Science fiction stories usually involve fantastical elements that focus on space travel, alien life forms, or time travel and are set in the future or some type of dystopian or apocalyptic society. They also tend to have social and political commentary that is relative to the time that the film was made and also try to ask some of the harder questions about life, like what is our purpose here.
Elements of science fiction first appeared in literature, such as Frankenstein and Jules Verne’s novels during the 1800’s. The earliest film version of science fiction came from French director George Melies and his short film a Trip to the Moon. The first science fiction epic was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which came out in 1927.
The major sci-fi film explosion began during the 1950’s; primarily as a new way to get people to come to the theaters to see a movie. They continued to exist on a lower budget scale until bigger and popular productions came out, such as Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The true mega explosion of sci-fi films that changed the way the genre was viewed by Hollywood was the Star Wars franchise, since then studios have been trying to replicate and piggyback off of its success. This list is a varied collection of cult films and trashy pictures; all ranging between being critically hailed, being exploitative, and being considered so bad that they are great.
Author’s Note: This list is not meant to be an all inclusive list or a best of list; it is simply twenty five cult movies that may be worth your time.
1. Dr. Cyclops 1940
“The picture that was made behind locked doors!” . This is an early sci-fi film that involves a mad scientist who shrinks down a group of scientists because he doesn’t want them to try and stop his work, or take the radium that he has discovered. The miniature people must try and evade the mad scientist with extremely large coke bottle glasses and his hungry cat Satanis.
It is notable for being one of the first sci-fi films to be made in Technicolor and features some great special effects involving the miniaturized people, a horse, and some nice make up effects when the mad doctor kills a scientist at the beginning of the film. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Special Effects, but lost out to The Thief of Bagdad.
2. Forbidden Planet 1956
“Earthmen on a fabulous, peril-journey into outer space!” . This was the first Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster that tried to move the genre past being low budget schlock and into a more serious realm, basing the script on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
An earth space ship is sent on a rescue mission to another planet where the only remaining survivors are a doctor, his daughter, and a robot. The crew learns that the monsters that had attacked and killed the previous crew were created subconsciously by the doctor.
The film stands out for its elaborate set designs, visual effects, and matte paintings which were built on one of the MGM studio sound stages. Probably the most impressive and memorable item created was the now iconic Robby the Robot, which at the time was the most single expensive prop built at $125,000 .
The robot would appear in many other films and TV series including The Twilight Zone, usually with slight modifications. It also would go on to influence the future robots that would be created for films such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Dr. Who.
3. Plan 9 from Outer Space 1956
“The worst movie of all time is finally available on video for more laughs than you got from Monty Python!” . Labeled for the longest time the worst movie ever made, it has gained a strong cult following based on that moniker.
Add to that a book and movie that was made about the celebrated worst director of all time, Ed Wood and his collection of movies have gained a very large following since they were all first released. A book titled Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. was released in 1992 and Johnny Depp famously played the director in Tim Burton’s critically acclaimed film Ed Wood (1994).
Is it going to make you laugh more than Monty Python? Well, it probably depends on what you find amusing. If you like extremely low budget schlock, then it has everything you could possible want; including a bad and inept script, plot holes, a cheesy opening narration, overacting, “cockpits consisting only of cardboard and a shower curtain, gravestones that blow over, inexplicable sudden changes between night and day and pointless stock footage from war propaganda films.
One of the best bits occurs when a police officer uses the end of his revolver’s barrel to scratch his head in puzzlement. The most legendary miscalculation of course involves horror icon Bela Lugosi, who died early in the production. Rather than reshoot the sequences with Lugosi’s character, Ed Wood mixed footage of Lugosi with footage using his replacement (Ed Wood’s chiropractor), who was nearly a foot taller than Lugosi” .
The plot involves aliens resurrecting zombies in order to destroy earth because they believe that they are a danger to the rest of the universe, due to their solarite bombs. Make some popcorn and do a double feature night with this and another famous Ed Wood film called Glen or Glenda.
4. Invasion of the Neptune Men 1961
This is one of those awesomely bad, cheesy, laugh out loud sci-fi films from Japan. Aliens from Neptune invade Japan and the only person that can save them is the astronomer turned superhero called Iron Sharp, or Space Chief in the English dubbed version.
This one has everything that would please a fan of bad movies; it has a superhero with a cape and a helmet with a visor, who is kind of reminiscent of the 60’s Batman, he has a car that also turns into a rocket ship, the aliens have cone shaped heads that resemble Robby the Robot, they can morph into humans that look like they are wearing KISS make up, the alien space ship looks like it has a face on the front of it, they reuse the same footage of a pair of flying saucers an obscene amount of times, plus other stock footage, there is bad kung fu fighting, annoying young boys in shorts, and high pitched sound effects.
The one surprising thing about this film is that the actor playing Space Chief is Sonny Chiba, who would go on to become an international superstar after his film Streetfighter was released. It also made an appearance on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you love bad movies, then you’ll have to check this one out.
5. The Day of the Triffids 1963
“Beware the triffids… they grow… know… walk… talk… stalk… and kill!” . This is a British production that was based on a novel written by John Wyndham in 1951, which involves a meteor shower blinding a majority of the population and bringing a large plant that can walk, has a poisonous sting, and feeds on their victims.
The film uses sound and editing to create most of its suspense, as the killer plants are kind of slow and cheesy looking. This really could be viewed as a precursor to the zombie film genre; there is a catastrophe that breaks down society, the blind people and killer plants are slow moving and act somewhat like zombies, the plants feed on flesh, and bands of people try to forcefully take things that they want.
Another thing that adds to the films cult status is that it is referenced in another cult film, the opening song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show contains the lyrics “And I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott fight a triffid that spits poison and kills…”
6. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster 1965
Great low budget sci-fi adventure that sees NASA creating a Frankenstein android named Frank that looks human, who ends up crash landing in Puerto Rico after a Mars spaceship shoots down the rocket that he’s in. Led by a Martian princess, they land on earth with the dastardly plan of stealing women in order to repopulate their dying world. She is joined by her sidekick who kind of resembles Uncle Fester from The Addams Family, and a hairy monster whose face resembles Skeletor from He-man.
This is just so much fun for fans of low budget films; it includes tons of NASA stock footage, cheap and far out costumes and makeup, kitschy 1960’s music, a robot Frankenstein, a Martian princess, a funky bald sidekick, and an epic showdown between Frankenstein and the Martian’s hairy monster.
The special effects that were done on the Frankenstein character were pretty decent, with scenes of them working on his brain that had mechanical parts in it, and when half his face was destroyed by a Martian ray gun. Considered by some to be on the worst movie list, this is truly a must see for fans of low budget sci-fi.
7. The 10th Victim 1965
“It’s the 21st century and they have a license to kill” . This is a campy Italian sci-fi film that can be viewed as a predecessor for movies like Battle Royale and the Hunger Games trilogy, as well as the whole reality television genre.
Set in a futuristic society, war and the population are controlled by a regulated sport of killing. Each competitor must play in ten rounds, five as the hunter and five as the victim. The winners of each kill get rewards, with the ultimate prize of one million dollars for the one surviving all ten rounds. The winners are interviewed like athletes and asked about weird questions like what their favorite comic books are.
Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress) is looking to score even more money, by getting her tenth kill on camera through a sponsorship deal with the Ming Tea Company. Problems arise when she becomes romantically involved with her victim (Marcello Mastroianni).
This is a wild and stylishly pop art style of film, everything in it just seems to ooze out the essence of being cool including the jazz score by Piero Piccioni. Andress is as hot as ever, including a very memorable scene where she kills someone with a gun built into a bra. Make sure that you live dangerously, but within the law in this society as they do give out parking violations.
8. Queen of Blood AKA Planet of Blood 1966
“HIDEOUS BEYOND BELIEF… with an INHUMAN CRAVING” . This is one of the early film influences for the sci-fi horror genre as earth makes contact with an alien space ship that crash lands on Mars and they go there to rescue the lone female survivor, only to discover that she is an alien that feeds on blood.
The film features some decent early performances from John Saxon and Dennis Hopper, an appearance by Basil Rathbone, and Florence Marly as the creepy alien queen with the crazy hair do. The film has good space special effects and miniature scenes on the Moon and Mars, some of which is stock footage from the Russian films Mechte Navstrechu and Nebo Zovyot. All of the space scenes are lit effectively, mostly being dark and shadowed with varying hints of reds and greens.
The film does start out slow but really ramps up the horror factor with about thirty minutes left, once they have rescued the alien queen. She is a pale green with a high white hairdo and doesn’t talk and they mostly show close ups of her face, her eyes when they light up as she’s using her mind control, and extreme close ups of her smiling. They do the same with the men of the space crew when she is controlling them and getting ready to feed, the close ups really add to the dramatic effect.
There is also a moral debate that takes place once they find out what she is and whether or not they should kill her or bring her back to earth for scientific study. It is a theme that has often recurred in most sci-fi horror. This is highly recommended in order to see what influenced films like Alien and the sci-fi horror genre.
The director Curtis Harrington believed that his film was a direct inspiration to the original Alien film, saying that “Ridley’s film is like a greatly enhanced, expensive and elaborate version of Queen of Blood” .