Movies are nothing without their
environments. A location can dictate a film’s context, its characters’ values,
and the movie’s tone. As a geographer, I’m trained to see the world in terms of
place. I ask questions such as, how do people come together and interact in
this space? What power dynamics are in play in this location? These questions
are applicable in film analysis too, where setting functions within a genre.
Horror movies rely on location as one of the genre’s conventions; a specific
setting informs audiences of what’s going to occur, based on the setting’s
atmosphere and past trends in film.
A cabin in the woods transforms
into a bloody battleground in Friday the
13th and The Evil Dead.
An unsuspecting city morphs into a monster’s stomping grounds in Godzilla and Cloverfield. And then there’s one of the most recognizable horror
settings: a house in suburbia. Psychotic killers haunt the home space in Halloween and Black Christmas, along with pretty much every other mainstream
Some of the most well known
slashers come from the mind of director Wes Craven. The majority of his movies
take place in cities or suburbs. A
Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream
both insert dangerous serial killers into suburbia, while his first work, The Last House on the Left, is a gory
look at a suburban family’s revenge on their daughter’s murderer. This makes The Hills Have Eyes an anomaly in
Craven’s filmography. The brutal 1977 cannibal film unfolds in the desert of
Nevada, a far cry from the paved roads of his former films.
Unlike Craven’s other films, the
audience doesn’t get the warm comfort of a home at the start of Hills. At the beginning, the director
treats viewers to a wide panning shot of the titular hills. Don Peake’s opening
score fills the vast desert with foreboding piano notes and coyote howls. When
we finally get a sign of civilization, it’s not a picture-perfect house but a
beaten-up gas station, surrounded by dust and debris.
When the Carter family, the film’s
foolish protagonists, first roll up to the gas station, Fred the gas station
attendant warns them it’s safer to stay on the road. Patriarch Bob Carter wants
to leave the beaten path in order to find a silver mine.) While Fred is trying
to protect them from the cannibals—the eyes in The Hills Have Eyes—the Carters’ first real obstacle is the desert
itself. During an ill-fated attempt to find the mine, the family veers off the
side of the road and crashes its vehicle. The Carters are lost in an unfamiliar
environment with little food and water. The desert is dry, desolate, and
foreign to the Cleveland natives.
If the Carters feel unsafe in the
dry Nevada scenery, their enemies feel right at home. Unlike a home-invasion
horror story, in which the killer enters the protagonist’s domain, The Hills Have Eyes leads the
protagonists into the domain of the killers. The film’s cannibals have learned
how to live in the desert with few supplies—albeit while eating other
people—and can navigate the hills without a map. In Hills, the villains don’t just have murderous intent; they have
In the Carters’ first interaction
with the cannibals, brother Bobby tries to climb up a rocky hill in search of
his missing dog. One of the cannibal brothers has lured the dog out and
brutally beaten it. As Bobby attempts to climb the hill, his enemy scales it
with ease and vanishes with nothing more than a bloody handprint. Throughout
the sequence, the brother has used his familiarity with the desert to hide from
Bobby. Setting isn’t just the backdrop here; it shows viewers just how
vulnerable these people are.
Hills Have Eyes is made whole by its setting. Although Tobe Hooper, a
contemporary of Craven, told a similar story is told in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the desert plays a heavier role in The Hills Have Eyes. The dry, barren
hills drain the audience’s hope for the heroes’ survival. They also take away
the comfort that the audience could get from a city or a suburban setting—or
even that of a small town with more than a gas station.
The Hills Have Eyes reminds the audience that sometimes they don’t get to be comfortable. Anyone could be part of the family whose car gets stuck on the side of a deserted road. Anyone could land in an unfamiliar setting, with no resources for miles. You might not run into a family of ravenous cannibals, but you’re only as safe as where you’re standing.
The Hills Have Eyes screens from Friday, October 25 to Sunday, October 27 at the Trylon Cinema as part of a cannibalistic double feature with Ravenous. Get tickets and learn more here.
In a memorable Brain Damage scene, a junkyard security guard, quietly and unseen,
observes a nice young man in ecstasy, so transported by the mind-blowing,
euphoria-inducing spectacle of a dirty pile of smashed-up cars that he can’t
help but proclaim his rapture to the stars.
The look on that guard’s face––a kind of
delighted, hypnotized stupor––is very similar to the look I had on my face the
first time I saw this movie.
Essentially a horror-comedy about addiction, Brain Damage follows Brian––a perfect
prototype of a late-80s-white-guy-creature-feature-protagonist––as he navigates
the complexities of his troubled relationship with Elmer––an ancient, slug-like
parasite who lives in the bathtub and eats brains. Even though Elmer is a
manipulative, disgusting, veiny monster whose single aim is to murder people by
eating their brains, he has a couple qualities that make him hard for Brian to
quit: he’s very charismatic, has a great singing voice, and has the
devil-may-care attitude and friendly demeanor of your favorite uncle the game
show host. And perhaps more significantly, he is the sole source of a highly
addictive drug that induces such a perfect combination of body high and
transcendent mind-state that Brian would rather sign on as the long-term
partner of a gruesome serial murderer than get clean.
But it’s a struggle for him, and lead actor
Rick Hearst really commits. Brain Damage was
his first job out of drama school, his first opportunity to use his classical
training to inhabit the reality of this guy Brian, who, from the moment we meet
him, is under the thrall of a phallic turd monster. We don’t get to learn much
about Brian, really––we know he lives with his brother, has a girlfriend named
Barbara, has his own room, and might be into punk (there’s a brief shot of a
Siouxsie and the Banshees poster in his apartment). Does he have a job? Is he a
student? No one knows.
But the integrity with which Hearst immerses
himself in Brian’s grimy, vomit-soaked, hallucinogenic reality gives the
character more depth than any amount of expositional detail could. Throughout
the film, Brian is caught in a psychological standoff between his conviction
that murder is wrong and his desperate need to get high. This is perhaps most
evident in the scene that shows Brian’s withdrawal from Elmer juice: we see him
writhing on the floor, sweating blood in his own filth as he watches himself
pull his own decaying brains out of his ear. It is intense, grisly stuff, not
brought on by the usual horror movie culprits of haunting or demonic
possession, but by plain old everyday addiction. Brain Damage,this
bizarro 80s cult film, is on to something true and disturbing about humans’ overwhelming
desire for pleasure, and it may make you squirm in your seat.
So it’s all the more jarring that Elmer
himself is so goofy. Not because the effects are sloppy–– quite the contrary,
the makeup and practical effects are fantastic––but because his entire
character design is just silly. From the moment he appears, peeking out from
behind Brian’s head with a friendly “Hi!,” Elmer is exactly the opposite of what
you expect. With cartoonish eyes, an innocent grin, and a refined voice thick
with wisdom and life experience, Elmer sings a jaunty song from his perch in
the sink as Brian plunges deeper and deeper into his own personal hell. Elmer
is so charming that he’s almost cute, which is extraordinary, since the film’s
talented effects team were clearly emphasizing the similarities between Elmer
and a poo-stained, penis-bodied leech.
Make no mistake, though, this leech is a
hunter. By promising Brian hits of “his juice,” Elmer compels him to wander
through the dangerous streets and back alleys of New York City during the
drug-fueled crime wave of the late 1980s. This reality saturates the film,
especially given the fact that most of the movie was shot in a studio built by the
filmmaking team in a particularly rough NYC neighborhood. High as a kite and
feeling no pain, Brian wanders through landscapes pulsating with synth beats
and a maze of decaying infrastructure and forgotten corners washed over in neon
light, ferrying Elmer to his next victim, whose brain he devours in
increasingly creative ways. Writer/director
Frank Henenlotter didn’t have quite enough material for a full 90-minute
feature, so to go the distance, he stretches out each shot, each scene,
ever-so-slightly to fill the time––a technique that becomes more and more
disconcerting the stranger and more demented Elmer’s attacks become. Once you see
the scene in the alley behind Club Hell, I’m confident you’ll know exactly what
Strip away the layers of strangeness and the
psychedelic punk-rock aesthetic that make Brain
Damage so bombastic, and you’ll find an anxious downward-spiral-addiction-parable
at its core that is riveting. However, Brain
Damage‘s spirit is emphatically fun, almost joyful. I left the theater
after my first late-night screening bubbling over with things to say,
enthusiastically gushing, surprised, energized, inspired.
Not unlike Brian freaking out in the junkyard,
Damage movie family members include:
… and it is playing at the Trylon from Friday, October 11 to Sunday, October 13. Tickets are available at trylon.org. Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy this psychedelic splatterfest in a theater with friends!
After a director like Neil Marshall releases a
critically beleaguered and problematic film like 2019’s Hellboy, he becomes a kind of pop culture punchline for a time. Of
course, this is often a consequence in the game of putting yourself out there,
but the wealth of negative attention can sometimes tend toward zealotry when
the subject matter is known and beloved. All this is to say that I think it’s
nice that The Trylon is giving us the opportunity to appreciate Marshall’s
early work this October.
Soldiers, which began script development in 1996 and
is the product of an obvious labor of love for Neil Marshall and company, is
loads of slippery, slobbery, and explodey fun. Without spoiling the plot, which
has its share of spoilable moments, I’ll say it’s a very Scottish film about
Scottish soldiers running a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands who end
up on the wrong side of a governmental snafu and a pack of lycanthropic Scottish
nasties. What initially feels like a straightforward action flick, with
soldiers swapping gritty stories while gratuitously tossing guns to each other
and performatively cocking them, gradually morphs into a claustrophobic
creature feature with excellent practical effects and surprisingly huge
With no U.S. theatrical release, genre fans
began to discover this werewolf gem on video store shelves in 2002. I fondly
recall my first watch, which came highly recommended from a fellow video store
employee who had scooped it off the new release wall. It was an informal
practice of ours to work our way through the direct-to-video B-stuff that came
in while we combed the catalogue for classics like The Last Wave and Roar.
Wading through cine-sewage from the early aughts was perilous at times, but
connecting with authentic independent filmmaking in a project like Dog Soldiers always made it worth the
What struck me initially about Dog Soldiers was its sense of fun. It
manages that rare and heroic indie horror feat of pulling you in without cheap
gore, nudity, or schlock, without ever taking itself too seriously. It’s clear
the cast and crew are having fun with light improv and self-aware gags, and
Marshall’s canted vision of a soldier movie that also happens to feature
12-foot-tall werewolves remains focused on killer close-quarters action. They
also really blow the hell out of some set pieces. I watched this DVD with a
good number of friends back in 2002 and was pleased to find it held up nicely
to multiple viewings.
Clever, economical storytelling and a dark
sense of humor set Dog Soldiers apart
from the action horror pack, and some brilliant casting choices of journeyman
actors like Sean Pertwee (Event Horizon),
Kevin McKidd (Trainspotting) and Liam
Cunningham (Game of Thrones) see to
its solid delivery. This isn’t a horror flick with a couple of cheap laugh
lines, it’s actually quite funny straight through the end credits. Pair this
with characters who don’t pee their pants and forget their training when the
baddies show up at the side door and you don’t only have a monster movie,
you’ve got an all-out war with the unknown. Plus, you’ve really got to
appreciate the way Sarge rallies after being thoroughly disemboweled in the
A cursory glance at Marshall’s resume reveals
his well-developed penchant for the “small cadre of elite something-or-others
find themselves in a crazy bind” subgenre of action horror. Doomsday, Centurion, and The Descent
(screening as a double-feature with Dog
Soldiers) are all meditations on this concept, but it started here, and
it’s never been better. Marshall’s commitment to the bit included opting to
shoot in Luxembourg on 16mm so that he could stretch his 2 million dollar
budget to cover the costs of excellent practical effects. One can imagine this
was something of a controversial decision, and has indeed followed this film
across the sea of time on message boards and reissue reviews. Sure, it’s a bit
grainy in its brighter moments, but you don’t let that bother you when you
watch 28 Days Later, so just relax
and pretend it was shot on early digital and I promise it will all be
Soldiers is in the same movie family as:
Cabin in the Woods
The Final Terror
… and is screening at the Trylon Microcinema on Friday, October 4, 5, and 6 with Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Tickets available at trylon.org.
From the moment I first walked into the Trylon nearly 10 years ago, I was enamored with it. It screamed a love of movies more than anything else. At the time I was working for a corporate movie theater chain, and the Trylon was refreshing in every way. Ticket prices were low and there was no upsell on concessions. But the real reason I loved the Trylon from the get-go was that it was about movies. There was no bar or restaurant. There were no shot glasses with the Trylon logo on them. The volunteers, projectionists, and patrons were all talking about movies! The Trylon was everything I was hoping to find.
I began going to the Trylon every chance I got. Because I was working in a movie theater and had to work during some of the best stuff, I missed so much during those first few years. The only film of the 1970s Jack Nicholson series that I caught was THE LAST DETAIL, which blew my mind. I completely missed the race car series, Color Me Gone—VANISHING POINT on 35mm included. I regret to this day that I didn’t quit my job to make time for that one.
When I started volunteering, it was mostly so that I had a reason to be there as often as possible. With a shift to cover, I could make twice as many screenings, most of which were Trylon Premieres, expertly programmed by Kathie Smith. Though the new movies weren’t really my passion, I knew that whatever I saw would be excellent. And, indeed, I caught some unforgettable films. One that has really struck me and comes to me sometimes in my dreams was LEVIATHAN from 2012. It was a little seen “documentary” that put you in the bowels of a commercial fishing ship, punished by the waves and bludgeoned in the cleaning room. It was a bloody, wet, sensory overload. I could never have seen it without sitting in that little room with a few other fortunate souls—all of us stunned by the experience.
After being hired as film programmer, there have been so many unforgettable, indelible moments I have had a hard time choosing which ones to point out. Fragments of moments stand out—a silent crowd at a sold out show of TOKYO STORY, the crashing of wood as we took down the old screen surrounded by dedicated volunteers, the sound of the projectors changing over, my 3 year old boys running in the dirt pit that would become the bottom half of the auditorium, secret moments of devastation shared with Barry during construction, the excitement of reopening… the list goes on.
In celebration of the last ten years, it seems appropriate to share a few in detail.
In September of 2012, I had a rare Friday off and my wife was out of town. It was warm and I was busy with something or other and was not paying attention to the time. I looked up and saw that it was 6:40pm, just barely enough time to make it to the 7pm show of LIFE OF OHARU (1952)—a film I’d been looking forward to seeing for a long time. I remember that I felt I didn’t have enough time to put on socks, so I went without—which I find repugnant and do not recommend. Coming in from the heat, the cold temperature of the auditorium was refreshing, reminding me I had no socks on. It was a tiny crowd and I sat in Terry’s blue seat and leaned against the pole. The lights went down and I was very excited. Hoping to see a small masterpiece and treasuring the experience by myself, I was wrapped up in the moment. Though the pacing was plodding, the 35mm print was gorgeous and I was enthralled. I left the auditorium moved and struck, stepping into the now cool evening and thought of the film the whole way home, not even minding the sockless shoes.
A different but memorable movie-going experience was the first film in the short-lived All-Star Video series—a product of a small group of friends programming a series that took place late-nights after Trash Film Debauchery. We went with only shot-on-video oddities from the video store era—films that never had a proper release (including home video in some cases) but found themselves on the shelves and seared into people’s minds anyhow. The first film in this series was SLEDGEHAMMER (1983). We were determined to make it a special night with playbills, essays and the like. The show was sold out and I’ve never laughed so hard before. My chest hurt at the end of the show. I was weirdly proud of introducing all those people to that little movie, it was as if I had shown them all HALLOWEEN for the first time.
One particular film experience that continues to stand out in my mind is a screening of THE HIRED HAND from April of 2018. This is a film that I care deeply about and was within a series of films I had put together on Warren Oates. I was incredibly proud of the series and had high hopes. Unfortunately, admissions-wise, it turned out to be one of the bigger flops. Minneapolis was on the verge of the biggest April snowfall in years. It was “snowmageddon” coming for us. I was determined to see that print that I had been so excited about. When I arrived it was a small crowd. I found a friend who was there and had never seen the film. We sat in silence, the anticipation of the film and the snowstorm looming created a unique kind of excitement. The print came on-screen and it was lovely, with beautiful color and in great condition. That Bruce Langhorne music washed over us and I was transported. As the film ended on a melancholy note, I wandered out into the falling April snow and was in the perfect place.
Though there are too many other memories to share—seeing HUSBANDS, STRAIGHT TIME, 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, SECRETS AND LIES and HARAKIRI on 35mm—and those torturous, and amazing, Horrorthon nights…
It’s worth pointing out that these past ten years have been possible because of the many lovely people who have put their blood and sweat into this place. Barry Kryshka, our Executive Director, worked for free for 9 years and is the bedrock of the organization. Nikki Weispfenning, our lead projectionist and theater manager, is as professional and thoughtful as people come. You’ve seen so much of her work on screen and can attest to it as well. Nicole Pamelia is our incredible designer, who has spent countless hours laying out our programs, working on our website and organizing poster designers. Mark Sherman and Kathie Smith, both amazing projectionists in their own right, have volunteered their time every other Saturday night to project films for the last 10 years. Beyond that, our box office volunteers have been so incredible.
This is a personal thank you to all of you. You have made this place so special and it means so much to me.
I’ll leave it at this: I can’t wait to share the next ten years of memories with you. See you at the movies.
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon and Michael Popham
Around 1994, at age fifteen, I discovered a CD called Monster Rock ’n’ Roll Show, which compiled horror- and sci-fi-themed novelty songs––“Monster Mash” and the like. Mostly from the fifties and early sixties, the songs were joined by brief radio trailers for films of the same era (The Haunted Strangler, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein). To a ‘90s teenager like me, this was the time of “Oldies But Goodies,” an affirmative era of American culture that was square enough to make WEIRD an electrified buzzword on comic book covers and other pulp artifacts. Terrifyingly quirky encounters between humans, vampires, purple people eaters and more are the life-blood of Monster Rock ’n’ Roll Show, whose overarching sentiment is perhaps best expressed by Buchanan & Goodman’s cutup record “Frankenstein of ’59.” After a tumultuous showdown with the entire U.S. Army, Count Dracula, and Tom Dooley, Frankenstein (the creature, of course, not his creator) crashes American Bandstand. All is well, Goodman assures us: “It seems all the monster wanted to do was dance with the teenagers.”
However, The collection included a few
tracks that were outliers both from the era and the sentiment, still fun but
decidedly more unhinged. Among these was the theme song to the 1968
Japanese-American coproduction The Green Slime, written by composer
Charles Fox and sung by Ricky Lancelotti. Fifties sci-fi films may wear their
atomic anxieties on their sleeves, but Lancelotti’s delivery––imitating a soul
singer transforming in mid-verse to psychotic street corner evangelist––is
convincingly adamant that the End is Nigh, and its cause is GREEN SLIME.
What can it be,
what is the REA-son?
Is this the end to
all that WE’VE done?
Is it just
something in your… head?
WILL YOU BELIEVE IT
WHEN YOU’RE DEAD?!?!
Fox and Lancelotti pay lip service to collective
humanist ambitions only to reveal their culmination in Green Slime. Chilling
theremin, groovy drum fills, and fuzz guitar join the singer to move the atomic
sci-fi apocalypse needle into the 1968 red.
I must confess that, for years, I thought
the singer of “The Green Slime” was a black man. Perhaps I was supposed to
think this. Regardless, I imagined that the vocal was a day job for someone
working by night for the Panthers. That whole humanist project was white
supremacy all along, and the voice expressed delight in its demise, having
formed a silent pact with Green Slime. As it was, Ricky Lancelotti was a New
Jersey Italian American, and I have no idea what his politics were, if any. A
cartoon voice artist (he did work for Hanna Barbera’s The Banana Splits)
and occasional Frank Zappa collaborator, he experienced at least two notable
car accidents: driving a Porsche off a cliff that was caught by a tree (a sort
of calmer, more beneficent Green Slime), and, less miraculously, the one that
caused his death at 35. If his voice is not a call for action against the
ongoing racial disparity and social inequality in the United States, it
nonetheless expresses a kind of conviction, a force of chaotic life.
Slightly more plausibly, one can see The
Green Slime as muted revenge for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its North American
cast is the object of numerous bloody burns and electrocutions by the titular
menace (strong stuff for one of the first G-rated movies––several YouTube
commenters report childhood nightmares). James O’Neill’s Terror on Tape claims,
apparently incorrectly, that the Japanese title translates as Death and the
Green Slime. This would have made sense, as the best parts in the film are
when people die. After all, the people in this movie, which not only lacks
nonwhites but is tragically deficient in teenagers to dance with, are awful;
the film’s actual dancing scene, in which smug mission Commander Jack Rankin
(Robert Horton) manhandles Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi), is among the film’s
most repellent. Dr. Hans Halverson (Ted Gunther), who discovers information
crucial to containing and defeating the Green Slime––that is, that they consume
energy anywhere they can find it so that they can multiply and spread
themselves evermore––meets his demise because he wants to study rather than
destroy the creatures. All of this makes the humanist project look totally not
Q.E.D., GREEN SLIME! We know who to root for. Yet this is hard to do, because
the creatures resist our anthropomorphizing tendencies. However silly looking,
they also don’t look quite like anything––a child’s papier-mâché
project; big ruby eyes in bloody lip lids; a mass of teeth seemingly frozen in
a grin; tentacles waving up and down with a loopy, let-it-all-hang-out
lassitude. The creatures make noises somewhere between a miserable infant’s
cries and a delighted porcupine eating a pumpkin. The Man in the sixties might
have thought he saw hippies: dazed freeloaders, wasting resources and
contributing nothing to society but wanton destruction and debasement. But
really, these creatures are pretty sui generis. No one refers to them as slime
in the movie, only to “creatures”; meanwhile, the U.S. poster declares that they,
the green slime, are coming. From one––or, let’s say, from “some slime”––many.
What answer does the Eagle on the U.S. Seal have to that?
In narrative terms, The Green Slime sadly restores the status quo. Yet it begins and ends with its title song, which describes a different outcome. We’ll believe it, when we’re dead.
Edited by Michelle Baroody
The Green Slime screens at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, August 25 to Tuesday, August 27. For tickets and more information, see the Trylon’s website.
During his thirty-five-year career, screenwriter (and sometimes
director) Dan O’Bannon (1943-2009) had fewer than a dozen screenplays produced.
But a quick check of his IMDb page shows more than thirty writing credits to his name, mostly due to
one script: Alien (1979). Director Ridley Scott and creature designer
H.R. Giger get the bulk of the credit for the Alien franchise’s success, but O’Bannon’s screenplay remains the basis
for every Alien film, video game,
comic book, or toy. He is the connective tissue that binds more than forty
years of genre cinema, from the 1979 film to the upcoming thirdAlien prequel.
O’Bannon launched into filmmaking alongside iconoclastic director
John Carpenter, with 1974’s Dark Star.
Dark Star started as a 45-minute
student film, budgeted at $65,000 (about $312,000 in 2019). In addition to
writing Dark Star, O’Bannon also
designed the special effects, edited the film, and appeared in front of the
camera as Sergeant Pinback. In addition to directing, Carpenter scored and
co-wrote the project. When shopping for distribution, the novice filmmakers faced
an obstacle: the movie was too long for a festival short and too short to
release as a feature. Instead of shelving the project, the duo decided to
increase its runtime, adding a subplot about an alien creature pursuing
After brainstorming how to depict the alien without putting someone
in a rubber suit, O’Bannon and Carpenter landed on the idea of painting a beach
ball red and affixing a pair of rubber reptilian feet to it. O’Bannon loved the
design because it fit with the mundane absurdity of the film’s plot. Carpenter
embraced it because it discouraged viewers from psychoanalyzing the creature. The
id-based alien does what it does because that’s what it was made to do.
This approach to Dark Star’s
alien also put it in line with the film’s themes. The crewmembers of the scout
ship Dark Star have traveled the galaxy destroying planets for twenty years. They
carry out their mission because, at this point, it’s all they know. Then
there’s Bomb 20, a thermostellar device that realizes it only exists to explode.
On screen, these elements could easily have come across as disconnected, even arbitrary.
Instead, they come together to create a [wry, sometimes hilarious] film about accepting
one’s purpose in life.
In O’Bannon’s next film, he fully developed the concept of an
id-driven being. Writing about Dark Star,
This movie is a comedy. I wanted to be sure and clarify that right up front, because when the film was first released to the paying public they didn’t seem to realize it was supposed to be funny.… My second film—Alien—was basically Dark Star made scary. I figured, “If I can’t make them laugh, maybe I can make them scream.”
There would not be Alien (or its numerous imitators) were it not for Dan O’Bannon. But first, his bizarre sense of humor resulted in Dark Star and its unknowable, unstoppable, laughable “monster”: a beach ball with claws.
 Jason Zinoman, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror (New York: Penguin Books, 2012) 58.
Edited by Greg Hunter
Dark Star screens as part of Trash Film Debauchery on Wednesday, August 21. Get tickets and learn more on the Trylon’s website.
Let the following description unspool in your mind’s eye: A spacecraft from Earth is boarded by an unknown alien. Before you know it, the alien begins attacking and killing off the crew members one by one. The surviving crew does its best to fight the creature but discovers that the alien is seemingly super powered and near indestructible. As the crew dwindles in number, the situation becomes more desperate. When all seems lost, the remaining crew members devise a plan to send the alien into the vacuum of space.
While the above summary could describe any number of films, two in particular have been selected as a part of the Trylon’s August screening schedule: the B-grade It! The Terror from Beyond Space (Edward L. Cahn, 1958) and Ridley Scott’s classic Alien (1979). The films differ beyond measure in terms of acting, production design, story, and suspense, but both are great reference points for the “alien on the ship” subgenre of science fiction movies. Even though they’re separated by about 20 years their respective adherence to genre conventions is timeless and worth exploration.
late film historian Robert
Osbourne aptly summed up It!
when introducing it for Turner Classic Movies: “It’s what fans of sci-fi of the
50s loved best about the genre. It has low-budget sets and effects, wild
predictions of what our future will look like, and a menace that only a
drive-in crowd could truly love.” But that lack of quality can be overlooked
when examining how It! turns those
budgetary disadvantages into powerful interpretations about our world. The
first thing to note is that the main set is redressed to represent different
levels of the ship. This can be explained away from a budgetary standpoint, but
from a thematic angle the recycled set indicates that changes to our
environment, however slight, do not eradicate the threats of the present. Colonel
Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is accused of murdering his colleagues on the
first mission to Mars and he returns to Earth for a court-martial. He denies
the allegations, but without proof he doesn’t stand a chance. When “It” sneaks
onto the ship, it’s as if the creature stands in for Carruthers’s terrible
ordeal on Mars, one that follows him back home. He can’t escape the death and
horror found on Mars, even as he and the crew move from one level of the ship to
the next, and even as they race closer to Earth. In the film, Mars seems to
represent the future, but like the film’s sets, this future only changes in
appearance rather than content or purpose. As the final line of the film
states, “Another name for Mars is Death,” which suggests that death cannot be
escaped, even on a distant planet. The theme of death is emphasized by the
film’s use of light and shadow. Cinematographer Kenneth Peach—who
would later lens 25 episodes of The Outer
Limits (1963-1965)—employs a pseudo-noir lighting scheme, especially
whenever Carruthers talks about Mars. When this technique is paired with the
shadowed shots of “It” lurking through the ship, the connection between Mars
and death becomes clear to the viewer.
Thirty years later, Alien’s similar use of cinematic techniques—especially lighting
and cinematography––brought this subgenre to a pinnacle of
suspense through scares, designs, and effects. With a background in
commercials, director Ridley Scott came to the film knowing how to manipulate and
persuade an audience. He brings this skill to Alien in the scene when
Kane is attacked by the facehugger. In almost complete silence, alternating
between medium close-ups of Kane and shots from Kane’s point-of-view, the
suspense builds to unbearable levels. This pattern of shots situates Kane as a
point of identification for the viewer––we watch and experience the tension
mounting in the character onscreen. Then, through a series of five
point-of-view shots occurring in less than a second and an otherworldly squeal,
the facehugger launches from the egg and latches on to Kane’s/our face. This
shock is followed by a quiet and empty wide shot of the forsaken planet, giving
us a moment to both grasp what has happened and realize how alone the Nostromo
Throughout the film, Scott keeps the camera around eye level and employs point-of-view shots, which makes the viewer feel like an eighth (or ninth, depending upon one’s thoughts about Jonesy the cat) member of the crew. This technique becomes more powerful as the crew splits up to find the chest-burster. The camera floats down the dark, dank corridors, and with it, so do we. Like the crew, we know to expect anything after everything that’s happened to Kane, and the first time one watches Alien, there’s no way anyone could expect the creature that the crew finally encounters.
Alien’s use of light is similar to It! in that the shadows and low-key lighting also seem to represent death, or the possibility of it. The planet the Nostromo lands on, LV-426, is lifeless and unforgiving. Despite Mother, the computer, stating that the sun is rising, a light-blocking wind storm whips across the landscape. The relic in the antechamber is large, grey, and foreboding, and the xenomorph is sleek and black. Moreover, at the end of the film, when Ripley blasts the alien from the ship, it disappears into the endless darkness of space. In contrast to the overwhelming darkness in the film, the lighting in the final moments of the Alien––a blast of bright, blinding white light as Ripley activates the shuttle’s thrusters and leaves the intruder behind––highlights the connection between light and life, because her will to live wins over the seemingly unstoppable force of death, personified by the xenomorph.
at the two films together, we see the cinematic growth of the genre from the
low-grade, no-budget quickies that rolled out at drive-ins to the big-budget
special effects films made by visionary directors. Like all genres, the
beginnings are humbler than the matured form; but like all things in life, we
should never forget those that came before. While no one expected It! to be a box-office success or even a
genre classic, it reminds us that films are historical products, inspired by
the world from which they’re created.
Doherty, Thomas. “Genre, Gender, and Aliens
Trilogy.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film,
edited by Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 181-199.
Catch It! The Terror from Beyond Space from Friday, August 16 to Sunday, August 18 at the Trylon Cinema. Tickets and more information available here. Make it a space-horror double feature and stay forEvent Horizon.
Year 2047: A haunted recording travels through space. The sound of
women and men screaming. A demonic voice familiar to the Satanic-Panic parents
who feared their teenagers’ vinyl LPs played in reverse. The distress signal
belongs to the Event Horizon. Seven-years-lost and long thought
destroyed, this serpentine Notre Dame of deep space research vessels—at the
core of which churns a gravity drive designed to bend spacetime for the
purposes of intergalactic and inter-dimensional travel—has suddenly reappeared
in orbit around Neptune. Onscreen text during the film’s opening catches us up
to speed: In 2015, humans established the first permanent colony on the Moon,
while commercial mining began on Mars in 2032. We don’t know the conditions of
Earth, but clearly a galactic rehearsal of imperialist history is underway (in
a U.S./U.K. co-produced film released one month after the United Kingdom ceded
the territory of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, effectively
marking the end of the British Empire, no less). Enter the U.S.S. Lewis
& Clark. A rescue crew filters the haunted distress signal and isolates
a single voice speaking in Latin: “Liberate me [Save me].” Onboard, the Event
Horizon’s video log shows its original crew in the throes of an orgiastic
slaughter. Traveling through an artificial wormhole at superluminal speed, the ship inexplicably left the known physical
universe; it brought something back. Shortly after a rescue crew member
realizes the voice on the recording actually says, “Libera tutemet, ex infernis [Save
yourself, from Hell],” we find him hanging in body suspension fashion, skin
threaded and stretched to the ceiling, vivisected with the sentient spacecraft—diabolus
Artists have long conjured the
netherworld through infernal noise. The name for Milton’s capital city of Hell
in Paradise Lost, Pandæmonium, still denotes noisy chaos and disorder in
casual language. Additionally, beginning in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, sound recordings themselves became inextricably associated
with death when phonograph companies began to market their new technologies as a way to hear “the voices of the dead.” Further still,
as Sound Studies scholar Jonathan Sterne writes in his book The Audible Past, because these technologies, capable of transubstantiating
disembodied voices, developed concurrently with new embalming techniques for
the preservation of human corpses, “sound reproduction itself became a
distinctive way of relating to, understanding, and experiencing death, history,
and culture.” And sound haunts all those on board the Event Horizon. Its
emits a grotesque electric hum, arouses violent auditory hallucinations, and
preserves the voices of its dismembered crew. To borrow a phrase from Sterne,
the ship becomes a “resonant
tomb.” Roger Ebert
perhaps described the film’s sound design best as “those barely audible,
squeaky, chattering, voice-like noises that we remember from 2001: A Space
Odyssey, which give you the creepy feeling that little aliens are talking
about you.” Only, Event Horizon exchanges extraterrestrials for a
perils-of-technology story set inside a haunted house. This medieval space
vessel is The Overlook Hotel downloaded to HAL 9000. Paramount Pictures even
promoted Event Horizon as The Shining in space (with metal
orthodontic cheek retractors).
II. Techno-gothic Soundscapes
Premium Nineties schlock, Event
Horizon lacked both the subcultural capital of low-budget genre fare and
the prestige of industry-advancing spectacles like the decade’s sci-fi titans Jurassic
Park, Apollo 13, or The Matrix. However, Event Horizon’s
postmodern circuitry does yield intertextual communication with all three of
these films. At the start of the decade, Sam Neill showed us the dystopian
limits of high-finance scientism inside Jurassic Park, but aboard the Event
Horizon, his eyeless Dr. Weir (the ship’s creator) becomes the literal embodiment
of government-funded Promethean hubris. By the end of the decade, Laurence
Fishburne’s Captain Miller goes on to command the Nebuchadnezzar as Morpheus. And back in 1995, we watched Kathleen Quinlan as Marilyn
Lovell, wife of Jim Lovell, suffer a vivid and foreboding nightmare about her
husband being ripped from the Apollo 13 spacecraft. On the Event
Horizon, rather than a premonition, her character’s nightmares are
idiosyncratic visions of regret. Because, as with all good ghost stories,
contrition becomes an implement of psychological torture that ultimately
manifests itself in corporeal quietus, and the Event Horizon wields human guilt with surgical precision.
When Dr. Weir hears the voice of his
dead wife, we wonder if she’s on the spacecraft or merely in his head. Each
time a crew member experiences an auditory hallucination, we’re left wondering
if the violence that follows is actually happening. But by the time a merciless
banging sound sends Quinlan’s character running down a corridor,
to an enclosed space with the others, just before the noise catches up to her
and bends the room’s metal door in half, the distinction between real and
imagined, or even hearing and seeing, ceases to exist. “Have you heard it?” one
crew member asks the others, “It shows you things.” And his odd conflation of
visual and aural stimuli quite succinctly diagnoses the psychotechnical effects
of sound in horror cinema.
As a young child, I remember walking
into my father’s living room one night and seeing a deranged axe-wielding Jack
Torrence lumbering around on TV. My father encouraged me to look at him instead
of the screen, but the sound continued. When I asked what the movie flickering
in the darkened room behind me was about, his answer couldn’t have been more
perfect: “It’s about a dad who has ghosts in his head.” That’s one hell of a
thought to put in the mind of a five-year-old.
Soundtrack-wise, Event Horizon’s musical pairing of film composer Michael Kamen and British electronica duo Orbital—think Max Steiner run through an E-mu sampler with an 808—falls well short of The Shining’s Wendy Carlos and Penderecki (et al.). Still, the film’s mashup of S&M kink and high-voltage spiritualism conjures a slate of dread-inducing artists—from 12th-century nun Herrad of Landsberg, to Dante, Bosch, and Coleridge, all the way through H. R. Giger, Clive Barker, and Floria Sigismondi—such that Event Horizon became somewhat of a techno-gothic prototype, its style showing up in a number of subsequent Nineties movies—e.g., Stigmata (with a Billy Corgan-produced soundtrack) or End of Days (containing the first song released by a newly Chinese Democratized Guns ’n’ Roses)—where archaic languages, industrial guitar riffs, Carl Orff-infused synthesizers, rosary beads, and drum machines swirl around in a Hot Topic-noir aesthetic. Then, in 2007, Danny Boyle’s more refined scion, Sunshine, even again paired a film composer (John Murphy) with a British electronica duo (Underworld) for its soundtrack. All the while, Event Horizon’s closing song—“Funky Shit” by The Prodigy—has remained a testament to a late-Nineties regime of globally popular electronic dance music, for better or worse. And just this week, Variety reported that Amazon and Paramount are developing an Event Horizon series for TV. This relatively forgotten cult film casts a long shadow indeed.
III. Murmur of Earth
In 1997, popular music in the U.K. seemed particularly interested in space travel and the potential perils of modern technology. Among others, Ladies & Gentlemen We’re Floating in Space by Spiritualized electrified the soundscapes of Brian Eno’s Apollo album, David Bowie’s Earthling (produced with Eno) incorporated drum and bass techniques into his galactic oeuvre, and Radiohead’s paradigmatic rock album Ok Computer brought us “Paranoid Android,” in all its twitchy angst and anxiety, and the waltz-swaying “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” which finds Thom Yorke awash in decussated strands of reverb-drenched guitars and keyboard tines, singing about aliens “making home movies for the folks back home” as he dreams of joining the extraterrestrials aboard their ship only to return to Earth, further alienated, unable to communicate “the stars and the meaning of life” to anyone he knows. But by 1997, music from every hemisphere on the planet was already traveling over twenty-one billion kilometers from Earth.
In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which today continues
to transmit data from the outer edges of our solar system. Attached to
this existentially doomed assemblage of dying technology is the so-called Golden Record. The
most famous recordings inscribed on the V1’s
gold-plated copper disk are probably Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s
“The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C” and “Johnny B.
Goode” by Chuck Berry, but the record also includes Delta blues music, Javanese
gamelan, Zairean singing, Japanese shakuhachi tunes, raga music from India,
Navajo chanting, traditional wedding songs from a number of cultures, Azerbaijan
bagpipes recorded by Radio Moscow, and of course a large selection of Viennese
classical music, as well as a set of field recordings taken from diverse
soundscapes dubbed “Sounds of Earth.” Illustrations engraved on the disk’s
cover serve as instructions for how to play the recordings, so that, should
distant intelligent lifeforms ever intercept the spacecraft, sonic contact may
It’s an admittedly fantastical but no
less romantic idea. “We cast this message into the cosmos,” said then-president
of the U.S. Jimmy Carter, in a short message also recorded
for the V1 capsule. “This is a present from a
small distinct world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our
music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so
we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to
join a community of galactic civilizations.” Seven years ago this month, V1 crossed the threshold of interstellar space,
becoming the first ever human-made object to exit the heliosphere. It now
wanders the Milky Way traveling over one hundred kilometers-per-second,
Revisiting Event Horizon in 2019, a year when geologists in Iceland (this month, in fact) will memorialize “dead ice” with a message to future generations concerning the ravages of global climate change; Elon Musk has already launched SpaceX, in collaboration with NASA, vowing to establish the first city on Mars by 2050; and a new uncaring U.S. president boasts how he could annihilate ten million people in Afghanistan “literally in ten days” and slurs promises of a new techno-imperialist Space Force for exospheric military ops, humanity seems to be daring the Voyager 1 to become, in Jonathan Sterne’s words again, a “resonant tomb”—another sound recording adrift in space threatening to become haunted. As Event Horizon’s Dr. Weir puts it, “Hell is only a word. Reality is much, much worse.”
Horror History: Why It! The Terror From Beyond Space isn’t just an inspiration for Alien
The horror genre is a lens with which we refract our
realities. It’s an escape from our terrifying real world, just as much as it’s
a chance to investigate what scares us and why. Today, it’s easy to spot the
social issue that inspires movies like Get
Out (racial conflict in the United States), It Follows (teenage sexual health), or even The Green Inferno (American exploitation of indigenous peoples).
Filmmakers brazenly zero in on political issues, perhaps more overtly than they
have in the past. Franchises like The
Purge create universes where the political climate is so fraught that the
only solution is to legalize crime and, effectively, oppress the lower classes.
The last decade of mainstream horror is loud about the politicization of the
genre. It creates a worst-case scenario and asks audiences to address an issue
before it becomes a worldwide problem.
We forget, though, that
horror has always been a political tool. Psycho
came out near the end of the Red Scare, when Americans weren’t sure if they could
trust their next-door neighbors. Ultra-violent exploitation movies like Cannibal Holocaust were reactions to the
anti-war movements in the early 1970s, showcasing a similar brutality to what
was exhibited in the Vietnam War. And, during the advent of new technology
systems, the late 1990s and early 2000s brought with it a slate of Japanese
horror films like Ringu that made
innovation a source of fear.
What makes the 1950s horror showcase unique is the
combination of scientific discovery and worldwide conflict. The Cold War
wrestled up fears of the unknown in American communities, as international
tensions grew between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet
Union. Years of capturing territories and reclaiming nations bred fear and
hostility, often in favor of an ideology that the American people didn’t fully
grasp. It was a period of competition and confusion that was packaged together
in the US-USSR space race.
As film fans, we can see when the fight to be the first on
the moon started in America. Even before the launch of Sputnik 1, the horror
films of the 1950s were asking the audience to consider what really lay beyond outer space. In 1951, The Thing from Another World brought an
alien to an Arctic research outpost, where the creature slowly murdered every
living thing it came across (and yes, this film served as inspiration for John
Carpenter’s The Thing). 1953 saw It Came From Outer Space, which followed
a storyline similar to The Thing From
Another World, but replaced the Arctic with Smalltown, USA. Even some of
the more iconic horror films of the 1950s pitted their heroes against alien
invaders, most prominently, Steve McQueen’s cult classic The Blob or the original Invasion
of the Body Snatchers. Each film looked at the same vast, unknown universe
in front of us and presented reasons why we might not want to go out there.
And then the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the event that
historians often credit as the official beginning of the space race. We were
now competing to get human life into the galaxy.
Before 1957, the major horror trend brought the aliens to
us. In 1958, It! The Terror from Beyond
Space changed that. It! opens
with a space crew retrieving a man accused of murdering his entire ship. What the new team doesn’t know is that the original crew
was murdered by a terrifying alien. Unbeknownst to them, that same
creature has snuck on board their ship. The titular “It” stalks the crew and
exterminates them one by one, before finally being taken care of in a way that
begs the question, “Huh, why didn’t they think about that earlier?”
Film buffs and casual fans alike can recognize this plot as
a vague description of Alien. Indeed,
Dan O’Bannon, Alien’s screenwriter,
credited It! as part of his
inspiration for the script. Though he also borrowed ideas from the likes of Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956) and Planet
of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965), it’s the near beat for beat comparison
that gets It! the internet credit of “the movie that inspired Alien.”
But It! deserves
more credit than just the inspiration for a more famous movie. In an era when
Americans weren’t sure of what was going on in space, It! inverted the space theme and put humans into space, leaving
them at the mercy of the creatures beyond earth. Their impending doom wasn’t
caused by an invasion. It was the quest for knowledge and understanding that
got them killed. Whether it was intentional or not, this movie was released in
the wake of the USSR’s innovation in space travel, and while the alleged enemy
of freedom explored the cosmos, the American film industry has instilled the
fear of space travel in its audience.
Today, we can recognize that It! The Terror from Beyond Space isn’t that scary. It’s a black and white movie starring a guy in a rubber suit killing a bunch of astronauts. There’s more money in the industry now, leading to better special effects and set pieces. But during its time, It! presented a potential evil that was much more believable when we didn’t know what was out there, in space. It was a perfect storm: It! borrowed from a contemporary film trend while benefiting from the pressures of the Cold War. Even if it was just a capitalization on the alien craze, It! was an important reflection of what scared Americans in its time.
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon and Michelle Baroody
From Friday, August 16-Sunday, August 18, catch It! The Terror from Beyond Space at the Trylon Cinema. Tickets and more information available here. Make it a space-horror double feature and stay for Event Horizon, also screening all weekend.