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In April of 1959, the Saint Lawrence Seaway finally opened, having been commissioned jointly by the U.S. and Canada earlier in the decade. Its massive system of canals, dams, and locks, furnishing channels for oceangoing vessels into central North America, made international industrial and agricultural efforts far more effective and profitable.
While the construction of the waterway had been in the news throughout the ‘50s, its significance to filmmakers was certainly reflected in the expansionist, seafaring adventures of Mario Camerini’s ‘Ulysses’ (1954), Nathan Juran’s ‘The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’ (1958), and even Henry Levin’s ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ (1959), which featured a subterranean ocean traversed by a makeshift mushroom-stem raft.
Fantasy stories embraced the notion of unexplored bodies of water pouring out into vast, unknown expanses of equally undiscovered lands, particularly with the continuing productions of adventurous sailors, as seen in ‘Atlantis, the Lost Continent’ (1961), ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1963), and ‘Captain Sindbad’ (1963). It also helped that special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen had no shortage of ideas for tentacled monstrosities to emerge from the depths to thwart nautical endeavors.
One of the unanticipated side effects of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which would supplement the imaginations of fantasy filmmakers all the way through the ‘70s, was the inadvertent admittance of destructive, non-native aquatic species, including the quagga mussel. The quagga in particular was responsible for clogging up pipes at water and power facilities and interfering with established ecosystems – mirroring the concept of alien invasions and other such flights of fancy, popularly populating sci-fi and fantasy features throughout the ‘60s.
Tasked with fighting a stone golem, locating a golden apple from the tree of Hesperides, and braving Hades itself, the legendary Hercules (Reg Park, a multi-title Mr. Universe and mentor to Arnold Schwarzenegger) embarks on the quest of a lifetime. This bodes ill for the evil King Lyco (Christopher Lee, who undeservedly had his voice dubbed for the English-language release), who holds Hercules’ beloved princess in his treacherous clutches.
Oracles, witches, vampires, and zombies run amok in this swords-and-sorcery peplum epic, fused with psychedelia and eye-popping colors as it distorts historical components for the sake of neo-mythology grandiosity.
‘Hercules in the Haunted World,’ though competently directed by Bava, would drop into even greater obscurity than its companion piece “Hercules and the Conquest of Atlantis” from the same year, which would similarly undergo American edits and a retitling – to ‘Hercules and the Captive Women’ – so as not to undermine George Pal’s ‘Altantis, the Lost Continent,’ which was also debuting in the States at that time.
From fantasy master Nathan Juran, who had previously helmed the popular pictures ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’ (1958), ‘The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’ (1958), and ‘Flight of the Lost Balloon’ (1961), comes this oft-overlooked tale of accidental heroism and dastardly witchcraft. It may not have Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation at its disposal, but the clay creations are nevertheless entirely imposing.
In the kingdom of Cornwall, the Black Prince Pendragon (Torin Thatcher, looking exactly as he was in 1958’s ‘Sinbad’ as Sokurah the Magician) plots revenge for his banishment to the edge of the world. He gets his chance when a new princess takes the stage, fresh for a kidnapping by a satyr-like, horned giant, which can only be stopped by a lucky farmer named Jack.
But once he slays the beast, Jack is suddenly called upon to continue his dragon-slaying feats – to the great dismay of Pendragon, who commands an army of witches and a conjoined troll monster.
Based on a 1947 novel by Walter Karig, ‘Zotz!’ is an obvious allegory for contemporary nuclear weapons tensions, though the atomic bombings of Japan (which played heavily in the text) have been moved to a Cold War setting for the theatrical adaptation. It’s one of prolific producer William Castle’s least-known pictures, combining an unusual amount of humor and goofiness to eclipse the horror elements of spontaneous killing, torture, and the abuse of superpowers.
When a professor of Ancient Eastern languages translates the inscription on a magical amulet, he acquires the ability to inflict great physical pain upon any victim he chooses. He’s also capable of slowing down time (simply by saying the word ‘Zotz’). In short order, the U.S. government and Russian communists want to harness the charm’s powers, to quite transparently gain an advantage in military maneuvers.
Loosely adapted from the 1935 fantasy novel ‘The Circus of Dr. Lao’ by Charles Finney, this George Pal spellbinder features Tony Randall in multiple roles as the Abominable Snowman, Merlin the Magician, the blind fortune teller Apollonius of Tyana, Pan the God of Joy, a giant serpent, and the stone-casting, snake-haired Gorgon Medusa. The makeup effects by William Tuttle would garner an honorary Oscar (one of only two ever given out), while the model animation of the climactic Loch Ness Monster skirmish would also receive a notable Academy Award nomination.
The story proper (something of a traditional Western given an infusion of fantasy) follows the dusty town of Abalone, Arizona and its swindling by a wealthy rancher (Arthur O’Connell), who plots to exploit an increase in the land’s value by an upcoming railroad construction.
Meanwhile, orient wizard Dr. Lao sets up his traveling circus for a two-night event, during which he uses his mystical powers to reform and redeem the attitudes of foolish townsfolk – save for some violent henchmen who accidentally unleash a monstrous sea serpent that can only be subdued by a magically-conjured cloudburst.
Occasionally more horror than fantasy (though it’s far from nightmare-inducing), this miscellany of Japanese folk tales, based on Koizumi Yakumo’s various collections of supernatural myths (primarily sourced from ‘Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things’), is a renowned example of theatrical anthology arrangements – and the winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Although it contains four specific adaptations of occult folklore, the first ghost story, entitled ‘Black Hair,’ is one of the most creative examples of spiritual haunting ever committed to celluloid.
After an impoverished swordsman abandons his unaccomplished wife for a wealthier woman with the potential for loftier social gains, he realizes he’s ensnared in a loveless marriage with an unfeeling replacement. But when he returns to his first wife, promising never to leave her again, a newfound curse of cadaveric punishment might just be his only real destiny.
The fantasy genre almost always wanders into the realms of historical, biblical, horror, science-fiction (as in space operas), or quasi-medieval environments, giving it a particularly rich and sweeping range for cinematic inclusions.
Even without visualized magic, mythology, or escapism, this wondrous form of speculative fiction (a term popularized by controversial author Robert Heinlein) provides just as many tremendously famous masterpieces as it does a plethora of overlooked works worthy of closer examination or reevaluation.
Do you have a favorite of the era? If so, please don’t hesitate to mention it in the comment section below!