An Interview with Science Fiction Historian Bill Warren
by Stuart Galbraith IV
A familiar presence in the world of science fiction/fantasy/horror fandom, Bill Warren (b. 1943) is chiefly known for a massive two-volume survey of '50s science fiction cinema, Keep Watching the Skies!, its first volume published by McFarland & Company in 1982. (Volume 2 followed in 1986.)
Though largely unnoticed, the impact of Keep Watching the Skies! (hereafter, KWTS!) was profound. The quality and infectious enthusiasm of the writing help spark a reexamination of the genre's formative years, an influence that gradually spread far beyond the confides of sci-fi/fantasy fandom and its accompanying genre studies. Films long dismissed when discussed at all were now reappraised and in some cases hailed as rediscovered minor masterpieces. The concurrent growing popularity of VHS, and later laserdisc, DVD, and the Internet made Warren's book an indispensable reference. More than a few readers became determined to locate a copy of every movie included in KWTS!'s two volumes. Over time, and despite sturdy library binding, many fans of the book found themselves with scuffed-up volumes literally falling apart at the seams, the spines frayed like tassels. Copies had literally been read to death.
And so, 20 years after its publication, Warren announced a "21st Century Edition" of KWTS! that would bring the book up to date. New information would be incorporated, films unavailable at the time would at long last be reviewed, and the book would be bigger and better than ever.
I've known Bill for the last 18 or so years; KWTS! helped get me started as a writer. I'm hardly alone. Like many of the book's admirers, I first discovered it at the library. I was instantly hooked, thrilled at its carefully-considered essays about movies that, for the most part, had never been given much attention, except as sources of derision and contempt - books like The 50 Worst Films of All-Time. I stumbled upon Volume I just as the library was closing, but returned the next day - and read it all in one gluttonous feast.
Nothing like it had appeared in print before. By design, Bill unpretentiously explored each film thoroughly with no particular critical agenda - he was merely as thorough as was possible in those earliest days of VCRs and cable television. He placed each film into cultural, historical, and film industry context: How did they relate to what was going on in America during the 1950s? How were they influenced by new technologies? By Cold War paranoia? By the rise of television and the decline of studio-made B-movies? What role did written science fiction play? What studios, directors, and producers shaped the genre, and how?
Though Bill was often highly critical of these films, he was never condescending. His intensely personal tributes to important films were sometimes unexpectedly touching, while his descriptions of the genre's most ludicrous monsters and situations were often screamingly funny. In the latter case, this is because he reports their appearance so accurately, describing their shortcomings so rationally and fairly. For fans of the book, it was no surprise to learn that the great comedian Jonathan Winters liked to phone friends and quote from Bill's descriptions of The Giant Claw, the galumphing tree-monster of From Hell It Came, or loony Karl Brussard, the insane millionaire who swipes the head of Nostradamus in The Man without a Body.
Unlike many fans of such films, Bill's interests aren't limited to sci-fi/fantasy, but movies of all kinds, and this well-rounded education of movie-watching served his writing well. He was also influenced by popular film critics like Pauline Kael, and part of KWTS!'s success is that he adopted a similarly personalized style. Without ever overdoing it, the book is as much an exploration of Bill's own childhood and teenage years, his personal experiences seeing films and recording his personal reactions to them. As such it's an invaluable record of what movie going was like from the early-1950s through the early '60s, which in turn contextualizes the genre's appeal even more.
A large part of what I've been able to achieve as a film historian, from my own early genre surveys to
The Emperor and the Wolf and various DVD audio commentaries - almost all of it can be traced back to the excitement and still ongoing pleasures of reading and rereading Keep Watching the Skies!. Early on, in 1991-92 I shamelessly aped Warren's format for my own first book,
Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, and asked Bill to write its introduction. He generously agreed, and particularly after I moved to Los Angeles in 1993 we became friends.
To my surprise, the well-rounded, thoughtful and confident writer proved a sharp contrast to the diffident if dominating Bill Warren in-person. Though Bill remains an active film/video critic and feature writer, and though he eventually wrote
The Evil Dead Companion for his friend Sam Raimi, since KWTS! he's done nothing remotely as ambitious. This is his magnum opus. Fans of his writing have pleaded with him to explore the genre to the end of the sixties and beyond, or perhaps similarly cover postwar horror films, to no avail. Bill loves Hawaii and has long wanted to write about movies filmed there, and he's been keenly interested in the craft of film acting and would like to interview some of the more respected ones in an effort to understand their enigmatic art.
But as confident as Bill is in print he is almost cripplingly insecure about his own abilities and in selling himself. He long hoped others would beat down his door or at least green-light a project without anything like a formal book proposal. This has held him back while other far less talented writers have gone on to more prolific and successful careers. Many of Bill's friends and colleagues find this frustrating because we all believe he's got a big batch of KWTS!-level projects aching to get out. (I also wish he'd write books about two other subjects he's passionate about: Roy Rogers and the folk musical revival of the late-1950s and '60s, especially The Kingston Trio.)
Bill's I-Gotta-Be-Me persona extends to his physical appearance, not far removed from that of his longtime father figure and mentor, the late Forrest J. Ackerman: perennial Hawaiian shirt, thick hyperopic eyeglasses, scruffy beard. Like too many science fiction fans, including the late genre scholar Tim Murphy, to whom KWTS! is co-dedicated, Bill is doesn't take care of his physical health. About ten years ago, Bill gradually lost an enormous amount of weight, a condition eventually diagnosed as something you'd expect to read in the pages of KWTS!: a strange vegetation was slowly growing around his heart muscles, gradually crushing it like a grape.
He nearly died. For a few hours during his half-day open-heart surgery I visited with his long supportive wife, Beverly, who admitted to preparing herself for the possibility he wouldn't survive the operation.
But survive he did. Indeed, he bounced back with amazing speed. He remains a familiar presence on the Classic Horror Film Board, telling (and retelling) startling anecdotes, making interesting observations about this or that classic film or new release. Recently, he's been fielding a lot of questions and compliments about the new edition of Keep Watching the Skies!
Stuart Galbraith IV: Why a new edition instead of writing something totally new?
Bill Warren: Bill Thomas and I have been planning on doing a book along the same lines devoted to a particular subgenre of movies (I'd rather not identify it as yet). But I was insecure about my ability to tackle such an undertaking, and decided to try a revision of Keep Watching the Skies! first. McFarland welcomed the idea - heck, they leaped at it (much to my surprise). I assumed this would take about a year. It took at least three years - I'm not entirely sure when it was that I began redoing it. First, Bill Thomas had to scan the entire book into memory, as I didn't then have the ability to do that. Then it had to be cleaned up, removing computer glitches and the like. And then I dove into it.
The main idea was to include information from the various interview books by Tom Weaver, which is why his name has the longest index entry (I think); there's an awful lot of "[actor] said to Tom Weaver" in there. But now the Internet provided lots of access to very interesting material; there were donations to libraries around town (specifically the Margaret Herrick Library of the Motion Picture Academy, and the special Warner Bros. collection at USC).
With some trepidation, I asked Tom Weaver if I could run the revised entries by him, and he agreed.
Galbraith: You have very nice things to say about Tom Weaver in the book, but online you two are like Jack Benny and Fred Allen, or maybe Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Is it all a put-on like their "feuds" were?
Warren: I wish it were a put-on, but it isn't. I thought we were friends; his relentless, sometimes contemptuous, criticism of me on the Classic Horror Film Board demonstrated -- to my great disappointment -- that we are not. However, he did help me a great deal on the rewrite of KWTS!.
Galbraith: Have you ever come close to writing a similar tome about horror movies from roughly the same era, or a continuation taking KWTS! up to, say,
2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Wars?
Warren: I wouldn't want to do a similar book on science fiction movies after the period I covered, because being a kid when the SF movies of the 50s came out was very important to the book. Then, I could watch stuff like, say, The Giant Claw and get some fun out of it, however bad it was; the same is not true of movies like Battle Beneath the Earth or The Body Stealers. They were tedious to watch the first time through, and would just be more so.
As for the horror movies - I have toyed with that idea several times, but I always hit the same stumbling block. Horror was basically a dead genre during most of the 1950s. It was given a big boost starting with
The Curse of Frankenstein, of course. The problem was to find a reasonable way of choosing which period to cover. Science Fiction movies had the advantage of actually kicking off in 1950, the first year of a decade. There's no such tidy starting (or ending) point for horror movies. Plus, I'm simply not as interested in them as I am in science fiction movies.
Galbraith: Why do away with the chronological-by-year format?
Warren: The main reason is that when I used KWTS! as a research tool myself, since I'm not always sure of the year a given movie was released, I kept having to look it up in the index. Also, I already did the year-by-year division; I wanted to have something distinctive about this edition.
Galbraith: Since the publication of Volume 1 especially, you've learned that a surprising number of blacklisted writers worked on several of the films covered in the book, such as Dalton Trumbo and his uncredited contributions to
Rocketship X-M. Should we read anything into these revelations?
Warren: Probably only that some producers were cynical and smart - these guys could write the stuff they wanted, blacklisted or not. The WGA [Writers Guild of America] has been semi-diligently trying to correct credits from that period, to see that the blacklisted writers get credit, at least now. However, Trumbo still isn't officially credited with Rocketship X-M. The only reason I knew about that is that [our mutual friend, filmmaker] Ted Newsom took a class with Trumbo's daughter, who read a list of films her father had written or worked on without credit, and Rocketship X-M was on the list. It's tempting to assume that the change from Mars being a planet full of dinosaurs to a desert wasteland that's the result of nuclear weapons was due to the input of Trumbo, but for now, that's all it can be, an assumption.
Daniel Hyatt, who allegedly wrote
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,
The Giant Behemoth, and Gorgo for director Eugène Lourié turns out to have been blacklistee Daniel James - but --but Lourié remained so reticent that he didn't identify James even in his autobiography. ("Hyatt" also wrote Revolt in the Big House for a different director).
Bernard Gordon who was de facto blacklisted (his name never appeared on the lists in sources such as Red Channel), wrote
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Man Who Turned to Stone, and
Zombies of Mora Tau, all under his usual pseudonym Raymond T. Marcus (who, like most pseudonyms of this type, was a real person, though not a writer). Later Gordon also wrote
The Day of the Triffids. His output is well known, partly because he wrote two books about his life on the Blacklist.
Those are the only two (or three) I know of, but I wouldn't be surprised to eventually learn of even more.
None of these people, however, wrote notably well-made movies, just product. I have no idea if their being blacklisted has anything to do with their writing ability. At times, writers like George Worthing Yates could turn out screenplays as bad as
War of the Colossal Beast, and as well-written and interesting as the first couple of scripts for
Them! (Yates' own idea).
I don't think anything can be read into the fact that blacklisted writers wrote (or co-wrote) some SF movies of the 1950s; they're simply writers of the time who were known to deliver the goods when needed, but who could not be credited.
Actually, of course, they could have been credited all along; there was no legal force behind the Blacklist, or not enough of a legal force to actually prevent their real names from being listed - as Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas both did in 1960, when Exodus and
Spartacus were both released with their screenplays attributed to Dalton Trumbo. The only power keeping the Blacklist in play was fear.
The most disgusting thing about the blacklist and the HUAC investigations was that HUAC's forcing people to name names was entirely unnecessary - it has become utterly clear that HUAC already had every single name on this scurrilous list; they didn't need those people to grovel by naming names. Of course, this doesn't let those who, like William Alland and Martin (
The Deadly Mantis) Berkeley off the hook for naming lots and lots of names voluntarily. Berkeley named more than any other HUAC witness.
But Dalton Trumbo said it best (he often did) - don't look among the lists of those who named names and those who courageously refused to name names for heroes and villains. They are, he said, only victims. The Blacklist did no good for anyone except the HUAC investigators. After all, the only thing being targeted were ideas. The one movie that really did feature pro-USSR propaganda,
Mission to Moscow, was requested by the State Department.
Galbraith: About these friendly witnesses: Was this virulent anticommunist atmosphere of the times reflected in their work at all?
Warren: You're referring to Alland and Berkeley, of course, who were friends, or at least allies. I've never seen any anti-Communist (or even merely anti-leftist) material in their films, probably because the kind of movies they made simply were devoid of any kind of political content. I haven't checked the non-SF movies produced by Alland or written by Berkeley for traces of political commentary. Before 1950 or so, both men were themselves "Reds" - that's how they knew who to name - so maybe their movies from that period had some propaganda, but all that stuff is extremely rare. It does turn up sometimes, but it's usually very minor (like Lionel Stander whistling "The Internationale" while waiting for an elevator). Almost any kind of propaganda, other than during WWII (when it's almost all pro-Allies) is pretty hard to carry on through the process of making a Hollywood movie, what with subsequent writers, producers, directors, studio chiefs, actors, etc. all having input.
One major question facing me in doing this revision was - just why did science fiction movies begin? They actually did begin in 1950, which is more a convenience for those who like to divide movie history into neat eras than representing a clear truth. I felt it likely that the Blacklist did indeed have an effect, but one that's extremely hard to analyze, as the effect was primarily in the form of dictating, or strongly suggesting, what movies couldn't be made. (And to a degree, who couldn't appear in them.) This is a basically invisible effect on the movies that were made. History itself played into the hands of those who created and/or enforced the Blacklist. After World War II, the US and the USSR ceased being allies and became bitter rivals; it resulted in a whole heck of a lot of movies with dark-eyed bad guys (and gals) with thick Slavic accents; we knew what country they represented, even when it wasn't identified. But this trend kind of blew over by about 1956. So, he said, dragging himself back onto track, it seems likely the Blacklist had a relatively small impact on 1950s science fiction movies.
Galbraith: Setting aside undisputed classics like
The Day the Earth Stood Still and
Forbidden Planet for a moment - Why are so many people fond, passionate even, about really junky movies like
Robot Monster, Cat-Women of the Moon, and Plan 9 from Outer Space? There's nothing comparable among fans of musicals or Westerns.
Warren: To a degree, this is a mystery to me - but you're wrong about there being no comparable behavior among Western fans, because there is: there are legions of fans of B-Westerns, those who can cite not just every movie of Gene Autry, but every movie of Whip Wilson. However, those legions don't seem to grow as fast (or be as noisy as) the newer fans of 1950s cheapo SF movies. I tried to analyze this in the introduction to the new volume, and later found that, in convention appearances, actors Beverly Garland and Dick Miller, icons of the '50s, had reached a similar conclusion. One reason seems to be that movies of today are largely fueled by knowing irony, sarcasm, a kind of bitter attitude that comes from too many experiences with those who let you down. But the movies of the 1950s are eternally optimistic, even Rocketship X-M and The Lost Missile, in which the heroes die at the end. There's not a trace of irony in these films, and that's probably refreshing for latter-day generations of movie watchers.
However, this doesn't explain the pleasure today's movie fans take in movies like those you name - films that are clearly very bad, but still accrue fans. Sometimes this is because of the strained earnestness of these movies, which is offset (as in Ed Woods' films) with not just bad dialogue, but spectacularly awful dialogue. I would have thought Robot Monster has the new fans it does because of the director's blithe assumption that a guy in a gorilla suit wearing a space helmet somehow represented a believable alien. It's just so ridiculous it's charming. But some actually defend the look of Ro-Man, and not always because the movie is revealed to have been a hallucination on the part of a comic-book-loving little boy.
Galbraith: I've noticed that a lot of fans will eagerly sit through the genre's worst, most excruciating movies yet deny themselves the pleasures of great, wonderfully entertaining films in other genres. In other words, their passion is sometimes exclusive to this genre alone. Why do you think that is? And can a movie be so bad that it's good?
Warren: I dislike that phrase and try never to use it, if only because it's inherently contradictory. However, it's also true that often the movies we love the most are not necessarily those we think are the best. Nobody can explain (or explain away) their love for some ratty old movie that happens to have struck them in the right way. And I'm sure we all have a list of such titles. In the book, I mention how at one time I ran across a diary I'd kept around 1956. One entry solemnly stated "I have just seen the two best movies ever made:
Creature with the Atom Brain and It Came from Beneath the Sea. But of course, for a 12-year-old kid at that time, a kid who loved this kind of movie with an intense passion, they probably were the two best movies ever made. (Or maybe Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and
The Werewolf, a bit later.) The standards of a 12-year-old are manifestly not going to be the standards of a 32-year-old.
I suspect the love for this genre can be indicated, though not explained, by another anecdote. I tried to babble about this kind of movie to the other kids in my hometown (my neighborhood and the town were one and the same). They sometimes responded that the movies weren't any good because they were impossible and couldn't happen. (Which sounds like a phrase originated by a parent.) This baffled me, because that was specifically why I did like these movies (and musicals) - they showed me exciting things I could never ever see in real life. If I wanted real life, all I had to do was go outside.
I suppose the reason that the 1950s clunkers continue to gain fans is due to naïveté on the part of both the films and their new fans.
Galbraith: In KWTS! and in other projects you worked on, especially your commentary track for the DVD of
The War of the Worlds (1953 version), you're obviously very passionate about this genre and its best films in particular. Why are these films so important to you personally?
Warren: I suspect I'd have to undergo therapy to a Woody Allen degree to answer that question. It's also true that I really have no need to answer the question; I'm not scoring myself for what I like and dislike, especially regarding movies of the past. I simply happen to have developed a taste for the unusual, and developed that taste by the time I was six years old, or so. Almost all boys go through a period of loving dinosaurs; not every such kid grows up to be a paleontologist (or a Don Glut). Almost all boys go through a period of loving comic books; not every such kind grows up to be a comic book artist or writer. I was a boy like that. I loved comic books and I loved movies; I especially loved horror and super-hero comics and SF and fantasy (and musical) movies. Over the years, this love directed me to become something of an authority on such films, and that, too, began early. I recall once in high school when I gave an oral report on Frankenstein movies. Without trying to, I'd memorized all the Frankenstein movies made since the Boris Karloff original (this being, of course, when there weren't all that many to memorize), and recited them to the class. After a moment, they burst into laughter; I assumed it was because of the title Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but now I realize it was because I had thought it important to commit this list to memory.
My passion for the films continued on through college; I spent hours in the library looking up reviews of genre movies of the past. I caught every one that played in Eugene, Oregon (where I went to college), but also saw a lot of the amazing foreign films that flooded the US in the late '50s and early '60s - the masterworks of Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, Kurosawa, etc. I continued to read Famous Monsters; I remember clearly the day when in a local convenience store, to my astonishment I ran across the latest issue of Castle of Frankenstein, a magazine I thought had gone out of business several issues before. My friends and family basically just shrugged all this off; they'd long since learned I wasn't going to stop loving this stuff. I longed to move to an urban area where I could find more like me - I did occasionally encounter other burgeoning comic book buffs in Eugene, though it was very rare. When I finally got to Los Angeles, presumed by me to be Ground Zero/Mecca for my type, I was amazed to learn that while there were science fiction fans, movie fans and comic book fans, there was not one other person who loved all three categories. (Eventually I did encounter, in print anyway, Bhob Stewart, probably the Godfather of our very small three-way fandom.) Basically, though, I really don't know why this category/these categories seized me so firmly, or why their grip has lasted my whole life through.
Galbraith: During the period covered in this book, you were a child and a teenager living in a small town in Oregon. Shortly after the period covered in the book, you moved to Los Angeles and started working for Forry Ackerman and traveled in like-minded circles - to some degree among people who shared your interests in science fiction and fantasy. Do you think your affection for these earlier films is related to the fact that you saw them at a time in your life when you were fairly isolated, with very few who shared your passion?
Warren: No, I don't think the isolation has much to do with my developing a devotion to this kind of thing. It might have had the effect of magnifying it a bit, but all this is a kind of solitary passion to begin with. Don Glut developed many of the same passions, and he lived in Chicago, one of the largest cities on the planet. I think Bhob Stewart was an urban boy, too - certainly Forry Ackerman was. I suspect had I grown up around other people who shared my interests, my sophistication (if that's the right word) might have increased somewhat, but not the passion itself.
I suspect one factor that increased the intensity of my fondness was that I lived in an era when films like these were becoming increasingly numerous. In the early 1950s, such movies came along occasionally but rarely, and were never on TV. By the end of the decade, in a period when I learned to drive, the movies became more numerous and double bills abounded. Yes, the movies were worse, but then you'd run across a double bill like Attack of the Crab Monsters and Not of This Earth, both of which are sharply intelligent and feature intriguing ideas, crab monsters or no. There was a sense of real discovery.
It did help that in my freshman year in high school, I happened to meet senior Richard North, who loved science fiction and who had a car. And who shared this sense of discovery. I remember once when he and I were eagerly going over a science fiction magazine - probably Forry's column in Imaginative Tales) and made the stunning, incandescent discovery that
Enemy from Space, about to open locally, was the undreamed-of sequel to the much loved (by us, anyway) The Creeping Unknown. I lived for those Eureka! moments.
Galbraith: You describe in detail some of your early movie-going experiences with childhood friends you lost contact with over the years. Did you ever reconnect with any of these people?
Warren: I did indeed lose contact with Richard North, after he and I both were married (coincidentally, both to women named Beverly); I haven't spoken to him, or exchanged mail, in decades. But I'm still in touch with Buzz Letts, my earliest-of-all friend - we became best friends when we were about six, and are still in frequent contact. Also, with Steve Hickman and Dick Plov, whom I met in high school, and with John T. Bowman, whom I met in college. (I'd still be friends with high school chum Ron Hale, but he died at a tragically young age.) I'm surprised you say that these are friends I "lost contact with over the years." Except for Richard, I never did lose contact with the pals I most frequently went to movies with, like Buzz (Charley) Letts.
Galbraith: These movies are now 50-60 years old yet even the worst ones are sought out by genre fans. Do you think people will have the same interest in science fiction movies of the '90s and beyond a half-century from now?
Warren: I don't think the periods can be compared. In the 1950s, SF movies were rare, inexpensive items; now they are so commonplace that they make up what seems at times to be half the output of Hollywood. Certainly more than half the output of very expensive movies; Avatar is the most expensive movie ever made, by quite a wide margin. Of course these movies will have their fans; science fiction and horror have always been genres that capture their adherents young and feed them throughout life. Since science fiction (now mostly a subset of action movies) is such a staple output, it will keep generating fans. But they will never have that "proud and lonely thing to be a fan" feeling that we of the 1950s had, and still have. (The phrase itself comes from SF fandom of the 1930s.) But they'll be more ordinary people, and they won't possess a treasure trove of disregarded delights, as we do.
Galbraith: Despite advances in home video technology, do you think some of these films still suffer being seen at home rather than in a big theater with a large audience?
Warren: I think all movies suffer from being seen at home rather than in a big theater with a large audience, but I suspect that the likes of, say, The Amazing Colossal Man, suffer less than other movies. There are some 1950s titles that, as individual movies, work a lot better if seen in a theater with a receptive audience, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Forbidden Planet, but except for, as I say, a conviction that each and every movie works better in a theater than when seen on TV, many of the 1950s movies do suffer less than, say, comedies of the same period.
Galbraith: Other than Philip Kaufman's sequel/remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and most of John Carpenter's
The Thing, I can't think of a remake of a '50s science fiction film that's as good or better than the original. Can you?
Warren: I wouldn't include The Thing, though it's well-produced, because it's so sloppy and clumsy regarding just what the alien is capable of. I agree that the 1978 Body Snatchers is as good as the original, but Cronenberg's The Fly is even better than the original. I also like Spielberg's
War of the Worlds, but not quite as much as I like Pal's version. Most of the other remakes - and I include a list in the new edition - are merely glitzier and more expensive than the originals, but not better.
Galbraith: If you were running a studio, is there a science fiction film you'd like to remake? Is there a great, unfilmed science fiction script? If you could film any heretofore unadapted novel or short story, what would it be?
Warren: Kronos. The idea of a giant alien robot smashing civilization has an epic appeal. For a producer friend, I once made a list of remakable 1950s titles. The list included The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Crab Monsters,
The Beast with a Million Eyes (remakes of these two would take only the basic ideas from the original), Quatermass 2/Enemy from Space,
The Incredible Shrinking Man, and
The Monolith Monsters.
Galbraith: Who were your primary influences as far as film criticism/film history prior to KWTS! And whom do you read nowadays?
Warren: Early on, it was Arthur Knight and Pauline Kael, the most brilliant and annoying movie reviewer ever, although James Agee qualifies there, too. I have to admit that Forry Ackerman's writing - pre-Famous Monsters-also greatly influenced me. I don't follow film criticism as I used to, but of today's writers, I'm especially impressed by Glenn Erickson [DVD Savant]. (Editor's note: Yes, DVD Savant is the ringleader of an incestuous club of genre writers, a genuine conspiracy. )
Galbraith: What are your five or six favorite non-science fiction/fantasy/horror films?
Warren: I know you don't intend it to be, but for me, that's a trick question. My list of Great Movies is not the same as my list of Favorite Movies. Sometimes I can dearly love a movie that I know isn't outstanding; I can regard a movie as outstanding without actually loving it. That being said, here's a list of movies that I do indeed consider to be great. Proviso: if you asked me next week, I might include other titles in place of some of these. In no particular order; Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Wild Bunch, 8 1/2, Citizen Kane, Singin' in the Rain, Ordet, Amarcord, All About Eve, Grand Illusion, North by Northwest, The Godfather, Part II.
If you allowed me to include genre titles, the list would also include 2001: A Space Odyssey (and it would be at the top), Bambi, Bride of Frankenstein, The Seventh Seal, and a few others.
Galbraith: Some argue that the demographics for classic films - including classic science fiction - are getting older, people in the forties and up. Do you anticipate interest in these films gradually declining?
Warren: This is a question I really can't answer. I suppose this has always been true, for all forms of artistic expression, and that it will continue to be true. I don't know what, if anything, can (or should) be done about it. It's just the way of the world.
Galbraith: How do you watch movies at home now? What equipment do you use?
Warren: We have a 50 inch flat-screen plasma TV screen--and nothing else to watch them on, except the computer monitor. I still have standard DVD, laserdisc, even Beta, Hi-Def and Blu-ray all enabled.
Galbraith: Is DVD dead? Are down-loadable movies the future of the industry? Can 3-D home video versions of Gog and Robot Monster be on the horizon?
Warren: I think Robot Monster is downloadable now, as it's in public domain. If by DVD, you mean just that format and not Blu-ray, then I think it may be dying, but it will be a slow death. Not sure what's coming over the horizon; for the last couple of weeks, there's been a lot of fuss over 3D TV, but all of the currently available formats require glasses, which will annoy customers, possibly enough for them to refuse to install a 3D system. I don't think a workable system that doesn't require glasses is anywhere near the horizon, much less coming over it.
Galbraith: What elusive title (from any period) are you most anxious to see?
Warren: That's an extremely hard question to answer. I think I have seen all the now-available 1950s titles, except The Final War; I think the French Noah's Ark is unavailable; I know The Weird Ones is. As for titles from other periods, it would take some effort to make a list; I don't maintain such a list in my soft drive (brain).
Galbraith: What hard-to-see films did you finally get to see for the new edition?
Warren: Well, they weren't necessarily hard to see when I did the original book, just hard to actually find. When I did volume I of the original pair of books, home video was just barely beginning to emerge. I had to see a lot of the films I wanted to watch (either again or the first time) on 16mm; fortunately, Joe Dante and Miller Drake (and Jon Davison) owned a lot of these on 16, and Miller was glad to show them to me at his apartment. For Volume II, home video began to take off; at first, I watched a lot of these on VHS over at Don Glut's house, then borrowed a lot from the late (and missed) Scot Holton.
This time, most of the movies are available on home video, even on DVD - whether legal or not. I was very fortunate to meet the also late - dammit - Tim Murphy, who had the largest collection of horror and SF films on video I've ever encountered. Furthermore, Tim was a big fan of the original KWTS!, and happily helped me with a lot of research, suggesting title after title that I might otherwise have overlooked. He also created a huge number of frame grabs for use as illustrations in the book.
I suppose the hardest-to-find movies that turned up were The Perfect Woman and April 1, 2000. The Diamond Wizard also turned up - in 3-D, at one of the 3D festivals held at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood. The Atomic Man was issued on DVD, It's Hot in Paradise turned up. There are several others.
Galbraith: In the 25 years since Volume 2's publication, have you dramatically reversed your opinion on anything? Have other writers swayed your opinion one way or another in the years since?
Warren: Not really. I found that my taste as a kid was pretty reliable, even if more enthusiastic than myself as an adult. I no longer think that It Came from Beneath the Sea and Creature with the Atom Brain are the two best movies ever made, though I still like both of them. And those I didn't like then, I still don't like.
Galbraith: Has the advent of DVD and Blu-ray, and the ability to see crystal-sharp transfers of movies in their original aspect ratios affected your opinion of movies that, in the past, you could only watch via blurry 16mm bootlegs (for example)?
Warren: I always had the ability to view the movies past such distractions. I don't think there were any surprises from being able to see movies with greater clarity.
Galbraith: When the book first came out, you were around 40, and now you are 66. Similar, when the first editions came out, the films were only 20-plus years old, and now they're like silent movies were back then. How has time and getting older impacted your opinions about these films?
Warren: I don't think it's had very much effect, beyond the basic idea that it occasionally seemed like a onerous duty to watch some of these yet again. However, the passage of time has, for some people, apparently improved some of these movies. That is, movies that we who grew up with them found simply terrible now have their adherents. That's a significant change since I wrote the book the first time around.
Galbraith: To say the least, I was surprised to see your note about Attack of the Puppet People's not-insignificant place in modern American history. (The lookout among the Watergate burglars, positioned across the street, got distracted watching Attack of the Puppet People, failing to notice the approaching security guard. Who'd have thought this dumb little movie could set into motion the downfall of an American President?) What was your most surprising nugget of information for the new edition?
Warren: That one, which I got from Tom Weaver, was one of the biggest surprises. But another relates to The Space Children. Michel Ray, the (British) boy who was the center of the story, later appeared as one of the two camp followers who idolize Lawrence of Arabia. And after that, Ray seemed to have vanished; in the original edition, I idly expressed curiosity as to what happened to him. In doing research for the new edition, I learned that he became an Olympic medalist in downhill skiing (for England) in two winter Olympics. And he married the heir to the Heineken brewery fortune; he's now the richest man in England, worth billions. Other surprises included learning more about Desmond Leslie (later Lord Desmond Leslie), who co-wrote Immediate Disaster, and discovering the title Jack Finney first wanted to give his novel Body Snatchers.
Galbraith: Is there a younger audience out there for these movies beyond acting as fodder for things like MST3K? Or will '50s sci-fi movies be like B-Westerns are to a slightly older generation?
Warren: There is definitely a younger audience for them, though I don't know how extensive it is, or if the movies are now appealing to an even younger generation. Those I'm speaking of were born well after the 1950s, in the '70s or '80s. This group adores these movies in a somewhat surprisingly uncritical way; just this week I was floored when on the Classic Horror Film Board, a younger fan described the gorilla-in-a-diving-helmet image of Ro-Man in Robot Monster as "awesome." And he meant it quite seriously.
Galbraith: How has the publication and success of the first editions of KWTS! changed Bill Warren?
Warren: In a way, I'm not the person to ask; ask those who've known me on both sides of the great divide. I myself think I'm basically the same guy.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.
Text © Copyright 2010 Stuart Galbraith IV
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson
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