Episode 3, Part 1: The Horror In Sci-Fi and Alien Invasions
Written by: Tim Ritter
As the allure of movies in the cinema began to entice my young mind in the 70’s even more, I recall being totally obsessed with THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN’s trailer. Of course, I was forbidden to see the film, because it was “RATED R!” [and that was seen as pretty evil back then- especially when the news was spotlighting Charles Manson and all the TV coverage the trials of his “Satan worshiping sect of maniacs” were getting]. At large, the 1970’s seemed to be a “Golden Age” for serial killers, or at least coverage of them in the media. Think about it, in this decade alone we saw the evil Manson Clan prosecuted and the likes of the Zodiac, Gacy, Bundy, Berkowitz, Jim Jones, The Hillside Strangler, and many more that are STILL being talked about today. Lurid details, descriptions, and coverage of these guys was pretty constant, and my parents ALWAYS watched the news! Newspaper headlines were always touting the graphic details of the kills, along with magazines like TIME, LIFE, and NEWSWEEK. The serial killer coverage of that decade were like subliminal messages sent to my mind and helped me cultivate a rather unhealthy obsession with true crime that I would later incorporate into my own future works of movies and books. I think these murderers, deemed “possessed” by demons by many people in the Christian community, helped fuel that “Satanic Panic” mood in 1980’s America that I mentioned earlier as being so prevalent during this time period. Starting in the late 1970’s, as all these killers came to light, it was believed that sacrifices, Satan worshippers, and cults were somehow trying to take over in America, and Hollywood movies were part of this conspiracy somehow, especially with films like ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST, AMITYVILLE HORROR, and THE OMEN movies leading the way. Of course, these days, serial killers popping up all across America somehow seem “the norm”- if that’s at all possible! Just scan the headlines on any given day…it now seems to have settled in as being a “routine epidemic.” The lackadaisical real world tone of serial killers is right in line with the parallel film universe tone that John McNaughton’s excellent and unbeatable crime horror film HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER gives us. I’ll talk more about that film down the pike, of course.
THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN had all the things in the trailer that I loved as a kid- an astronaut like Steve Austin, who comes back from a space mission and becomes a MONSTER of sorts, a maniac-like killer, offing everyone he encounters as the scientists and law have to hunt him down! I think the trailer for JAWS and INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN really…really helped steep my interest in horror even more. I also remember the trailers for THE OMEN quite well [that kid deliberately knocking his mom down the stairs with his tricycle really stuck with me!] and PHANTASM…I remember when my mom finally let us watch TV at dinner, when PHANTASM was playing in theaters in 1979…wow, I was totally hooked every time that advertisement came on, with everything from the Jawa-like characters to the Tall Man and the flying sphere ball that gob-smacks the guy right in the head—and right then the commercial would cut to the title, when the ball almost smacked into his noggin! PHANTASM is just such a great film, just the wacky, surreal tone of the whole thing, kind of pre-dating the rubber reality thing that A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET helped usher in. Can’t forget the whole “having sex in a graveyard” bit either, which entranced me as a kid and something I later saluted later in my own movie, CREEP…Again, along with the super spooky Tall Man, there were those little creatures in robes doing the dirty work in PHANTASM and they did resemble Jawas!
Mentioning Jawas, of course I can’t forget STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as being such a huge part of my movie fandom as a kid. I mean, when STAR WARS hit, it had everything I wanted to see! Monsters, aliens, robots, adventure, excitement, action, a rousing, swashbuckling musical score and a lead character [Luke Skywalker!] that aspired to be so much more, leaving the barren planet he was from to become a hero and be remembered for something, and the incredible adventures he went on! And Darth Vader, he was SO OMINOUS in those early trailers that I saw in 1976, leading into the 1977 release…When I first saw his image, I was just blown away by the black helmet, grilled mask and flowing black Dracula cape…who knew WHERE this evil dude came from? It all seemed so fresh, new, and original- and really, though steeped in science fiction from the past, it WAS very new, we certainly hadn’t seen anything like this at the time, and the special effects transcended everything I had been watching up to that point- actually, left them in the dust! Everyone knew it, could see it with their own eyes, could feel it with each REPEAT VIEW! As great as movies like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, SILENT RUNNING, FUTURE WORLD, and even the old STAR TREK shows are…you could feel the jump in technology and how REAL the effects looked and sounded when compared to everything beforehand. And Chewbacca, a friendly version of BIGFOOT, who we all obsessed over in the 1970’s, I mean…STAR WARS just had a little bit of everything for not only sci-fi and horror fans, but for movie fans in general. There was action, intrigue, a cute Princess, robots, romance…and it tickled the imagination. It was also uplifting and inspiring, much like 1976’s excellent ROCKY movie, which I would also gravitate to. [I’ve always looked to Sylvester Stallone’s underdog story and humble beginnings at getting started in the business as such an inspiration—especially for getting my first financed movie started back in 1985! I would read…and re-read his story endlessly and constantly binge-watch the ROCKY movies, a favorite franchise of mine!]
Also, I don’t want to forget the galaxy-weary Han Solo, with Harrison Ford making his first dent into superstardom…What a moment in time! RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was just around the corner, and this was another one I couldn’t get enough of when I discovered it. I mean, any movie billed at the time as being FROM THE CREATORS OF JAWS AND STAR WARS… Uh, can you say INSTANT HIT?!? I don’t mind saying it, I collected everything STAR WARS from 1977-1982, it was pretty much my entire life. I was never good at sports, never a huge social person, but STAR WARS…that was my childhood world! It started with seeing it for the first time and my aunt purchased these Star Wars souvenir books for us at the theater. Here was photos, artwork, and making-of stories that totally entranced me and added to the already exhilarating experience! I read all the books, collected the trading cards and posters, even played with the dolls- yes, let’s call them what they are- dolls, action figures, whatever! They ruled and continue to rule! I would create my own tales of STAR WARS with the action figures [or “little men” as my Grandmother used to call them! Now here’s an interesting story- my Grandmother worked in Cincinnati, Ohio at the Kenner plant that made and manufactured the original, original STAR WARS dolls-before that sort of thing was shipped out to China- and when a mold turned out bad or there was a defect in a figure, well, they gave them to the Employees to give to their families! So my Grandmother supplied me with an endless amount of STAR WARS action figures- the “Basket Case” FREAKSHOW versions, nonetheless, maligned in manufacturing somehow, but right off the line from the factory! This enthralled me then as much as it does now, otherwise I never would’ve been able to collect all of these goodies, as they were very EXPENSIVE even back when they first came out in the 1970’s! My STAR WARS dolls would eventually fight the giant 18″ ALIEN doll in a show I created daily called ALIEN WARS and my SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN action figure even joined in on the action for several “episodes!”]
With the game-changing effects that STAR WARS ushered in, of course…following hot on its heels was the incredible SUPERMAN-THE MOVIE, which again, for this fan…provided many of the same epic emotions that STAR WARS had with the much beloved Superman character. For me, SUPERMAN  is STILL the best of the superhero films, though I did think THE DARK KNIGHT, on the other side of the spectrum with a brooding, downbeat tone- was equally as good. [And yes, MAN OF STEEL was a decent mix-mash update of 70’s Superman films!] But SUPERMAN-THE MOVIE, for sheer fun, adventure, and grandness, has it all for me. It’s also almost like a “best of” 70’s TV disaster film in many ways, with the helicopter fall from a building [think TOWERING INFERNO], the plane sequences [think AIRPORT movies], the dam breaking [think EARTHQUAKE and FLOOD!] and of course, the stellar sci-fi effects early in the film when we’re on planet Krypton. Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are so endearing in their roles that in addition to believing a man can fly like the ads touted, well, I believed they WERE those characters in 1978! Gene Hackman just owned the role of Lex Luthor and Ned Beatty was hysterical as his bumbling henchman. It’s hard to know which of these ’70’s epics I’ve seen more times- JAWS, STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, or EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. These were films that I would watch over…and over…and over…and over…and over…obsessively!
Then there was ALIEN– one I was banned from seeing because of the “R” rating. I was so devastated at the time, but that didn’t stop me from obsessing over the movie. I’m not quite sure why I wasn’t allowed to see this one, but my parents would read reviews of various movies and decide if I was allowed to see them based on the reviews. I recall being banned from seeing KING KONG 1976 due to Jessica Lange’s nude scenes that everyone was talking about and was also forbidden to see the latest James Bond epic, MOONRAKER, for the scantily-clad costumes the women wore. Of course, I’d always catch up with these movies somewhere [my “cool” aunt had HBO and when I spent the night at her place during the summers…well, I saw everything and she didn’t mind at all!]. Of course, when you’re NOT ALLOWED to see something, somehow it automatically makes the movie ten times better even before you see it, so…who knows about this ancient practice of keeping your kids from seeing a movie! I firmly believe it should be something totally eradicated from American culture, if it hasn’t already been! I was allowed to purchase the ALIEN soundtrack album, though [I guess soundtrack scores can’t warp young minds!] and continually spun Jerry Goldsmith’s scary compositions on vinyl, imagining how each cue was used in the motion picture. I read about the movie in FAMOUS MONSTERS and other specialty movie mags [including a book on the making of the film called THE BOOK OF ALIEN] and devoured the novelization by Alan Dean Foster several times. This was something I ALWAYS did in the 70’s and ’80’s, and that was read the books before seeing the movies! Sometimes, I just couldn’t wait for the movies. Like the bank robbing thug in DIRTY HARRY that doesn’t reach for his gun when confronted by Callahan and his possibly empty .44 Magnum…”I got’s to know, man!” I recall reading the novelization for STAR WARS about 8 months before the movie opened- copies were proudly displayed in the very front of the Paperback Booksmith to entice interest in the upcoming film. I think THE EXORCIST and JAWS helped usher in the movie tie-in novels, as both of those films were based on novels beforehand that had HUGE spikes in sales when their film brethren were released [and the covers had pictures or posters from the films], so studios saw a great way to promote their movies with books- and make money off of them concurrently.
In the years before you could easily see a movie on VHS or now, instantly ON DEMAND, this kind of set the pattern for me: 1. Read about a movie in a magazine. Stare and study all the photographs obsessively. 2. Seek out ALL material on the movie, including the novel. Read it over and over again, trying to visualize what the movie will be like. 3. Get the soundtrack, listen to the cues, and dial in to how the music represents the movie in your mind. And that was my pattern up until we got a Beta video machine…Sometimes it would be YEARS before I would actually SEE a movie, and sometimes it would lead to great disappointment when I’d finally catch up to something, but perhaps…it fueled the creativity in my mind. I really recall being obsessed with FRIDAY THE 13th and William Lustig’s MANIAC in this fashion—just staring at those gore-drenched photos in awe, seeking out the soundtracks, especially Jay Chattaway’s unbeatable score for the 1981 classic and spinning that vinyl endlessly. MANIAC is one that delivered the goods…and beyond, didn’t it? It’s like the granddaddy of slasher-splatter movies to this day. I’d also score my own super-8 movies with these soundtracks before I even saw them, which was kind of weird!
With 1979’s ALIEN, though, the MONSTER was the big thing, and I remember BEGGING for that 18″ Kenner doll of H.R. Giger’s creature—and of course, I ended up getting one of the first ones since my Grandmother worked at Kenner! Still treasure it to this day. For about a year, I had to only imagine what ALIEN looked like as a movie, and I secretly purchased ALIEN-THE ILLUSTRATED STORY to enjoy it more [what an excellent comic book!] and convinced my friend’s mother to buy me the “behind the counter” coffee-table sized Photonovel of the film for Christmas. Not sure why it was “behind the counter” back then- maybe the provocative frames featuring the costume Ripley wears at the end in graphic close-up? Or the gore of the alien chestburster? Who knows! Either way, ALIEN was a horror show in space, and when I finally saw it on the small screen, of course it delivered. Again, the pitch black TONE of the movie, the incredible special effects, and the way the alien creature was never truly revealed until the very, very end always fascinated me to no end. [Shades of JAWS again!] And the transformation of Ripley, from one of the plain Jane working stiff crew members to not only heroine, but curvy, provocative heroine at the end…whew! [Mr. Scott– you dirty dawg!] It seriously took your breath away as a twelve-year-old viewer. Just the way the entire movie was done was original and spectacular, and again, something that filmmakers today continue to try to live up to. Even Ridley Scott himself, with the interesting PROMETHEUS, somehow couldn’t manage to touch the groundbreaking work he did in 1979’s ALIEN… I think the centerpiece of that film, the chestburtser alien, was the thing that propelled that movie to legendary proportions. It’s all my friends and I would talk about and obsess over and nothing like that had really been seen on the big screen in such gory fashion, you know? It’s hard to imagine how many boundaries were really pushed with ALIEN unless you were growing up in the 1970’s.
I came from a very small town of about 3,000 in population, and I’ll never forget when THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK opened in 1980. Our one little theater in town was showing the movie, fortunately, and my best friend and I KNEW there’d be lines around the block to see the flick, just like in New York City and L.A.! So we got up super early and were FIRST IN LINE by 6AM opening day, complete with browned bag lunches and thermoses full of Kool-Aid. Well, standing there for seven hours was murder in the heat, and I was more than a bit miffed when my mom and sister showed up at 12:30 PM and ended up just FOUR PEOPLE BEHIND US for the one o’clock showing after we’d been waiting there since dawn! Of course, the movie delivered on every expected level and more, and the cliffhanger ending created years of speculation on how things would turn out. Was Vader REALLY Luke’s father? Would Han Solo come back—was he dead? Who was this OTHER Jedi- Han or Leia? What’s the deal with the ultra cool Boba Fett– and can when get more of this character?!!? The Vader–Luke being father and son bit was kind of like the “WHO SHOT J.R.” moment for kids of the era! EMPIRE was just a great movie with a splendid story and plenty of unexpected twists and turns, and we ate it up like fresh candy out of the box. I remember one time my friend and I decided we’d watch the movie several times in a row at the theater- so after the first showing ended, we decided to go into the bathroom and mingle with the next crowd coming in so we wouldn’t have to pay again to see it. Well, we hid out in the stalls for a spell, waiting for the crowd to come…and we’re waiting, waiting, waiting, and no crowds ever came. At one point, things got quiet and we even stood on the toilets when the theater manager walked the bathroom to check and see if anyone was in there- yes, just like in a slasher movie, we hid in the stalls and all you could see was his SHOES slowly stalking along the tiled floor as he surveyed the room…and we didn’t get caught! He never opened the stalls to see if anyone was in there and just left, but guess what? The lights turned out and wouldn’t you know it, THERE WAS NO SECOND SHOWING of the movie that afternoon! So we got locked inside the theater until they re-opened for evening shows! Ah, life in a small town with a tiny one-screen movie theater! Who knew it could be so fun and wild, you know? But seriously, the ending of EMPIRE, and all that went on with that…provided years of speculation and pondering about what was going on and how things would play it. It’s kind of funny the way John Carpenter and Debra Hill kind of “borrowed” that idea with HALLOWEEN II when it’s revealed that Laurie Strode is…drum roll please…MICHAEL MYER’S SISTER! Carpenter himself attributes the plot twist to “too many beers” when writing it, but…fun tidbit all the same!
RETURN OF THE JEDI didn’t come out for another three years, and by then, I was fifteen years old and much more immersed in horror movies and growing up- and dealing with raging hormones, which anyone will tell you causes all kinds of issues! JEDI was a good watch, the special effects were awesome, but sadly, I had “outgrown” a lot of the Star Wars elements by then. I mean, there’s a big difference in interests and likes from when you’re nine and then fifteen—I was almost ready to start driving on my own by then, and sadly, the Ewoks, which, yeah, they’re cute and all, but aimed…more for those nine and under than someone headed toward seventeen and being able to legitimately get into “R” rated movies. In all seriousness, having a Teddy Bear tribe help topple the Empire was a bit of a letdown for me, even though I did love many elements of the movie- some of the action and chases were spectacular, the opening with Jabba The Hut and the BIG ESCAPE was cool…seeing Boba Fett so easily dispatched was a total bummer…but the ending of the movie was spectacular, kind of like a mishmash of all the best elements of the previous two installments, complete with the Death Star returning, epic light saber battles, and the big showdown between Luke and Vader finally happening! The Evil Emperor was very impressive to watch, and Ian McDiarmid’s performance was absolutely epic and evil, just like it was in REVENGE OF THE SITH. As a bad guy, next to Darth Vader, he’s the funnest villain in the series to watch! And yes, I am a HUGE fan of SITH– where I felt not only did Lucas get his mojo going again at last, but the story worked quite well and McDiarmid’s transformation from Palpatine into the Emperor was nothing short of spectacular! [And no, I have no huge issues with the first two prequels either- they’re different and a little sterile compared to the original films, but again…perspective is hard to gauge from that of a nine year old and an adult—so I try to just have fun with them all! Enjoy the action, excitement and fun of being in a galaxy far, far away…
TO BE CONTINUED…