The Movie Nerd Bible: Part I


They say my generation is old before our time. That information moves so fast now that we’ve developed premature variations on the sort of psychological hang-ups – nostalgia, romanticism of the past, mistrust of the younger generation – that didn’t occur in our grandfathers until they were our grandfathers. To be fair, there probably is something wrong with grumping about “kids today with yer music and hula-hoops!” when you’re only 29 yourself … and then I go and browse through the comments on the rather amusing Critical Miss #22.

Really? This many people aren’t catching a parody of the pivotal scene from easily one of the top 10 most important – to say nothing of influential – science fiction films of all time? Infuriating! Or, at least it was before I caught sight of my own Reason #3 waving to me. Not fair, I’m thinking, to blame the kids when it could easily be a function of my generation failing to inform them.

Let’s fix that. For science.

What we’re going to do here is a straight-up, roughly chronological list of the movies that every self-respecting nerd in general (and movie nerds especially) really ought to have seen by now. Not necessarily the biggest or the best films, but the influential ones – the stuff that all the other stuff is made of. The list is split into two parts at the year 1977. And if you have to ask why 1977, you should probably be taking copious notes. Let’s fire up those Netflix queues people.

Nosferatu (1922)

FW Murnau’s silent, unofficial adaptation of Dracula gave the movies their first iconic vampire and, along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, helped invent the language almost every horror film has spoken since.

Metropolis (1927)

It’s not possible to overstate the importance of this silent German classic from Fritz Lang. Every vision of futuristic cities or robotics imagined since owes it a debt, as do key creations of artists as diverse as Osamu Tezuka and George Lucas. The greedy masters of a false Utopian super-city attempt to sow unrest among their enslaved workers with a robot duplicate of a would-be revolutionary leader. Oh, if it were only so easy.

King Kong (1932)

Giant ape falls for the girl, off the building, and for the first time a special effect stirs emotions beyond awe or fear.

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The Universal Monsters (1931 – 1956)

Over the course of two decades (though mostly in the 30s and 40s) Universal Studios permanently affixed their visions of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf-Man and an original creation called The Gill Man to the popular culture. From institutionalizing the importance of professional makeup effects artists to inventing most of the “rules” we now associate with vampires and werewolves, the impact is almost beyond measure.

The Universal library is pretty damn vast, but the key entries would probably be Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf-Man, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf-Man (the first franchise crossover!), House of Frankenstein and Creature From the Black Lagoon.

Godzilla, aka Gojira (1954 – Present)

What began as a Japanese reworking of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (another must-see) eventually became a chilling parable of Japan’s suffering in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and ultimately became the most enduringly popular monster movie franchise of all time. For decades, the original was only available in a heavily-edited U.S. version with actor Raymond Burr inserted and anti-nuke sentiment muted, but now the uncut version is widely available. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too much Godzilla, but the essentials of the original run would be the ’54 original, Rodan, Mothra, Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, and Godzilla vs. Mothra.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

The high-minded inquisitiveness of “big idea” sci-fi and the gee-whiz robots and rockets of “pulp” sci-fi join forces, thankfully not for the last time, in a space-age retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A team of astronauts (including a pre-comedy Leslie Nielsen!) explore a strange planet where the leftover machines of a doomed alien civilization have allowed a human scientist to expand his intelligence to superhuman levels, but may also have unleashed an unstoppable, invisible monster born of his own Id that threatens to destroy them all. The film also gave us Robby, cinema’s first robot movie star.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers(1956)

Here begins the age (if not the genre) of paranoid sci-fi. A doctor discovers that his fellow townspeople are being replaced with sinister duplicates hatching from alien pods. No one will believe him, and almost anyone could be one of them. Officially remade four more times (and counting) and ripped off even more often than that.

The Films of Ray Harryhausen (1955 – 1981)

Stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen was the first superstar special effects technician, whose work was so distinctive it was a reason to see the movie in and of itself. He was responsible for some of the best-ever renderings of flying saucers (Earth vs. The Flying Saucers), giant monsters (20 Million Miles to Earth), Greek mythology (Jason & The Argonauts – pictured), and even The Arabian Nights (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad).


Hammer Horror (1955-1974)

Short on budget but big on blood, beauty and distinctly British swagger, the Hammer Studios horror cycle formed the cultural bridge between the gothic and gore eras of the horror genre – the fangs got sharper, the blood got redder and the cleavage got, well, bigger. Should see: All of them. Need to see: Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), Frankenstein Created Woman, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, and Curse of The Werewolf.

They also produced One Million Years B.C. and When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, which featured bikini-clad cavewomen fighting dinosaurs and thus stand as justification for the entire existence of the motion picture camera.

Psycho (1960)

Legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock took a project no studio wanted and, using the crew and resources from his popular TV series, independently produced it on his own. The eventual result – very loosely inspired by the notorious Ed Gein – was a film whose edgy depictions of murder, depravity and insanity outraged and fascinated 1960s audiences, but not nearly as much as the then-shocking surprise ending. The result? One of the biggest hits of Hitchcock’s career, and an entire genre changed forever.

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

A Soviet defector carrying valuable scientific secrets has been mortally wounded, now comatose with a blood clot in his brain spelling certain death. To save him, a radical procedure is devised: Shrink a submarine and a crew of scientists down to microscopic size and inject them into his body to repair the damage from within. With a premise that wild, the movie almost doesn’t have to be good, but Fantastic Voyage (pictured) is, anyway.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The bodies of the recently dead rise again as flesh-eating zombies, and a diverse group of survivors try to hold them off from an abandoned farmhouse. From that simple setup, director George A. Romero built a career and invented an entire genre. All of modern horror rests on the shoulders of this film.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s momentous collaboration for sci-fi luminary Arthur C. Clarke is still quite possibly the single most important science fiction film ever made – a one-of-a-kind fusion of hard sci-fi space exploration and surreal musings on the nature of existence. A mysterious mission surrounding the discovery of a possibly alien monolith on the moon eventually strands two astronauts at the mercy of their homicidally malfunctioning ship’s computer, HAL 9000. And then … well, you sort of have to see it.


The Planet of the Apes Series (1970 – 1973)

Yeah, yeah, you know how it ends. Did you also know that it was the most important sci-fi movie franchise prior to Star Wars? Or that it had four genre-bending sequels that, thanks to time travel, all (save for the second) manage to take place simultaneously before and after one another? The original classic satirizes creationism with Charlton Heston as an astronaut trapped on a planet where apes rule over man, and a succession of sequels pile paradox upon paradox explaining exactly how such a thing comes to pass. Dated? Sure. Forgetable? Never.

Solaris (1972)

Tasked with delivering a Soviet “answer” to Kubrick’s 2001, Andrei Tarkovsky offered up this meditative adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem story in which a spacefarer orbiting a liquid “brain planet” encounters psychic manifestations borne of his own troubled psyche. Glacially paced (it was remade much shorter with George Clooney a few years back) but intriguing stuff, and very influential on later “thoughtful” sci-fi.

Soylent Green (1973)

Chances are you already know what Soylent Green “is,” which renders watching the turgid, heavy-handed film slightly beside the point. Still, imagine what it must have been like to see such a bleak, gonzo premise unfold and not know what was coming.

Jaws (1975)

It was a poorly reviewed but massively popular “beach book” about a New England vacation community stalked by a great white shark that many considered unfilmmable. The job fell to a young upstart named Steven Spielberg who, despite a famously difficult shoot, wound up turning in a box office smash that helped birth the modern age of blockbusters. Yet the film’s real legacy is just how good the damn thing is, a living rebuttal to anyone who claims that a gory thriller about a rampaging shark can’t also be a deep and involving human drama.

Logan’s Run (1976)

A 23rd century utopia is kept in order by the mandatory suicide of everyone who reaches the age of 30. When one of the Sandmen – enforcers who hunt down those who refuse to die willingly – discovers that the quasi-religious ritual used to justify the killings is a sham, he himself goes on the run. Run (pictured) hasn’t exactly aged well, but its influence on later films and popular culture is undeniable.

In 1977, George Lucas’ Star Wars would debut, propelling nerd movies to the top of the Hollywood stratosphere and creating an entirely new and separate era in genre film. Which is where we’ll pick things up … next week.

(Special thanks to editor Susan Arendt, for making me sound coherent and for suggesting the subject for this column.)

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.