Public domain is truly a wonderful, wonderful thing, especially when combined with the Internet. It means that instead of shelling out for classics and oddities, you can pretty much just find and download anything that’s freely available without a middleman charging you twenty bucks. Everything’s available, from silent comedy from Chaplin and Keaton, to pretty much every movie MST3K has ever made fun of.
But here are five of the best…
Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead is a classic horror film that launched an entire genre and paved the way for the gorier, more socially conscious horror of the ’70s and ’80s. Well, gorier, at least. It was a terrifying movie and remains terrifying at the time, simply because the zombies aren’t nearly as horrible as the people they haven’t eaten yet. And now you can upload it to your iPod!
Download: Night of the Living Dead
She Done Him Wrong
She Done Him Wrong is the intersection between two unlikely film icons, Cary Grant and Mae West, and it’s proof great comedy is timeless. Even seventy years later, West is still as funny as hell, and Grant is still the slickest ladies’ man on film (sorry, Warren Beatty). The plot’s pretty much sheer lunacy: Mae West is Lady Lou, a singer that Gus Jordan fawns over. So much so that he runs an entire criminal empire to keep her in diamonds. Grant, meanwhile, is a federal agent pretending to be a missionary out to bust Gus.
But pretty much all of that is just an excuse for as many sex gags as you can cram into sixty-six minutes. We’re pretty sure it has more jokes about getting in somebody’s pants per second than any other film, partially thanks to this movie being made before the Hays Code really got into full swing.
Download: She Done Him Wrong
Detour is widely considered a movie that shouldn’t work, but does. Film noir was all about exploring the emotional underbelly of America, and this movie has a queasy, dream-like power all its own.
The plot’s pretty simple. Al is a hitchhiker who steals his ride’s money, car and clothes when the man dies. Unfortunately, Haskell had given a ride to Vera, and now Vera wants all the money, plus Haskell’s inheritance…and maybe she wants Al too.
That’s what makes it work: it has this deeply warped dynamic of love and hate that drives the film and makes it incredibly creepy and even weirdly touching. This movie shot for nothing hits such a nerve that it’s got universal critical acclaim, been remade twice, and has actually been preserved as a significant American film by the Library of Congress. Not bad for a week’s work.
The Last Man on Earth
Enjoy I Am Legend, but think it could have stood to be a bit less over-the-top and guilt-ridden? Or maybe you were just a fan of the book by Richard Matheson? You might enjoy The Last Man on Earth, a low-budget, but incredibly effective, adaptation from the mid ’60s.
Arguably, this is the best “serious” role of Vincent Price as Doctor Robert Morgan, who is hunting vampires and also happens to be going slowly insane from the isolation. Price manages to find both the drama and the comedy in the role, idly telling the vampires trying to pound down his door to shut up while he’s nursing a hangover.
It’s low budget, but incredibly effective, and worth seeing. Not to mention a chance to get one up on all your friends when I Am Legend comes up.
Download: The Last Man on Earth
Brother From Another Planet
John Sayles is better known now as a script-doctor and as one of the fathers of the indie film movement with Return of the Seacaucus Seven, but The Brother From Another Planet was and remains something of an unfairly obscure cult film.
An alien who pretty much resembles a black man except for his three-toed feet lands in New York City while escaping from his slave-masters, and discovers Earth is an exceptionally odd place. Not helping the matter is the fact that he can’t speak…but that doesn’t matter, because in the absence of him saying anything, people are just happy to assume he’s agreeing with whatever he’s saying.
There are moments of undeniable power, such as our hero being overwhelmed by the psychic echoes of Ellis Island, and moments of comedy that are best not ruined here. A rarity, but a lot of fun.
Download: The Brother From Another Planet
And If You’re Looking For Something Else:
Check out the Internet Archive for the ‘Net’s largest clearinghouse of public domain material.
Find any gems we missed? Post them in the comments!