Not many movies can claim to be a beloved landmark in our pop-culture consciousness as well as a personal favorite of such iconoclasts as Salman Rushdie and David Lynch. Such is the paradoxical nature of The Wizard of Oz, which is both a masterpiece of lavish, big-budget entertainment and a nightmarish journey into the uncanny—a shining example of how movies make our deepest childhood dreams and terrors come true. I remember first seeing The Wizard of Oz at five or six years old and being unable to sleep for days because of the Wicked Witch and her Flying Monkeys; even now, when the green-hued witch appears in a red fireball to destroy the peace of Munchkinland, or when her devilish monkeys flit across the ground and abscond with Dorothy into the sky, I shudder at such a primal image of innocence besieged by monstrous evil.
If The Night of the Hunter (1955) is the most savagely beautiful fairy tale in the history of movies, Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face is a close second. The contradictory tone of Franju’s film—it’s chilly and tragic, lurid and graceful—is essential to its ethereal horror, a lingering unease as solemn as it is terrifying. Like many of the best horror movies, it holds the awful corruptibility of man in one hand and an empathetic pity in the other, taking advantage of the horror genre’s potential to show human beings at their best and worst extremes.
The Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès are often credited with laying the foundation for two divergent paths in film history: a documentary-like inclination towards realism in the former, and an emphasis on fantasy and spectacle in the latter. It is indeed hard to overstate the importance of both traditions in the ensuing century-plus of movies, but there’s a third and maybe equally significant influence that emerged from early French cinema. The crime serials that started populating storefront cinemas in France in the 1910s—by which point the powerhouse production companies (like Gaumont and Éclair) had already been established and urban audiences had begun flocking to movies as the modern era’s pop-culture medium of choice—walked a fine line between mainstream entertainment and subversive surrealism. French artists like Louis Aragon and Andre Breton praised such serials for inscribing the headlong velocity of the twentieth century onscreen.