The War of the Worlds

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(8/10) In a nutshell: With his third try at a science fiction epic, producer George Pal finally ironed out some of the kinks that made his first two attempts fall below the mark. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic is a stunning tour de force of special effects, aided by a fast-paced script and beautiful design. The breezy plot helps to partly cover up that Pal has stripped Wells’ story of all ideology and satire, and reversed the author’s position on key issues, and Pal’s insistence on drowning his movies in schmarmy religious tirades makes for a cringe-worthy ending. Despite this, The War of the Worlds is a brilliantly entertaining nail-biter and visually a true masterpiece.

The War of the Worlds (1953). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by Barré Lyndon. Based on the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Paul Frees, William Phipps, Cedric Harwicke, Charles Gemora, Carolyn Jones. Produced by George Pal, Frank Freeman Jr. & Cecil B. DeMille for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 85%. IMDb score: 7.2/10

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki.

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki. Look closely and you see the wires.

There are a few films that stand towering over science fiction like giants in respect to their influence on the genre. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927, review), and Woman in the Moon (1929, review), James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931, review), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and the Wachowksi Brothers’ The Matrix (1999) are among these. They are not always the best in their subgenre and some of them are hampered by by serious problems. They are not always first in their field with their ideas, but execute them in ways that make them milestones to which you can pin flags and draw a line: this was science fiction film history before this-and-this film, and this is what it looks like afterwards. George Pal’s The War of the Worlds is one of these films, it is the Magnum Opus of a filmmaker that wasn’t always savvy to what made a good sci-fi script, but without question one of the great visionaries of movie history. Continue reading

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Dr. Cyclops

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(7/10) In a nutshell: Brought to you by King Kong director Ernest B. Schoedsack, along with multiple Oscar winning teams of set designers and special effects technicians, Dr. Cyclops (1940) paints an imaginative picture of mad scientists and shrinking people in the Peruvian Jungle. Unfortunately there was no money left for actors and screenwriters. Nonetheless, this film stands as one of the best sci-fi flicks of the forties (which isn’t saying all that much, though).

Dr. Cyclops. 1940, USA. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack. Written by Tom Kilpatrick, Malcolm Stuart Boyley. Starring: Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian, Frank Yaconelli. Produced by Dale van Every, Merian C. Cooper for Paramount. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 6.4

Charles Halton and Albert Dekker in the 1940 film Dr. Cyclops.

Charles Halton and Albert Dekker in the 1940 film Dr. Cyclops.

If anyone remembers Dr. Cyclops today, it is mostly as a curiosity – but it does deserve a slightly better reputation, although it is by no means a masterpiece. But it is notable for a number of reasons, of which the biggest is the amazing special effects, although not flawlessly executed, and aged today. Following the premise of a mad scientist shrinking his nosy colleagues, this was not the first film to toy with the idea of miniature people, but perhaps the most striking that had come along in 1940, and it probably held that title all the way up to the in many ways superior 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking ManContinue reading

Island of Lost Souls

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(9/10) In a nutshell: Island of Lost Souls (1932) is probably the most refined of the sci-fi horror films of the thirties, and probably the best acted. The H.G. Wells tale about a mad doctor trying to create humans out of animals by surgical means is still thoroughly creepy today.

Island of Lost Souls. 1932, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Philip Wylie & Waldemar Young. Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. Starring: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke. Cinematography: Karl Struss. Make-up: Charles Gemora, Wally Westmore. Produced for Paramount. Tomatometer: 96 %. IMDb score: 7.6

Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau being attacked by his creations.

Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau being attacked by his creations.

”Not to walk on all fours! That is the law! Are we not men?” chants Bela Lugosi in heavy manimal make-up in as scene from the 1932 film Island of Lost Souls, that has since become a classic. Although it is often clumped together with the Universal horror pictures of the time, like Frankenstein (review) and Dracula (both 1931), it was in fact made by Paramount, who also made Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931, review). In both these Paramount horrors, you can see a sort of refinement and style that was lacking from the Universal pictures, Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review) perhaps being the exception. Continue reading