Are You Gonna Be There (At the Slime-In)

|Jesse Lawson|

Artwork by Dan Murphy

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 worth it.

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.

Artwork by Jesse Lawson

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.

The Unsung Legacy of Dan O’Bannon and DARK STAR

|Zach Jansen|

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 third Alien 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 Pinback.

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.[1] 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, he remarked

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.


[1] 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.

IT!, ALIEN, and Genre Conventions

|Zach Jansen|

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.           

The 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 is.

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.

Looking 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.

Bibliography

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.

Luckhurst, Roger. Alien. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

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 for Event Horizon.

EVENT HORIZON: Hell is only a word. Reality is much, much worse.

|Matthew Tchepikova-Treon|

Artwork by Joe Midthun

I. Diabolus Ex Machina

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 ex machina.

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 be made.

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, inconceivably alone.

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.”

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

Event Horizon screens at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, August 16 to Sunday, August 18. Tickets and more information available on the Trylon’s website. Make it a space-horror double feature and check out It! The Terror from Beyond Space.

Horror History: Why It! The Terror from Beyond Space isn’t just an inspiration for Alien

|Finn Odum|

Artwork by Adam Loomis

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.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY: Evolution Through Technology

|Michael Lockhart|

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a unique and rather abstract film that offers a variety of interpretations. In an interview from 1968, Kubrick suggested that he wanted to keep the meaning of the film open to the audience.

You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.[1]

Kubrick’s statement refers to the ambiguous ending of the film but I find that it applies to the motifs and cinematic choices throughout the film as well. In this regard, the emphasis on technology in the film has multiple meanings and I argue here that Kubrick ponders the use of technology to establish the theme of evolution.

The film is broken up into specific chapters. The first chapter, titled “The Dawn of Man,” features prolonged shots of the landscape setting of Earth. The shots fixate on the desolate and expansive emptiness of the environment which emphasizes the technologically underdeveloped setting at the beginning of the film. When the film shifts locals late in the first chapter, the landscape moves to outer space and the environment is occupied by advanced space-travel technology. This dramatic shift appears to be a direct contrast of the opening shots of the first chapter, as the outer space background suggests a technologically advanced setting as if in opposition to the primitive scene at the start of the film. The emphasis on technology and the outer space setting signals the shift in the stage in evolution through its juxtaposition with the opening scene. By fixating on the environments and technology in the different settings through prolonged landscape shots, the first chapter illustrates the theme of evolution that continues throughout the film.

The depiction of technology is a focal point throughout the different sections of the film.  The first depiction of technology is the apes use of animal bones as tools in the first chapter. The technology is depicted as a miraculous discovery amongst the apes, and the mastery of the tool allows them to hunt and fight in order to survive in their environment. As the chapter transitions to the outer space setting, a slow-motion shot of the bone flipping in the air cuts to a similar shot of a spacecraft mimicking the motion of the bone. Pairing the two scenes with a quick transition represents the evolution theme in the film. The connection of the spacecraft and the bone suggests that the human evolution in the film has reached a stage in which space travel and the subsequent technology is equivalent to the use of an animal bone as a tool. The bone is simplistic in terms of technology, but serves as a vital instrument for the ape’s survival; the spacecraft is to humans what the bone is to the apes. The bone may seem primitive in terms of its technology, but it serves a necessary purpose for ape’s survival, and thus the evolution of apes into human beings. The evolution theme in the film is illustrated through this depiction of technology and its banality in these two examples.

As the film progresses, the role of technology develops as well. 2001: A Space Odyssey is renowned for its cinematography and visual effects and the depiction of technology is emphasized by the film thoughtful its cinematic choices and techniques. In fact, it often feels like the emphasis on visual effects overshadows the development of the main human characters in the film. This is prevalent in the second chapter, “Mission to Jupiter,” in which the audience is introduced to characters Dave Bowman and Frank Poole. Since they are introduced so late in the film, there is little development of these characters, like HAL. Instead, the technology around the characters is developed and emphasized through the visual effects. By drawing the audience’s attention to the technology displayed in this part of the film, it also emphasizes the stages of human evolution depicted in the film.

An example of the emphasis of technology is the role of the supercomputer HAL. It is reasonable to suggest that HAL is a more developed character than the two main human characters of the second chapter. Dave and Frank treat HAL as if it is basically another crew member. The computer is included in interviews with the media and the crewmembers converse with it as if they were talking to another human. The viewer also knows more about the origin and background of HAL than they do about Frank or Dave. In addition, the film evokes a more complex emotional response for HAL’s disconnection than it does for Frank’s death. Frank’s death happens suddenly and quickly, which produces little emotional connection for the audience. However, when Dave disconnects HAL, the event is drawn out and the audience is able to experience HAL’s expression of fear and desperation. The contrast of the two scenes illustrates HAL as a more developed and complex character than Frank or Dave, further establishing the importance of technology in the film.

HAL represents another stage of evolution in the film that is represented through the different depictions of technology. The use of the bone by the apes in the beginning of the film represents the early phase of human use of technology and the beginning of its evolution. As the film progresses to a later stage of human evolution, the technology has progressed all the way to HAL, a human-like supercomputer. The film begins with a representation of technology through early tool use––the bone––as an innate, controllable process of human development. As the human’s use of  technology progresses throughout the film, it evolves into the sentient, self-possessed and uncontrollable supercomputer HAL. This progression of technology represents the film’s theme of evolution.

The unique structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its stellar visual effects allows the audience to focus and absorb different elements of the film. Multiple viewings allows the spectator to comprehend, “to speculate” as Kubrick suggests, and to notice new components each time they watch the film. During my most recent viewing, it was the monotone and hypnotizing character of HAL that drew my attention to the emphasis of technology and its evolution throughout the film.

2001: A Space Odyssey screens on 70mm at the Heights Theater on Monday, July 22 (SOLD OUT) and Tuesday, July 23 at 7:30 pm. To purchase tickets or for more information, please visit our website.


[1] Norden, Eric. Interview: Stanley Kubrick. Playboy (September 1968). Reprinted in: Phillips, Gene D. (Editor). Stanley Kubrick: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2001. ISBN 1-57806-297-7 pp. 47–48.