The Science Fiction film is a tricky thing to do right. You need a really clever idea and a decent budget. If you don’t have a decent budget, you need a really, really clever idea. B Movies tend to be short on both cleverness and budget. But there is the occasional magic when it all comes together and a special combination of good writing, talent, luck, and/or good timing, lead to great gems that standout. Either because they are fun, have a good story, or great atmosphere that stays with you.
Here are ten of those gems, plus a special, spicy bonus! They work perhaps because of the limitations of the B film, not in spite of them. To excel with a small budget means you have to make up for it elsewhere. Money isn’t everything, as any trip to the theater for a summer blockbuster over the last decade or so will prove. One brilliant story would tower over the hundreds of millions of dollars of mind-numbing digital effects blurring together from one film to the next. These may not all tower, but they do surprise.
10. Moontrap (1988)
Col. Jason Grant (Walter Koenig, Star Trek’s Mr. Chekov himself) is in command of the space shuttle Camelot when he and his first officer Ray Tanner (Bruce Campbell) discover an alien ship in orbit of Earth. They take the corpse of an astronaut from the ship and a mysterious football-looking device back to NASA’s labs. Both have moondust on them, pointing to their possible origin. The corpse is human, and 14,000 years old. The device is a malevolent robot that uses the equipment around it, and the bodies of an unfortunate security guard it kills, to construct a horrific cyborg. Our heroes manage to kill it and then successfully lobby for a return to the moon for answers.
Once there we get some very nice visuals of giant ancient ruins that would make Erich von Däniken (author of Chariots of the Gods?) proud. Inside they find a beautiful woman, Mera (Leigh Lombardi) in a stasis chamber, deep in millennia long sleep. They also find lots of those football like robot devices and the skeletons of more humans. A lot of good tension is built through her obvious fear of the robots and her inability to communicate what they are.
It turns out these things have been waiting on the moon all these thousands of years to rebuild their doomsday ship with equipment and bodies from Earth. Apollo was a start, and this mission gave them what they needed to complete their terrible task. Grant gets the girl. Ray gets turned into an alien cyborg corpse. Earth is saved.
“Moontrap” is not perfect. Right at the beginning it is almost ruined with a cringe-inducing voiceover by Koenig going on about “The Final Frontier” while a cheap synthesizer score does its best to sound grand. Just get through that knowing it gets much better. A truly dreadful-looking sequel was made years later.
9. Phase IV (1974)
Directed by Saul Bass, the graphic designer known for his innovative and memorable title sequences, this Man vs. Nature film deals with a rapidly evolving ant colony in the Arizona desert and the danger it presents.
Scientists Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and James Lesko (Michael Murphy) move into a geodesic dome (it is the ‘70s!) filled with all of the latest computers and lab equipment to study the ant colony. They are joined by a teenager named Kendra (Lynne Frederick) who barely survived when the ants attacked her family. Soon, they are all under attack as the ants chew through wires to short-circuit computers, bite them with a venomous sting, and attempt to broil them by building mica covered reflecting mounds aimed at their lab. By the time the ants begin erecting impressive towers, it is obvious that there is more than an animal instinct to attack and protect going on here, but there is a new intelligence emerging.
There is a lot of the standard Lets Kill Them vs Lets Talk to Them here, and the end turns into some sort of The Joy of Sex on acid meets Mutal of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, but the film has got style to spare, not surprising considering its director. The idea of communicating with a new and alien intelligence here on Earth is also interesting. Regardless of your existing feelings about insects, or ants in particular, Bass does make them feel genuinely dangerous despite their tiny size and menacing because of the inscrutability of their desires and plans.
The inside of their hive is impressive, but it is with their monumental building that they really shine; literally when covered in mica. The ants’ angular looming towers, with their unexpected gaping features near the top, loom over the characters and impress the viewer. Typical of the Brutalist architecture erected in desert cities at the time, it is curious that these newly evolved ants would build according to current human tastes, but not that the director would present a world of then cutting-edge style after he had done so for so many other directors via posters and opening sequences.
8. Starship Invasions (1977)
UFOs are real and the aliens are already on Earth!
The human-looking bad aliens, led by Captain Rameses (Christopher Lee) are going around the Canadian countryside abducting farmers right out of their fields and families right out of their cars. Aboard their flying saucers these helpless humans are inspected and, in the case of the older farmer who doesn’t seem too upset about it, made love to by a beautiful dark haired alien woman under Captain Rameses’ command.
Next, he takes his ship to an underwater base controlled by a confederation of aliens that has been established on the floor of our ocean. He and his crew attack and take it over, bringing an interstellar conflict to our humble doorstep.
Although we are too primitive to be contacted, the surviving crew of the underwater base seek out the help of Professor Allan Duncan (Robert Vaughn) a UFO expert. And as every Sci-Fi film with more than one spaceship should end, there is a huge battle in orbit between the good and bad flying saucers. The good guys win, and Earth is saved.
Released the same year as “Star Wars,” this certainly doesn’t have those special effects, but it is it still an interesting oddity. The bleak Canadian winter landscape adds to the atmosphere and gives it a sort of gritty realism. There is a weird subplot with an orbiting UFO sending beams to the group that make people go crazy and commit suicide, even in public. One shopping trip for a mother and her daughter proves particularly harrowing.
It is very ‘70s with ancient astronaut references galore and UFO paranoia throughout. The underwater base is a pyramid. The good aliens wear pyramid emblems, and the bad guys wear a winged serpent reminiscent of the various pre-Columbian gods like Kukulkan and Quetzalcoatl. One can image the writer watching every episode yet aired of In Search Of… and coming up with this. There is a lot to poke fun at, but if you want a romp with robots, UFOs, beautiful alien women and Hammer’s Dracula, sit back and enjoy!
7. The Space Children (1958)
Directed by Jack Arnold who helmed ‘50s genre classics like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” It’s way better than the silly title would lead you to believe.
The film takes place in a seaside village of mobile homes set up by the military for the families of men working on an ICBM at a nearby military base. The children, led by Bud Brewster (Michael Ray), spend their days playing in the ocean and exploring the nearby caves. After seeing a strange glowing beam of light piercing the sky, they find a glowing, pulsating, alien brain in one of the caves. The children begin to change, obviously under the influence of the brain. By the time they begin interfering with the upcoming ICBM test, we are understandably concerned that the brain might be in bed with those evil commies and mean the children, and the US of A, no good.
“The Space Children” shares with “The Day the Earth Stood Still” all of the Cold War era’s nuclear fears, and the very basic plot of alien intervention into the escalating human arms race. While it may not get, or deserve, the same respect as “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Space Children” deserves more than its name suggests. It has a good story that leads you right up to the end to wonder what are the intentions of this alien force. The effects are minimal, but excellent examples of ‘50s Sci-Fi. And the cast is good, including Sandy Descher (the little girl in the beginning of “Them!”), Jackie Coogan, and Russell Johnson (The Professor on “Gilligan’s Island”) as an abusive drunk.
6. The Revenge of the Teenage Vixens from Outer Space (1985)
Paul (Howard Scott) and his girlfriend Karla (Lisa Schwedop) have their lives turned upside down when the Teenage Vixens arrive at their rural high school. They saunter around, wearing too much makeup, and speak with sexy voices in a post-coital register. They make “Hi” sound suggestive. Worst of all the Vixens try to seduce Paul’s father, one the teachers, Mr. Morelli (Julian Schmbri), and steal away all of the boys from their wholesome local girlfriends. When these young men prove to be unequipped to satiate the Vixens’ desires, they shoot them with ray guns that turn them into giant fruits and vegetables. Totally reasonable.
Meanwhile, strange powers are awakening in Paul who finds that he can untie the straps to Karla’s top with his mind! He goes to his father and demands some answers. Mr. Morelli tells his son that the Vixens have visited their small town before, and Paul’s mother was one of them! She and his father fell in love and had him before she returned to her home world.
With the townsfolk in an uproar over their boys being turned into giant cucumbers and tomatoes and such, and the military on the way, Paul and Karla find his mother hanging out in an abandoned building. She explains that when she was young, it was Elvis’ gyrations broadcast out into space that lured the Vixens from their boy-free planet to Earth in search of a good time. This time it was an ‘80s teen magazine lousy with young heartthrobs wrongly delivered to their world. Mr. Morelli is reunited with Paul’s alien mother during an exciting climax with B-52 bombers and big decisions to be made.
Best known for multiple showings on USA Up All Night, this is one of those films that are fun because you can feel the movie-making process in them. The blood, sweat, tears, dreams, and love are apparent in every frame. A parody of ‘50s Sci-Fi films, it never takes itself seriously and works because it manages to build likeable characters you give a damn about. The costumes and makeup are like a trip back to the mall when hair was big and New Wave ruled the radio. A nice escapist romp!