In 2015, Christmas comes a week early – if you care about Wookies, Ewoks and whether or not Han shot first. In which case, you should stop reading now.
For the rest of us, particularly those that thought that Boba Fett was a type of cheese, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is just another sequel, and even though it won’t amount to anything more than two hours of special effects and chase sequences, it will still inspire an unreasonable amount of devotion from the people for whom the original was never “only a movie.”
Which, frankly, is a bit unfair. Neither particularly well directed, written (just ask Alec Guinness) or acted, Star Wars’ place at the top of the Sci-Fi heap is something of a mystery to the uninitiated. After all, there are plenty of other enjoyable B-grade Sci-Fi movies out there, but you don’t see anyone coming out for Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, do you?
This clearly needs addressing, and the people who will gladly pay to see more-of-the-same-only-different need to be introduced to such below-the-radar pictures. Understand, this is not meant as a list of “better” films, it’s just a list of alternatives to the mega-budget, hype-driven franchise due to take over the popular culture from now until Doomsday.
20. The Deadly Spawn (1983)
Directed by a former English teacher (whose students included David Copperfield and Vamp director Richard Wenk), The Deadly Spawn opens with a meteorite depositing an extra-terrestrial antagonist in Hicksville, but rather than a benevolent being in a rubber costume, these aliens resemble slimy, oversized pink worms with multiple rows of teeth, which they put to good use in the first five minutes, snacking on a pair of campers before moving on to the rest of the neighbourhood.
Somehow able to sneak around despite their alarming size and appearance, these toothy predators proceed to tear off faces, bite off heads and generally be a nuisance to the townsfolk, such as when they invade a vegetarian dinner party. Fortunately, there’s a young sci-fi fan on hand that knows aliens and electricity don’t mix well and sets about baiting a trap before the creatures can slime his collection of vintage movie posters.
Spawn has its flaws, all right: there’s too much talk, scenes go on too long and lack the punch they might’ve had, but heck, you could say that about several dozen pricier, supposedly better movies. The filmmakers might’ve had an Ed Wood budget, but they didn’t make an Ed Wood movie and the performances, effects and music are all pretty decent. As backyard filmmaking goes, you could make a far scuzzier-looking movie….
19. The Galaxy Invader (1985)
Even a low-budget sci-fi epic needs stars and good make-up to succeed, so when you’re shooting a picture in your backyard with your half-brother in the floppy creature suit, the odds are stacked against you before you burn a foot of film. For all its home movie production values, amateurish performances and third-hand ideas, though, this time capsule of vintage pleasure is mounted with such genuine, straight-faced sincerity that it’s worth its weight in goofy charm.
This was Don Dohler’s fourth such opus, and as in all the others there’s an ET loose in suburban Baltimore, only this time it’s a benevolent creature and the rednecks are the bad guys. He immediately regrets choosing Hicksville as a vacation spot when he meets the soft-bellied locals who, fortified by Dutch courage, establish First Contact through Messrs Smith & Wesson.
Dollar signs flash in their eyes when they come into possession of the glowing ball strapped around the being’s waist, prompting the rounding-up of a drunken posse for a hunt-and-capture mission, much to the dismay of anthropologist Richard Dyszel (aka horror host Count Gore De Vol), who argues that it’s an important scientific find. So they shoot him. Then they take off after the creature anyway and get picked off one by one etc etc etc.
18. The Being (1983)
At its core, Jackie Kong’s debut (which she also wrote) is an old-fashioned sci-fi movie where teenagers make out at the Drive-in and the Sheriff is the hero, even if he is a putz. Souped up with decapitations, gratuitous nudity and a tongue-in-cheek attitude, The Being is no great masterpiece but it is a ton of schlocky fun, despite being set in Idaho.
Toxic waste in the water supply causes a barely seen creature to run around killing folks, though to hear Dr Martin Landau tell it, TVs and wrist watches emit more radiation, words that return to haunt him when he comes face to face with what the contamination hath wrought. Meanwhile, Mayor Jose Ferrer, the cast’s second Oscar winner, is more interested in leading an anti-pornography campaign, which, bizarrely, the townsfolk all support despite the recent slayings. Nephew George Clooney must be real proud.
Thank goodness leading man “Rexx Coltrane” (producer Bill Osco, who was also Kong’s husband) is around to tie it all together, narrating his thoughts in a monotone while attempting to find the creature that’s been decapitating teenagers. “Something’s freaky around here,” he babbles over one scene. “Wish I could put my finger on it.” To give you a sense of what a putz this guy is, he says this after several headless bodies have shown up. And he’s the Sheriff.
17. The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960)
Tasked with sabotaging the space mission, two cut-rate aliens take over the bodies of Jason Johnson and Katherine Victor during their Sunday drive, causing Johnson to lose control and wreck the car. He loses an arm in the crash, and his attempts to cope with the injury become something of a running joke, though it’s hard to tell if they were supposed to be.
When Victor reattaches the limb, a NASA guard dog undoes her good work and then trots merrily around the compound with the decomposing body part between its jaws, to the understandable surprise of the crew. Not one to cry over spilled milk, Johnson becomes a one-armed sharpshooter, somehow managing to shoot down two rockets with his “disruptor rifle” before the flying pancake he takes orders from tells him to kidnap “specimens” for their return home.
If Robot Monster was director Phil Tucker’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, then The Cape Canaveral Monsters is his Night of the Ghouls, the later, more obscure effort that’s slightly better done but still likely to amuse fans. Comparisons to Ed Wood are apt as both directors released their respective debuts in the same year, worked with the same people (producer George Weiss, actor Timothy Farrell) and laboured on Plan 9, with Phil giving Ed uncredited editorial assistance.
16. Frankenstein Meets The Space Monster (1965)
A Lily Munster-ish Martian princess and her bald, pointy-eared servant are seeking to repopulate their dying world, so they do what any Bad Movie Villain would – they kidnap bikinied ‘specimens’ from the beaches of San Juan and lock less-than-willing abductees up in a cage with a bad actor in a gorilla suit.
Meanwhile, our would-be Frankenstein, in this case a NASA scientist played by James Karen, has created a cyborg (named Colonel Saunders) and shot him into space only to see his rocket destroyed by the Martians, who think it’s an enemy missile. Surviving the stock-footage explosion with only third-degree burns, the Colonel malfunctions and goes on a lusty rampage, pursued (on scooter) by Dr Karen.
Sure, it’s cheap, silly and loaded with enough stock-footage to make Ed Wood proud, but the campy feel must’ve been intentional because producer Alan V Iselin’s resume also includes The Horror Of Party Beach. Here, the beach antics have been toned down, the number of pop songs reduced and there’s more going on whenever the antagonists are off-screen.
15. The Incredible Melting Man (1977)
“You’ve never seen anything until you’ve seen the sun through the rings of Saturn!” announces astronaut Steve West (Alex Rebar). Unfortunately, the viewer doesn’t share the sentiment because “the rings of Saturn” look a lot like public domain stock footage of solar flares, right down to the hair on the lens.
We’re once again in the realm of low low budget sci-fi, where what goes up must come down mutated (call it ‘Quatermass-itis’), or in this case, melted. Waking up in hospital, the removal of West’s bandages so freaks out the nurse that she runs through a glass door, after which our aeronautical antagonist rampages through the countryside decapitating fishermen and terrorizing chain-smoking ten year-olds while being pursued by colleague Dr Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning).
When a sleazy photographer and his topless model stumble across the fisherman’s remains, the film stumbles too, stopping dead for a misplaced ‘comic’ interlude involving Nelson’s mother-in-law and her partner, who stop en route to a dinner date and end up victims of Sir Melts-A-Lot. Eventually, the manhunt leads to an industrial plant where West dissolves into an icky mess before being swept away by a bored janitor, but doubts persist: did the filmmakers intend their movie to be funny?
14. Empire Of The Ants (1977)
Bert I Gordon’s film is basically a 50s monster movie, right down to the over-sincere, pseudo-scientific opening narration which informs us that the ant “may very well be the next dominant life form on this planet.”
They’re granted an opportunity when barrels marked Danger Radioactive Waste wash ashore and begin disgorging their load, transforming our humble ants into hungry ant-agonists that attack Joan Collins’ Real Estate developer and her prospective clients.
Perhaps aware of how ridiculous his creatures look, Gordon starts with scenes shot from their POV, then when he’s forced to use a close-up his camera goes haywire, swinging from left to right as actors tussle with these rubbery foes. Fortunately, Robert Lansing’s John McClane-ish boat driver is around to kick ass and take names, even keeping a cool head as Collins snaps at him. “You never did like working for me,” she says at one point. “Just because I’m a woman!”
13. Cat Women Of The Moon (1954)
Commanding a corrugated plastic spaceship furnished with hammocks, office desks and some army surplus equipment, Captain Sonny Tufts reaches the Moon only to find a matte painting, some polystyrene rocks and a pair of giant spiders on wires waiting to pounce, or at least be lowered by a crew member.
Not only are there arachnids on the Moon, there’s oxygen aplenty (“Wait till I tell everyone I was the first guy to breathe on the Moon!”) and a cardboard ‘palace’ inhabited by The Hollywood Cover Girls who, dressed in chokers and black leotards, sport garish make-up, widows peak hair and pointy ears to make them appear ‘feline.’
They’ve never seen a man before, never mind Sonny’s turn in Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers, but before he can regale them with hilarious anecdotes, the girls supply food and drink and perform a dance to pad out the running time.
Unaccustomed to receiving this kind of female companionship for free, Sonny’s suspicions turn out to be well founded when one of the cat women admits the crew were lured there for the purpose of stealing their ship. Never trust a Moon maiden in eyeliner and black leotard lest the cat have claws and plans to conquer Earth, although as The New York Times commented, “Considering the delegation that went up, it’s hard to imagine why.”
12. Contamination (1980)
Having previously helmed Star Wars knock-off Starcrash, the finest space opera ever to feature a lightsaber-wielding David Hasselhoff and a robot with a Southern drawl, Luigi Cozzi pitched to producers a story that brought Alien to Earth. When a freighter arrives in New York with its crew dead, police find a number of glowing, pulsating eggs (actually painted balloons) in the hold that suddenly erupt, spraying them with a substance that inexplicably causes their bodies to explode.
Are these the same eggs seen on an expedition to Mars led by Commander Hubbard (Zombie Holocaust’s Ian McCulloch)? Pulled out of retirement and teamed with a lady Colonel and a bumbling NYC cop, McCulloch travels to Columbia, where he uncovers a world domination plot led by a former colleague, who is of course being manipulated by a rubbery cyclopean octopus.
In another director’s hands, Contamination might’ve betrayed its fast-and-cheap origins, but not only does Cozzi know how to make ten cents look like a million bucks, he imbues the picture with the same fanboy enthusiasm he brought to Starcrash. Paying homage to everything from Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the James Bond films, the Italian maestro orchestrates another entertaining schlockfest that allows nothing – including the awkward dialogue and illogical plotting – to stand in its way.
Those who enjoy Spaghetti Schlock don’t enjoy it for its nuanced characters and richly textured narratives but for its sheer joy as escapism, and when it comes to monstrously entertaining b-grade fare, Cozzi’s one of the best.
11. Without Warning (1980)
Starring two future Oscar winners, shot by the cinematographer of Back To The Future and Jurassic Park and prefiguring Predator to the extent that it casts the same actor, Kevin Peter Hall, as its extra-terrestrial antagonist, Without Warning is some kind of B-grade classic.
Hall plays a polystyrene-headed alien whose arsenal includes Frisbee missiles that attach themselves leech-like to their prey, and Jack Palance is the old kook who warns a group of kids against going into the woods after dark, and before you can say “Disposable Teens”, they’re being picked off one by one.
They also encounter a character named Fred ‘Sarge’ Dobbs (Martin Landau), who addresses everyone as “Soldier” in between enough bug-eyed ranting to convince us he left the army on a Section Eight. “Aliens ain’t human, you know,” he rants while waving a gun around. Then he takes off after the creature, and you can guess the rest.