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.
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.
In my readings of science fiction I’ve come across a persistent concept that was very popular in the twentieth century, and that is the future evolution of psychology into a “hard” science. I’ve already said something that is bound to offend lots of people, so let’s take a step back and lower the pitchforks.
The commonly accepted definition of a “hard” science is that it strives to understand the fundamental mechanical workings of the Universe. Some examples are physics, chemistry, geology, and even biology. “Soft” sciences use the scientific method to try to understand more intangible human aspects of the world, such as in psychology, sociology, and some aspects of anthropology. (“Biological anthropology” is much more of a “hard” science.) A more practical definition (and one that will serve us in the present discussion) is that “hard” sciences can make predictions based on established physical laws. For instance, if you stand in your kitchen and drop an apple, physic predicts that the apple will not only fall but that it will do so at a constant acceleration of 9.81 meters per second per second. That is true because you are standing on Earth, which has a known gravitational field per Isaac Newton’s equations (or if you want to get fancy you can use Einstein’s Relativity). Fields like psychology are quite a bit different. Though psychology aims to use statistical methods (i.e. mathematics), it does not truly offer predictions. That is not to say that psychologists can’t make predictions; indeed when people design experiments they often expect it to show a certain result (that’s the hypothesis part of the scientific method). It is more that psychologists tend not to make predictions because their predictions are less grounded in “known laws” than physicists’ predictions are. Of course, once upon a time the field that we would now call physics wasn’t good at making predictions either. That’s because those “known laws” weren’t yet known. Indeed, psychology is at the stage where scientists are trying to uncover “laws of psychology.” Do such laws even exist? Are humans governed solely by complex behavioral laws? The truth is that we don’t know yet, same as physicists didn’t know two thousand years ago how the Sun produced energy. (Basically all the theories back then were indistinguishable from magic because the key physical mechanism of the Sun’s energy production – atomic fusion – was a complete mystery.) Maybe there are laws that govern human behavior, laws that can be written down mathematically the same way we can describe the motion of planets orbiting a star. It’s not hard to understand why such scientific speculation is ripe for sci-fi pickings.
The most prominent science fiction example of psychology as a “hard” science is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which is built upon the fictional concept of psychohistory. The laws of psychohistory state that large enough groups of humans behave in ways that can be predicted by fundamental behavioral laws. How large is “large enough”? Tens of billions. Meaning that Earth today could not be predicted by psychohistory, but the human population of the fully colonized Milky Way galaxy in the time of the Foundation books counts humans in the hundreds of billions, meaning that the motions of the Galactic Empire can be predicted with definable precision. And what future does Harry Seldon, the inventor of psychohistory, predict for the galaxy? The complete collapse of the Galactic Empire followed by a 30,000 year brutal dark age. Only by establishing the Foundation can they shorten the dark age to merely 1,000 years. That is the basic premise of the Foundation series, and it is entirely predicated on the idea that psychology can evolve into a “hard” science.
Foundation isn’t alone though, and I’ve encountered numerous examples of this concept in science fiction. Another prominent example is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Though not a central idea, Starship Troopers explores the concept that psychology (or perhaps more appropriately, sociology) has evolved into a mathematical science. Here it is possible to mathematically prove that certain systems of government are better than others, finding mathematical optimizations. Though not a central concept, this imbues the militarist government of Earth with a moral certainty. “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus.” (Tangentially, if you’ve only ever seen the 1997 film then the book is not what you think it is. The book is essentially a philosophical treatise in monologue about militarism, war, obligation, responsibility, and maturity, with two action sequences as bookends. As such, it’s classic Heinlein and worth a read.)
To leave you with one final example. The television series Lie to Me exploits the idea of biological-based psychology. In the show, behavioral psychologist Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) has invented the science of microexpressions to read emotional responses, which he uses to consult with police departments to solve crimes. (Yes, Lie to Me is yet another 1990’s science-based crime drama.) Interestingly, the character of Lightman is based on a real psychologist, professor Paul Ekman, who has actually created the field that Lightman has in the show. Ekman has consulted extensively with the TSA to develop techniques to screen airline passengers, and if the idea of teaching TSA agents to read tiny muscle spasms in people’s faces to infer suspicious behavior sounds dubious that’s because it very much is. We should be skeptical any time a real world discovery sounds like science fiction, but when governments embrace science fiction sounding psychology to identify “threats” we should all run the other way. Perhaps that’s the moral we should take from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as well: “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus. If the math doesn’t work out then you did the math wrong.”
A number of vintage science fiction writers well worthy of renown are undergoing a period of rediscovery, and Cyril M. Kornbluth is yet another example. Frequently writing with his childhood friend and fellow science fiction author Frederik Pohl, Kornbluth’s solo publications were mostly short stories. Pohl and Kornbluth had been friends since they were teenagers, when Pohl lived in Brooklyn just down the street from Isaac Asimov’s parent’s candy store; the same store where Asimov himself first read a science fiction magazine off the rack. (New York City in the 1920 was a major nexus point of science fiction, but even knowing that it’s a bit of a shock to learn that Asimov, Pohl, and Kornbluth knew each other as teens.)
Kornbluth is another example of an author I knew before I knew him, because one of my absolute favorite Night Gallery episodes was based on one of his short stories. The ability to convert a 1950 story into an early-1970s TV show gives you some idea how forward thinking Kornbluth was. The tone and quality of his stories would easily fit into the 1960s-1970s, and one has to keep in mind that he mostly wrote from 1940-1958 to appreciate his skill. Kornbluth passed away suddenly at the age of 34 of a heart attack when racing to catch a train that was to take him to a job interview for potentially taking over editorial duties for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I wonder what direction Kornbluth could have taken such a venerable publication, and it’s a shame we’ll never know what he could have accomplished, as he was clearly just getting started.
It’s hard to not assign at least partial blame for Kornbluth’s death to his personal habits. Even his friends (Pohl and Asimov among them) testify that he was a very odd man. Supposedly he never brushed his teeth, to the point that they were actually green. This fact struck me as there has long been a connection between oral hygiene and heart health. At a time of strange characters writing science fiction, Kornbluth was clearly one of the strangest.
The Rocket of 1955
Originally published in the fanzine Escape, August 1939
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
This was Kornbluth’s first solo story publication, and appeared in a fanzine. Any time I have an author’s first story I like to add it to the Trifecta along with a later story to see any evolution. I might not have picked this story if I’d known how short it was – about a page and a half – but it did give me an indication of what seems to be a hallmark for Kornbluth, which is a vague hinting at what is happening rather than hitting the reader upside the head. Kornbluth wants the reader to think their way through the evidence he provides in the story to figure out what is happening, rather than putting it in plain black-and-white. This is something a lot of modern science fiction writers still don’t do (but I find is common in horror); there is always that drive to provide for the lowest common denominator of reader. Kornbluth seemed perfectly happy to swing above a reader’s head, which was definitely an uncommon approach in 1939 sci-fi. I have to admit that I was a little confused by this story and gave it a reread to pick up on it, and I think I got it the second time. Quite simply, this story tells the sordid tale of the world’s first rocket launch to space, which doesn’t go exactly as the passenger expects. Definitely worth a read, and you can do so online.
The Little Black Bag
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, July 1950
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
This one probably has to be Kornbluth’s best based on its accolades. It won the 2001 Retro-Hugo Award for Best Novelette (of 1951), and has been adapted into at least three television episodes, including one of my favorite episodes of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. This is the story of a drunk, disgraced doctor and a medical bag from the future so advanced that it is almost magical. The story is fairly similar to the Night Gallery episode, except that the sidekick character is a woman in the original story, which I think actually plays a lot better. Both the story and the episode are worth your time, especially since the episode stars the incomparable Burgess Meredith as the protagonist. It looks like Escape Pod has the story available online, as well as an audio version, if you’re into that kind of thing.
The Marching Morons
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1951
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
I came across several mentions of this story when researching Kornbluth, and it is cited as a sequel to The Little Black Bag, so I had to give it a read. This story is notable because Kornbluth not only revisits the future world that created the titular “black bag” of the previous story, but he also utilizes the same vague hinting around that he did in The Rocket of 1955, though he makes it a bit clearer at the last moment here. I don’t know if Kornbluth originated the idea at the core of the film Idiocracy (I suspect he didn’t), but it is too similar to not have been an inspiration for the film. Kornbluth latches onto the idea that idiots have more kids than well educated people do, to the point that evolution basically splits the human species. The vast majority of the world is populated by barely functioning morons who are fooled by the super-intelligent, but numerically inferior, super-humans, into thinking that they run the world. Meanwhile the super-humans are at the mercy of the idiot masses, working themselves to death just to try to keep the world from going boom. In walks a cryogenically preserved “average man” of our time (yeah, it’s almost verbatim the same setup as Idiocracy) who the super-humans hope can find a solution to The Problem. Mild spoiler here, but The Problem they struggle to solve is essentially “How the fuck do we get rid of all these morons?!” Our man-from-the-present has a way, and it’s something none of the super-humans would ever think of. It’s an interesting read, and is considered by some to be one of the best science fiction novellas published before 1965. Since it first appeared in Galaxy this is yet another story you can read for free online. (See, I take good care of you, fine reader. All three stories this month are available just a click away.)
I think Pohl described his friend best when he wrote “Cyril was a wise as well as a talented man. He was also a sardonic soul. The comedy present in almost everything he wrote relates to the essential hypocrisies and foolishness of mankind. His target was not always Man in the abstract and general. Sometimes it was one particular man, or woman, thinly disguised as a character in a story – and thinly sliced, into quivering bits. Once or twice it was me.”*
I have a feeling I would have got along really well with Kornbluth. Except maybe for his epically bad breath.
*From Pohl’s introduction to The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, published 1976.
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.