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.
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.