Sometimes in cinema, a film can have a huge impact on its genre without ever getting much in the way of popular exposure. How many people see a film ultimately tells only a small part of the story when it comes to a movie’s influence within its genre. Often, it’s who sees the film that determines its eventual legacy.
Case in point: Take a film like 1977’s original Star Wars ep. IV: A New Hope. The concept and inspiration for one of film’s all-time populist blockbusters was born out of the childhood entertainment influences of George Lucas. Drawing on a fondness for old-time sci-fi serials, westerns and samurai movies in particular, Lucas created a mystical genre hodgepodge that today is one of the biggest marketing forces on Earth. But one can’t help but wonder: Which serials stuck in the mind of young Lucas? Which cowboy antihero, from which forgotten western, was he imagining in the conception of Han Solo?
None of the films below are “lost” or completely forgotten. Genre buffs may be familiar with them, or have heard of them in passing, but the one thing they share is a huge degree of influence on all the films in their genre that came afterward. All of these films deserve to be re-viewed by modern film fans with an eye toward how they broke new ground in specific genres and subgenres.
Genre: The Zombie Film
The Last Man on Earth
Director: Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow
The monsters of 1964’s The Last Man on Earth are technically meant to evoke classical vampires—blood-drinking, undead, unfond of garlic, etc—but their actual presentation in the film uncannily presages George Romero’s monolithic zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, released four years later in 1968. Romero, the father of modern zombie cinema, has said so himself: Both the visuals and the themes of The Last Man on Earth were major influences on the film that subsequently launched a thousand zombie ships. Subsequently, one can tangentially refer to The Last Man on Earth as among the most important “zombie films” in history.
Directed by Italian film duo Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow, The Last Man on Earth was the first of three feature-length adaptations of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend—yes, the same source material thoroughly butchered in the Will Smith film of the same name from 2007. Of the three (Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man being the middling second example), Last Man on Earth is the closest to Matheson’s original, although there are still significant changes. Regardless, it stars the great Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, a scientist trapped in a world of the undead. By day, he hunts the beasts during their time of weakness, and at night he fends them off from the relative safety of his fortified house.
The parallels between the latter and the farmhouse setting of Night of the Living Dead are hard for any horror buff to miss. You can feel the isolation and the claustrophobia of Price’s Dr. Morgan as the undead close in around his home on a nightly basis, seeking entry. You can see the shades of lumbering Romero zombies in the creatures, which reach in through Price’s defenses and paw at him with their pale, waxy arms. One can imagine a 24-year-old Romero watching at a drive-in movie theater, wondering how a small group of racially and socially diverse strangers would cope with being hurled into a similar situation. That’s what he ultimately did: Build upon the visual foundation of The Last Man on Earth to create a film that was less philosophical in its ideas and more relevant and utilitarian.
Honorable mention: The ghouls of 1966’s British Hammer horror production Plague of the Zombies are technically of the classic “voodoo zombie” variety, but their visual imagery perfectly encapsulates the rotting corpse aesthetic of the later Romero zombie series. Despite predating Night of the Living Dead by two years, the visual styles of its zombies would have been perfectly suited to a film made 20 years later.
Genre: Martial Arts/Kung Fu Film
The Chinese Boxer, aka. The Hammer of God, 1970
Director: Jimmy Wang Yu
Historically, the Hong Kong cinematic market has waffled back and forth in terms of action or fighting films between the dominance of wuxia and kung fu. It’s slightly hard to draw a distinctive difference, but the wuxia films dominating cinemas during the ‘50s and ‘60s tended to be colorful, historically inspired stories; period pieces fused with traditional Chinese mythology, superstition and supernatural elements. Their action and fight scenes are purposely unrealistic—beautifully so, in the same balletic way as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, many years later. Combat is dancelike, lithe and ethereal, and often conducted with ancient Chinese weaponry.
The true “kung fu film,” on the other hand, burst back onto the scene in 1970 with The Chinese Boxer. The story is typical—a man trains for vengeance after a gang of Japanese karate practitioners decimate his school—but it was the differences in presentation that ultimately made an impact and kicked off a 20-year kung fu resurgence in Hong Kong film. Compared with the wuxia pictures that came before, these films were grittier, more tied in realism (relatively) and featured fighting scenes that were more visceral and palpable—think the difference between someone getting cartoonishly punched in Raiders of the Lost Ark vs. someone getting punched in The Bourne Identity or Taken. The Chinese Boxer doesn’t make the transition fully, as it still has people doing some physically impossible feats, but it sets the table for the more realistic, modern-era films of Bruce Lee that were soon to follow.
The Chinese Boxer’s cast in particular was perfectly suited to making the transition. Star Jimmy Wang Yu had already starred as the title character in one of the most iconic and influential wuxia pictures, 1967’s One-Armed Swordsman. The villain, meanwhile, is the great Lo Lieh, who kicked off the kung fu craze in America by starring in 1972’s King Boxer, aka Five Fingers of Death before THEN inspiring Quentin Tarantino with his portrayals of “The White Lotus” Pai Mei in Executioners from Shaolin and Clan of the White Lotus. Anyone familiar with classic ‘70s kung fu will feel quite at home with the absurdities and blustery nature of the trailer below—The Chinese Boxer arrived with all of the genre’s tropes fully formed.
Genre: Film noir
Double Indemnity, 1944
Director: Billy Wilder
It’s not as if Double Indemnity is unknown or unappreciated, but really—who, outside of really passionate historical film buffs has gone back and watched a lot of ‘40s noir?
And yet, noir is a cultural touchstone that a lot of people recognize and a lot of people enjoy. The tropes of noir, with its shadows and rain, trench coats and hardboiled P.I.s, are still co-opted constantly, all these decades later. If a film fan today goes ga-ga over the likes of Brick or Drive, then they owe it to themselves to eventually trace some of those tropes and themes back to a much earlier, more sincere, less parodic source.
And in this, Double Indemnity is one of the truly iconic entries in noir canon—certainly one of the earliest films to come along that one could reference as being a “total package” that indisputably fits the term. The film follows an insurance salesman as he gets irrevocably wrapped up in some criminal dealings … led astray, of course, by one of screendom’s classic femme fatales in Barbara Stanwyck. As in Billy Wilder’s other seminal 1950 noir, Sunset Boulevard, the story is told largely in flashback—this time by a man who is merely screwed, rather than actually floating face-down in a pool. Like so many of its kin, it employs dynamic, moody black & white lighting that plays with shadows, obscured faces, physical outlines and the duality of solemnity and sexuality.
How influential was it? Well, one of the B movie studios on Poverty Row tried to put out a shameless rip-off called Single Indemnity the next year, if that tells you anything. Paramount, unsurprisingly, had their legal team subsequently fill the production with hot slugs of lead until it lay twitching in the street. That’s studio justice for you.
Beware: The below clip is pretty spoilery.
Genre: Slasher film
Black Christmas, 1974
Director: Bob Clark
Fun fact: 9 years before he directed holiday classic A Christmas Story, Bob Clark created the first true, unassailable “slasher movie” in Black Christmas. Yes, the same person who gave TBS its annual Christmas Eve marathon fodder was also responsible for the first major cinematic application of the phrase “The calls are coming from inside the house!”
Black Christmas, which was insipidly remade in 2006, predates John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years and features many of the same elements, especially visually. Like Halloween, it lingers heavily on POV shots from the killer’s eyes as he prowls through a dimly lit sorority house and spies on his future victims. As the mentally deranged killer calls the house and engages in obscene phone calls with the female residents, one can’t help but also be reminded of the scene in Carpenter’s film where Jamie Lee Curtis calls her friend Lynda, only to hear her strangled with the telephone cord.
Black Christmas is also instrumental and practically archetypal in its usage of the so-called “final girl” of slasher legend. The viewpoint character of Jessica Bradford is actually among the better-realized of these final girls in the history of the genre, a remarkably strong and resourceful young woman who can take care of herself in both her relationships and in deadly scenarios. It’s questionable how many subsequent slashers have been able to create protagonists who are this combination of capable and realistic.
At the same time, though, Black Christmas also introduced certain elements that would be notable deviations from the future slasher formula. In particular, it’s unique that the audience never actually learns the identity of the killer; nor is he caught or killed. Going back to watch Black Christmas today—and you really should—one sees a clear illustration of what is possible when a genre is not completely beholden to tropes. As much as Black Christmas influenced everything to come after it, it also offers a guide on how the slasher film could be fundamentally altered in the future.
Genre: Science fiction
Dark City, 1998
Director: Alex Proyas
When The Matrix was released in 1999, many astute film critics could be heard saying something along the lines of “Haven’t we seen something like this recently?” And indeed they had, in the form of 1998’s much less seen Dark City. In modes both metaphorical and literal, one can sense the influence of the latter on the former, and on science fiction from this point forward.
Of course, Dark City, despite being an inspired visual story itself, also draws clearly on several previous films for inspiration. The work of Terry Gilliam, especially in Brazil, seems to be present in this story of a man named John Murdoch, who wakes up one day and begins to question the reality of his world and who is controlling the thoughts and actions of everyone around him. In the same way, the stylish, sometimes garish and occasionally whimsical settings also call to mind the 1995 French sci-fi/fantasy film The City of Lost Children.
If anything, though, the massive eventual success of The Matrix and relatively obscure nature of Dark City clearly illustrate that in Hollywood, it’s often the marketing that counts. The similarities between the two films’ visual styles and themes of slavery, techno-rebellion and free will are nigh-impossible to miss, and many visual essays have been written specifically to compare the two movies. John Murdoch as a character is only slightly less portentious than the prophecy of The One in The Matrix—both are seemingly normal men scooped up and thrust into a web of slowly untangling secrets while discovering that they possess special powers that will eventually allow them to defeat the puppetmasters who created their reality. The two films were even largely filmed at the same studio; Fox Studios Australia, and possess a similar green-tinged patina of unreality.
Ultimately, Dark City is simply a bit more philosophically aloof than the popcorn-munching, easier to grasp Matrix, which is probably the reason the latter eventually became a cultural touchstone. But Dark City deserves to be seen, both on its own merits and as an exercise to see which of its sights may have lodged in the mind of The Wachowski’s waiting to be reborn in next year’s blockbuster.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer who spends too much time watching movies. You can follow him on Twitter.