Did you grow up in the 70s or 80s? If so, you probably remember the nebulously-defined but unforgettable ritual of the Saturday afternoon movie. While the term “Saturday afternoon movie” is not a specific genre of cinema, saying it is bound to evoke certain images in many people’s minds–like the image of a guy in a rubber monster suit trampling a miniature Tokyo, for example. I don’t know if Saturday afternoon kid cinema survived much beyond the 80s–it seems to be one of those things that the rise of cable networks and video stores in the 1990s was likely to have killed off–but if you watched TV, particularly UHF TV, in the 1970s or 1980s, you probably remember Saturday afternoons, whether literally or in spirit, with a mixture of fondness and embarrassment.
Between 1978 and 1982 my family lived in the Central Valley of California, and to this day I remember the TV station I watched a lot, which was Channel 44. Doing research for this article I discovered this station, still in existence, is KTVU out of Sacramento, which is now (sadly) a Fox affiliate. But at the time it was an independent UHF station, and afternoon and weekend programming was all about the kids. There were some great (and greatly awful) movies they showed, and perhaps you may remember seeing them under similar circumstances.
Forbidden Planet was probably the “best” Saturday afternoon-type movie, by “best” meaning, the one that most closely approaches general standards of quality in cinema and entertainment. A classic science fiction film, Forbidden Planet came out in 1956 and set the blueprint for space-oriented SF, both in the movies and television, for decades. A 7-year-old is not likely to appreciate that the film is based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it actually follows the basic concept surprisingly well: a group of travelers stranded on a desolate shore (the planet Altair IV in this case) are terrorized by an unseen force that brings out their insecurities and pits them against each other. Of course the highlights of the film, from Saturday afternoon standpoints, include the saucer-like spaceship, the dorky 1950s costumes, and the legendary Robby the Robot. In fact, when you’re 7, Robby the Robot is the whole reason to watch this movie. He was so successful he kept making cameo appearances in movies and TV for years, most notably on Lost in Space, which borrows heavily from the Forbidden Planet bag of tricks.
A Saturday afternoon film that I remember, but probably few others do, was called Where Time Began, and I remember thinking it was the bee’s knees. It repeated several times on Channel 44 and I watched it each time. I learned just recently that what I remember as Where Time Began is actually the English re-dub of a Spanish-made adaptation of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. As a film it’s far inferior to the 1959 version starring James Mason, but as a kid I’d never seen that one, and I was so entranced by Verne’s original story that I didn’t care about the wooden acting or terrible special effects. I thought it was a great story, and it is. With dinosaurs and skullduggery beneath the Earth’s surface, this is definitely in Saturday afternoon territory. I have not seen it as an adult but I did find the (above) YouTube video of the film’s opening, which shows you how cheesy it is.
The next film I recall was something of a mystery until recently. I remember watching and loving a very cheesy movie that involved a manned mission to Mars. I knew it was made in the 1950s or early 1960s, had weird electric-guitar music on the soundtrack and the scenes actually taking place on Mars were pretty ridiculous. I recall specifically something involving carnivorous plants. Not knowing what this film was called, for years it was a mystery to me, and then I discovered it was the 1959 magnum opus The Angry Red Planet, directed by veteran SF writer/director Ib Melchoir. The movie was pretty silly, having been made in 10 days with a budget of $200,000, and using an animation technique called “CineMagic” which was an utter failure from a standpoint of realism. But again, when you’re 7, a movie like this is epic. Incidentally, Ib Melchoir, one of the true stalwarts of SF’s golden age, is probably most famous for writing the short story The Racer, which was made into another famous Saturday afternoon-style movie, Death Race 2000 in 1975, and remade in the 2000s.
Of course the ultimate Saturday afternoon movie was Jason and the Argonauts. If you’ve seen this movie you know exactly why: swordfighting skeletons! One of the most famous and enduring special effects sequences in classic movies, the climactic battle between Jason (Todd Armstrong) and the skeletal undead warriors of a vengeful Greek god is the shining accomplishment of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. In fact this entire picture, made in 1963, was made to capitalize on Harryhausen’s talent, which had wowed audiences in 1958 with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad which included a similar sequence. The skeleton fight was so spectacular that it was worth sitting through the whole rest of the movie, which as I recall was a little dull, just to see it, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a shame that today such a sequence would be made on a computer with CGI effects. While it might look more “real” by modern standards of filmmaking, it simply doesn’t have the same charm as Harryhausen’s original effects. That’s a major reason why they’re not really making Saturday afternoon movies anymore.
Indeed, I think the whole era of Saturday afternoon movies, at least as I envision them here, is gone. Sure, people are still making bad, corny, cheesy science fiction films these days. But that was never the point. We now have so many multivaried entertainment choices at our fingertips that no one or even a handful of films is likely to have the same impact on the childhood of a generation as did the movies that, for better or worse, graced our childhoods in the 1970s and 1980s. YouTube, Hulu and Netflix are all vastly superior to Channel 44 in every measurable way. Yet something about those old days, and those Saturday afternoons, is a lot of fun to remember.