Comics are a visual medium, films are a visual medium. The influence of the movies on the comics has always been acknowledged, and hopefully more filmmakers will come to acknowledge the debt their films owe to a lot of comics, and not lie like a certain bearded egomaniac. Regardless, here are some older films that, either for influence on, or similarities to comics, are films that comic book fans need to see (depending on their interests). While most of these films are indeed science fiction and horror, I think I’ve ran the gamut. This list includes everything from two of the greatest films ever made, to a Ritz Brothers comedy.
Also, I’m going to avoid films that are direct adaptions of comics, or that were created as tributes to comics, so no Defendor or Creepshow. Also, I can safely say that I don’t need to include the Star Wars films, the Evil Dead trilogy or the 007 films, because if you’re a comic book fan who hasn’t seen those films, a pox on thee.
The Penalty (1920):
Anyone who thinks silent films lacked tension has never seen this film. It’s as tense and bleakly mordant now as it was when it was released. Contemporary critics compared it to watching a hanging. Lon Chaney Sr gives one of his first, and best roles as Blizzard; a crime lord whose limbs were pointlessly amputated by a quack doctor as a child. It’s absolutely amazing how Chaney can switch to making you want to cry for Blizzard due to his tragic plight when he is shunned or when he expresses his artistic side (This role was a warm up in many ways for Chaney’s turn as the Phantom of the Opera) and then cower in fear when he goes berserk. There’s a pretty goofy subplot about hats, and the explanation for why Blizzard has become a criminal comes very close to ruining the film, but Chaney’s performance singlehandedly makes up for any shortcomings.
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: Fans of Dick Tracy’s rogues gallery of deformed criminals couldn’t find a better film. Fans of early Batman stories should also see it, particularly fans of Two-Face, as this is also a tragic story of a good man turned into “half a man” who becomes a mad crime lord, there’s even some motifs that appeared in the Golden Age Two-Face stories, such as an emphasis on deformity, madness, love and redemption, and a statue that figures prominently. Be forewarned though, this is an extremely depressing motion picture, and knowing the full story of how Chaney made himself appear limbless will make you cringe.
The Bat (1926): A masked and costumed criminal mastermind named "The Bat" pulls off daring robberies while the police hunt him down. This is an absolutely thrilling little film that was sadly lost for many years. Beautiful cinematography, wonky sets, some surprisingly funny comedy relief, and some genuinely creepy scenes make this hold up. Old dark house thrillers don’t come much better than this.
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: Do I really need to go into detail why? Also, further proof that Bob Kane was full of shit; he claimed multiple times that he was inspired by this film’s remake (The Bat Whispers) to create Batman because of the villain’s costume. While Bat Whispers is good, this is the film which actually features such a costume, not the remake.
Forget Avatar, THIS is the greatest visual spectacle ever committed to film involving lovers from two different worlds with a heavy-handed anti-Capitalist message. While some of the overly indulgent symbolism (though that’s why I love it so) and the pro-communist message may not go over well with everyone, I don’t really see how anyone can deny the visual mastery here. The performances are great too; Brigitte Helm’s dual role as the saintly, bland Maria and her demonic, slutty robotic double (with and without flesh) is amazing. Rudolf Klein-Rogge, as the mad scientist Rotwang, gives the performance all subsequent mad scientist performances should be judged by, the guy is a living cartoon.
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: If fans of Judge Dredd and Heavy Metal haven’t seen this, they aren’t fans of Judge Dredd and Heavy Metal. Also, weirdos with a robot woman fetish should groove on this, after all, all of us sci-fi and comic book fans are sexual deviants, right?
The Man Who Laughs (1928) :
I think we can skip WHY this film should be a must-see for comics fans, and what kind. Nevertheless, this is a great film that needs to be appreciated more on its own merits and not just for inspiring one of comic’s most enduring villains. What most people who aren’t familiar with the plot will be surprised to learn is that Conrad Veidt’s freakishly disfigured Gwynplaine isn’t a villain, but the hero of the film. Being different, not feeling good enough for those who care about you, all are themes that are subtext in the best superhero stories, and this film tackles all of them.
Also, this film has some haunting cinematography by director Paul Leni (who directed The Cat & the Canary, one of my favorite silent horror films), truly jarring rudimentary sound-effects even though the film is mostly silent, as well as a villain named Barkilpedro who will certainly fill every Joker fan’s evil jester quota. It also features the world’s first openly gay canine actor as well.
The Gorilla (1939): This is easily the worst film on this list, which is sad because this one had potential. There are some truly eerie scenes, there’s a great spooky ambience, the romantic leads are actually tolerable, and Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi are at their devious best. It would be a great film, if it wasn’t for the Ritz Brothers, who sadly, are the main “attraction” here. If you hate the Three Stooges, you’ll loathe the Ritz Brothers, a comedy team who ranged from daringly risqué to abysmally pathetic, generally the latter. When Bela Lugosi shows better comic timing and physical prowess when it comes to slapstick than the so-called comedians, you know you’re in dutch.
However, you wanna know why I recommend this film? It’s about a murderous criminal mastermind, who announces to a wealthy man that he will die at midnight on the radio with a ''droning'' toneless voice,
hides in a suit of armor, and at one point impersonates a policeman.
I can’t believe that no one else has mentioned it before, but this clearly inspired the Joker’s debut story in Batman #1. Other old dark house thrillers and films with criminal masterminds used similar set-ups (including The Bat) but the date this film was made, as well as the fact that there are too many similar scenes and lines of dialogue, make it too much to write off as coincidence.
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: Batman fans of course, particularly those who’ve read Batman #1. Also, this should give everyone their Joker-fix if they disliked The Man who laughs.
Long overrated as “the only B-movie worth watching” by critics (a label which I find to be both condescending and far from true), there’s no denying how gripping this potboiler is. Tom Neal plays Al Roberts, aka the unluckiest man on earth, a guy just looking to catch a ride who ends up spiraling into a living hell. While hitchhiking, Al ends up with a dead body on his hands and then blackmailed by a woman named Vera (Ann Savage). It strains credibility at times, but my god is it bleak. Ann Savage is chilling in her role, she may be pretty, but she’s so vicious that no sane man would fantasize about her. All the reviews of this film that claim she seduces Al or that he falls for her lead me to wonder how many critics who’ve reviewed this film have actually watched it.
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: This is basically a typical crime story from EC’s Shock Suspenstories or Crime Suspenstories come to life. Hell, Tom Neal even looks like a typical Johnny Craig protagonist in some scenes.
Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947): Depending on how much Danny Kaye you can stand, this is a pretty rewarding film, not just as a comedy, but as a psychological study of a man lost in his own day dreams. Walter Mitty is a schlub with a demanding mother and fiancée, a “friend” who hardly deserves the term, and a boss who is the one bad thing about an otherwise ideal job as a writer for pulp magazines. Is it any wonder the poor guy is constantly retreating into his own imagination? Then he ends up caught up in a plot involving a gang of thieves and a beautiful woman, or is he?
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: I think all comics fans have more in common with Mitty than we’d care to admit, but that doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally have a laugh at ourselves. Also, Mitty works at a pulp magazine/comics publishing company, and we get to see people coming up with outrageous plots, drawing, creating covers, etc.
The Third Man (1949):
Even if you’ve never seen this film, you’ve heard the theme music in some parody at some point. Ironically, this has a lot in common with Walter Mitty in that it’s about a pulp writer caught up in a real life adventure. The difference is that Mitty is ultimately optimistic and on its hero’s side, this film is far, far darker and down to earth. Joseph Cotton plays Holly Martin, an unsuccessful western writer who goes to Germany to apply for a job his friend has offered to him, only to discover that his friend is not only dead (apparently) but far from the friend he thought he knew. There are twists and turns galore. So much of this film’s plot has been spoiled due to cultural osmosis that I’m not saying anymore.
Don’t see this film because I recommended it; see it because it’s a great film period.
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: This is as close as you’ll ever get to a proper Spirit movie. We have our fish-out-of-water hero in a fedora, business suit and trench coat who gets beat up at every turn and tries to cut in on a romance he can’t have, we have a sense of sardonic humor at play in most every scene (the bit where Martins is mistaken for a cutting edge novelist and asked to give a speech is particularly hilarious), inventive camera angles and use of shadows, a sultry vixen, and a scheming criminal mastermind who goes unseen for most of the film. I don’t see how any self-respecting Will Eisner fan could NOT love this film.
This Island Earth (1955):
Yes, this film was singled out as the “worst movie ever made” by the yahoos at MST3K. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you know what? I don’t care, and neither should any self-respecting science fiction fan. Far from a B-movie (it was the most expensive film Universal made that year), this film was actually considered one of the “big three” sci-fi films of the 50s along with The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet. If you think the special effects look dated, well, I hope you’ve never seen the original Star Wars trilogy. While it may not be the masterpiece it was considered as prior to MST3k, it sure isn’t the piece of garbage MST3K (who cut crucial scenes from the film in order to make jokes about plot holes) made it out to be. It’s like watching the cover of some old sci-fi comic come to life.
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: Green Lantern fans. We have a test pilot/scientist hero named “Cal” (change the C to an H) whose plane gets caught in a green ray, a mechanic sidekick, aliens with bulbous heads who are space ‘guardians”, as well as goofy devices like an “interociter”. The influence this film had on Silver Age Green Lantern comics is obvious. In fact, discarding Gil Kane’s story about being influenced by Paul Newman and Liz Taylor when he drew Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris, it’s pretty clear he actually modeled them after Rex Reason and Faith Domergue from this film and made the Newman/Taylor thing up to sound classy. To be fair though, both of these people are fairly typical looking 50's movie stars.
Also, this isn’t just some crazy conspiracy of mine, others agree too:
Artists and Models (1955):
I promise you this will be the last film on this list featuring comedians of yesteryear whose skill at comedy is rather suspect. It’s a fairly typical Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis film all the way, and if you can’t stand Lewis’s shtick, then avoid this film like the plague. Martin & Lewis play two roommates, one a suave, starving artist who breaks into song every five minutes, the other a blithering idiot who reads comic books and is in love with a heroine called “The Bat-Lady” (guess who plays who). Before the obese “basement dweller” stereotype took hold, Lewis’s character is a prime example of what most people viewed comic book fans as. If comic book fans were a race, Lewis’s performance would be the equivalent of a minstrel show. The film also features a sub-plot about Martin’s character becoming a comic book writer, and the filmmaker’s misunderstandings about the different genres of comics there are (Apparently superhero, funny animal, space-opera and horror comics are all the same genre) has to be seen to be believed. Oh, and there’s an espionage subplot that comes into play in the last 20 minutes. Glayven.
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: Anyone fascinated by the Wertham/Comics code controversy must see this film. There’s even a spoof of the Senate hearings. The film takes a negative view of the comics industry and its fans, portraying a publisher named Murdock as a sleazy, henpecked money-grubber, and portraying children who read comics either as “a little retarded” (as Lewis’s character describes himself) or violent thugs (a kid throws a knife at Lewis, in a scene probably inspired by this documentary). Still, as a cultural artifact, this film should be essential viewing for all comic readers interested in their medium’s history.
First Man into Space (1959):
Films where astronauts go up into space and come back as monsters were practically a cottage-industry in the 50s-60s. This isn’t the first (That would be The Quatermass Experiment) but it’s easily the creepiest. A cocky test pilot goes too far, and returns a vampiric monster covered in space dust. While this is unwisely played as a mystery to the audience at first, it doesn’t stop the tension from building up, and the finale contains some genuine pathos. A gem, and quite disturbing for the time.
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: For any Fantastic Four fan who ever wanted to see the basic concept of FF turned into a nightmarish horror story, this is the film for you. Mark Evanier supposedly likes to show clips of this film at conventions.
Theatre of Blood (1973):
Vincent Price plays Edward Lionheart, a supposedly dead Shakespearean actor who murders the critics who snubbed him one by one, using inventive punishments lifted from Shakespeare. It’s witty, scary, gory, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and even somewhat poignant at times. Price had previously starred in two films featuring a supervillain character named Dr. Phibes, which followed a similar premise. Those films are also great comic book-ish fun (particularly the sequel), but this film is the thinking man’s Dr. Phibes.
Also, this film instilled in me a life-long love of Poodle soufflé.
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: Just about any fan who reads comics for the villains should find something to love about this film. Lionheart is the original, non-powered Basil Karlo version of Clayface in all but name; in fact, I can’t believe no one has ever done a re-telling of Clayface’s origins using this film as a template. I’ve always found Clayface more interesting as a mad, psychotic actor than as a shape-shifting monster, and this film proves that that premise could be effective. Fans of gory, ironic punishments from Spectre stories and EC comics should also groove on it.
If Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Steve Gerber, Robert Crumb and Jack Kirby all got high and decided to do a comic book about the life of Franz Liszt, and then that comic got adapted to film after someone read it while on LSD, this would be the result. Liszt (played by Roger Daltrey) apparently was a rock star cursed by a she-devil who got out of it by becoming a missionary secret agent for the Vatican, and then battles the evil Nazi vampire mad scientist Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas, who has a history of tormenting Roger Daltrey onscreen). There’s even a cameo by a distinctively Marvel-esque Thor (as a robot). There’s also a pipe organ spaceship, a 50-ft penis, and a Hitlerstein.
Don’t see it because I recommended it; just see it to convince yourself that it even exists.
A typical scene.
What kind of comics fans it should appeal to, and why: Anyone who reads comics for crazy, goofy weirdness, or as Alan Moore and the people on Scum_Daily call it, “Crack”.I’m sure there are a lot of films that I’ve missed, as well as ones that I should have included but just didn’t feel like for whatever reason. Don’t be surprised if I get around to doing a follow up to this list someday.