Tony Black on space horror…
The release this week of Life, the new science-fiction horror film from Daniel Espinosa, may herald for many a revelation if they’re unfamiliar with a sub-genre all of its own – the space horror movie. Espinosa’s film is entertaining, if workmanlike, and will be enjoyed primarily by people unfamiliar with the cavalcade of pictures it pilfers from across its running time, but can it really hold a candle to the movies it’s professing to update and sit alongside? That’s arguable.
What matters is the aforementioned sub-genre it now sits within, as it’s as rich and full as the wide variety of other sub-genres in horror or indeed science-fiction. Life, like many other movies we’ll mention here, owes its existence and a huge debt to what may not have been the first sci-fi horror movie, but is undoubtedly still the grandmaster. Alien.
Ridley Scott’s 1979 film was truly seminal, a ground breaking development in a genre which had for many years been shunned by the film community left exhausted by the pulpy 50’s and the silly 60’s. Following Star Wars in 1977, science-fiction was once again in vogue but while the same year Star Trek: The Motion Picture might bring the cerebral approach, Alien‘s mission statement was simple: it was going to scare the crap out of you.
Scott’s film, set around 200 years hence on the deep space cargo freighter Nostromo, pits a small crew led by Sigourney Weaver’s iconic heroine Ellen Ripley (in the end at least) against a terrifying alien creature, which would enter pop culture as the Xenomorph, and H.R. Giger’s designs would be the yardstick by which hundreds of movies would set their stall, not least of which Alien‘s myriad of sequels and prequels, most by different directors with a varied blend of styles. Aliens could well be the best film of the franchise but Alien is true haunted house in space horror. It gave modern cinema a new monster.
Before Alien, space monsters didn’t really exist in cinema, not in the same terms at least. Films such as It! The Terror from Beyond Space in 1958 was among that decade’s now legendary, schlocky B-movie science-fiction, pitting the rescue crew of a lost Martian astronaut against an alien creature, but can it truly be classed as horror at such an early stage? Similarly Kinji Fukasaku’s The Green Slime from 1968 or Bava’s Planet of the Vampires in 1965; they are rare early examples of science-fiction taking the terror into the stars, on space stations or on alien planets, beginning to define the sub-genre Alien would fully gestate.
That’s the key element to understand when considering space horror: the location. Scott understood this beautifully with Alien, tapping into the claustrophobia inside the Nostromo brilliantly as the creature stalked and picked off the crew one by one, essentially bringing the terror into their makeshift home. That’s what differentiates it from science-fiction alone or even action adventure, which may feature extra-terrestrials; space horror pitches creatures from other worlds as deadly, unknowable invaders who seek to destroy anything or anyone in their path.
They are the unearthly equivalent of the slasher or the serial murderer, the Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, but instead of hunting down witless kids their prey is often crews, professionals, people enormously out of their depth and facing a power they simply don’t or can’t understand (the two indeed blended for real with 2001’s Jason X). Science-fiction looks to explore humanity in the face of alien interlopers. Space horror is all about humanity under absolute threat of annihilation from them. It taps into our basest fears about what life on other planets may truly be like.
If Alien gave birth to the modern space horror, then besides its sequels, what followed? What came out of the box Ridley Scott opened? The better question is, what didn’t?
Almost immediately, scores of pictures were greenlit which played in a similar wheelhouse to Alien as the 1980’s kicked off, budgets began to grow, and the age of the high concept B-movie and blockbuster truly came to be. Roger Corman got in on the act once more with 1981’s Galaxy of Terror and the same year Inseminoid creeped everyone out with Judy Geeson being impregnated by an extra-terrestrial organism. 1985 saw Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce which in many respects can be seen as a forerunner to the mid-90’s picture which perhaps drew the most attention from the mainstream since the Alien franchise’s heyday.
Species, which saw Natasha Henstridge’s perfectly formed blonde alien in disguise seducing her way around Los Angeles, while a surprisingly A-list supporting cast (including a baffled Ben Kingsley) hunted her. Species and especially its sequels have nowhere near the depth and power of Alien or Aliens but they brought space horror back to the mainstream, with a heady blend of slick sex, nudity and gore-splattered violence. Where Alien went for subtlety with its violent sexual imagery, Species was like a gregarious lapdancing equivalent, spraying its alien seed all over the screen.
Despite being a hit, Species arguably remains a cult picture, as does one of the other defining space horror movies of the 90’s – Event Horizon. Apart from being easily Paul W.S. Anderson’s most accomplished movie, it puts together a genuinely eclectic cast of thespians and blends the same creeping, haunted house theatrics of the first Alien with a demonic sense of blood, dread and true supernatural horror; certain elements owe as much to Friedkin & The Exorcist as they do Ridley Scott, and while Event Horizon will always be a cult horror movie, it remains a painfully underrated piece of work and is almost as important to the space horror genre as Alien itself.
Other movies and franchises have gotten in on the act too – be they earthbound franchises moving into space, such as the aforementioned Friday the 13th take, or 1992’s Critters 4, 1996’s Hellraiser: Bloodline, 1997’s Leprechaun 4: In Space (must be something about a fourth film in the saga), or 2006’s Dracula 3000. All schlock, all deep dive horror sci-fi, but all working to keep the genre alive. What’s amusing is how it’s all ended up coming full circle in the end, after sojourns that have tried to be more low-key and gritty such as David Twohy’s Pitch Black, to the franchise where in many ways it all started. The Alien vs Predator film in 2004 (again underrated, again by Anderson) and its piss poor sequel Requiem in 2007, led into erstwhile franchise relauncher Predators in 2010 (not literally). It was all just build up for the main event, of course – 2012’s Prometheus.
Back came Ridley Scott into the Alien franchise with pretentious of adding to a mythology very few people were asking questions about, refusing to admit for an age that Prometheus was an Alien prequel (it so was) until eventually he copped to it following the movie’s lukewarm reception. As a fan of Prometheus, there’s a lot to defend and appreciate as a film with A-list, highbrow pretensions, even if it doesn’t come close to replicating the tense, creeping scares of Alien itself.
Scott has subsequently made the upcoming Alien: Covenant, which is either a prequel to Alien and sequel to Prometheus, or both, or neither – who knows? Whether it’ll be good or it’ll be Scott trying to recapture past glories, it’s hard to speculate. It could go either way. What it demonstrates is that space horror as a sub-genre is, nonetheless, alive and well, still being shepherded by the very franchise that gave it some propulsion and cache. The very same franchise Life so desperately wishes it was playing in.
Though Life is a fairly entertaining, functional space horror picture, nothing more, it’s existence is something to be cherished, especially its ability to attract A-list megastars such as Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds. Studios and stars clearly still believe in the space horror movie as a going concern, especially with Alien still on people’s mouths, and that’s no bad thing. For every divisive Prometheus, we may end up getting a universally loved Alien or a cult gem like Event Horizon. Life is neither of these things but if it proves nothing else, it proves there’s life in this old dog of a genre potentially for many years to come.