Who Needs a Big-Budget Summer Blockbuster?
TCM Finds Just as Much Fun with 10 Favorite Low-Budget Science Fiction Films
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Blob (1958),
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and The Terminator (1984) Included on TCM’s List
As summer blockbusters invade theaters across the country and fans descend upon San Diego for Comic-Con 2011, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has unveiled a list of movies that show how popular and critical success doesn’t require multi-million-dollar budgets. TCM’s 10 Favorite Low-Budget Science Fiction Films is a celebration of what can happen when minimal budgets spark maximum imagination.
TCM’s list spans from the 1953 monster-on-the-loose thriller The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, featuring Ray Harryhausen’s memorable stop-motion model animation effects, to 2001’s offbeat The American Astronaut, a black-and-white western/sci-fi hybrid. The list includes such acclaimed masterpieces as Invaders from Mars (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), cult classics like The Blob (1958) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) and independent hits like The Brother from Another Planet (1984) and The Terminator (1984), not to mention the film delightfully hailed as the worst ever made, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).
TCM’s Favorite Low-Budget Science Fiction Movies is the network’s latest list highlighting the history of the movie industry. TCM’s previous lists have included 10 Great Overlooked Performances, 10 Favorite Baseball Films, 10 Great Comedy Lines and 15 Influential Soundtracks. Here, in chronological order, are the 10 films chosen as TCM’s Favorite Low-Budget Science Fiction Movies:
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) – Directed by Eugene Lourie
Warner Bros. brought the monster movie into the nuclear age when it bought this low-budget film and turned it into a box-office bonanza. It led the way for a parade of revived dinosaurs and mutated creatures despoiling cities of the world. The story of a prehistoric carnivore awakened from its frozen sleep by an A-bomb test at the North Pole was inspired by the successful reissue of King Kong (1933) in 1952. Producers Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester thought that by combining nuclear paranoia and giant critters they could create a new kind of monster movie. They enlisted special effects genius Ray Harryhausen – who apprenticed with Kong’s creator, Willis O’Brien – to undertake his first solo job animating the creature. When he realized how low the budget was, Harryhausen dipped into his own pocket. The script set the basic plot structure for most future giant monster movies, moving from isolated incidents in remote locations to a full-scale attack on a major city. Warner Bros. bought the finished film for $450,000, about twice the original cost, and scored a $5 million gross. Monsters were now big business. Warner Bros. followed up with the giant ant movie Them! (1954), though without Harryhausen the effects were far from convincing. Before long, almost every studio was making its own creature features. The real impact was felt in Japan, where The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms inspired Godzilla (1954) and the whole daikaiju (giant monster) genre.
Invaders from Mars (1953) – Directed by William Cameron Menzies
Three years before Invasion of the Body Snatchers warned us about pod people from outer space, this 1953 feature poured on the paranoia with the tale of a child (Jimmy Hunt) who sees an alien ship land behind his house, then finds his parents turned into emotionless robots. Director-production designer William Cameron Menzies may not have had much money to work with (an estimated $290,000), but he put it to good use with surrealistic sets and a score dominated by pulsating choir music that upped the eeriness. The man who created the look of such classics as Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Pride of the Yankees (1942) was a master at visual storytelling. In this case, he used deep sets with unusually high walls to create a child’s perspective of a threatening world as Hunt discovers that the people he depends on are joining the enemy. Hunt, nearing the end of his days as a child star, gives the role the perfect sense of wounded innocence. Tobe Hooper remade Invaders from Mars (1986) to somewhat less effect, with Hunt coming out of retirement to play the local police chief and give the film its high point. When he arrives at the hill where the Martian ship has landed and says, “Gee, I haven’t been here since I was a kid,” the original’s many fans got an echo of the dreamlike paranoia that had delighted them for decades.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – Directed by Don Siegel
When Kevin McCarthy shouted, “You’re next!” into the camera near the end of this classic sleeper, audiences around the world jumped, shaking at the prospect of being replaced by emotionless beings. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot for less than half a million dollars, and only $15,000 went to special effects, proving a small budget can be overcome by a big dose of imagination and a great story. Small-town doctor McCarthy returns from a medical convention to discover an epidemic of paranoia afflicting the town of Santa Mira. Suddenly, many feel their friends, neighbors and relations – the people they’ve known all their lives – are “not themselves.” As the sick miraculously cure themselves, he realizes everyone was right to be afraid; the town’s residents are being replaced by humanoid vegetables from outer space. Critics have argued over what the invaders symbolize. Is the film a metaphor for conformism, McCarthyism or communism? But the film’s makers didn’t have an agenda; they just wanted to scare the audience, and that’s exactly what they did. Invasion of the Body Snatchers earned five times its investment domestically and, even with a studio-imposed “frame” at the beginning and end that allows for a happy ending, it continues to shock audiences. It has inspired three official remakes, numerous parodies and rip-offs and even a Radiohead song, “Bodysnatchers.” It also helped resurrect producer Walter Wanger’s career after a prison sentence for a crime of passion and is often hailed as director Don Siegel’s best film. It added the phrase “pod people” to the vocabulary to describe those devoid of emotion and individuality.
The Blob (1958) – Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth
Who could resist the idea of people and even entire buildings being consumed by a mass of red gelatin from outer space? Not thousands of audience members, mostly at drive-ins, who made this film a hit and helped turn first-time leading man Steve McQueen into a star. Made by a Pennsylvania-based company specializing in educational and religious films, The Blob was created by people who didn’t know what not to do. As a result, they produced a winning combination of science fiction and juvenile delinquent drama in which the troubled teens of a small town fight to convince the authorities they’re under siege by the title monster. The writers gave the characters believable motivations, and even on a miniscule budget, director Irvin S. Yeaworth shot in widescreen and color. The producers claimed to have made The Blob for $240,000 (Yeaworth later admitted the budget was half that) and turned a profit when Paramount picked up distribution rights for $300,000. The studio originally intended to release it as the bottom half of a double bill with I Married a Monster from Outer Space, but when previews indicated the independent film was generating more interest, they switched the pictures’ positions. Now a movie legend, The Blob has inspired a sequel, two remakes (the next due in 2012) and Blobfest, a three-day annual celebration at the shooting location in Phoenixville, Pa., featuring original props and a re-creation of the scene in which moviegoers flee from a movie theater after the title creature eats the projectionist.
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) – Directed by Gene Fowler Jr.
Though this sci-fi shocker’s plot matches the confessional tone of its title (inspired by the director’s 1957 I Was a Teenage Werewolf), the quality is far greater than that of a tawdry confessional. In fact, this story of a newlywed who realizes her husband and another man have been replaced by aliens hoping to breed with Earth women can withstand comparison to the more acclaimed Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Writer Louis Vittes approached the project with a good deal of imagination, creating aliens who drop their disguises when startled (a creepy effect), can’t drink alcohol, die if given oxygen and repel dogs (an idea later writers would borrow). Gene Fowler Jr. shot it as though it were a film noir, with an impressive use of shadows and disturbing camera angles. Released on the bottom half of a double bill with The Blob, the $125,000 feature wasn’t taken very seriously by reviewers. But television screenings have brought it a devoted audience, while later critics have reappraised the film as an anti-Communist tract (the masquerading aliens lack emotion until they fall for their wives) or an early feminist dissection of marriage and gender roles.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) – Directed by Ed Wood Jr.
With cardboard tombstones, wooden performances and a character who changes size and shape from shot to shot, this would be a bad film in anybody’s hands. But only Ed Wood Jr. could have made it so bad that it turned out to be loads of fun. Although widely hailed as the worst director in movie history, Wood is too entertainingly awful to really deserve the title – and managed to sneak too many ideas into his films. This film, often described as the world’s worst, is actually more watchable than some big-budget Hollywood epics. When friend and frequent co-star Bela Lugosi died while shooting another project, Wood put the footage to use by concocting this tale of aliens using reanimated corpses to alert humanity to their disarmament message. He fleshed out the late star’s scenes by putting a cape on his wife’s chiropractor, even though the man was at least a foot taller, and told him to keep his face covered. The result was a movie too cheerfully inept for anyone to hate. Long before it was hailed as the worst movie ever made, or immortalized in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood, Plan 9 from Outer Space had developed a devoted following through frequent television screenings. It also triggered the re-discovery of other Wood classics like Glen or Glenda (1953), his semi-autobiographical tale of a transvestite in love. With two remakes and four stage versions in various states of development, it continues to be one of the most popular sci-fi films ever made, all for a budget of just $60,000.
La Jetée (1962) – Directed by Chris Marker
When you have vision you can work with little money, or in the case of this 28-minute film, little movement. While making another picture (1966’s Le jolie mai) pioneering documentary filmmaker Chris Marker composed this black-and-white short almost entirely from still images played against voiceover narration. Rather than calling it a film, he called it a “photo-roman” (literally “picture-novel”), alluding to a popular European genre of comic book made from photos. La Jetée tells of a man from a post-apocalyptic world who uses a traumatic memory of seeing a man killed at Orly Airport to travel to the past in search of salvation for the future. He finds it, along with love and the key to his memory. Throughout, Marker plays with concepts of time, making the audience watch a movie that seems not to move (except for one shot of the leading lady waking up after a night of romance). He even plays with that convention when the leads visit a natural history museum, where the use of still photos makes the stuffed creatures seem as animated as the living people. La Jetée was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and Marker even copies a scene from that film by having the leading man point out his birth date in the cross section of an ancient tree trunk. It has, in turn, inspired other films, most notably Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995).
The Brother from Another Planet (1984) – Directed by John Sayles
Writer-director John Sayles has always made the most of low-budget limitations, nowhere moreso than in this fascinating mash-up of blaxploitation, science fiction, western and social satire. Joe Morton plays a mute, runaway alien who can pass for human as long as nobody notices that his feet have three over-sized toes. Because of his skin color, he ends up in Harlem, where he builds a new life, using his telekinetic powers to repair video games and his silence to become a sounding board to the city’s many troubled souls. Although Morton does not understand prejudice based on skin color, the bounty hunters pursuing him refer to him as “three toes,” suggesting that bigotry is universal. Sayles drew part of his $350,000 budget from a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and though the low budget sometimes shows in the special effects, the freedom Sayles enjoyed by refusing to sign with a major studio led to an innovative movie that overcomes all its limitations imaginatively. The result is a loosely plotted film that makes trenchant comments on race in America while also capturing the essence of immigrant spirit that built a nation. With its catchy title and low budget, The Brother from Another Planet had little trouble turning a modest profit. It also attracted champions like Roger Ebert, who compared Morton favorably to Buster Keaton, and a devoted fan following that has continued with Sayles through such films as Eight Men Out (1988) and Lone Star (1996).
The Terminator (1984) – Directed by James Cameron
When Arnold Schwarzenegger uttered one of his most famous lines, “I’ll be back,” in this action classic, nobody could have realized what a prophet he was. Not only would he return for two more sequels that transformed him from super-villain to superhero, but The Terminator made him a true superstar – with just 16 lines. Writer-director James Cameron and Schwarzenegger created the perfect combination of actor, role and story. Inspired by a nightmare in which a metal cyborg skeleton emerged from a fiery explosion, Cameron fashioned the story about a robot who travels from the future to destroy the mother of his greatest enemy. Originally Cameron interviewed Schwarzenegger to play the future rebel leader who follows the cyborg back in time to stop him. Intrigued by the former bodybuilder’s physical presence, Cameron reshaped his concept, eventually creating a dazzling, low-budget epic with Schwarzenegger as the cyborg. Distributor Orion Pictures didn’t seem to have high hopes for the picture; they didn’t even want to hold a press screening until the actors’ agents insisted. To their surprise, the picture won respectable reviews and went on to earn more than $38 million on a meager budget of just $6.5 million. Thanks to creative merchandizing tie-ins, Cameron’s persuasive direction and Schwarzenegger’s compelling presence, The Terminator became a cult favorite, inspiring three sequels (with a fourth scheduled for 2014), a TV series and numerous video games.
The American Astronaut (2001) – Directed by Cory McAbee
This cheerfully demented film doesn’t just mix genres; it explodes them. It’s sci-fi with still paintings as special effects, a Western with no shoot-outs and a musical in which the leading man dances his big number opposite another man. Inspired by Dennis Potter’s musicals (Pennies From Heaven, 1981), producer-director-writer-star Cory McAbee combined carefully integrated musical numbers (by his band, The Billy Nayer Show) with a decidedly iconoclastic plot. In McAbee’s Wild West vision of the universe, the sexes are segregated by planet, with the all-male workers on Jupiter worshiping The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast and the all-female colony on Venus in need of someone to replace their deceased consort. McAbee’s title character tries to get rich with a series of trades between worlds, all the while followed by a mad scientist out to kill him for no clear reason. But then, little in this film makes sense or even tries to. Shot in black and white for between $1 million and $2 million, the picture features Southern belle dresses made from shower curtains, a spaceship only shown in still shots and interiors built in an abandoned dance hall in Queens. It’s all compulsively watchable thanks to the off-the-cuff acting, surrealistic dialogue and ironic score. With a cast that includes former rockers Annie Golden of The Shirts and James Ransone of Early Man, The American Astronaut captures the spirit of gritty, inexpensive films punk rockers produced in the ‘80s, before Sundance made the indie scene respectable.