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Watching the Future: Worlds of Wonder and Terror

A friend and I recently discussed the challenge in finding science fiction stories that also served as horror.  A mutual friend had recommended a title here or there (including John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? and H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness), but most of the work suggested often fell firmly into the horror camp, with the science fictional elements and scientific rationales flimsy at best.  I pointed out that the problem lay in each genre’s differing approaches.  “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,” wrote Lovecraft, “and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”—a far cry from science fiction’s concerns, which focus on discovery and the sense of wonder that discovery evokes.  The more one understands something, the less mental space fear can occupy.  Elements of horror may surface in, say, Peter Watts’s incredible space opera Blindsight (right down to a vampire serving as a starship’s crew), yet it remains science fiction at its core.  The concerns of the two genres—the rational versus the irrational—weren’t just at odds but mutually exclusive.  This doesn’t mean that the genres haven’t cross-pollinated.  They seldom do it well.

I think about this as Halloween, my favorite holiday, approaches.  Fans often cite the arrival of autumn as an excuse to trip the dark fantastic, dusting off their copies of classic chillers (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and at least several dozen others) or considering the indulgence of some new, pseudo-scary bauble (Oculus, The Quiet Ones, Honeymoon), perhaps because the season’s turning lends itself to ruminations on mortality and the macabre; think of how much like the branches of an oak tree, denuded by falling leaves, resemble the fingers of a skeleton, or a witch’s talon-like digits.  We resonate with such iconography…which should not, and often does not, play well with the iconography of science fiction.

Thinking of my conversation, I wondered how many horror movies also managed to be effective as science fiction.  There should have been more successful blends in movies than in prose, as the visual medium better supports horror over science fiction.  While some came to mind immediately, many others either broke down as science fiction by becoming more and more illogical or ceased functioning as horror due to the monster being trapped by Enlightenment principles.  Many, frankly, either slip into cheesiness or just aren’t that good.  Surprisingly, however, the two genres sit well together when stitched together by master cinematic craftspeople.

I tend to recommend ten horror movies each Halloween, so this year, I have decided to give the shambling corpses, long-toothed vampires, and mangy werewolves a rest and steer readers exclusively to science fiction horror movies.  Let’s bring on bugs mutated by atomic energy, malicious aliens, and out-of-control artificial intelligences!

There are a few of the usual disclaimers, not least of which that I did not want to include more than one entry by any director.  Yes, I could name at least half a dozen movies by David Cronenberg with the remainder of spaces filled by John Carpenter, but that would leave little room for diversity of vision and idea.  Additionally, I have tried only to list movies that function as science fiction and horror, though in a few cases viewers may find that my selections fit neither category; in those instances where the science fictional aspects function better than horror, I’ve let them take preference.

I apologize in advance if I neglected to mention one of your favorites.  Feel free to include them.

Gojira (1954, directed by Ishirô Honda).  Audiences familiar with kaiju features involving obvious miniatures and science so rubbery that it bends into a knot may find the first of the Godzilla movies an odd choice.  In fact, the original Japanese-released Gojira genuinely frightens, its radiation-spawned beast a terrifying creation that, of course, turned into one of Monster Island’s most popular denizens.  The movie was released in the United States in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, with footage of Raymond Burr added to satisfy American audiences, but with the claustrophobic terror removed.

Them! (1954, directed by Gordon Douglas).  Admittedly, I only saw this recently, and found it as goofy and exciting as I had hoped.  Once again, the atomic bomb creates giant creatures, this time colonies of ants that attack a town outside of White Plains, New Mexico before spreading terror to Texas, California (specifically Los Angeles), and U.S. Navy ships.  Them! has moments that date poorly (the giant ants don’t terrify like they should anymore, and a scene where New Mexico state troopers investigate a wrecked trailer make remind one of an exploded meth lab in Breaking Bad), but never ceases to entertain.

The Day of the Triffids (1962, directed by Steve Sekely).  While this adaptation of John Wyndham’s beloved novel excises some of the more intrinsic details, director Steve Sekely nonetheless displays a knack for creating an air of unease, not least of which in the ruined English landscapes where Triffids—tall orchid-like beings that move on “roots” and can poison with s single sting—roam.  Not as faithful to the novel as some would like, and featuring a contrived ending (used similarly by M. Night Shayamalan in Signs), it remains a worthwhile creature feature.

The Damned (1963, directed by Joseph Losey, U.S. title These Are the Damned).  One of Hammer Studios’s few forays into science fiction, this adaptation of H. L. Lawrence’s The Children of the Light begins as an atmospheric biker movie that veers into the fantastic when a couple on the run from a gang hide in a network of caves occupied by children all cold to the touch.  With a strong cast (including Oliver Reed as King, the leader of the biker gang) and stark black-and-white photography, this bleak feature proves memorable long after the end credits.

Quatermass and the Pit (1967, directed by Roy Ward Baker, U.S. title Five Million Years to Earth).  Workers expanding the London Underground dig up the skeletal remains of a prehistoric being that might be of alien origin, leading Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir) to investigate.  The story reads like a coherent retelling of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, complete with telekinesis, concepts of race memory, and ancient aliens.  A compelling story swiftly told that, unfortunately, is almost unknown outside of genre circles.

A Clockwork Orange (1971, directed by Stanley Kubrick).  This grim masterpiece remains one of the most unsettling cinematic experiences more than 40 years after its initial release.  In a dystopian near future, a gang member commits a murder, and a totalitarian regime attempts to “cure” him of his ability to commit violence.  Visually stunning, with a powerful performance by Malcolm McDowell, it stands as a science fiction masterpiece that deserves equal stature as a fine horror film.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1977, directed by Philip Kaufman).  Although many fans point to Don Siegel’s 1956 feature as the best adaptation of Jack Finney’s amazing novel, I always preferred this version, not least of which because director Philip Kaufman makes San Francisco’s skyscrapers and its weary denizens oppressive.  Add to this eerie evocations of the alien pod people, a genuinely frightening final scene and an incredible performance by Leonard Nimoy as a psychologist who wants people to get in touch with their feelings, and you have a remake that deserves consideration as a classic.  (Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers also is worth a look.)

Alien (1979, directed by Ridley Scott).  If any movie should be considered a masterpiece of both science fiction and horror, it would be this one.  Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking picture set the standard of both genres, juxtaposing the blue-collar crew of the Nostromo with the Lovecraftian landscapes detailed by H. R. Giger.  Indeed, one could talk about the picture’s unique design alone, the mechanical at odds with the biological (I remember being obsessed with the insides of the robot, gooey and spherical rather than electric and mechanical), but it says much about sexuality as well (isn’t it somewhat telling, for example, that the Nostromo‘s crew refers to the shipboard computer as Mother?).  It remains one of the scariest movies ever made, and helped inaugurate the theme of Body Horror in cinema.

The Thing (1982, directed by John Carpenter).  Another remake at least as good as the original, with Carpenter focusing far more on its source material (John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?) than Christian Nyby’s 1951 Red Scare terror feature.  Carpenter’s movie allows the title monster to shape-shift in grisly fashion, and might not be to everyone’s palate, but the paranoia exhibited by those manning the isolated Antarctic station never lets up (especially during the blood test sequence), and the transformations, when viewed, are unbelievable.

Videodrome (1983, directed by David Cronenberg).  Speaking of Body Horror, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg practically cornered the market by the middle of the 1980s, beginning with They Came from Within and culminating in the unnerving Dead Ringers (one of the few movies in which I wound up leaving the theater for a few moments to reorient myself).  While many might choose The Fly (and with good reason), his take on Marshall McLuhan is more uncompromising, its imagery more jaw-dropping (as when James Woods’s television producer grows a vagina-like orifice that “programs” what he sees with biological videotapes), his commentary far more pointed.  It stands, 30 years later, as one of the eeriest commentaries on technology and its effects on humans that one can find.


1 Comment on Watching the Future: Worlds of Wonder and Terror

  1. Gerry M. Allen // October 29, 2015 at 3:12 pm //

    IMHO, the John Carpenter remake of The Thing is inferior to the original in every regard. The excessive gore, the shock for shock’s sake, the even-then antiquated jump scares, the grafted-on swearing…the film is just a mess. The acting is certainly better than the script deserved, but the script deserved a decent burial.
    I can watch the 50’s original with my young grandchildren and they get the plot; no gore or cursing required. I wouldn’t let anyone under thirty watch the Carpenter version in my house.

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