a small acknowledgement that the film is not totally bereft of positive qualities. If you want to watch this film straight up, then checked out the subtitled version under the title THE SILENT STAR is the way to go. In its truncated and dubbed form, MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 is the only way to go.
The episode is available on DVD as part of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: 20TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION box set, which also includes LASERBLAST, WEREWOLF, and FUTURE WAR. It is also available as VOD through Netflix Instant Viewing.
Click here to read a review of the original European version, titled THE SILENT STAR, which ran as part of Cinefantastique’s 50th anniversary tribute to the horror, fantasy, and science fiction films of 1960.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: Season 3, Episode 11 – FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS (air date: December 29, 1990). Cast: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon, Frank Conniff, Crist Ballas, Michael J. Nelson
THE SILENT STAR (Der Schweigende Stern, a.k.a. FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS) is an oddball artifact of the year 1960: a science fiction film that echoes its 1950s predecessors while simultaneously foreshadowing the decade to come, the German-Polish co-production is poised somewhere on the cusp of the artistic and the absurd. Its ambition as serious cinefantastique is proudly displayed, yet the execution seems more appropriate for a tongue-in-cheek space opera. With its heavy-handed message and occasionally trite drama, it is tempting to dismiss THE SILENT STAR as an ambitious failure or a propaganda film posing as entertainment; however, a glimmer of noble intent shines through, demanding and even earning some measure of respect.
This somewhat schizophrenic assessment may surprise Western viewers who know the film only through its truncated U.S. version, retitled FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS and cut down to 79 minutes from an original run-time of 93-to-95 minutes (sources vary). Obviously intended as a lavish epic (in color, widescreen, and four-track stereo), THE SILENT STAR’s flaws shine that much more brightly when the film is reduced to the badly dubbed pan-and-scan prints shown on U.S. television and video; it is even harder to take the film seriously if one’s impression is formed by seeing it riotously ribbed on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.
Fortunately, the original version is available as part of the DEFA Sci-Fi Collection (three films produced at East Germany’s state-run Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft in the ’60s). A good-looking widescreen transfer, with subtitles, is also available on Netflix Instant Viewing; through the running time here is only 89 minutes, nothing obvious seems missing. These European versions contain numerous character scenes and several unflattering references to America’s development and use of nuclear weapons, which were excised presumably to speed up pace and trim THE SILENT STAR’s political message.
Absent the corny star-field of the American prints, THE SILENT STAR begins like an an elaborate roadshow production, with the opening strains of an avante garde score playing against a black screen, as if signalling viewers to take their seats and pay attention. The credits roll over a background of abstract color, immediately giving the impression that one is about to go on some kind of “ultimate trip” akin to either 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) or, even more appropriate, SOLARIS (1970).
Like that later film, THE SILENT STAR is based upon a novel by Stanislaw Lem, in this case The Astronauts. The story follows what happens after a mysterious alien artifact is discovered in the Gobi desert in 1970 (the date changed to 1985 in English dubbing). The artifact, which astrophysicists determine came from Venus, turns out to contain some kind of message, but it’s too damaged to interpret immediately. When Venus remains strangely silent in response to Earth-bound attempts to make radio contact, an international crew is assembled to fly to the planet while translating the message on the way; alarmingly, the message turns out to herald an intended invasion. Landing on Venus, the crew have difficulty locating the residents, but they do encounter strange power sources, architectural structures, and tiny metallic objects resembling insects. Eventually, it becomes clear that the inhabitants of Venus destroyed themselves in a nuclear conflagration before they could invade Earth. The astronauts try to head home, but the still-active Venusian technology causes problems with liftoff… In a way, the best thing about THE SILENT STAR is its opening credits sequence; the combination of color and sound brilliantly awakens our Sense of Wonder, whetting the anticipation for the adventure to come. After that, the film itself has a hard time living up to expectations. The initial scenes on Earth are somewhat prosaic. When the astronauts reach the surface of Venus, the production design and special effects create an effectively alien landscape, filled with strange shapes and swirling colors. However, the colorful design is at odds with the script; you halfway expect Barbarella to come flying by at any moment, and the overall effect begins to feel a bit like touring Disneyland on acid.
It doesn’t help that the pressure suits, rocket ship, other vehicles, though sleek and lovely to look at, suggest collectible toys that should be part of a Major Matt Mason action figure line – the mini talking robot on tractor treads even has what looks like a face. Even worse, the suits worn inside the ship resemble giant condoms with ear muffs.
The dialogue is filled with techo-babble, as if large chunks of the novel’s exposition were simply divided up and shoved into the characters’ mouths. Despite the chatter, the science is seldom convincing; at times it plays like dramatic contrivance, such as the latent Venusian technology capable of creating a gravity field that alternately pins the Earth ship to the surface or flings it into space (all without the characters showing any signs of increased or decreased weight). What function this device served is not clear; it exists in the script simply to create the third- act crisis, forcing some crew members to sacrifice themselves for their comrades. The international flavor of the cast is a nice touch, predating STAR TREK by several years. (The credits even list the cast according to nationality rather than name: e.g., “Kurt Rackelmann as the Indian Mathematician”). Nevertheless, there is a condescending pro-communist attitude: it’s clear that the Soviets have been to the moon first, and they graciously allow an American, Dr. Hawling (Oldrich Lukes) on board their rocket to Venus, even while occasionally guilt tripping him about his country’s use of the atomic bomb against Japan. And the fact that one of the sacrificial lambs is the ship’s sole African astronaut [Julius Ongewe] plays like a bad joke: we may all be brothers in THE SILENT STAR”s Iron Curtain ideology , but the “brother” is left behind. At least “The Chinese Linguist” (Tang Hua-Ta) – who is a biologist on the side! – learns that his experiments have uncovered life on Venus, before he meets his fate.
This latter bit is one of THE SILENT STAR’s few truly affecting moments, capturing both the triumph and tragedy of the mission. Too often, the attempt at a seriousitude yields humorless tone that becomes unintentionally funny. Attempting dramatic, low-key performances, the actors shrug, shakes their heads, and mumble “bah!” as if nothing more important has happened than a light bulb burning out – all while their characters are on a mission to make first contact with an alien culture!
At times, THE SILENT STAR descends into melodrama that is old-fashioned and even sexist, with the lone female crew member, Dr. Ogimura (Yoko Tani), serving the stereotypical role as nurturer and potential love interest, her job as astronaut justified only by the fact that she is, in a sense, not a complete woman. This plays out in a cornball subplot in which Brinkman (Gunther Simon) expresses love for Ogimura and guilt for not having saved her husband’s life on a previous mission: afraid something similar will happen to her, he suggests that she should be giving life – i.e., having babies – instead of risking her own life. In response, Ogimura tells him that radiation poisoning has rendered her sterile.
This last element ties in with the film’s anti-nuclear message, which is delivered with all the subtlety of an H-bomb. As if the presence of an American scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project is not enough, Tani’s “Japanese Doctor” functions to remind us about the fall-out from Hawling’s work: when observing the shadows of bomb victims etched on Venusian walls by a nuclear blast, she says out loud what we should have been allowed to guess: that the scene reminds her of the aftermath of Hiroshima.
With its ill-fated Earth mission discovering an alien world destroyed by nuclear war, THE SILENT STAR plays like a European version of ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950). The eye-catching production values and the eerie electronic music recall FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956). At the same time, the almost pop art approach to space age technology and alien landscapes is pure ’60s, almost psychedelic in its foreshadowing of later sci-fi cinema. Today, THE SILENT STAR is mostly of historical interest as an example of science fiction made behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s. Though no match for SOLARIS, in its original form the film retains enough of its good intentions remain to make it worthwhile viewing.
Click here to read a review of the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 version.
THE SILENT STAR (Der Schweigende Stern, a.k.a. FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS). Directed by Kurt Maetzig. Screenplay by Jan Fethke, Wolfgang Kohlahaase, Gunter Reisch, Gunther Rucker, and Alexander Stenbock-Fermor in collaboration with Kurt Maetzig, based on The Astronauts by Stanislaw Lem. Cast: Yoko Tani, Oldirch Lukes, Ignacy Machowski, Julius Ongewe, Michail N. Postinikow, Kurt Rackelmann, Gunther Simon, Tang Hua-Ta, Lycyna Winnicka.
1960. The beginning of a turbulent decade: civil rights, riots, sit-ins. On screen, however – at least as far as mainstream Hollywood is concerned, it is still business as usual, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handing out an unprecedented number of Oscar to the overblown historical epic, BEN-HUR. If you are searching cinema for hints of the societal tensions that will explode over the course of the next few years, you will have to look elsewhere, to genres that allow buried fears to surface in disguised forms. You have to look to cinefantastique.
What did 1960 have to offer in terms of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films? Essentially, the year was part of a transitional period. Science fiction, which had dominated genre film-making throughout most of the 1950s – with fears of communism disguised as enlarged insects, other-worldly creatures, and various atomic mutations and monsters – waned toward the end of the decade, replaced by a resurrected horror genre, which focused on visceral, bodily fears. While England’s Hammer Films, who had revived the Gothic tradition with new incarnations of Dracula and Frankenstein, continued their successful streak, filmmakers in America and Italy sought to cash in on their success. Japan – long a supplier of giant monsters – showed that they could scale their terrors down to size. Horror was becoming international in scope. But unlike the classic horror of yesteryear, the new films hit closer to home, with stories hinting that the bastions of normality, far from being impervious strongholds, might, in fact, be the source of horror.
PSYCHO and HOUSE OF USHER – even BLACK SUNDAY, to some extent – trace the etiology of terror back to the family, once a sacrosanct institution. Playing to the target teen audience, USHER’s depiction of horror is closely aligned with age: the white-haired Roderick (Vincent Price) stands between the film’s two young lovers. Though technically the brother of Madeline Usher, he exhibits all the signs of parental authority, and one of the illicit thrills of the film is seeing the old authority figure go down in flames along with his house.
Also, in 1960 it is hard to identify the “monster” by mere looks; now he – or she – may walk among us, unnoticed until it is too late. Norman Bates seems to be a nice, shy boy. PEEPING TOM’s Mark Lewis is likewise likable. The new Mr. Hyde, in Hammer Films’ version of the familiar tale, is a handsome bon vivant, not a deformed maniac. The bottom line is this: the safety zone is smaller, if it exists at all; watching the skies for alien invaders is pointless, when the attack is more likely to come from within one’s own neighborhood or household, perhaps even one’s own self.
Although 1960 saw horror exploding on screens around the world, science fiction and fantasy were not entirely absent; they continued, sometimes offering an optimistic counterpoint, sometimes including monsters menacing enough to populate a full-blown horror film. Producer George Pal took us into a future populated by subterranean Morlocks. Stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen, who had switched from science fiction (EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS) to fantasy (THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) sent Gulliver to Lilliput. The great Ingmar Bergman took time out from his more serious work to send Don Juan back to Earth from Hell.
Another sign of the times was the trend toward color photography. The low-budget black-and-white science fiction – which had once proliferated like pod people in a green house – withered away to almost nothing. Not every genre film had a hefty budget, but even modest productions like HOUSE OF USHER and DINOSAURUS made the effort to look lavish and glossy, thanks to widescreen and/or color – and if not more lavish, then at least more lurid, thanks to the occasional flash of blood, which registered with much greater impact when viewers could see the deep crimson dripping on the screen.
Exactly how many horror, fantasy, and science fiction films were released in 1960? That depends on how you define the genres, and whether you include foreign titles that might not have reached our shores until later. Below we do our best to round up the relevant titles. Read on to get a taste of what the genre had to offer fifty years ago…
-1960 SCIENCE FICTION FILMS-
THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN. The career of the talented Edgar G. Ulmer (1934’s THE BLACK CAT) seemed on a downhill slide with this low-budget effort, scripted by Jack Lewis, about a mad scientist who intends to use an invisibility formula to create an army of invisible zombies. ATOMIC WAR BRIDE. This 84-minute Yugoslavian film (known as Rat in its native land) is an alleged satire on the insanity of nuclear warfare. BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (Nebo zovyot). Russian film about a race to land the first rocket ship on Mars. Directed by Mikhail Karzhukov and Sleksandr Kozyr, from a script Karzhukov co-wrote with Yevgeni Pomeschchikov and Aleksei Sazanov. Francis Ford Coppola (working under the pseudonym Thomas Colchart) re-edited the film and shot new footage for the U.S. release. BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER. Another film from director Edgar G. Ulmer, this one from a script by Arthur C. Pierce, about a test pilot who inadvertently rockets into a future time, when the ruler wants him to procreate because the male population has gone sterile. THE CAPE CANAVERAL MONSTERS. Phil Tucker, producer of the infamous ROBOT MONSTER, wrote and directed this dismal little ditty, a 69-minute stinker about aliens from outer space who possess the bodies of a man and a woman who died in a car accident. The disembodied aliens are visualized as simple white circles of animation floating across a black screen, an effect reprised at the end to suggest the defeated extraterrestrials will be back for more mayhem – a fate that, fortunately cinema audiences were spared. DINOSAURUS. This sci-fi effort from the team that gave us THE BLOB (1958) is built around a great premise for a cool action-thriller: an island resort is menaced by a pair of prehistoric reptiles accidentally dredged up from the harbor; the brontosaurus turns out to be friendly enough, but the Tyrannosaurus Rex is hungry! The isolated setting forces the characters to defend themselves without help from the army or even much in the way of firepower; they have to rely on whatever is available, leading to a clever confrontation between the Rex and a steam shovel at the climax. The script throws in a cave man as well, who is used mostly for comic relief. In general, the writing, directing, and acting are competent but not outstanding. The stop-motion miniature dinosaur effects may amuse fans for the technique, but only very young viewers will be convinced by them. All in all, this is a pleasant popcorn experience, but it is easy to imagine a better film being made from the central idea. NOTE: Producer Jack H. Harris had hoped that this would be his “forever movie,” the one that lasted in people’s imaginations, because it had more lavish production values than THE BLOB, and it was distributed by a major studio. Although the film turned a profit, it did not become a classic; meanwhile, memories of THE BLOB live on. THE HUMAN VAPOR. Director Ishiro Honda and special effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya, the team behind such Toho productions as GODZILLA and RODAN, focus on a human-sized monster for a change: a librarian (Yoshio Tsuchiya) who gains the ability, courtesy of a scientific experiment, to turn himself into a vapor. Cross-breeding science fiction with cop-and-robbers, the script by Takeshi Kimura has the titular human vapor use his abilities to rob banks. The original Japanese titles literally translates at “First Gas Person.” THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH. Odd-ball effort from producer-director Roger Corman, starring Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, and Robert Towne (who wrote the script) as the last three people left alive on Earth, leading to the ultimate love triangle as the two men vie for the affections of the sole remaining woman. Although shot in color and widescreen, this little movie is a low-budget affair, too slowly paced (in spite of its 71-minute running time) to stand up even as a solid cult film; fortunately, it does have a few things going for it, such as the effective depiction of a depopulated world, realized on location in Puerto Rico with streets full of empty cars abandoned in the middle of the road. The ending even works up a little genuine interest, refusing to cop out with a happy resolution. THE LEECH WOMAN. This black-and-white B-movie from Universal Pictures is too cheap and shoddy to be really good, but like THE WASP WOMAN (see below), it offers some interesting insights on the 1960 male attitudes toward women and aging. It’s about some anthropologists who accompany an old crone back to her village in the jungle, where she reveals a secret that restores her youth; the catch is that the process requires a human victim to work. June Talbot (Coleen Gray) appropriates the secret for her own personal use, more than wiling to have men pay the price for extending her youthful appearance indefinitely. Although June is clearly the villain, the film offers her some measure of sympathy: her first victim is a two-timer who gets what he deserves, and the dialogue explicitly notes the double standards that apply to men and women as they grow older (men earn greater respect, while women are cast aside as worn out and useless). THE LOST WORLD. Irwin Allen’s remake of the 1925 silent classic substitutes live-action lizards for stop-motion dinosaurs. There is a decently sweaty atmosphere to the jungle scenes as Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) leads a team in search of surviving prehistoric reptiles. Michael Rennie (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), Jill St. John (DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER), and David Hedison (THE FLY) fill out the cast, but the humans cannot make up for the fact that we don’t get to see convincing dinosaurs. Charles Bennet wrote the script, based on the fine adventure novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. MAN IN THE MOON. This British comedy, directed by Basil Deardon from a screenplay by Bryan Forbes and Michale Relph, stars Kenneth Moore as a man chosen to be the first to make a flight to the moon. The premise is that Moore’s character is a professional medical test subject who has proven to be highly resistant to disease, so scientists preparing a moon mission decide to use him as a guinea pig, sending him to the moon before any real astronauts go. SHIP OF MONSTERS. 81-minute black-and-white Mexican film about women from Venus who coming looking for male breeding stock. When the hero refuses to comply, the Venusians unleash monsters. The ploy does not work, and they return home, defeated. THE SILENT STAR (Der Schweigende Stern). Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem (SOLARIS), this German-Polish film from DEFA (East Germany’s state-run Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft) was intended as serious science fiction effort, with a high-class production values, including color, widescreen, and four-track stereo. However, when it reached American shores in 1962 as FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS, the English-dubbed, re-edited version was unimpressive indeed, providing well-deserved fodder for an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Fortunately, the original version is now available on DVD and VOD. It’s still not great, but it is better. SPACE MEN (a.k.a. ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE). Italian film directed by Antonio Margheriti (CASTLE OF BLOOD), about a reporter, assigned to a beat aboard a space station, who must disable the photon generators of an errant space ship, the radiation from which is threatening Earth. THE TIME MACHINE. George Pal, who had produced THE WAR OF THE WORLDS in 1953, returns with another adaptation of H.G. Wells, and this time Pal steps into the director’s chair. The story has time traveler Rod Taylor heading to the future, when society has been divided into two segments: one weak and passive, living on the surface; the other strong and cannibalistic, living underground. Wells’ original was a sort of satiric imagination of the direction in which society might be evolving: it’s the bourgeoisie and proletariat taken to extremes; Pal substitutes the idea that things got this way because of nuclear war. This was quite a lavish production for its time; although some of the special effects trickery is visible at the seams, the work is colorful and engaging enough so that you want to forgive the flaws. Overall, this is an enjoyable effort, though not quite as astounding as WAR OF THE WORLDS. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. Excellent, suspenseful science fiction film about the misadventures of a small English town, where the residents wake up after a mysterious bout of narcolepsy, and nine months later the women give birth to children with strange powers (including Martin Stephens of THE INNOCENTS). The always entertaining George Sanders plays the man who first tries to teach the children (who have a nasty habit of using their telepathic powers to bump off those who offend them) and later tries to destroy them, putting his own life at risk. VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET. Jerry Lewis stars in this film version of the Gore Vidal Broadway play (which had made its debut as a television drama). Lewis plays an alien who comes to Earth and falls in love. Unfortunately, along with love, come less pleasant emotions, which may not be worth the price. Vidal’s original was a satire about an alien who wanted to study the Civil War; when he arrives too late – in the 20th century – he decides to start a new war. THE WASP WOMAN. This little black-and-white movie, produced and directed by Roger Corman, casts the striking Susan Cabot as Janice, head of a large cosmetics firm, who resorts to wasp enzymes in order to arrest the aging process. The treatment works; unfortunately, it also morphs her into the titular Wasp Woman from time to time. It is hard to take this thread-bare production seriously; its monster is obviously a riff on THE FLY (1958), but the makeup and production values are no real competition for the earlier film. Still, THE WASP WOMAN retains a flash of interest. It’s a male, sexist depiction of how beautiful women handle aging, going to such desperate lengths that they turn themselves into monsters. ALSO OF NOTE: In order to get the running time up to the minimum length needed for a television sale, Jack Hill added a prologue sequence. (NOTE: THE WASP WOMAN was shot in 1959, and some sources list it as having been released in October of that year; others list the release date as February 12, 1960.) WORLD WAR II BREAKS OUT (Dai-sanji sekai taisen: Yonju-ichi jikan no kyofu). This Japanese film from writer-director Shigeaki Hidaka (with a directorial assist from William Ross) portrays the tragic consequences for Japan when a nuclear war erupts between the USA and the Soviet bloc.
-1960 FANTASY FILMS-
THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER. The men behind THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1957) – producer Charles H. Schneer, actor Kerwin Matthews, and (most importantly) special effects supervisor Ray Harryhausen – reteamed for this film version of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Although much of the Swiftian satire is lost in the screenplay by Arthur A. Ross and director Jack Sher, the film emerges as another colorful showcase for Harryhausen’s visual effects. Without much in the way of monsters to animate, Harryhausen focuses on the miniature and composite effects necessary to make Matthews look either larger or smaller than everyone else (depending on which of the three worlds he is in at the time). The result is an adequately entertaining fantasy for children. Swift fans will probably prefer the original novel. Harryhausen fans will probably prefer anything with more monsters. THE DEVIL’S EYE. Writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s fantasy-comedy is based around the folk saying that a woman’s virtue is like a stye in the Devil’s Eye. In this case, Satan (Stig Jarrel) sends Don Juan (Jarl Kulle) up from hell in order to seduce a virtuous vicar’s daughter (Bibi Andersson). Bergman’s comedies (such as SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT) are not so much “funny” as they are light-hearted counterpoints to his more serious work. Unfortunately, this film has never been released on Region 1 DVD. FAUST. A German film version of Goethe’s play, starring Will Quadflieg as Dr. Faust and Gustaf Grundgens as Mephistopholes. Unavailable on Region 1 DVD, the color, 128-minute film has a decent rating on IMDB. GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON (La vendetta di Ercole [“The Vendetta of Hercules”]). This is one of many Italian beefcake epics from the era; many were simply muscle-men movies, but others included fantasy elements, often borrowed from Greek mythology. In this film, Goliath/Hercules (Mark Forest) battles giant bats, a three-headed dog, and a dragon. Broderick Crawford (from the 1941 version of THE BLACK CAT and, later, television’s HIGHWAY PATROL) provides a little American name value as King Eurystheus. LA TESTAMENT D’OPHEE. The last film from the highly regarded surrealistic filmmaker Jean Cocteau (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) portrays an 18th century poet who travels through time seeking divine inspiration. THE WILD BEAST OF CRETE. Inspired by Greek mythology, this Italian peplum film is about an evil ruler in Crete, who keeps the dangerous man-monster hybrid the Minotaur at bay by sacrificing island virgins. THE WIZARD OF BAGHDAD. Dick Shawn and Diane Baker star in this comedy spin on THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, written by Jesse Lasky Jr. and directed by George Sherman.
-1960 HORROR FILMS-
13 GHOSTS. Gimmicky William Castle film, written by Robb White, for which audience members were given special tinted glasses that allowed them to see the ghosts on screen. ATOM AGE VAMPIRE. Italian rip-off of EYES WITHOUT A FACE (see below), with a mad doctor who is able to turn himself into a monster, so that he can abduct women in order to use their skin to restore the face of his disfigured daughter. THE AVENGER. Germanpsycho-thriller set in England, about a killer who decapitates his victims and sends the heads through the mail. Based on an Edgar Wallace novel. BLACK SUNDAY. Widely regarded by fans as a genre masterpiece, BLACK SUNDAY is a magnificent work of black-and-white horror, filled with wonderfully atmospheric effects and punctuated by moments of brutality quite grizzly for their time. Also known as “The Mask of Satan,” ”Mask of the Demon,” or “Revenge of the Vampire” (depending on the country of release), the film simultaneously harkins back to the Universal classics of the 1930s and emulates the then-contemporary verve and dynamism of Hammer Films productions like HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). The result is a unique piece of Gothic visual poetry that retains its power to thrill and entertain with all the tenacious vivacity of its centuries-dead vampire-witch, who refuses to lie quietly in her grave. This marks the official directorial debut of cinematographer Mario Bava, who would craft several excellent horror and science fiction films over the course of the next two decades. BLOOD AND ROSES. French director Roger Vadim’s adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla has its defenders, but the Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror faults it for “stilted performances…bathetic dialogue, and direction too prosaic to achieve the necessary intensity.” THE BRIDES OF DRACULA. This is Hammer Films’ first sequel to their 1958 classic, HORROR OF DRACULA. Made at the height of the studio’s success, BRIDES OF DRACULA features the familiar elements (beautiful color cinematography, lavish sets, solid writing, strong performances), making this a worthy heir to its predecessor. However, it is perhaps most notable for the obvious absence of the king of vampires, Count Dracula; instead, we get a blond, youthful vampire named Baron Meinster (David Peel). Directed with assurance by Terence Fisher, BRIDES is lavish and beautiful, filled with interesting ideas and memorable scenes. In the end, however, this sequel cannot surmount the absence of Count Dracula. Having dispatched the Vampire King in the previous film, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is the Gothic equivalent of the world’s heavyweight champ, and Baron Meinster is a comparative light-weight, making his defeat feel like a foregone conclusion from the very beginning. CIRCUS OF HORRORS. Anton Diffring gives a fine performance in this lurid film directed by Sidney Hayers, from a script by George Baxt about a crooked plastic surgeon who evades the police by assuming a new identity as the proprietor of a travelling circus – which soon becomes famous (or infamous) for a series of tragic accidents, which seem only to increase tickets sales. Besides the visceral kick of trapeze artists falling to their deaths, or lion tamers mauled by the big cats, the film gets its biggest charge from Diffring’s character – essentially a tempermental artist who fashions his female patients to suit his classical ideas of beauty, and then destroys them when no longer satisfied with his own results. Not exactly reputable, but fascinating to watch. Donald Pleasence (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) appears early on, as the previous circus owner, mauled to death in a drunken stupor by his favorite performing bear. CITYOF THE DEAD (a.k.a. HORROR HOTEL). This excellent spookfest – about student who gets more than she bargained for when she goes to a small New England town to do research on belief in witches – stops just short of being one of the all-time great horror films. It is drenched in black-and-white atmosphere, and things that should be wrong actually end up helping: the budget-dictated lack of exteriors location shooting, plus the English actors trying to sound American, combine to create a limbo-like feeling, as if the film is set in its own weird little universe. The only drawback is that director Moxie lays it on so thick that sometimes you have to giggle. Fortunately, he redeems the misstep with the wonderful finale – one of the greatest endings you will ever see in a horror film. CREATURES OF THE WALKING DEAD. A mostly forgotten Mexican horror film about a mad doctor’s great grandson, who inherits the family castle and revives his ancestor. THE CURSE OF NOSTRADAMUS. Entertaining opening salvo in Mexico’s series of films about the vampiric son of the famous prophet. Nostradamus fils (Germain Robles) is as much super-villain as vampire, revealing his existence to a professor and challenging him to prevent a series of 13 murders that blood-sucker proposes to commit (all of this is to prove that the powers of darkness and the supernatural are far stronger than those of modern science). The clever concept is somewhat marred by bad dubbing in the U.S. versions, but the film is richly atmospheric, with nice Gothic sets benefiting from some fine photography, and Robles is impressive in the title role. Three sequels followed. THE CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE. Mexican horror film on the voodoo theme. DOCTOR BLOOD’S COFFIN. A surgeon exhume the body of his receptionist’s husband and attempts to implant a living heart. The wonderful Hazel Court is the receptionist – perhaps the only point of interest to this obscure flick. EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage, 1960). This brilliant film from director Georges Franju is a compelling and clinically brilliant combination of French art film and shock horror. The plot reads like little more than conventional B-movie schlock: Doctor Genessier, driven by guilt for disfiguring his daughter in a car accident, is the archetypal mad scientist who will stop at nothing to restore her face – even murder. What raises the film to the level of a masterpiece is the thorough conviction with which the story is treated, at all levels: the performances, direction, photography, and art direction – all combine to create a world in which fragile, poetic beauty is periodically shattered by clinical horror. The juxtaposition of the contrasting imagery is, in some miraculous fashion, entirely seamless, all part and parcel of the same picture, never feeling gratuitously grafted on. The result is not merely frightening but also genuinely disturbing – and thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. This is the first “art” horror film, and it’s cross-over appeal between the art house and the grindhouse should not be overestimated. THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Black-and-white British horror movie, written and directed by John Gilling (THE REPTILE, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE GORGON), based on the true-life story of Burke and Hare. Peter Cushing stars as Dr. Knox, the surgeon-teacher who pays the grave robbers to provide corpses for his anatomy students. Donald Pleasence co-stars. THE HANDS OF ORLAC. Mel Ferrer stars in this film, one of several adaptations of the Maurice Renard novel about a pianist who loses his hands in an accident and has the hands of a murderer grafted on in their place. Christopher Lee co-stars. HOUSEOF USHER. With this thick slice of atmospheric horror, producer-director Roger Corman (mentioned only a few paragraphs ago in reference to THE WASP WOMAN) finally got a chance to prove that he could handle a relatively lavish and respectable film. Though still working on a small budget, Corman put together an excellent team that provided lots of bang for the buck, including cinematographer Floyd Crosby and production designer Daniel Haller. Based on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the screenplay by Richard Matheson has a bit of trouble expanding the story to 80 minutes, but it manages to convey the gist of the original, while providing an excellent vehicle for star Vincent Price, who became this generation’s heir to the throne of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Corman and Price would go on to collaborate on numerous, even better Poe-based movies, but this is the Big Bang that started it all. HOUSE OF TERROR (La Casa Del Terror). Infamous patchwork Mexican film featuring comic star Tin Tan, which is known in the U.S. in a radically altered form as FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF. Lon Chaney Jr. is on hand as resurrected mummy who turns out to be a werewolf. Wow! THE INVISIBLE CREATURE. Innocuous variation on the familiar story of a scheming adulterous couple out to kill the man’s wife. This twist is that their plot is foiled by the titular invisible creature, a poltergeist. Also known as THE HOUSE IN MARSH ROAD.
JIGOKU. That’s Japanese for “Hell” – in the Buddhist sense. Nobuo Nakagawa, who had previously helmed GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (1959), directed and co-wrote this bizarre movie about damnation. Nakagawa is sort of the Japanese equivalent of Terence Fisher or Roger Corman, who were active in England and America, respectively, around the same time, and this is probably his most impressive effort. JIGOKU is divided into two sections. The first two-thirds focuses on a grad-school student led into temptation by his Mephistopholean friend, although in this case, temptation consists mostly of passively not doing the right thing, as opposed to actively performing evil actions. This portion of the film goes on a bit long, as we encounter numerous other characters performing actions that will send their souls into perdition; fortunately, it is redeemed by some eccentric stylistic flourishes: the tempter friend is never shown entering a scene; his arrival is heralded by off-screen sound effects (e.g., a train), and then the camera angle shifts to reveal his sudden presence. The film really takes off when everyone dies and goes to hell, at which point, Nakagawa more or less drops the usual tropes of narrative cinema in favor of aiming the horror straight out of the screen at the viewer. In what amounts to an early form of torture porn, we witnesses the various punishments inflicted on the damned (such as having limbs hacked off) for all eternity. Definitely a must-see. GHOST CAT OF OTAMA POND. Writer Yoshihiro Ishikawa, who had contributed to the script’s for Nakgawa’s GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA and BLACK CAT MANSION (1958), takes a place in the director’s chair for this Japanese horror effort, one of many “ghost cat” movies that were popular around this time. The fairly typical story is filled with intrigue and murder; as usual for this type of tale, the unjustly dead extract vengeance in the form of a cat. THE HAUNTED CASTLE. A German comedy in which the ghosts of a gang of thieves help a financially strapped Countess to overcome her money problems. THE HELL OF FRANKENSTEIN. Mexico’s stab at the Frankenstein story features a body snatcher who gains control of Frankenstein’s creation and uses it to carry out his revenge against those who imprisoned him. THE LAST VICTIM OF THE VAMPIRE. This is the second of two Italian vampires films starring Walter Brandi released in this year. The story has five show girls taking refuge in a castle, where Brandi plays both a friendly count and his vicious vampire ancestor. From available descriptions, it sounds as if the focus is less on horror than on the skin revealed by the showgirls. Also known as THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Roger Corman certainly deserves some recognition for being the only film-maker with three titles on this list. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is a cult horror-comedy about a goofy guy who accidentally cross-breeds a carnivorous plant – which not only craves humans for food, but also talks. (“Feed me!”). Except for a couple of cops doing a dead-pan DRAGNET impersonation, the performances tend to be broad, and not everything works, but the film is so off-the-wall ithat you have to sort of like it anyway. Essentially, this is a remake of Corman’s earlier BUCKET OF BLOOD: both films, scripted by Charles B. Griffith, feature lonely losers who accidentally become murderers while seeking fame and success. Although LITTLE SHOP has gained greater fame because of its talking plant (leading to an off-Broadway musical that was turned into a 1986 movie), it is the lesser of the two films; its skid-row setting (indicative of the poverty row production values) offers some comic potential, but it is no match for the Beatnik coffee house of BUCKET. Still, you can’t totally knock a film that so joyfully embraces its own absurdity. THE MASTER OF HORROR. Argentinian anthology featuring episodes based on three Poe tales: “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN. Italian horror film, dedicated to Hammer director Terence Fisher, about a professor who drains blood from beautiful women so that he can inject it into his daughter. The victims are turned into statues, which attract the attention of an art student. MY FRIEND JEKYLL. Italian spoof, about a professor who transfers his personality into the body of a teacher at a girl’s school, where he tries to organize orgies with the students. PEEPING TOM. Michael Powell – a renowned director known for such wonderful films as STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (a.k.a. A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, 1946) – more or less destroyed his career with this impressive study in voyeuristic horror. It’s about Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a crazy camera operator who has a strange compulsion: he likes to kill beautiful women while recording their deaths on film. Steeped in Freudian psychology, the screenplay by Leo Marks has several parallels with Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (both feature likable young men who turn out to be serial killers), but Powell’s film is in some way the more disturbing of the two, perhaps because Mark is more self-aware than Norman, lacking a split personality to keep the likable side of himself separated from his murderous impulses. There is also something about the obvious seriousness of intent that gets under you skin: if you go to PEEPING TOM just looking for a thrill ride, you may be disappointed, but if you allow yourself to be drawn into its world, it will creep you out.
PSYCHO. This low-budget black-and-white shocker is one of the great achievements in the horror genre, although it eschews the monsters and supernatural trappings usually associated with the genre at that time, in favor of a psychologically based approach to terror. As producer Howard Hawks had done with THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, producer-director Alfred Hitchcock took the familiar horror movie clichés and reused them in a new, contemporary setting. Although a realistic tale (loosely—very loosely—inspired by actual events), the approach to filming is full-blown Gothic. The lonely road and the rain the drives a victim to seek shelter where there is only danger—this is the stuff of classic horror movies, as is the spooky house, a fine 20th Century stand-in for Dracula’s castle. And of course, the lurking menace hiding in the attic or the basement—what more could you ask of a horror movie? THE SNAKE WOMAN. Another film from the team behind DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN, about a mad doctor whose injections inadvertently turn his daughter into a cobra. THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY. Although loosely based on the real-life Thuggee cult, whose members killed travelers during the British occupation of India, this Hammer Film earns its place in the horror genre thanks to the fine effort by director Terence Fisher, working from a script by David Zelag Goodman. The story has Captain Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe) eager to investigate the disappearances of numerous locals. Although the film does not apologize for colonialism, it is smart enough to cast a cynical eye on Lewis’s superiors in the army, whodismiss his concerns, claiming that the Indian populace have a tendency to wander off simply because don’t have the same ties to family and home that the superior English do. Lewis’s pursuit of the truth loses him his job and puts his own life at risk, leading to a confrontation with the cult of Kali, in the form of a high priest played by George Pastel (THE MUMMY). Here, the film enters horror territory, played out in the form of a battle between Lewis’s pet mongoose and the cult’s cobra. In a startling moment, the life-or-death struggle becomes more than two animals fighting, taking on a larger symbolic significance as the creatures embody the opposing forces of light and dark, good and evil. Although not as famous as other Hammer films, this ranks very highly. THE TELL-TALE HEART. A short but fairly well regarded British feature-length treatment of Poe’s story, with a screenplay co-written by Brian Clemens (THE AVENGERS). TERROR OF THE TONGS. Like THE STRANGERLS OF BOMBAY, this is not exactly a horror film; it’s more of a crime melodrama, but the association with Hammer Films, the British House of Horrors, drags it into the horror genre. It’s about a British sea captain (Geoffrey Toone), who runs afoul of the “Red Dragon Tong” while in Hong Kong. Christopher Lee (who deserves credit for being the only actor to show up three times on this list, with appearances in CITY OF THE DEAD, HANDS OF ORLAC, and TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL) plays the Tong’s evil leader, Chung King (yes, he wears slant-eyed makeup). This is not one of Hammer’s best efforts, but the captain’s pursuit of the Tong, no matter the odds against him, generates considerable interest. And the film features one of cinema’s most diabolical lines of dialogue when Chung King, preparing to torture our hero, asks him, “Have you ever had your bones scraped?” TORMENTED. Producer-director Bert I. Gordon, more known for sci-fi flicks like THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, tries his hand at a supernatural thriller, scripted by George Worthing Yates. Richard Carlson (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) plays a jazz pianist, whose engagement to a wealthy heiress is jeopardized by his mistress – until said mistress conveniently falls from the top of a lighthouse. However, the spirit of the dead woman, whose body is never found, returns to torment her lover; the haunting is visualized with special effects of crawling hands and ghostly footprints. The film aims for a fatalistic tone by focusing on a protagonist who deserves – and eventually succumbs to – the terror being visited on him, but it doesn’t quite come off. The film was spoofed on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL. Bold and colorful, this imaginative and original take on the old Robert Louise Stevenson tale, smartly scripted by Wolf Mankowitz, is one of the best and most underrated efforts from Hammer Films. After the box office success of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957 and HORROR OF DRACULA in 1958, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL sees Hammer pushing the boundaries of the horror genre, emphasizing the drama, characterization, and even philosophic undertones. Director Terence Fisher eschews the usual suspense set pieces in favor of lavish, widescreen production values that suggest an opulent costume drama rather than a tawdry terror tale; with a few exceptions, the horror on display is moral rather than visceral. Unfortunately, this sophisticated approach was not a success, and after another ambitious failure a year later (with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), Hammer horrors would retreat to more conventional territory. THE WITCH’S MIRROR. A fairly well regarded Mexican horror film about a witch who enables her murdered god-daughter to extract vengeance against the faithless husband who murdered her. WORLD OF THE VAMPIRES. An eccentric Mexican variation on the vampire theme, in which for some reason the undead can be disabled by particular sound waves, leading to a dubious conclusion in which the villain is defeated by someone playing a tune on a pipe organ. THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA. Also known as THE VAMPIRE’S LOVER, this Italian production stars Walter Brandi in an attempt to cash in on the recent success of the Hammer Dracula films. It was followed later the same year by THE LAST VICTIM OF THE VAMPIRE (see above). THE VIRGIN SPRING. Director Ingmar Bergman’s film (one of the few he did not write himself) is not really horror, but its story, based on a legend of a father (Max Von Sydow) taking revenge for his daughter’s murder, earned a place in horror history when it served as the basis for Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), which was subsequently remade in 2009.
Originally published on July 2, this article has been updated with subsequent entries.