My friend Mary-Frances challenged me on Facebook to post ten films that “had an impact on me” and I decided to go through my long list of favorite films and those that had a significant affect on me – positive or negative – and come up with a list of my own. Good fun, really, and it wasn’t long before I had the urge to add another, or two, or maybe make it 20 movies instead of ten. But I stuck to the rules and published movie posters (also known in the trade as one sheets if you’re curious) for ten significant and profound movies on my life journey. Does this mean that they’re the only films I love? No. Does it mean that all of these are five star movies, no questions asked? Also, no.
Let me explain myself…
Theater of Blood (1973)
Is this a typically daft, melodramatic and overacted Vincent Price horror film? It sure is, and that’s generally where the fun comes in with any of his low-budget, Victorian films. But when I saw this particular movie as a young teen, it didn’t strike me as funny or ironic, it kinda freaked me out. I had nightmares about this film for quite a while after watching this story of Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart (Price) who is so upset by the bad reviews of his newest play that he fakes his death so he can come back and murder all of his critics in particularly gruesome ways. Notable for Diane Riggs showing up in one of her very few horror films as his wife.
As an adult, I’m sure rewatching this would leave me laughing it’s so kitsch and overacted, but as a young chap this one really stuck with me. Directed by the entirely forgettable Douglas Hickox who went on to direct, um, nothing else of note either. The fact that I was freaked out by a film about an actor murdering his critics and ended up becoming a critic anyway might be telling about my psyche but that’s another story.
To be candid, this film’s not particularly recommended unless you’re a big fan of Vincent Price, and even then there are better films he did (The Abominable Dr. Phibes comes to mind just for its sheer weirdness, but he has quite the filmography).
Invaders from Mars (1986)
I watched a lot of science fiction television, notably Star Trek and The Twilight Zone (okay, that one’s somewhere between horror and science fiction), but started out slowly with movies. Which is why the paranoid horror thriller Invaders From Mars makes it onto the list. Famously directed by horror auteur Tobe Hooper (who also directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, among many other films) this is one in a long line of films about a child who suspects that the people around him aren’t normal. Didn’t that flying saucer crash land in the dunes behind his house? And aren’t his Mom and Dad acting mighty weird ever since that happened?
SPOILER ALERT: What really sticks with me about this film and still upsets me on a more recent rewatching is the ending. It literally ends with the boy (a young Hunter Carson) waking up and being assured it was all just a bad dream and nothing had actually happened. I can still remember as a teen swearing at the film, thinking it was a completely BS way to basically tell the viewer that they were stupid for being taken in by the story. Ever since, any film that even goes near a dream sequence has to pass the Invaders from Mars filter with me to ensure it’s not just lazy writing.
It is worth noting that this is basically a remake of a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the great paranoid anti-commie original from 1956) and represented Hooper at his laziest, not his best. Again, not really recommended unless you like frustrating endings. See? It still bothers me!
Seven Samurai (1954)
Moving on to the great films, one of the first that really expanded my horizons and taught me as a young adult how fantastic non-Hollywood, non-American cinema could be was this brilliant tale by Akira Kurosawa. It’s a timeless story of a humble village threatened by a criminal gang and hiring mercenaries to defend them and restore peace to the community. The mercenaries are unemployed samurai and the most notable of them is Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a wily fox of a fighter who expends the minimum energy necessary to resolve any situation.
The story is fun and while the theme is serious, the telling is always engaging, with some elements of whimsy surprising viewers too. Pay attention to the weather and the cinematography, it’s really extraordinarily well done with weather not just being a harbinger of emotional moods but almost being a character unto itself. The successful Hollywood western The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Seven Samurai, as is Roger Corman’s shlock Battle Beyond the Stars. Even Pixar’s A Bug’s Life seems to have borrowed some story ideas from this Kurosawa classic.
Most importantly, it demonstrated to me that the work of reading subtitles while watching a movie was effort well spent and that filmmakers from other cultures could offer astonishing perspectives and storytelling styles entirely unlike anything from the Hollywood factories.
Recommended. Unquestionably. Then dabble in a bit more Kurosawa with Ran, Throne of Blood and Rashomon. Definitely time well spent.
Nine Queens (2000)
I have to admit, I love caper films. Those movies where there’s an intricately plotted crime that you get to watch unfold. In the best of the genre, things go wrong and you’re sure they’re going to fail, just to realize that was anticipated too. From the early entrants like Kansas City Confidential and The Day They Robbed the Bank of England to 60’s entrants like Topkapi, How To Marry a Millionaire and The Italian Job to more recent movies like The Spanish Prisoner, Oceans Eleven and Inside Man, there’s something immensely satisfying about a well plotted crime drama.
One of the very best is Argentine director Fabian Bielinsky’s Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens). Inspired by David Mamet’s equally fascinating and staccato dialog infused House of Games, Nine Queens follows a group of con artists and swindlers trying to pass off a counterfeit sheet of stamps as legit. If they were real, they would be worth millions of dollars, but how do you convince a skeptical collector that something is real, not a scam, when it actually is a scam? And what if everyone involved is busy trying to trick and con each other at the same time?
The opening sequence, a very lightweight hustle, is terrific and offers an engaging peek at street life in Argentina at the turn of the century. But this film is so intricately plotted that the first time I watched it I actually stepped through the last five minutes frame-by-frame to understand how all the seemingly loose ends were being neatly tied up. Really fun and you’ll be self-conscious at least once as you realize you could be one of their marks.
Definitely recommended. Definitely worthy of two viewing so you fully understand the plot twists and turns.
Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977)
There are very few films where I can remember the visceral, emotional experience of seeing it for the first time in a theater. Star Wars will always be top of that list. It was a dorky little multiplex at the local shopping center in Southern California and when the Imperial Star Destroyer gradually flew from the top of the screen into the vanishing point of the star field, along with the accompanying rumble of the sf/x, I was blown away. I’d never experienced a film that was so immersive before, so fun, exciting and entertaining. Within the week I had gone down to Hollywood with my buddy and we’d seen it on the big screen (I believe we saw it at the Cinerama Dome, as showcased in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood too).
Looking back at this space opera now, it’s still entertaining and justifiably considered one of the greats in the science fiction field, but… it’s also plagued with poor acting and throughout the entire series, why is Luke so whiney? It’s such a classic hero’s journey story too, The Boy Destined for Great Things, but it’s still a groundbreaking film that really taught me the cinematic one-two punch of combining eye-popping visual effects with a great soundtrack. Everything else can be (occasionally) forgiven in my favorite genre, science fiction, as long as it looks fantastic and sounds great. Yes, those foley artists earn their pay in these films.
Oh, okay, so no, I don’t give sci-fi movies a free pass because they look pretty. I want a story, I want character development, I want a reason for the film to exist. But still, make it pretty and you’re halfway home.
Recommended? Seriously, you haven’t already seen this movie at least twice, along with the 71 prequels, sequels, spin-offs and back storie movies and TV shows?
I continue this discussion in Part II, where I’ll explain how Lawrence of Arabia, Blade Runner, Singing in the Rain, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Psycho all impacted my cinematic journey too. Please do leave comments with your own impactful film list and/or reaction to my commentary on these five movies and don’t forget to check out films 6-10 in part two of this article too.