Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '66 - Eric Hillis ""

Monday, October 17, 2016

Underrated '66 - Eric Hillis

Eric Hillis is a freelance film critic and editor of
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Here's his Underrated '96, '86 and '76 lists:
1966 was a time of transition for cinema, particularly American cinema. Hollywood was struggling to appeal to young audiences, and the explosion of New American Cinema and the resulting relaxing of censorship were still a couple years away. Political correctness was a long way off too, and two of the movies on my list feature highly problematic representations of Asians. It was the last gasp of the once mighty British film industry too, and half of the movies I've picked here are UK productions.

The Brides of Fu Manchu (Dir: Don Sharp)
Christopher Lee played Sax Rohmer's problematic 'yellow peril' villain in five movies during this period, and if you can overlook the blatant racism, they're a lot of fun, and a perfect time capsule of that swinging decade. In a plot similar to the Man From UNCLE movie The Karate Killers, this one has Fu kidnapping the daughters of prominent scientists in order to blackmail their fathers into building a death ray. As usual, it's up to Fu's nemesis, Scotland Yard's Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer), to stop him and save the world.
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Carry On Screaming (Dir: Gerald Thomas)
I may have my cinephile licence revoked by adding a Carry On movie to a recommended list, but this one is the standout of the series, a delightfully fun send up of Hammer movies that makes great use of Pinewood sets and its rural English setting to deliver an aesthetic not a million miles away from a genuine Hammer movie. Think of this as Britain's Young Frankenstein.
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Harper (Dir: Jack Smight)
Film noir died in the late '50s, but Harper marked the beginning of a revival of screen detective stories. Paul Newman is at his career peak as the titular gumshoe, hired by former noir icon Lauren Bacall to locate her missing husband. Boasting a William Goldman script, Harper plays a lot like a dry run for Robert Altman's genre skewering masterpiece The Long Goodbye.
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Invasion (Dir: Alan Bridges)
More '60s ignorance/racism (a key plot point requires you to buy into the idea that all Asians look alike) mars this otherwise compelling British b-movie. This one makes good use of its single location, a secluded hospital cut off from the outside world by a force field erected by invading aliens. British sci-fi stalwart Edward Judd maintains a stiff upper lip throughout.

Island of Terror (Dir: Terence Fisher)
Judd again, this time patronising the inhabitants of a remote Irish island with the aid of the great Peter Cushing. The two play scientists investigating the discovery of a corpse with all its bones missing. Turns out the island is under attack by vicious tentacled creatures with the nasty habit of dissolving the bones of their victims. In this period, low budget British cinema was doing a pretty good job of delivering the sort of sci-fi thrillers its American counterpart had made its stock in trade a decade earlier.
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Kill Baby Kill (Dir: Mario Bava)
A rare blending of Gothic chiller with Giallo thriller, Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill may not be his best known work, but it's one of his more fascinating and influential films. David Lynch is a big fan; he lifted a sequence, in which a character chases after a figure only to discover they're following themselves, for the famous Black Lodge set-piece of Twin Peaks.
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Mister Buddwing (Dir: Delbert Mann)
Uninspired by the roles offered by mainstream Hollywood, many stars began to look to smaller productions for more interesting material. James Garner delivers one of his best performances as an amnesiac who wakes on a Central Park bench and sets about attempting to piece his identity together, encountering a variety of women along the way. Delbert Mann's film makes for a good double bill with Frank Perry's The Swimmer, released two years later.
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The Sand Pebbles (Dir: Robert Wise)
Possibly because he worked in so many genres and doesn't easily fit into the traditional notion of what makes an auteur, Robert Wise hasn't received the credit he deserves. The Sand Pebbles stars Steve McQueen and an American-accented Richard Attenborough as crew members of a US Navy gunboat patrolling the Yangtze river in 1926. Shot on location, it features the sort of grueling, analog filmmaking Hollywood no longer indulges in, and plays out like a more narratively sound (and far less pretentious) Apocalypse Now. Despite its '20s setting, it's impossible not to think of Vietnam when watching the movie today.
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Seconds (Dir: John Frankenheimer)
Like Garner in Buddwing, this one sees Rock Hudson exit his comfort zone for a cerebral sci-fi drama. Hudson plays the 'after' of a before and after physical transformation undertaken by a bored businessman who desires a new, more handsome identity. John Frankenheimer's final black and white movie features stunning monochrome cinematography from the legendary James Wong Howe. A flop on release, its pessimism may have arrived a few years early for American audiences to digest.
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The Witches (Dir: Cyril Frankel)
Hammer's golden age may have passed by this point, but they were still offering up gems. Released in the US as The Devil's Own, The Witches stars an excellent Joan Fontaine as a teacher who takes the role of headmistress of a small rural English school after being psychologically scarred by an encounter with witchcraft in Africa. It soon transpires that her sleepy new surroundings may not be all they seem. Double bill this one with The Wicker Man.
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