With the new Godzilla movie being little more than a re-hash of the little seen 1971 Godzilla vs the Smog Monster - substitute the dangers of nuclear energy with the very '70s environmental dangers of smog, right down to the baddie, Hedora, sucking on a factory smokestack to get its energy! - I thought it'd be fun to come up with a list of films that rehash, retool, provide the flip side, or are the turning point of a popular genre or narrative. But the truth is, that's just a thinly-veiled reason to turn you on to ten fantastic films you may have missed. In no particular order:
The Girl in Black Stockings (1957) – Arguably, this and another B-movie, 1958's The Screaming Mimi, are the missing links between two genres that on the surface appear completely unrelated: the film noir and the slasher flick. Sure, in The Screaming Mimi the word slasher is used twice in connection with murder by knife. You might even say that Mimi lays down the template, brick by brick, that would be used by Mario Bava a few years later in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, aka The Evil Eye, which in turn would help spawn the whole Italian giallo subgenre. But it's in The Girl in Black Stockings where noir elements melt into a decidedly more gruesome path, paving the way for Psycho a mere three years later. It's Psycho that legitimatized the slasher and sent the whole giallo subgenre into high gear and which later came back home as the '80s slasher. Now, is that to say that both author Robert Bloch and director Alfred Hitchcock were directly influenced by The Girl in Black Stockings? No, not necessarily, but there was definitely something in the air, especially when the femme fatale angle is tweaked from misguided love (film noir) to sex (welcome to the slasher) as it is in Black Stockings.
The Day the Fish Came Out (1967) – With what to follow the Oscar-winning Zorba the Greek? Director Michael Cacoyannis decides to try his hand at this sun-drenched dark comedy set a few years into the future about a ticking doomsday bomb that accidentally falls into a remote, obscure little Greek island. What ensues is a hilarious comedy of errors. As the clock ticks, a once sleepy, almost desolate island is transformed into a booming tourist destination as word gets out that hotel developers (the military trying to look inconspicuous while ironically wearing the most outlandish, mod-inspired beach wear - designed by director Cacoyannis himself!) have arrived to build. Travel agencies get a jump on tickets and at the accidental discovery of ancient artifacts archaeologists begin arriving, most notably, that Greek goddess-like ingénue known as a young Candice Bergen. It all ends in a frenetic, delirious choreographed dance that swirls around one of the main characters feasting on food as if making ironic commentary on Zorba’s zest for life. It’s the candy-colored flipside to Dr. Strangelove's rigorously achromatic palette.
Operation Kid Brother (1967) – This would be the James Bond Holy Grail if James Bond obsessives knew about it. Starring Sean's brother, Neil Connery, as the physician brother of a certain famous super spy, this rip-off plays less like copyright infringement and more like the bastard cousin never invited to family get-togethers. Featuring one of Ennio Morricone's more inspired soundtracks devoid of some of his more common motifs and sprinkled with Bond regulars like Bernard Lee ("M") and Lois Maxwell ("Ms. Moneypenny") - who, incidentally, with a machine gun mows down a gang of bad guys in a scene that must be seen to be believed - this is a spy spoof not stirred, but shaken vigorously. Sorry, couldn't resist.
The Happening (1967) – Four bored beach bums/beatniks - including Faye Dunaway in her most breathtakingly beautiful appearance on screen and, not to be upstaged in the looks department, a handsomely young Michael Parks - decide to create the ultimate happening: kidnap a retired mafia kingpin for ransom. Sounds like something fun to do when you're bored, right? Turns out, nobody wants him back; not his wife, not his business partner and definitely not his gangster cronies. What's a kidnapped gangster to do? Show the young neophytes how to go about extracting even more money from all of the above, of course! Essentially the same plot as 1986's Ruthless People, The Happening does not slouch in its hilarity, yet it maintains an utterly fascinating sophisticated air throughout that would not be seen in gangster-related fare until a few years later with The Godfather. Case in point: the whole relationship between Anthony Quinn's kidnapped gangster and his capo is straight out of Mario Puzo's notebook. It's both revealing and chillingly mundane.
Down Twisted (1987) – Somewhere there exists a parallel universe where the '80s films of one Albert Pyun are hailed as the little pop culture gems that they are. Titles like Vicious Lips, Radioactive Dreams, Dangerously Close, the better known Sword and Sorcerer, and this fun little flick, Down Twisted, are all soaked in '80s charm and glam, regardless of the time period (or world!) they're set in. A Frankenstein monster of more iconic films of the decade like Romancing the Stone, Lethal Weapon (released in '87 as well) and other films with that oh-so-familiar '80s adventure plot of going off to retrieve some precious, priceless relic, Down Twisted is fast, funny and electrifying with a cast that features future Bond girl Carey Lowell and former SNL member Charles Rocket; and a synth-driven soundtrack by one Berlin Game (Len Deighton fan, anyone?), the pseudonym used by Eric Allaman who had just helped Tangerine Dream score the soundtrack to Legend two years prior.
Last Summer (1969) - In the '60s, husband and wife team Frank and Eleanor Perry would collaborate on a handful of intriguing, provocative and beautifully crafted surreal melodramas: The Swimmer, Diary of a Mad Housewife, Ladybug, Ladybug, and this film, Last Summer. Don't be fooled by the nostalgia-drenched title, this coming of age melodrama plays like the antithetical cap to all those beach party movies of the '60s. Last Summer centers on a teenage triangle - Richard Thomas, Bruce Davison and a strikingly beautiful Barbara Hershey in one of her early feature film roles - that is disrupted by the arrival of a fourth, helplessly unattractive girl. Set in Fire Island, New York, the beach and the ocean provide a canvas on which director Perry portrays the rites of passage these teens will take in a "ceremony" that begins with the good intentions of youth and friendship and culminates in a spectacle of pure evil derived from teenage hubris.
They Have Changed Their Face (1971) – So you like vampire flicks, do you? This fascinating retooling of the Dracula mythos imagines the prince of darkness as the director of a car corporation and capitalism as the ultimate blood-sucker. Starring Adolfo Celi, an actor who went on to star in about a hundred movies but who is best known in the US as the villain in Thunderball, They Have Changed Their Face is cool, atmospheric, allegorical and creepy.
Calypso Heat Wave (1957) – Calypso being one of the many musical crazes to explode into the mainstream along with rock and roll during the fifties, Sam Katzman, producer of many a rock and roll quickie clone, wasted no time in exploiting this exotic phenomenon. Forget the predictable, corny plots. It’s the performances that drove kids to see these. And what they threw into the mix of this retool of the let’s-put-on-a-rock-and-roll-show formula were some rare singing performances by Maya Angelou (that’s right, the late poet) and the first film appearance of Oscar-winner Alan Arkin as a member of the calypso-singing (you read right) trio The Tarriers. Also see Oscar winner Joel Grey running around as a young music producer.
Little Murders (1971) – Speaking of Alan Arkin and his first time…in his feature directorial debut, Arkin directs Elliot Gould in a quirky film (did Gould make any other kind?) that’s mostly a comedy, albeit with both trippy and dark detours. Doing his usual anti-hero bit from a script by celebrated cartoonist, playwright and screenwriter Jules Feiffer, Elliot Gould was at the peak of his career after having just starred in MASH the previous year. But it’s Little Murders’ performances by its supporting cast that includes Arkin, Donald Sutherland and Vincent Gardenia and a completely unpredictable script that makes this twisted and at times bleak social satire stand out at the beginning of a decade filled with satires that mirrored the country’s social strife. It wouldn’t feel out of place today, and might perhaps even be timeless in its commentary on violence, materialism and the way we cope in an absurd world.
Fearless Frank (1967) – Speaking of social satires and comic strips, the oddest of this whole list might be this slice of surreal anti-fantasy wherein Jon Voight plays the titular superhero. Transformed in a lab from a country bumpkin, Fearless Frank fights criminals with his superhuman strength, his costume of choice a tight sharkskin suit, French cuffs and skinny tie. With Dick Tracy-type characters such as Plethora, Needles and Screwnose, the movie is filled with comic book archetypes. But even this early on in the superhero film genre (Mario Bava’s wonderful anti-superhero comic-book-come-to-life Danger: Diabolik wouldn’t get released until the following year) already there are tweaks with the traditional superhero narrative. Not content with having his superhero simply be dark, brooding and conflicted, director and screenwriter Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff) turns the genre on its ear…
…by having Frank become the villain, False Frank.
Fearless Frank is a strange mixture of outrageous camp, tragedy and social satire that will most definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is, however, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, light years ahead of any of the superhero stuff that’s played since.