The canon.... films that perhaps should never have been made, let alone seen. They were bought in cheap packages by UHF Television networks in the sixties and presented via horror hosts on weekend afternoon TV, soaked up by the minds of impressionable youth in a time before VCRs. Watching old and creaky relics of times long past, films too old for our parents to remember, we became post-modern and strange. We saw old dark houses filled with greedy heirs and ape-suits from the thirties, the wolfman trying to die by bringing Frankenstein back to life in the forties... giant claws and Ed Wood from the fifties... a surreal legacy.
Viewing these same pictures now is not merely a matter of '90s nostalgia for the '30's through 50's via the televsion memories of the '60s and '70s, but something deeper. Something to do with "memory". The great thing about "Plan Nine from Outer Space", for example, was that as an 8 year old it makes sense, is a great movie, but as a 28 year old, it's crap. Yet watching something overly talky like "The Invisible Ghost" proved frustrating at 8, but now, through the decades, though the movie is the same... you have changed! The movie now seems completely different. It's still crap, but is now a caluable tool for time-travelling back into the head of your childhood self.
These films unfold as if they are dreaming, half asleep, just as we were, when as children we arose at the crack of dawn to watch them on Sunday early bird sci fi theater.
Of course here I list only the weirdest and in many ways, worst, of the bunch. But these films are special. Some weird element runs through all these treasures of the canon that makes them more than relics. Study them closely and you will penetrate the barrier of time, and find yourself standing on their sets, in awed silence, as the camera rolls.The 1930's
New! The 1940's Old!
Plan Nine From Outer Space - 1959
Considered to be the Citizen Kane of Schlock, containing the pinnacle of the aforementioned sense of timelessness (brought about by the constant fluctuation in the film of day to night.) This film is a favorite because it alone manages to straddle both the horror (Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson) and Sci-Fi (Dudley Manlove, hubcaps) genres simultaneously with correct style paid to each. This remains for all time the quintessential 5 in the morning movie.
Mesa of Lost Women - 1952
Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester!) is "Dr. Aranya", working in the "Muerto Desert," breeding giant tarantulas, drwaves, and statuesque women who obey his telepathic will. A lunatic pulls out his pistol on a honeymooning rich ole bastard and his bored young wife. They crash at the famed "Mesa" and slowly fall prey to Aranya's "family". To top off this glory, there is relentless soundtrack of repetetive Flamenco guitar and ominous clunking piano that eventually taxes the nerves.
Bride of the Monster - 1956
Bela Lugosi in his final speaking role, with Tor Johnson, and a giant octopus. As "Lobo", Tor gets whipped by Bela and falls in love with the heroine's Angora sweater. You'll shed a tear as you watch Bela valiantly tussel with a giant inanimate octupus while wearing platform shoes and suffering acute morphine withdrawal.
Attack of the Crab Monsters - 1957
One of Roger Corman's finest moments, this low budget gem contains all the wonderful elements a child's dreams are made of. Scientists are trapped on a desert island where nuclear testing has created giant crabs who absorb the intelligence of the humans they eat. The epicurean tables are turned; humans are brain food. The climactic sight of one of these crabs lumbering along the beach at dawn-- human feet plainly visible beneath it, "talking" to the fleeing protagonists, can never be forgotten.
Robot Monster - 1953
A gorilla with a diving helmet on consults a similarly attired simian via a soap bubble machine. His intructions: destroy the last family on earth in order to make way for the gorilla invasion. Instead, our hairy hero falls in love with the last earth woman. Pity him as he lumbers around a rocky canyon in the middle of a summer afternoon with his heavy costume in pursuit of this screeching woman. Eventually his master on the other end of the bubble machine takes matters into his own hands by recycling footage from ONE MILLION B.C. and zapping scratched-on lightning from his fingers. Electrifying!
The Brain That Wouldn't Die - 1959
Mad scientist Herb Evers argues passionately about science, then decapitates his wife (the sultry Virginia Leith) via an accidental car crash. Inspired, he keeps her head alive in a tray, then scouts the local strip clubs for a relacement body. Viva la Science! The film has a dour, talky tone and the lead, Herb Evers, seems like he's on drugs. But Virginia as the titular head is super, especially as she enlists the aid of the hulking monster hidden in the laboratory closet. Her voice, raspy with sexy, beheaded cunning, whispers to the forlorn brute "I am only a head, and you are whatever you are, but together we're strong". Unsuitable for children, yet a children's favorite.
Catwomen of the Moon - 1953
Sonny Tufts (!!) leads a crew including ex-Shadow Victor Jory to the moon. There they meet the legendary cat women, fragile things of beauty bedecked in black bodystockings, and sorry, no little pointy ears. Along the way they argue over the girl in the crew, plan get-rich quick schemes and stab a giant phony looking spider. Of course there is an evil queen who falls for Sonny. She dies. This stunning triumph is the original from which countless homages and rip-offs have sprung (Queen of Outer Space, Rocket to the Moon, Three Stooges and/or Abbot & Costello Go To Mars to name just a few).
The Killer Shrews - 1959
Another great "stranded on the island" picture, which for some reason tantalized children of the seventies with its sense of remoteness and possibility. Here, innocent dogs have huge fangs and carpeting fastened to them and are ordered to run around and pretend they are giant shrews. In the climactic scene, the protagonists use upside-down trash cans as mobile fortresses to escape, while the shrew/dog's huge fangs try to get at them by digging under the cans. It's still suspenseful!
House on Haunted Hill - 1958
Elijah Cook Jr. gets drunk and babbles. Vincent Price plays deadly games with his scheming wife while hosting an "evening in a haunted house." The caretakers of the house walk around the hall on wheels. Price's guests receive pistols in little coffins as party favors. And there's severed heads, a skeleton, and a rope trick.
Species - 1995 (but really 1955)
I thought the days of new additions to the '50s canon were over until this little gem appeared. The unworldly beauty of Natasha Henstridge is utilized in much the same "lovely but loaded" way as fifties goddesses like Alison Hayes and Yvette Vickers. Ben Kinglsey creates a woman from human and alien DNA and when she escapes, he merely enlists a few civilians to tackle the Greatest Threat the World has Ever Known. Michael Madsen snarls through laughably tough guy dialogue, and the rest of the enlistees, including a simpering Forrest Wittaker run around like the Monkees or the Beatles in a HARD DAYS NIGHT. The final chase sequence in the sewers of LA isn't worth watching, but it doesn't matter. The damage has already been done, and a schlock classic has been borne.The Forties
The Canon recedes