10 Worst SF Movies Pre-1950

The first half of the 20th century gave us some of the mightiest classics of science fiction cinema; directors like George Méliès, Fritz Lang and James Whale helped push not only genre cinema, but cinema as an artform forward with their movies. But the era also provided a good number of horrible clunkers. Some are minor classics in their own right, as so-bad-they’re-good movies — others are just painful to watch. Scifist has watched these, so you don’t have to.

10. Voodoo Man (1944)

Starring horror icons Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and George Zucco, this 1944 no-budget absurdity is the epitome of “so bad it’s good”. Bela Lugosi uses road block misdirection and a device that shuts down car engines to lure young female motorists to his lair, where he hypnotises them. With a voodoo he chant transfers some of their life force to his undead wife, leaving the girls in a zombie-like state. He is helped in this ritual by voodoo priest/gas station proprietor George Zucco on vocals and dimwit henchman John Carradine on bongo drums. And that’s basically it. There’s also a leading man and his pal trying to rescue a damsel in distress, but as usual in these kinds of movies, the “hero” is as useless as he is inconsequential for the story.

This tongue-in-cheek effort was Poverty Row studio Monogram’s grand sendoff for Bela Lugosi, after he had completed eight almost equally bad films for the company. The script is laughable, the direction by quickie specialist William “One-Shot” Beaudine is disgracefully uninspired and the pace is leaden. But the voodoo scenes are pure gold: George Zucco in face paint and a magician’s robe chanting mumbo jumbo over a knot tying itself in stop-motion, Bela Lugosi doing his Dracula stare with a young woman and a hilarious John Carradine banging on bongo drums like a stoned hippie as if his life depended on it. It’s unrivalled. Full review.

Film is in the public domain, and available om Hoopla, Tubi, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Microsoft, Apple TV and more – and for free on Youtube. Also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

9. El Hombre Bestia (1934)

One rung down we find our first film on the list made outside of Hollywood. Argentina produced its first horror, SF and monster film in 1934, and it is a magnificent train wreck. El Hombre Bestia, or The Beast Man, was one man’s attempt do defy the endless stream of romantic Tango films churned out of the major studios in Buenos Aires after the coming of sound cinema. This man was Camilo Zaccaria Soprani, an Italian Argentinian culture journalist and a one-man movie industry in the city of Rosario.

This no-budget monstrosity throws every conceivable Hollywood genre cliché in the mix, following the exploits of a beast man created by a mad scientist, who’s kidnapping women in a small town. The story itself is ludicrous. It’s like Soprani had three different ideas on the backstory of his beast man and couldn’t decide on which one to choose, so he just used all of them. Scenes are often shot in a single take, locations are re-used even when it makes no geographical sense, and all actors are amateurs without any other movie credits on IMDb. The soundtrack of the film is absolutely mad! It’s part sound, part silent film, sometimes with title cards, sometimes with dialogue. I have never heard music used in a film as badly as this. It is insane! The film starts out with booming military march music for action scenes, but when the film shifts gears, the music stays the same. Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries blasts out while the Beast Man takes a leisurely stroll in the forest. The music is not synced to the dialogue and the rest of the soundtrack. Neither, does it seem, did Soprani have the technology of a volume button. The music may simply be cut off in the middle of a crescendo, because the film cuts to a dialogue scene without music. Then it snaps back to whatever was happening before — continuing the musical score from the same place it left off. This makes the movie absolutely maddening to watch! But do watch it! Full review.

Available for free on Youtube.

8. Strange Holiday (1940/1945)

Our eighth worst film has one of the weirdest backstories in film history. It is based on radio pioneer and movie director Arch Oboler’s patriotic 1939 radio play This Precious Freedom, about a man returning to the city from a holiday in the country, only to gradually realise that the US has been taken over by the Nazis, thanks to the complacency of the US general public and the non-confrontational stance of the government. Oboler was approached by General Motors, who wanted him to turn it into a propaganda film meant to be shown to the company’s employees and their families. Partly, this may have been a way to counteract bad publicity from GM’s German sister company Opel. But GM also wanted their movie to have a message for the employees that hit closer to home: that complaining about salaries, working conditions and low wages was in fact in the interest of the Nazi fifth columnists in the US, who would use the discord created by unions and socialists to undermine the country.

The film was ready in 1940, but for unknown reasons, GM never screened it. Instead, after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, MGM bought the rights to the movie — only to shelve it. Oboler and Rains managed to buy back the rights in 1945, and re-edited it in order to stretch it into a 60-minute feature film. Unfortunately, the war ended and the Nazis were overthrown, and the bottom fell out from under the story. But Oboler didn’t let this deter him, and just re-edited it so there was no direct reference to the Nazi party. Except for the modified swastikas, the Nazi uniforms and the fascists speaking with German accents, that is. Endlessly padded with stock footage and overlaid with a bombastic voice-over, the film’s pace is leaden, filled with radio tropes that don’t work in film, sets that are re-used half a dozen times and without the slightest hint of logic. The film ends with a monologue where a jailed Rains concludes that the US is now a fascist state because people fought for workers’ rights instead of “freedom”. It’s a bizarre artefact and well worth checking out for people interested in old US propaganda movies. Full review.

I have not found an official release nor an online option for this film but it is available as a bootleg DVD.

7. Melchiad Koloman (1920)

It is tempting to give some slack to our number seven on the list. It was Czechoslovakia’s first science fiction film, and one of the country’s earliest domestically produced feature-length films. This silent effort was written, produced and directed by Rudolf Liebscher, who also plays the lead. Very little information is to be gleaned about him online, but he has no other film credits. Melchiad Koloman was filmed in and around the Urania Theatre in Prague in 1920, so one can assume that Liebscher and the cast and crew were connected to the theatre. And in places, it does look very much like a filmed stage play.

The plot  brings together a mad scientist, a spiritualist and a Japanese businessman in order to resurrect the dead alchemist of the title, whom they want to create gold. The lack of experience shows, as does the fact that it was apparently produced with pocket change. The sets are wooden frames covered with lining paper, and in classic Ed Wood fashion, the walls wobble when doors are closed. It also seems that the film crew reused the same sets for several scenes, only redecorating/repainting them to represent another location. It’s a cheap production with awkwardly bad cinematography, but the earnest feel and the devoted acting makes it enjoyable for bad movie fans. Full review.

Available on Vimeo and Youtube for free.

6. The Man from Beyond (1922)

Harry Houdini wasn’t content with being history’s most famous escape artist, he also fashioned himself a movie star. For that purpose, he founded his own Houdini Pictures, and proceeded to write, produce and star in his own films. This 1922 production should get credit for being one of the very first to portray cryonics through ye olde “getting frozen in ice and waking up a hundred years later” trope. In 1922 Houdini is found frozen solid in a ship that disappeared in the Arctic in 1820 and brought back to the United States in a thawed state. Here he meets a doppelgänger of his old girlfriend, Felice, at her wedding, and starts raving. It turns out, however, that Felice is being forced into a marriage with a rich criminal by her father, so Houdini kidnapping her from the altar is actually a good thing. (It also turns out Felice is a descendant to Houdini’s old flame — Houdini was a fan of the theory of soul migration.) And as these things go, the bad guys now proceed to kidnap Felice back and try to kill Houdini. And since this is a Houdini film, its star must repeatedly be tied up, locked in and clamped down, so he can showcase his escape skills. But there’s also a subplot where Houdini, despite cars and electricity, believes that he is still living in the year 1820.

Houdini’s films were largely unsuccessful, despite his star power and undeniable dark charisma. But Houdini misunderstood film as a medium on a basic level. It was film that made him a legend, as clips of his stunts spread to all the corners of the world in the early 20th century. But these were documentary clips, and therein was their power. The power of all illusionism and escape artistry is in the fact that people believe, at least on some level, that what they are seeing is real. In fictional films, however, anything is possible. That’s why real stunts in movies have to be larger than life. In Germany, superstar Harry Piel dangled from airplanes and escaped exploding buildings. Buster Keaton leaped into cars from cranes, ran atop speeding trains and jumped across buildings. In comparison, Harry Houdini escaping from a pair of handcuffs or emerging from a box just isn’t exciting cinema. The thriller element is standard and Burton L. King’s direction professional. But as it is Houdini’s stunts that are suppose to carry the film, this becomes a real snoozefest. Full review

Not available on any major platforms, but can be found on DVD.

5. Life Returns (1934)

This is one of the most bizarre movies I have ever seen, and I’ve watched quite a few oddities in my day. It could be described as a Great Depression melodrama-cum-kids’ adventure-cum-exploitation film with a science fiction twist and a mad scientist horror tagline that is never realised. The whole thing is built around 10 minutes of actual documentary footage of a team of scientists resuscitating a dead dog. It plays like a Poverty Row exploitation film that’s trying to ride the coat-tails of Universal’s successful horror franchise, but oddly enough this is a Universal production.

The story begins with a title card promising actual footage of a scientist raising the dead. It then follows Onslow Stevens’ scientist character in a clumsily melodramatic story of fall from grace, as he spirals down into depression and obsession with his research, neglecting his friends and family. His wife dies and his son becomes a street kid — and then all of the sudden the movie turns into an Our Gang kiddie matinee flick, as we follow young Danny and his misfit friends stealing apples and making stink bombs (or whatever street kids did in those films). But one day Danny’s beloved dog dies, and he takes it to his father, and begs him to snap out of it, and at least save the pooch. The last ten minutes contain actual footage from 1932 of medical scientist Robert E. Cornish resuscitating a dead dog (with badly inserted shots of Stevens “participating”). What the film fails to mention is that Cornish actually killed the dog for his experiment, and that it died again a few hours later. So this is basically a canine snuff film. That knowledge alone does make it distasteful to watch, but even on its own merits, Life Returns is a crappy movie. The script is appalling, the dialogue painful and the direction by recent Russian immigrant Eugene Frenke amateurish. Onslow Stevens does what he can in the lead, but can’t save this film. Full review.

Available for free on Youtube.

4. Torture Ship (1939)

A film called Torture Ship based on a Jack London story and directed by White Zombie’s Victor Halperin has to be worth watching, right? Wrong. This vehicle contains very much ship and very little torture, apart from the torture of the viewer forced to endure this half-baked murder mystery/ship romance plot. The Jack London part is hugely oversold, as there is really no connection between his 1899 short story A Thousand Deaths and this film, apart from the fact that both take place on a ship and involve human experiments.

In short, this 1939 production is an early “glandular horror” entry, as it follows the passengers and crew on a ship where a scientist tries to turn “bad” people “good” by injecting stuff into criminals. The plot is minimal and quickly descends into soap opera. There is no torture of any kind going on at any point in the film, and very little medical experimenting, either, as most of the time is taken up by uninspired exploration of a murder mystery and the contrived conflicts between the cardboard characters. Bela Lugosi helped Victor Halperin gain cult fame with the 1932 low-budget classic White Zombie, and Sigmund Neufeld’s PRC clearly hoped for Torture Ship to be another surprise hit, and brought on seasoned character actors, like Irving Pichel and Lyle Talbot, to star. Alas, this time it is the film itself that is the zombie. Nothing is done with its lurid premise and the story that is told is dreadfully boring and inaptly filmed. Full review.

3. The Ape Man (1943)

The bottom three on our list sees a return for Bela Lugosi and director William “One-Shot” Beaudine in yet another Monogram clunker from 1943. Here Lugosi tries to convince the audience that he is a gorilla by wearing a false beard. One of the best scenes is when an inquisitive journalist catches a glimpse of what clearly looks like Bela Lugosi wearing a false beard and exclaims that it looks “just like a gorilla”.

This was during the gorilla and ape man craze in Hollywood in the early forties. The film follows Lugosi’s scientist, who is, once again, experimenting with glands and serums in order to unlock the secrets of evolution. This time, he has done the moral thing and experimented on himself, turning himself into an ape man. Unfortunately, he never thought of inventing a way to reverse the process, and the only thing that prevents him from going full primate are regular injections of human spinal fluid. That’s the premise of the film, and you can probably guess the rest. Or perhaps not. Well, the rest is basically padding. This involves a team of journalists hounding an aged ghost hunter (Minerva Urecal) just returned from Europe, regarding the disappearance of her brother (who just happens to be Lugosi). There’s a male journalist and female photographer on the case who just so happen to fall in love during the process, because nothing says romance more than a missing scientist, a trail of dead bodies and a hairy gorilla. Plus awkward comedy. Of all the bad exploitation mad scientist monster movies of the thirties and forties, this is probably the worst. It is dull, flat and uninspired. The makeup, acting, sound quality and photography are all sub-par or terrible. The film is devoid of any semblance of logic. The attempts at compensating with bad comedy only makes it worse. Most of the movie feels like shots of Bela Lugosi trying to straighten his back. Full review.

2. Ghost Patrol (1936)

Tim McCoy and his big hat.

Sigmund Neufeld, executive producer of Torture Ship, is back again at our number two spot, this time with a western/SF mashup filmed on pocket lint and the star power of western marquee name Tim McCoy. This 1936 film is directed by Neufeld’s brother Sam Newfield, a quickie legend on par with One-Shot Beaudine. Western G-man Tim McCoy (and his big hat) arrives at a desert ghost town investigating disappeared mail planes. He just happens so to hook up with the beautiful Claudia Dell, who is looking for her disappeared scientist father. Turns out the scientist has been kidnapped by a gang of gun-toting criminals who force him to use his radium ray to make planes plunge out of the skies. So basically McCoy walks up to the gangsters and has a long discussion about whether or not he is a government agent or a hitman called Tim Tooney. Then Dell is captured and there’s a shootout. End of story.

Ghost Patrol follows the premise of Laurie Erskine York’s juvenile Canadian Mountie book Renfrew Rides the Sky from 1928. The book was adapted again in 1938 as Sky Racket, a film that was not much better than Ghost Patrol and would also have fit onto this list (read the review here). A slightly better version was made in 1940 as Sky Bandits.

The best thing in Ghost Patrol is Tim McCoys really big hat. It is awesome. It is majestic. It alone makes this film worth watching. Nothing else does. Full review.

1. Boom in the Moon (1946)

So here we are. Number one. The worst science fiction film made during the first half of the twentieth century is: Boom in the Moon, a 1946 Mexican low-budget comedy starring a washed-up Buster Keaton. It’s original title is El Moderno Barba Asul, or “the modern Bluebeard”, referring to the folktale of a nobleman killing his wives and hiding the bodies in his cellar. Here’s the confused plot: For reasons of little importance Keaton is arrested as a suspect in the killing of six women in Mexico. But a scientist comes looking for inmates on death row to undertake an experimental first flight to the moon in his rocket. After an illogical and pointless sequence where Keaton chooses death by hanging rather than going to the moon, he and his cellmate blast off together with the scientist’s beautiful daughter. But the rocket never reaches its destination, and instead lands in Mexico City. And here’s where the film falls completely apart, as screenwriters Jaime Salvador and Victor Trivas asks the audience to buy that three people, two of whom are Mexican, can’t tell the moon from Mexico City. Yes, for the rest of the film, our nitwits walk around Mexico City believing it is the moon. But, hey, now that they are back on Earth again, we’ll at least have some excitement seeing Buster Keaton escaping the authorities who want him back to the gallows. Nope, that issue is solved off screen and related to us as a by-the-by in the end.

The original Mexican cut of El Moderno Barba Azul is 108 minutes long. Even the 68-minute US edit is hard on your patience. In 1946 the former superstar Buster Keaton was struggling. Having drunk away his career at the major studios and proven impossible to work with, Keaton went freelance in the late thirties, clocking in small parts here and there, making comedy shorts for Columbia and was trying to get by. He had by this time kicked the booze, and producer Alexander Salkind offered not only one long sought after leading role in a feature film, but in three films. The only catch was that the films were to be made on pocket money in Mexico, in Spanish, which Keaton didn’t speak. And as Keaton realised when he arrived on set: they were all terrible.

The script is, mildly put, thin. The story is befitting a 10-minute short, not a 108 minute feature. Most of the film, then, consists of padding, in which Buster Keaton recycles his old gags. More often than not, these gags have nothing to do with the story as such, instead the plot just takes a break while Keaton tumbles and falls and does his acrobatics. Seeing the 50-odd year recovering alcoholic perform these stunts is impressive, but mainly they just make you feel sad for the man. Poor Buster, he knew how lousy this film was. What a humiliation. Full review.

Janne Wass

3 replies

  1. “Nothing says romance more than a missing scientist, a trail of dead bodies and a hairy gorilla.” Hey, that seemed to work back in the Thirties! I guess they bred a more vigorous breed of men and women back in the day!

    Great article as always!

    Liked by 1 person

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