Sunday 8 January 2023

God Never Talks. But the Devil Keeps Advertising. — Hugo Cinema 1974

This blog post is the seventeenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

If you looked only at the Hugo shortlist for 1974, you might be excused for assuming that it was just a bad year for screen science fiction and fantasy. But there were, in fact, excellent movies and even television shows to be found. The Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation had missed the mark before, but never this substantially.

Rather than dwell on the uninspiring shortlist, the frankly abysmal winner, or the at-best controversial celebrity who created it, let’s start by talking about the works that deserved to be celebrated instead.
The Exorcist is an iconic and enduring movie, but
somehow was not honoured by the Hugo Awards.
(Image via Bloody Disgusting.)

For starters, the absence of The Exorcist on the 1974 Hugo ballot for best dramatic presentation is one of the most glaring omissions in the history of the award.

Reportedly, viewers fainted in the cinema and experienced nightmares for weeks after. To this day, it routinely tops lists of the greatest horror movies ever made. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, The Exorcist won two Oscars including Best Screenplay. It was the highest-grossing movie of the year.

And considering that Rosemary’s Baby had earned a Hugo nomination just five years previously, it was obviously clear to WSFS members that supernatural horror movies were eligible for the award.

But … it appears not to have been well liked by fandom at the time. Writing in the WSFA Journal, Richard Delap describes it as a “shallow, poorly-written jumble of religious assertions and flaky characters.” Writing his own review a few months later in Son of the WSFA Journal, Don Miller was dismissive of the movie, suggesting that despite the hype, it would be quickly forgotten.

But for those of us watching The Exorcist with 50 years of hindsight, the movie holds up remarkably well — and better than most of its contemporaries. We can see why this movie was instantly hailed by most in the mainstream press as a classic. It straddles the line between high-art and pulp entertainment, combining superb filmmaking with well-paced dialogue and narrative momentum. The Exorcist stands out among supernatural horror by playing with the boundary between what is known and what is unknowable. From the perspective of science fiction and fantasy fandom, a surprising amount of the movie involves characters attempting to solve the problem scientifically before they turn to a supernatural solution.

We would suggest that the early dismissiveness that many in fandom had towards The Exorcist shows some of the difficulties of providing quick assessments of the enduring value of art. Or maybe the film just made them uncomfortable.

Don't Look Now, directed by Nicholas Roeg,
is an unsettling movie that remains a classic of
supernatural horror. 
(Image via The New Yorker)
Another horror-fantasy that would have been a creditable Hugo finalist is Don’t Look Now, a subtle and carefully constructed British ghost story based on a novelette by The Birds author Daphne du Maurier. The movie follows a couple after the accidental death of their daughter, as they start to explore supernatural options to regain contact with her. Director Nicolas Roeg approaches the subject with a Kubrickian attention to detail, alluding to themes and portents with carefully constructed visual elements. Interestingly, writing in the fanzine Starling in early 1974, Jim Turner highlighted the quality of Don’t Look Now, and noted that the movie was Hugo-eligible.

George Romero’s The Crazies received some attention from contemporaneous fanzines, with Christopher Fowler writing in Vector that it might make a credible Hugo finalist. Using the premise of a biological weapon being accidentally unleashed in an American small town, The Crazies paints a picture of organizational dysfunction and of government incompetence. It is worth noting that this is one of the few movies of the era to cast a BIPOC actor in a role of authority, with Lloyd Hollar playing Colonel Peckham, one of the few competent government officials trying to keep the disease contained. In the decades since its release, it has become a cult classic, and has been interpreted by libertarians as a condemnation of big government, and interpreted by leftists as a takedown of right-wing military thinking. It’s a rich text that continues to inspire conversations, but was overlooked.

Imagine if The Matrix had
been made in Germany during
the 1970s by an art-house genius,
that's World On A Wire.
(Image via Criterion)
Though any foreign-language movie is always unlikely to make the Hugo ballot, World On A Wire (AKA Welt am Draht) needs to be highlighted as an option, as it is possibly the first depiction of virtual reality in screen science fiction. A German-television adaptation of Daniel F. Galoye’s book Simulacron-3, the show follows a scientist who takes over a computing project after the mysterious death of his boss. As it turns out, the project is a simulation of the real world used for market research, and within the simulation, there are thousands of artificial intelligences who think they are in the real world. Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, this might be the best-looking television production of the decade, stylish, moody, and thoughtful. Although slow at points, this philosophical masterpiece would have topped the Hugo ballot for at least one member of our viewing group.

French animated sci-fi fantasy Fantastic Planet (AKA La Planète sauvage) received some discussion in that year’s fanzines, and would have been a worthy contender for the Hugo. An epic parable about colonization and the rights of sentient beings, the movie depicts humanity being enslaved by giant aliens who keep us as pets. It’s an odd and beautiful movie at times, because of the animation, with the visuals serving to hammer home the horrific nature of being treated as less than human. Similarly, The Belladonna of Sadness, a Japanese animated movie about a woman who makes a pact with the devil to enact revenge against men who assaulted her, uses innovative artwork to underscore the inhumanity of the villains. These have both stood the test of time far better than anything that actually made the ballot.

We might also highlight Alejandro Jodorowski’s sophomore effort The Holy Mountain, which was released in 1973, and would have been eligible for the Hugo. The surreal and poetically weird movie presents a parable about searching for meaning, and about the sins of humanity. The protagonist — who is either a thief or Jesus — must team up with human avatars of the planets of the solar system to journey to the top of a mountain in order to replace the magicians who live at the summit. It’s at turns self-indulgent and thoughtful, philosophical and crass, entertaining and ponderous, and is one of the high points of 1970s cinema overall.

Playful, beautiful, kaleidoscopic, The Holy
 plays with the sacred and the profane.
One of the high points of 1970s cinema.
(Image via
So given all these excellent options in terms of science fiction and fantasy on screen, what did make the ballot? Soylent Green, Sleeper, Westworld, Genesis II, and The Six Million Dollar Man.

Of these, only Soylent Green would have ranked slightly above ‘No Award’ for us. Though it has lines that are often quoted today, this adaptation of Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room, Make Room did not age as well as many other movies. There are some scenes that work; in particular the suicide machine, and the depiction of fresh fruit as something extraordinary. But more often than not, this movie fails. The sexism is pervasive, and stands out even among the contemporaneous movies we have watched. Live-in prostitutes are referred to as ‘furniture,’ and almost every female character is treated as little more than a sex object. Although the premise of a society that treats women as ‘furniture’ could have been a satire of real-world sexism, director Richard Fleischer seems unable to bring a critical lens to the behaviour. Even contemporaneous (and cis-male) critics found the sexism of Soylent Green objectionable — In the WSFA Journal, Richard Delap noted the uncritical and misogynist depiction of prostitution in a scathing review and concluded “It’s easy to complain about a film that aborts the fine material on which it was based; but Soylent Green is much worse than that.” 

Given that the movie Westworld — written and directed by Michael Chrichton — would go on to spawn a sequel and two television series, it clearly connected with audiences. With a great premise — an amusement park filled with robots that descends into chaos — this could have been a first-rate film. But it quickly devolves into a monster movie as robot Yul Brenner tries to kill the two protagonists. It’s light on dialogue, light on character, and mostly pretty wooden in direction. Some contemporaneous fans agreed; “The good moments are much too infrequent, and the remainder much too trite. Any SF fan is bound to be saddened to see such workable potential by bad editing to throw-away trivia.” Richard Delap wrote in the WSFS Journal. The narrative premise would be better implemented forty years later in an HBO adaptation, which deserved a Hugo nod far more than the original.
The Belladonna of Sadness is a weird, problematic
movie with some incredible artwork and themes.
Those planning to watch it should probably read
this essay from The Anime Feminist, which 
highlights both the movie's strengths and 
flaws. (Image via Anime Feminist).

Genesis II, one in a long line of Gene Roddenberry failed pilot episodes, is a jumbled mess of a show about Dylan Hunt, a scientist from the present who is frozen in time and wakes up in 2133. Finding himself in a post-apocalyptic world, Hunt joins up with pacifist scientists and fights against evil mutants. Laden with excessive narration, weak characters, and ethnic stereotypes, there’s little to recommend Genesis II. One can only suspect that leftover goodwill from Star Trek earned Roddenberry this Hugo nomination.

Conversely, The Six Million Dollar Man pilot episode did get picked up to series, going on to last five seasons, a spin-off series, and several TV movies. The character of Steve Austin, introduced in this Hugo-finalist TV movie, would grace screens for more than two decades and produce several excellent outings (The Seven Million Dollar Man and Death Probe come to mind.) But the pilot episode is clunky at best; there’s little narrative arc for the first two thirds of the episode, and the terrorism plot seems tacked on. The nominated episode is simply not Hugo worthy.

Woody Allen’s listless, puerile, Hugo-winning comedy Sleeper is self-indulgent to the point of onanism. Allen stars as Miles Monroe, a jazz clarinetist who is cryogenically frozen and wakes up 200 years later in a Brave New World-style dystopia. (To be clear, this is not an Orwellian dictatorship, but rather one that controls people through hedonism.) After various pratfalls and masturbation jokes, Miller is then caught up in a revolution to overthrow the oppressive society. It’s a fairly banal science fiction story whose plot is often twisted out of shape just to force one more joke about self-pleasure into the script. The movie still has fans today, but to us, most of the slapstick jokes fell relatively flat — though your mileage may vary. In retrospect, and in light of Allen’s later conduct, we feel deeply uncomfortable with him being honoured with a Hugo.

It is a shame — but not surprising — that in a year that offered cinema with such strong themes of rejection of authority, female empowerment and social activism, the Hugos went with some of the whitest, most regressive picks available. All-too-often, nerd culture has reproduced the exclusionary aspects of mainstream culture, and such was the case with the 1974 Hugos.

Having now watched almost two decades worth of Hugo-eligible movies and television, it’s clear that the Best Dramatic Presentation category has a poor track record of selecting works that would enjoy enduring value. But even by those standards, the 1974 shortlist is a low point. It is particularly galling considering the quality of cinematic and televised SFF that was available to viewers in the preceding year. The Exorcist should have won, and for it to be denied even a nomination must have been a bad look for the award itself, even in 1974.


  1. In my nit-picking way, I note that "Don't Look Now" is not a novel but a novelette or novella (some 50 pages in book publication.) ("The Birds" is also a novelette, for what it's worth.)

    As to SLEEPER, I saw it back then (I was just old enough to go to movies by myself) and I recall laughing at it, though I've never conisidered it one of Allen's best movies. And, really, nobody knew anything about Allen's behavior back then (and the worst incident was years away) -- I don't think even muted criticism of fandom for giving the movie an award on that basis is remotely fair.

    My brother was working at a movie theater back then and he claimed that he saw THE EXORCIST so many times that he began to regard it as a comedy. Anyway -- in retrospect, absolutely, your alternate list of nominees seems a huge improvement. I haven't seen WORLD ON A WIRE, but given the director, the interesting source material, and my enjoyment of the other major movie made from that source material (THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR,) I am inclined to believe it could be excellent.

    1. I don't think that Hugo voters from 1974 are at fault for celebrating someone who turned out to be a terrible person. But at the same time, it's a shame that they did.

      Personally? I think there should be a mechanism for rescinding a Hugo in certain extreme cases.

      Thanks for the catch on Don't Look Now. I'll edit the post to make that correction.