As you can probably guess from my Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta column, I’m a fan of science fiction and horror across the ages. This is not only in written form but in film and television as well. I thought I’d tap that knowledge to bring you some great old school horror films to help pass the time until Halloween. The best thing is that all these films are now in the public domain, meaning you can watch them for free at the links provided, though they are still sold for rent on many sites like Amazon and YouTube because capitalism gotta capitalism.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
This is not only my favorite vintage sci-fi/horror film, it’s my favorite movie of all time. The acting and tone are spot on to capture Jack Finney’s 1954 novel of the consuming fear of communism, and the film launched an iconic sci-fi/horror subgenre that persists through the constant remakes (1978’s is a classic) through modern interpretations like The World’s End (2013). Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells the story of a family doctor (Kevin McCarthy) returning from a work conference to his home of Santa Mira, where his patients are beginning to feel that their loved ones “are not their loved ones.” Paranoia and tension ramp up in a slow and satisfying way straight to the climax. (Fun fact, Santa Mira is a fictional town featured in many disparate works of science fiction and horror, likely all paying homage to this film/book.)
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
A horror cinema icon, House on Haunted Hill created the trope of the wealth eccentric paying people to spend one night in a haunted house – if they can survive. Staring the incomparable Vincent Price, this is a genuinely fun and scary film up to the very end. Fun fact, this is the first horror film Casandra Peterson ever watched, and it started her lifelong love of horror, ultimately leading her to create her persona Elvira.
For extra fun you can catch it on Elvira’s 40th anniversary special on Shudder.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
This is the original adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novella “I Am Legend”, and with a screenplay written by Matheson himself it is very true to the book. Far truer, in fact, than the two remakes, Omega Man (1971) staring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend (2007) staring Will Smith, which I also enjoy to varying degrees. I have a theory that this movie is remade for every generation staring the quintessential blockbuster actor of the time, so of course The Last Man on Earth stars Vincent Price! (Prove my theory wrong.) The book and film’s hybrid vampire/zombie monsters left a permanent impression on the subgenres, and this film is one that may resonate with folks after the 2020 quarantines.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Speaking of zombies, how could I leave out the most influential zombie film of all time? George Romero functionally created the modern zombie in this film, and that alone would make it worth a watch. Lucky for us, this movie fires on all cylinders of plot, acting, and dialog. This is a timeless classic that I still go back to with friends who have never seen it and are subsequently blown away by everything about it. This has also become an iconic film in Black cinema due to the fact that the only person who knows how to handle himself is a Black man with experience living through Jim Crow. There is a lot to unpack in this movie and it is worthy of a rewatch if you haven’t revisited it in some time.
Sure, sure, everyone knows the story of Frankenstein, but if you’ve never watched James Whale’s 1931 classic then you’re missing a key part of horror cinematic history. This one is packed with emotional weight, especially from the timeless performance of Boris Karloff as the monster. Karloff took a role that many at the time would feel was silly and played it with an earnestness and compassion that created a cinema classic that will – somewhat sadly – never lose its relevance; there will always be misunderstood “creatures” that the mob will come after. This was one of the first non-children’s movies I showed my son, and I’ll never forget my then eight year old saying, “The real monster is the people from the town!”
I hope you’ll take the time to visit (or revisit) these icons of horror, and you may even spot some tricks of the cinematic trade that originated in these films.
‘Tis the season for getting spoopy, boys and ghouls, and there’s no better place to find the chills than the streaming service Shudder! I thought I’d drop in with another five recommendations, which along with my previous two installments should bring you lots of viewing pleasure.
This 1972 Blaxploitation horror classic stands out in the genre as being filled in the Blaxploitation era while featuring some rather innovative storytelling. Notably, the film starts with the titular character – an African prince – meeting with Count Dracula to seek his help in suppressing the intercontinental slave trade. Dracula curses the prince and imprisons him, only to be released in 1970s Los Angeles where plot ensues. Though admittedly camp, I was genuinely impressed with many aspects of the film, especially the cinematography. This was just added to Shudder this week, so jump on it! (I should point out that although the Rotten Tomatoes score is poor, Blacula sits at five skulls on Shudder.)
For more background on Blacula’s place in Black horror, check out the Horror Noire documentary on Shudder.
The description for The Endless largely points to the directing duo’s previous movie, Spring (2014). I first heard of Spring via a Twitter recommendation from Guillermo del Toro. It is a touching “American boy goes to Europe and falls in love” romance story with a monster twist right up del Toro’s alley, and I really enjoyed it. Accordingly, the enticement of “new film by the directors of Spring” was enough for me to almost immediately watch The Endless. I was absolutely not disappointed. There are scenes that will stick with me forever, and I really loved the grounded (albeit simple) relationship story of the two brothers. This is a horror mystery that slowly builds in unexpected directions, and fans of Lovecraftian suspense/horror with zero gore with enjoy this one.
Ah, Ginger Snaps, an underappreciated gem. This one came to me by the incomparable Joe Bob Briggs. (For an extended viewing experience watch Ginger Snaps in Season 3 of The Last Drive-in With Joe Bob Briggs.) There is a lot to unpack in this late-90s (technically 2000) “goth girl” werewolf/vampire horror film. Family, sisterhood, puberty, distant teachers, sacrifice… holy crap this is a great movie. I’ve been watching a lot of werewolf movies recently, and this one really elevates the subgenre to a point rarely seen before or since. Highly recommended.
Train to Busan
It is only by unforgivable oversight that in my previous two installments of Shudder Roundups that I haven’t recommended Train to Busan. If you consider yourself a fan of zombie movies but haven’t seen this 2016 South Korean touchstone then you are out of date. South Korean filmmakers are doing really innovative things with zombie movies, and horror in general. (As I write this we’re deep in the Netflix phenomenon that is Squid Game.) The film tells the story of a wealthy South Korean business man taking his daughter on a birthday trip to his ex-wife in the city of Busan. (I concluded that the innocuous title could be Americanized as “Train to Boston”, if that helps you contextualize the film.) While on board a zombie outbreak occurs, and inevitably infiltrates the train. Already you can see there is a primo setup of unending horrors outside the train, threat from zombies inside the train, and – most importantly – threat from human passengers inside the train as a wide range of socioeconomic pressures build and explode in the pressure cooker of a sealed train car. People that (rightly) went nuts over Parasite will also want to catch this one. If you’re short on time and looking for one new horror to watch this season, for the love of The Great Pumpkin, make it this one.
(I recommend watching this one straight to take in the full cadence of the film, but as a rewatch Train to Busan was featured in Season 3 of The Last Drive-in With Joe Bob Briggs to much celebration.)
PG: Psycho Goreman
After watching this film I posted the following review to Instagram:
FUUUUUUUUUUCK THIS FUCKING MOVIE IS SO PERFECT I DIED WATCHING IT WAS RESURRECTED AND SAW GOD IN THE FORM OF A GIANT TACO PSYCHO GOREMAN IS MY RELIGION NOW.
If that wasn’t specific enough for you then allow me to elaborate.
Psycho Goreman is a near perfect homage and spoof of 1980s horror. Included are all the classics of the Cronenberg era of special effects, and the film centers around the iconic 80s horror trope of “kids getting knee deep in shit they don’t fully comprehend is terrifying.” I watched this with a buddy and our entire experience revolved around hysterical laughter while shouting “What the fuck?!” If you’re in for a bizarre (and I mean BIZARRE) sci-fi horror spoof, then I’m hard pressed to recommend a better movie. PG: Psycho Goreman is a Shudder Exclusive, and was a hell of a score for the platform.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could be considered controversial if it wasn’t so well loved. Star Trek is so universal in American culture that almost everyone as seen at least some of it, and I’ve found that if people have an opinion at all then they either love or hate DS9. The series can be divisive among Trek fans depending on what it is about Trek that appeals to them.
Set outside the domain of the United Federation of Planets, the space station Deep Space Nine resides in a hostile part of the galaxy. Central to the story is the recently ended conflict between the Bajorans (who own DS9) and the Cardassians. The brutal Cardassian occupation of Bajor lasted several decades and ended shortly before the series begins. Themes of slavery, exploitation, pillage of native resources, capitalism, authoritarianism, and war are central to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Unlike other Trek series, these themes are central to the show in that the characters are constantly surrounded by them, rather than passingly encountering them in “primitive” alien civilizations. At a time in the Trek universe when it is said that there is no poverty, hunger, or war, the Bajorans struggle to feed their own people, and mass hunger is the norm on their world. (Why the Federation doesn’t do more to help is perhaps the topic of another post.)
One particularly good scene comes in the second season episode “The Maquis, Part 2.” The multi-episode story introduces the Maquis, a group of human resistance fighters who oppose the Cardassian government. Due to events established prior in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a group of human colonies exist in Cardassian space. Years later, the human colonists claim they are being killed by the Cardassian government. With Starfleet and the Federation unwilling to intervene at the risk of starting another war with Cardassia, the colonists arm themselves and start the Maquis, named after the World War II French resistance fighters. The situation has direct comparison to the occupation of the West Bank, and parallels can be drawn to anyone that questions the “civilized nature” of those living in the territories.
The scene starts with a conversation between station commander Benjamin Sisko and a Starfleet Admiral. The Admiral doesn’t understand why Sisko can’t just talk to the Maquis. “Open a dialog,” she says. “They’re still Federation citizens, I’m sure they’ll listen to reason.” The Admiral leaves, and Sisko’s Bajoran first officer enters his office, interrupting him screaming to himself.
“Just because a group of people belong to the Federation it does not mean that they are saints!… The trouble is Earth. On Earth there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet headquarters and you see paradise. Well it’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise.”
I love this speech as it – and much of the later seasons of DS9 – casts a shadow on one of the core philosophic tenets of all Star Trek, namely that humans are amazing. Star Trek has always portrayed a human utopia, where all humans come together and live in an educated and well cared for world. All creature comforts are met, and as a result there is no crime because everyone has what they need, and are able to earn what they want.
But out here, on the frontier, where basic needs are difficult to meet, where humans go out into new lands to build a home as we have so often done, suffering is waiting for us. On the core worlds of the Federation – Earth, Vulcan, Andoria, etc. – everyone has what they need. Out on the colonies, there aren’t enough omnipotent replicators to provide food and clothing for everyone. Farming is evidently still the most efficient way to get food, and the colonists strive and struggle to work the soil of alien worlds into new Earths. Humans are known throughout the galaxy as they exist in paradise, but take a human out of paradise long enough and these “highly civilized” people of the future look a lot like you and me.
This sentiment is reflected in one of the greatest scenes in Deep Space Nine, from the seventh season episode “The Siege of AR-558,” when the Federation is fighting a grueling war with the Dominion, which is functionally an anti-Federation. The Ferengi Quark tries to open his nephew’s eyes that the human soldiers he idolizes as heroes are not fit to be looked up to.
“Let me tell you something about humans, nephew. They’re a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts – deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers – put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time, and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty, and as violent, as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.”
Granted, this is little more than a sci-fi technobabble’d up version of the saying “every society is just three meals away from revolution” (often attributed to Vladimir Lenin), but what is remarkable is its inclusion in Star Trek. The sentiment that humans of the 24th century are no farther from barbarism than humans of today is generally antithetical to Trek lore. DS9 takes the stance that humans aren’t better than other races, they’re just a bit better at wanting to care for each other. The people that the aliens of Star Trek picture when they think of humans are those humans that live in paradise, and it’s easy to be a saint in paradise.
In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never read before in order to get a feel for their style.
Tanith Lee is the kind of writer I’ve come across from time to time without ever having read anything by her. In retrospect, I think that’s probably because she mostly wrote fantasy, which is not often my cup of tea. Her career is outstanding though: she was the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel, nominated for two Nebulas, received 11 nominations – and two wins – for the World Fantasy Award, and was awarded the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Horror, to name just a few! The daughter of two professional dancers, Tanith moved around a lot as a child, but shared a large library with her parents; a library which contained much “weird fiction”, as it was still known in the 1950s. Sharing a love of stories with her parents, Tanith reportedly began writing fiction at the age of nine. After a single year of college she dropped out to hold a number of random jobs before trying her hand as a professional writer. She is credited with nearly 100 novels and over 300 short stories that span genres from fantasy to science fiction to horror. With such a wide span, it was an absolute crapshoot what I was going to get.
Crying in the Rain
Originally published in Other Edens (1987)
Read in The Big Book of Science Fiction
If an author is in The Big Book of Science Fiction (edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer) then I find I can’t go wrong picking the featured tale. (I honestly can’t recommend this collection enough.) Crying in the Rain is a quiet and sad tale that could have been set in the peasant lands of mythical times, but instead takes place in the radiated wasteland of a far future city and its surrounding ghettos. The tale centers on a mother selling her oldest and most attractive daughter to a young man in the city, and is told from the perspective of the daughter relating the story to a friend. There is no overt moral judgment here, which is the most upsetting aspect of the story. The world is harsh, life is short (a mere 30 years if you’re lucky and don’t get “canced” by the radiation), and selling your daughter to a good man is the best way to care for your remaining children. That prospect is no idle promise, as the man in question does care not only for the narrator’s siblings but for her dying mother as well. Her life is happy and she in contented as a result of being sold to this man, who showers her with gifts and affection for the first time in her life. This is a truly haunting story that will be with me for some time.
The Sombrus Tower
Originally published in Weird Tales #2 (1980)
Read in Weird Tales: The Magazine That Never Dies (1988)
This reads as a King Arthur style fantasy that I could easily imagine coming across in a contemporary issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. A number of noble knights are given ominous forecasts by a witch, and all go out to either confront, or avoid, their destiny. Our protagonist is one of the few who decide to confront his fate, seeking out the “Sombrus Tower” where he is to meet his doom. Excellent macabre creatures and tortured souls meet him along his journey to the tower, and these encounters carry the story from one scene to the next. In the end, the poetic nature of the tale is realized as our protagonist finds himself torn between his original “brave” quest to meet his destiny, and the sense that going in search of death maybe isn’t such a smart idea. The ending is worthy of any psychological horror story, and I won’t spoil it. This was a fun short piece of dark fantasy that I’d recommend to fans of the genre.
The Pandora Heart
Originally published in Don’t Open This Book! (1998)
Read in same
I was skeptical of this story as soon as I started reading it, as it was introduced with a comment that it was commissioned especially for the obscure anthology I was reading it in. That isn’t to say that I haven’t read lots of great stories in original anthologies, it’s just that I’ve not come across many outstanding stories commissioned for themed anthologies. I find that the best stories come from a writer pursuing their idea, rather than handing a writer an idea to pound a story around. This tale is a retelling of the Pandora myth with a few clever twists and turns, but largely it felt like an “unwanted princess in a castle” cookie cutter story meant to fit a theme. Combined with my ambivalence toward fantasy (especially fairy tale fantasy), this one was hard for me to get through.
If an author has published two or three dozen short stories, then you can grab a few and get an idea what they’re doing. When an author has written 300 short stories across multiple genres it is hard to get a handle on almost anything of their style by only reading three stories. I’ve probably read more Isaac Asimov than I have any other author, including stories he wrote across genres, and I can only imagine that for the one Tanith Lee story that I didn’t like there must be a dozen that I’d adore. For that reason I’ll hunt down more of her stories, and likely a few of her books, though I’ll probably focus on science fiction as a rule. That being said, I would recommend Tanith Lee’s works to fans of the fantasy and fairy tale genres.
In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never read before in order to get a feel for their style.
Jerome Bixby will be familiar to fans of Star Trek The Original Series as the scriptwriter (or co-writer) of the episodes "Mirror, Mirror", "Day of the Dove", "Requiem for Methuselah", and "By Any Other Name", all of which are quite good by the standards of the series. Fans of the original Twilight Zone will recognize our first story which was made into the supremely scary “It’s a Good Life” in 1961, and served as one of the segments in the 1983 anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie. Bixby was a prolific editor of science fiction magazines in the early 1950s, having edited Planet Stories, Jungle Stories, and Action Stories almost simultaneously. He co-created the concept of the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, a childhood favorite of mine. He also wrote the screenplay for the excellent 2007 low-budget science fiction film The Man from Earth, which was produced long after his death. Ironically, The Man from Earth stars Star Trek: Enterprise actor John Billingsley, bringing the Star Trek connection right back around. But enough of his resume, let’s see how he writes.
It’s a Good Life
Originally published in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 2 (1953)
Read in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One 1929-1964
I’m a huge fan of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and I’ve followed its many reboots closely. What I think few people realize is that Serling’s “secret sauce” consisted of two simple facts about him. First, he respected science fiction and fantasy as a legitimate literary art form. Second, and more elusively for modern filmmakers, he respected a story that worked on the page before it worked on the stage. Many of the best and most iconic Twilight Zone episodes started life up to a decade prior in the science fiction magazines, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, “Time Enough at Last”, “Shadow Play”, and too many more to list here. Serling had respect for bringing what was written on the page to the screen with as little compromise as possible. There’s a story that Charles Beaumont told of when he was adapting his short story Perchance to Dream into the episode of the same name. Beaumont had written of a twisted and deformed carnival, and asked Serling if he should change the setting for production. Serling directed him to “write it as you imagined it.” Beaumont was blown away when he arrived on set for filming and saw the nightmarish buildings that set that episode apart from so many others.
This story is appropriate for our discussion of It’s a Good Life because if you’ve seen that episode then there are no surprises in the prose. Serling adapted Bixby’s story almost verbatim, with just a few extra lines and nuances that help translate it to the screen without in any way compromising what Bixby had laid out on the page. As such I found reading the story just a little boring because I’ve seen the episode so many times, but that reflects more favorably on Bixby than anything else; all the brilliance and creepiness of that iconic television episode is due to Bixby’s original story.
Originally published in Space by the Tale (1964)
Read in 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories
If possible, I love to read a flash fiction piece for the Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta, because I think “short short stories” are an underappreciated art form. To convey a complete story in roughly one thousand words is very hard to do, and I find it’s a great judge of a writer’s ability. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to review a 1,000 word short story without giving it away, so apologies because I’m about to spoil this one.
Trace uses the simple setup of a man who gets lost when trying to take a shortcut. He finds himself on the wooded roads on a hill where every path he takes seems to only go further up the hill, even when he turns around to retrace his movements. Eventually his car blows a tire and while on foot he finds the most idyllic clearing with a perfect little house. Approaching, he meets the home’s smiling occupant. Everything is beautifully perfect; the food, the weather, the scenery, the host. The conversation turns philosophical, and the host pontificates that nobody is fully good or even fully evil, that even evil people must occasionally commit acts of decency and kindness. And without it ever being said, we are clearly led to believe that this man, this gracious host, is the Devil himself, taking a brief vacation from the burden of his works. The man has a truly pleasant conversation with the Devil, and when the tow truck arrives to repair his car we are confident that he will be on his way without trouble. There is nothing sinister here, no veiled threat, simply the idea that even evil people must have some bits of good in them, and vice versa. It’s a great little story, and I was awed by the writing skill that seeded the impression in my mind that the host was the Devil without it ever really being said. This is a story to study to determine how that impression was created.
The Holes Around Mars
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1954
Read in Where Do We Go From Here?
This is a classic 1950s “men arrive on another planet in a rocket ship” science fiction story. There is a cute setup revolving around puns, and the final line is definitely a pun, but there is a good deal more to the story than that. The first men on Mars discover a curious series of holes (actually tunnels) about four inches in diameter carved through the martian landscape. These perfectly aligned tunnels are cut through mountains, dunes, and even plants. The bulk of the story revolves around the mystery of how and why these tunnels exist. It’s a fun story, and I won’t give it away, especially since you can read it for yourself on the Internet Archive’s copy of the January 1954 Galaxy, but I will say that the explanation stretches the concept of science fiction so far as to be pure fantasy. Still, I enjoyed this one, though you have to place it firmly in the vintage category. I was about to say that this story couldn’t appear today, but I have read entries in the “men (and women) arrive on another planet in a rocket ship” in recent issues of Analog, so it goes to show you that the classic ideas are still around and people still get mileage from them.
Jerome Bixby was definitely a skilled author and screenwriter, though it’s not hard to see why he’s not more famous today. Unlike his more well known contemporaries, his stories seem to lack staying power. If it weren’t for the Twilight Zone adaptation of It’s a Good Life I’m not sure the story would really stand out in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a classic, but I’m not sure that by itself it would stay in the collective consciousness seventy years later. That being said, I’m interested to read more prose by Bixby, and see what other clever ideas his mind created.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.