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‘Mary Poppins’’ debut in 1964 put an interesting spin on the fantasy genre leading into the latter half of the decade. Although it was predominantly a family film, its clear use of fantasy tropes – including magic, mayhem, and airborne revelers – was an astonishing achievement for universal appeal in cinema. It was welcomed with a whopping five Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Julie Andrews and Best Special Visual Effects for Peter Ellenshaw, Hamilton Luske, and Eustace Lycett. It was even nominated for Best Picture. Plus, it was reportedly the most profitable movie of the year.
‘Mary Poppins’’ legacy imparted an indelible mark on future productions, specifically with the touches of whimsy lent to such subsequent features as ‘Blackbeard’s Ghost’ (1968) and ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ (1968). Even as other genres began descending into darker territories, it was clear that fantasy didn’t need to follow suit – perhaps going so far as to pick up where airier musicals had begun to die off.
Another undeniably significant factor in the evolution of fantasy films was the introduction of the color television set into U.S. homes, right in the middle of the ‘60s. As movie theater revenues were waning and gimmicks like stereoscopic anaglyph 3D were being reinvented and re-publicized (the golden era of 3D came and went in the mid-50s), it was the accessibility of watching television (such as the very first prime-time soap opera, ‘Peyton Place’) that cut deepest into moviemaker profits.
This forced films to become bigger, wider, grander in scope, more colorful, and more outlandish, with the hopes that sheer spectacle outweighed the convenience of home viewing. It is, in fact, a concept that continues to be implemented in cinema to this day.
All my life I’ve dreamed of finding a city such as this. But now that I have, I’d like to see it destroyed and all it stands for…
Boasting the largest budget for a Hammer production at the time, with MGM’s backing at nearly triple the usual funding, ‘She’ was certainly an example of colossal ambition and big-screen grandiosity.
Additionally, it was the first time the studio built a picture around a female star, with Ursula Andress enjoying great success from her role in James Bond’s first official theatrical adventure, ‘Dr. No.’ Fortunately for all involved, ‘She’ was a hit in both Europe and North America, paving the way for subsequent Hellenistic fantasies (specifically ‘The Vengeance of She’ in 1968).
Guided by a mysterious map for an unexplored region of Africa, an archaeologist (Peter Cushing) and his young friend Leo (John Richardson) venture into the lost realm of Ayesha (Ursula Andress), an immortal priestess who has been oppressing the Amahagger tribesmen for centuries.
When Ayesha mistakes Leo for the reincarnation of her dead lover, the territory is consumed by a race for supernatural power, a fierce uprising, and a jealous fanatic (Christopher Lee) hellbent on attaining his own immortality.
Sporting a strong female lead character in a classic example of Hong Kong wuxia, ‘Come Drink with Me’ is often considered one of the best of the martial arts genre. It was even selected as the autonomous territory’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 1966 Academy Awards.
Mixing balletic fight choreography with ancient techniques and stylized scuffles, this fantasy actioner made a star of Cheng Pei-pei and was immediately followed by a sequel, ‘Golden Swallow.’
Foreseeing the appeal of Kung Fu fantasies like ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000) and ‘The Forbidden Kingdom’ (2008), ‘Come Drink with Me’ features a kidnapping, daring prisoner negotiations, a bandit gang, a martial arts master masquerading as a local drunk, a poisoned dart, and an evil abbot, all embroiled in a hostage scenario that weaves in and out of nonstop, fist-flying, Peking-opera-inspired, grand-scale brawls.
There, the door is locked and the window is secure. We’re safer than the First National Bank. There’s nothing more we can do tonight, so we might as well get some shut-eye…
The last of the beach party films from the notoriously low-budget, typically exploitative American International Pictures, this largely unseen genre of film doesn’t actually contain any beaches at all. Despite incorporating all the staples, such as skimpy swimwear, musical guests (including a young Nancy Sinatra and Claudia Martin, Dean Martin’s daughter), absurdly out-of-place singing/dancing, and tamely casual gang warfare, the only body of water is a swimming pool near the haunted house at the center of the onionskin plot.
A ghost, amusingly embodied by Boris Karloff, discovers that he must perform a significant good deed to get into Heaven. He enlists the help of his dead girlfriend and a gaggle of giggling teens to spoil the plotting of a conniving lawyer (Basil Rathbone), who employs such colorful and dopey characters as Sinistra, J. Sinister Hulk, Chicken Feather, Princess Yolanda, and the ‘Rat Pack’ motorcycle gang to swindle away a considerable estate.
Unfortunately, there’s no appearance by the most famous beach party duo, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.
We’re getting out. Now we can noisily, or we can go quietly. The choice is up to you…
A sci-fi/fantasy voyage of the damned, ‘The Lost Continent’ concerns an Atlantic Ocean trek with a boatload of illegal explosives through violent storms – where the destination is prehistoric, overrun with monstrous predators, and governed by a barbaric, ancient civilization. And all of the crewmen are mutinous.
Originally rated “X” in the U.K., this undeniably strange Hammer Film received a lax “G” rating in the States, despite a bevy of dislikeable protagonists, carnivorous seaweed, ravenous sharks, a killer hermit crab, a flare gun to the stomach, oodles of pointless imbibing, and quivering cleavage from Dana Gillespie (‘Mahler,’ ‘The People That Time Forgot’).
When the enemy is in disarray, that is the time to reconnoiter…
Melding the unharmonious styles of the scientifically-conscious Jules Verne (with notes of Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou’s classic illustrations), a failed Roger Corman amalgamation of two Captain Nemo episodes, the realism of Jacques Cousteau’s documentary-minded research, and lavish Victorian era set designs, this rare underwater adventure oddly manages to bridge the gap, thematically and visually (but not story-wise), between ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ (1954) and ‘Mysterious Island’ (1961).
Though it expectedly regards a group of shipwrecked survivors being saved and welcomed (and finally interned) into Captain Nemo’s (Robert Ryan) submersed, domed city, it’s fascinating to see the decline of Nemo’s hospitality, the sabotage by an imprisoned engineer, battles against a mutant Manta Ray, and a harrowing escape attempt in a secret submarine hidden away in a forbidden sanctuary.
Despite stale performances from a seemingly disinterested cast, the action is frequent and the plot – with its heroes willing to sacrifice an entire polity just for a temporary freedom from a beautifully Utopian society – is entirely unique.
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 of 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!