The forties was not a good time for science fiction movies. WWII raged for half of the decade, and people did not need to invent hostile invaders from other planets for their entertainment, nor imagine future dystopias of fascist societies. They were all reality. But the genre sputtered along with the help of mad scientist B-movies turned out by Hollywood, often starring Boris Karloff or one of the many Ersatz Karloffs when he was not available. The decade produced none of the immortal classics of the twenties and thirties, but hidden among the low-budget dregg, one can find a few genuine gems worthy of more recognition. Tell us what you think in the comments below!
10. Der Herr vom Andern Stern
With start our list with a German 1948 satire, which can be loosely translated as “The gentleman from another star” or “The Master from another star”. Both are equally suitable. It’s a low-key political satire starring Heinz Rühmann, who was one of Hitler’s favourite actors. Although never a Nazi sympathiser, Rühmann was looked upon with suspicion after the war for collaborating with the Third Reich, and Der Herr vom Andern Stern is his mea culpa.
Rühmann is an interstellar traveller with the power to transform reality with his mind. After accidentally landing in a post-war Berlin, the visitor takes on the shape of a shop mannequin, apparently designed as a squat, middle-aged man, and takes boarding with a poor couple, determined to learn more about the deeply troubled Earth people. Soon his true identity becomes public, and he is courted by stage divas, businessmen and politicians alike, who all offer him riches for doing miracles for them. In a climax echoing Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Rühmann breaks the fourth wall and delivers a sermon in which he lectures the German people for allowing the atrocities of WWII to take place. After this, the movie loses direction and fizzles out a bit.
While Der Herr vom Andern Stern suffers from a leaden pace and a meandering script, it is still a thoughtful pacifist plea with a certain poetic visual style. Read the full review here.
9. Tômei ningen arawaru
The first — at least the earliest preserved — SF movie from Japan clocks in at number nine. “The Invisible Man Appears” never got a release outside of Japan, and is even today quite difficult to get your hands on. If you do, you will find precious little connecting the movie to its obvious inspiration, H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man. Indeed, the film takes its cues from James Whale’s 1933 film The Invisible Man, at least as far as visuals go. Like Claude Rains in the movie, the film offers a mischievous invisible man swathed in bandages, wearing a fedora and sunglasses, terrorising the streets of Kobe, were the movie is set. Story-wise this is more of a whodunnit detective story involving a kidnapped scientist and a valuable diamond necklace — as well as a rivalry for the hand of a beautiful woman.
Directed by Nobuo Adachi for Daiei, Tômei ningen arawaru sports impressive special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, the creator of Godzilla. While he can’t compete with John Fulton at Universal, he does very nifty things considering there was no such thing as a special effects department at any Japanese studio at the time, and his budget was extremely limited. The standout performance comes from groundbreaking, gender-bending, ball-busting actress Takiko Mizunoe, who kicks mafia ass in the film’s climax. Shôsaku Sugiyama is also great as scenery-chewing villain. The script is all over the place, with plot holes big enough to drive a Mazda through, and the acting is uneven at best. Still, it’s an entertaining crime drama with impressive visuals at a bargain budget, as well as nice location shooting on the streets of Kobe. Its place in history as Japan’s first SF movie alone makes it well worth a watch if you can find it. Tômei ningen arawaru is not to be confused with Toho’s 1954 movie Tômei ningen (The Invisible Avenger), another Invisible Man adaptation, nor with Daiei’s 1957 “sequel” Tomei ningen to Hae Otoko (The Transparent Man vs. the Fly Man). Read the full review here.
8. Dick Barton Strikes Back
Name’s Barton, Dick Barton. In the late forties Hammer Films, far from the horror powerhouse it was destined to become, produced a juvenile spy-fi trilogy featuring Agent Dick Barton as sort of a precursor to James Bond. Dick Barton Strikes Back was either the second or third in the trilogy depending on if you count its production or release date. It is also the best of the three.
Barton (Don Stannard) and his trusty sidekick Snowy White (Bruce Walker) investigate a heinous plot by a mad scientist who has created a deadly radio wave which turns people’s brains into jelly. Especially memorable is a segment where our two heroes investigate a ghost town where all inhabitants have died from radio exposure — the empty streets foreshadowing later post-apocalyptic movies, as well as the climax, involving a vertigo-inducing fistfight atop the Blackburn Tower, filmed on location.
Dick Barton Strikes back was based on a very popular radio series, walking in the footsteps of other British agents, like Bulldog Drummond and The Saint, but more than any of these, perhaps, anticipated James Bond. Dick Barton Strikes Back is not quite Dr. No, made on a slight budget and feeling more like a film serial, but the action is top-notch, Walker and Stannard have great rapport, and the movie makes great use of music and sound. Read the full review here.
7. Man Made Monster
Yes, now we get to the Americans! And who better to represent American SF films of the forties, than the lumbering tower of sob that is Lon Chaney, Jr.? Forever destined to walk not only in his father’s shadow, but also in Boris Karloff’s, Chaney made a splash with The Wolfman in 1941, but then struggled to find good roles and sank deeper into his alcoholism. But in Man Made Monster Chaney is still young(ish) and hungry, coming off a lauded performance as Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (1939). Universal spotted him while The Wolfman was in pre-production and decided to put him in the lead of the hastily cobbled together cheapo Man Made Monster (1941), as a test of sorts. And Chaney came through with flying colours.
Here Chaney is the super-sympathetic and laid-back survivor of an electric accident who is unwittingly charged up to max by Lionel Atwill in one of his very first mad scientist roles. When all wound up and ready to go, Chaney is nigh indestructible and glows white with electricity, unfortunately also setting fire to or killing anything of anyone he touches, which is why Atwill gives him a protective suit. The treatment also makes him a zombified slave under Atwill’s command, until, naturally, things go awfully wrong.
The tightly written story is a concentrate of the post-Frankenstein mad scientist B-movie. It’s all in there, but nothing else is. At a brief hour in length, the plot zips along nicely. Chaney’s transformation from lovable happy-go-lucky dork to mindless slave is heartbreaking to watch, and this is indeed one of ›finest roles. Atwill chews scenery like the pro he is, and the two are well supported by a Universal stock roster. Director George Waggner keeps it contained without cramping the film and John Fulton’s glow effects are crude but effective. If an alien came down to Earth and asked what Hollywood SF looked like in the forties, I would give them a DVD of Man Made Monster. Read the full review here.
6. Dr. Renault’s Secret
From Chaney and Atwill we swiftly proceed to two other Karloff Ersatz actors, George Zucco and J. Carrol Naish, in this 1942 mad scientist movie from Fox, of all studios. Based, loosely, on Gaston Leroux’s novel Balaoo, Dr. Renault’s Secret likewise draws inspiration from Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’ The Island if Dr. Moreau. Mad scientist Renault (Zucco) has managed to “speed up evolution” and turned a gorilla into a human(esque) being (Naish), although this is kept a secret, and the ape-man, called Noel, is presented to the world as an intellectually challenged “native”, whom Renault has taken as a servant. Noel has a kind heart and wants to be accepted, most of all by Renault’s beautiful daughter (Lynne Roberts). But of course, nothing ever goes quite to plan in these stories.
Of all the mad scientist B-movies of the forties, Dr. Renault’s Secret is undoubtedly the best-looking, thanks to Fox’s enormous resources and the talent of veteran cinematographer Virgil Miller. Its, at least partial, adherence to its literary roots also elevates it above the standard low-budget fodder with some well-crafted dialogue and some poignant rumination on what it means to be human. However, at it’s core it is still a B-movie potboiler, and takes some of the tension away by giving the viewer all the answers in the beginning of the film, creating a sag in the middle as the audience waits for the protagonists to catch up. Still, it’s something of a diamond in the rough! Read the full review here.
5. The Invisible Man Returns
The Invisible Man was the only one of Universal’s horror movie franchises in the thirties and forties that never went completely belly-up. The best of the sequels is without question the first, The Invisible Man Returns, from 1940, scripted by SF icon Curt Siodmak, who would go on to greater fame in 1941 with The Wolf Man and the 1942 novel Donovan’s Brain, and scripted many of Universal’s horror and SF films of the forties, and worked within the genre in other studios as well. Future horror icon Vincent Price takes over the bandages and fedora from Claude Rains, and he does so in magnificent fashion. While clearly falling into the B-category, the film is stylishly directed by Joe May, and Price gets good backup from the likes of Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey and Cecil Kellaway. This time the invisible man is a factory director who is framed for murder, and uses his invisibility to smoke out the real culprits. The script is somewhat erratic and sags in places, but the brilliantly directed scene in which the Scotland Yard chase the invisible menace through a mansion is reason enough to see the movie. Special effects master John Fulton also pulls up new rabbits from his hat, improving the effects from his previous film. Read the full review here.
4. Fly by Night
Just edged out of the Top 3 is Robert Siodmak’s only science fiction film, Fly by Night, from 1942. Today, the film’s title often includes hyphens, as “Fly-by-Night”, but these were not present when the film premiered. Robert’s two years younger brother Curt, as mentioned above, became the SF guru of the family, and also tried his hand at following in Robert’s footsteps as a director, with meagre results. Curt managed to get Robert signed to Universal in 1942, where he became one of Hollywood’s most important directors of film noirs. Fly by Night, however, was one of three screwball comedies assigned to him during a short stint at Paramount, all of them starring future SF legend Richard Carlson, the star of films like The Magnetic Monster (written and directed by Curt, 1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).
As SF Fly by Night is fringe, but like Dick Barton Strikes Back, it can represent the dozens upon dozens of gadget MacGuffin films made in the forties. In this case, the jigamajag is a new secret weapon called G36, a miniature prototype of which sits pretty at a luggage storage at the local train station. The only lead to it is a baggage check in the pocket of a dead man who has escaped from a mental asylum (Martin Kosleck), where he claims to have been tortured by Nazis. When he is killed in Carlson’s hotel room and the police take for granted Carlson is the culprit, the hero kidnaps the girl in the next room (Oscar nominee Nancy Kelly) and goes on the run. During a car chase and a visit to a fake professor, Kelly starts believing in Carlson’s innocence and a romance builds as the two are forced to get married in order to get out of the clutches of two Keystone cop brothers and their parents who run a one-stop wedding chapel. The film, which starts as a horror movie and develops into a noir thriller goes full screwball when Carlson infiltrates the afore-mentioned asylum as a man with a fetisch for wedding rings, in search of the real professor. This is a programmer, for sure, but it is a very good one. Siodmak’s direction is impeccable and the film features a very cool action scene during a car chase, good fight sequences, some rather edgy comedy and good acting. Carlson and Kelly have great rapport, and Kelly makes a tough heroine, refusing to faint on cue and knocking over henchmen double her size. Holes in logic abound and the script is absurd to a point, but it moves along at a clap-clap pace with surprising twists and turns along the way. By no means a classic, but a solid, fun entertainer. Read the full review here.
Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the Top 3 starts off with a contender from the Czech Republic, Otakar Vávra’s surreal Krakatit from 1948, adapted from Karel Capek’s novel of the same name. An inventor (Karel Höger) invents a new super-explosive called Krakatit. Or does he? Or is it all just a fever dream? He meets a beautiful woman without a face, gets recruited to a secret peace movement that bans his own bomb, suffers nightmares about the horror he has unleashed upon the world, and is approached by a mysterious man called D’Hemon about his invention. In what he figures are lucid moments, he is cared for by a nurse.
This is a hallucinatory work of dread, melancholy and regret, poetically filmed with brooding shadows and symbolism by cinematographer Václav Hanus. Of course, the theme we are dealing with is the atom bomb. The film foregoes much of the ambiguity and multi-layered approach of Capek’s novel, written shortly after WWI, and is perhaps a bit on the nose in some parts, while a bit sluggish in others. But it’s still a powerful film, heads above most of the money-grabbing schlock turned out in Hollywood. Read the full review here.
2. The Devil Commands
Speaking of money-grabbing schlock turned out in Hollywood. Between 1939 and 1942 Boris Karloff made five mad scientist films for second-tier studio Columbia. While best known for playing the creation of a nutty professor, Karloff’s bread and butter was playing the scientist himself, which spared him the long and arduous makeup sessions required for playing monsters, and also showcased his British sophistication and nuanced acting abilities. Of the five Columbia movies, the fourth, The Devil Commands (1941) is without question the best.
Directed by the great Edward Dmytryk, The Devil Commands launches itself into Lovecraftian territory, as Karloff plays a well-meaning scientist swept up in the mysteries of the great void beyond, as he is able to catch a message from his departed wife on an EEG machine he has developed. In the end, he locks himself in his creepy mansion along with the sinister medium Anne Revere and five dead bodies, all hooked up to something which looks like a cross between medieval torture devices and diving helmets. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan.
Based on the novel The Edge of Running Water by Edward Sloane, this is not your typical run-of-the-mill B-horror, despite the presence of Karloff. Rather, it is a literate, atmospheric and rather unsettling little low-budget gem, worthy of much better recognition. Read the full review here.
1. Dr. Cyclops
The best SF movie of the forties is yet another mad scientist yarn — this one from 1940, concerning an evil madman working in utmost secrecy out of the jungles of Peru, in a lab where he is handling radioactive radiation in order to find ways of shrinking people. After inviting a team of unwitting scientists to help him due to his failing eye-sight, he traps and shrinks them to the size of kittens, but the Lilliputians revolt, and there follows a guerilla war worthy of Greek mythology.
This film, produced and directed by King Kong makers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, has three things going for it: The superb special effects by a team including Farciot Edwards, Gordon Jennings and Jan Domela, as well as art director Hans Dreier, the Technicolor photography, and a brilliantly hammy Albert Dekker in the titular role. It has very little else going for it, though, as the script is a mess, the acting from the rest of the cast wooden and the overall direction somewhat unengaging. The racial stereotyping of the team’s Mexican member (of course, he’s the donkey minder and no scientist) is cringe-worthy today and plot holes abound. In other words: The film suffers from the same problems that King Kong did. But like its predecessor, the wonderful special effects (if dated today) and the sense of wonder and adventure outweigh its flaws.
Dr. Cyclops was not the first film to include miniature people, but it was the first to put them front and center — and no doubt inspired the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, a better and better known movie on the same theme. It is not without its flaws, nor universally acclaimed, but it does stand head and shoulders over all other mad scientist films of the forties. Read the full review here.
Bubbling Under: Unknown Island
This one has been called “the worst dinosaur movie ever made”, on account of the extremely silly, wobbly rubber T-Rex suits worn by the film’s extras. Yes, they are absolutely terrible, but also hilariously funny! But apart from these, this 1948 film is better than its reputation. The plot, dialogue and acting is no worse than in the 1925 classic The Lost World — in fact, it is more or less an unauthorised remake of that film. It stars future SF star Richard Denning, and apart from the wobbly rubber suits it does also sport some pretty good dino models, both mechanical one and stop-motion puppets. It is noteworthy, however, for being the first Lost World or dinosaur film to be shot in colour, in this case Cinecolor, a subtractive technique developed to rival Technicolor, and which gave the images a fleshy pink hue and, dark, murky greens. It’s a very silly film, but better than its reputation. Read the full review here.