After finishing up my first book, James Bond and Popular Culture: Essays on the Influence of the Fictional Superspy (2014, McFarland & Company), I spent some months trying to decide the next subject I wanted to explore in an anthology format. I mulled over several ideas, but finally narrowed my scope to two themes and then proposed one, the space horror genre in films. While the theme came quickly, writing the proposal took some time because I needed to revisit some of the seminal films such as Alien (1979) and Event Horizon (1997) as well as several newer films that I hadn’t seen, for example Sunshine (2007) and Pandorum (2009). Since the beginning of the year I have watched approximately 20 – 25 films, which is a drop in the bucket for the number of space horror films made, but they revealed a number of commonalities between them regarding setting, aliens, and tropes of the genre, which I will discuss in Part II. Below, I begin by talking about the beginnings of the genre as well as provide my data set.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SPACE HORROR
According to an IMDB search of the Sci-Fi horror list, some of the earliest identifiable space horror films that could be identified as a trend in films offered to audience-goers were in the 1950s. Movies like The Thing From Another World (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Blob (1958), and believe it or not, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) introduced fears of invasion and hostile aliens and were allegories of the real threat of nuclear bombs, Communism, and the rising Cold War threat that pervaded society, such as the Civil Defense Films that used Bert the Turtle to teach Americans to duck and cover in case a nuclear bomb was dropped.
The seeds of the genre were planted decades earlier, around the turn of the 20th century, in literature. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne stories of alien invasion inspired the roots of the spy/espionage genre, but it also inspired horror from space. When the concept of moving pictures gained traction within the public psyche and filmmakers were looking for subjects to explore in their films, two films stand out. The first, A Trip to the Moon (1902), by Georges Melies is the story of a group of men that visit the moon via a rocket ship and Melies’ slight of camera lens. Audiences that saw the film were astounded and amazed because the stories up to that point had centered on portraying real life events. Melies’ film sparked imitators. However, it was Ashley Miller’s A Trip to Mars (1910) in which a scientist discovers a powder that causes reversed gravity. The scientist floats to Mars and explores the red planet, which is inhabited by a strange and frightening alien race that look an awfully lot like evil clowns.
After a brief cinematic foray into space exploration and the potential horrors glimpsed in 1910, it appears that the filmmakers moved onto other topics of interest, but that is unverifiable because the majority of early films have been lost or have decayed beyond restoration. To examine how the genre developed and evolved would require referencing back into the literary output. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color of Outer Space (1927) followed later by writers Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury with stories like The Martian Chronicles (1950) for example added breath and depth to the genre.
As the 1950s began, so too did the interest in science and space, in a post-World War environment that had been rocked by the development and use of atomic warfare. The Cold War was warming up and the spirit of competition in all arenas became of importance to the USSR and US. It should come as no surprise that cinema, established as a influencing media conduit to society, perpetuated the tension and fears of the decade as mentioned at the beginning of this section. The decade provided space horror in the guise of alien invasions, either out in the open as in War of the Worlds or more covert and sinister, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Blog. While small town America was being inundated with little green men, interest in what life was like on other planets were being conceptualized, such as Altair IV in Forbidden Planet (1956) and Metaluna in This Island Earth (1955), but were minimal in comparison to the multitude of invasions that ravaged Earth.
The 1950s were the heyday of the invasion films, but interest waned in the 1960s for spies and cowboys and to the crime/vengeance and slasher films of the 1970s. However, the space in ‘space horror’ would be resoundingly added into the term with Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, which follows the story of the Nostromo crew as they explore the mysterious abandoned ship on LV-426 and encounter a new and hostile alien species. The idea of being in space, far from home with limited precious resources (eg. oxygen) struck fear into the crew and the audience. Scott’s film was one of the first movies to successfully combine science fiction and horror in an interstellar setting and spawned several inferior imitations in the 1980s.
As the Alien franchise continued to churn out sequels further exploring Ripley’s relationship with the Xenomorphs, by the mid 1990s, formerly successful earth-bound franchises were turning to space in an effort to revitalize their films, such as Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) and Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997). It was with Event Horizon (1997), which embodied a complex story of religious symbolism and paranormal within the familiar slasher and haunted house tropes that rejuvenated the genre and further defined it.
In the 21st century, space horror films are still finding an audience, but not necessarily the financial backing of mainstream dramas, superheroes and romantic comedies. That said, in the last few years, there have been some fascinating films that has continued to explore and jeopardize our existence: Sunshine in 2007, Moon and Pandorum in 2009, and Europa Report in 2013.
There are outliers, as in any genre. One is the psychological space horror that began with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Andre Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), which was recently remade in 2002. Another group are the alien abduction films – Communion (1989), Fire In the Sky (1993) – and the concept of the “uncanny valley” were explored between Ripley and Bishop in the Alien franchise and with David in Prometheus (2012). There are others and those will be discussed further in the section on space horror tropes.
DATA SAMPLE SET
As mentioned earlier, I watched and revisited some of the space horror genre films I have in my collection already or was able to stream on Netflix in alphabetical order. I included their year of release and director details:
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)
Dead Space: Downfall (2008, Chuck Patton)
Doom (2005, Andrzej Bartkowiak)
Dracula 3000 (2004, Darrell Roodt)
Europa Report (2013, Sebastian Cordero)
Event Horizon (1997, Paul W.S. Anderson)
Extraterrestrial (2014, Colin Minihan)
Ghosts of Mars (2001, John Carpenter)
Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996, Kevin Yagher & Joe Chappelle)
Lily C.A.T. (1987, Hisayuki Toriumi)
Pandorum (2009, Christian Alvart)
Pitch Black (2000, David Twohy)
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959, Ed Wood)
Planet of the Vampires (1965, Mario Bava)
Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott)
Slither (2006, James Gunn)
Snow Devils (1967, Antonio Margheriti)
Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkovsky)
Stranded (2013, Roger Christian)
Sunshine (2007, Danny Boyle)
The Blob (1958, Irvin Yeahworth)
The Last Days on Mars (2013, Ruairi Robinson)
The Monolith Monsters (1957, John Sherwood)
This Island Earth (1955, Joseph M. Newman & Jack Arnold)
And here is a short list of additional films that I have watched, although not recently:
Beware! The Blob (1972, Larry Hagman)
Communion (1989 Philippe Mora)
Fire in the Sky (1993 Robert Lieberman)
Forbidden Planet (1956, Fred M. Wilcox)
Invaders from Mars (1953, Cameron Menzies)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman)
Night of the Creeps (1986, Fred Dekker)
Species (1995, Roger Donaldson)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise)
The Quatermass Experiment (1953, Val Guest)
The Thing (1982, John Carpenter)
They Live (1988, John Carpenter)
War of the Worlds (1953, Bryon Haskin)
Check back next week for the second part of this introduction where I will discuss space horror settings, aliens and tropes.
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|Poster art from Francesco Francavilla|