Episode 3, Part 2: The Horror In Sci-Fi and Alien Invasions
Written by: Tim Ritter
For me, there are probably three great “science fiction” movies that were also gateways into “horror” films and they are just an awesome unholy threesome, especially if you watch them all back-to-back today. They are, of course, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS , ALIEN , and of course, John Carpenter’s THE THING . I’m getting a tad bit ahead on THE THING, of course, but it was probably in production and utilizing the same kind of practical special effects that INVASION and ALIEN were using at the time.
INVASION ’78, although rated PG, probably seriously should’ve been an R. I’ve mentioned my obsession with the Fotonovel and book, and of course, I had enjoyed the original film from the 50’s, but somehow INVASION ’78 really captivated me as a kid. It was a defining moment for me as a fan. It’s one of the few films that has downright SCARED me, given me NIGHTMARES and also one that has so much meaning when you think about it as you go into adulthood. The tone of the movie is so bleak, the characters so dark and oppressive. We have Leonard Nimoy playing this shrink with no emotion that is a good guy trying to help everyone but then…no…suddenly…it turns out he’s actually a BAD GUY! The dark photography of the movie, almost using existential lighting and shadows is really creepy, and the music and SOUND EFFECTS are just incredible. That sound when the the alien seeds are turning into people [that indescribable pulsating heartbeat shtick!] sticks with you for the rest of your life! Kudos to composer Denny Zeitlin, who not only composed a splendidly eerie score but also created the very disturbing sound effects. [It’s well worth tracking down the soundtrack album of this film, as there’s a great interview on there with Danny about all this along with sound effects tracks!] The story of pods from space coming to earth and replicating humans in plant form has never been done so well and graphically. The sequence where Donald Sutherland finds his back yard full of alien plants turning into his friends…in cocoons…and himself in that mix…just can’t be beat in terms of sheer horror. And when he takes a rake to them to chop them up, they bleed graphically. It’s disturbing to no end. The whole concept of INVASION ’78 and the way it’s done…where people’s identity and personalities suddenly change…again, it can be a metaphor for dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other memory ailments we all might face in some way in the future. I have to say, when my dad got dementia years ago, INVASION ’78 was the movie I kept going back to in my mind, how similar it was to something happening to a loved one. The first five years or so were incredibly difficult to deal with and understand. Memory lapses…emotional changes…the person’s body being the same but their entire personality changing. INVASION ’78 seriously helped me deal with this horrible situation and understand it more because…I had simply already dealt with it before and obsessed over it endlessly. What happens when friends and family change? How do you deal with it? Why does it happen? Could dementia be a “viral” alien invasion? [Love that Jeff Goldblum line…”I’ve never expected metal (space) ships!“] No matter what the cause, this is a stellar example of how a horror movie can help you later in life in dealing with scary, horrible, and tragic things. The experience of “dealing” with the subject matter in fiction really does prepare you in unexpected ways for the shocking “realities” we must sometimes endure. So this is an example of a real positive thing in being a horror fan. In some ways, as your childhood mind is turned to darker things like this, it can help you deal with these things as they really happen to you later in life. And sometimes, it’s sooner rather than later…
INVASION ’78’s pod transformation scenes really echo ALIEN’s sequences, especially where the alien egg opens up and the facehugger latches on to explorer Kane. It’s actually an incredible thing to ponder, a visual tie-in between the movies, and THE THING, although much messier than both of these flicks, also sports some sequences early on with transformations that have this same look…I guess it’s that shared transformation of a small, faceless entity turning into something human that becomes…a monster.
There’s also a sense of conspiratorial paranoia that peppers INVASION ’78, with the Government and the Establishment being in on it all the way to the top, something that resonates so true today. Why should we trust Big Brother? The aliens are running the show, you know? They took over long ago! [And of course, this theme was expertly translated in John Carpenter’s other supreme alien invasion film, THEY LIVE– although much more subtly in terms of the gore!] The scene where Sutherland is on the phone, trying to call the police and talking to the Operator, where she says his name when he hasn’t told her who he is…still sends a chill up my spine today! It’s actually more relevant than ever with the ease of spying on people via mobile devices! As a kid, you pick up on things like this in the material you watch, and if it’s something that sticks with you as an adult, and you keep watching it over and over for nostalgia…suddenly you notice more and more of the layers and substance underneath the entertainment and escapism. There’s a MESSAGE to the madness! What a splendid cast INVASION ’78 has- I mean, Donald Sutherland is kind of an intense, spooky looking actor to begin with, and here he’s just so good! Brooke Adams is just so fine-looking as his “off-limits” love obsession, and the story is so subtle as Sutherland tries to move in on the action that he can’t have—especially when he’s Brooke’s boss and consultant on her failing love life. [Brook’s beau is an early pod person, adding more conflict to the story.] A young Jeff Goldblum is riveting as Sutherland’s friend and a creative writer having difficulties, and there’s also the lovely and frenetic Veronica Cartwright as Goldblum’s love interest- ironically jazzing up both ALIEN and INVASION ’78! I love her in these hyperkinetic parts! And when characters turn on each other after they’ve been transformed, and they point at you as being human, selling you out…well, we all have felt that kind of betrayal in life at some point, haven’t we?
With THE THING, that sense of who can you trust? is magnified even more with a tight group of men isolated from the world deep in the Antarctica. Again, just a brilliant update of a 50’s classic and a movie that feels so much like mine growing up in that era. I’ll never forget begging my dad to take me to see THE THING. It was that pesky R-rated thing again, I was too young to get into the theater and sneaking into R-rated pictures underage was a lot more difficult than you could imagine back then. I would learn, though, you KNOW that! Of course, by then, I was reading all about these movies beforehand and the special effects were well-covered in magazines in both word and picture. I knew who Rob Bottin was. John Carpenter, after HALLOWEEN, HALLOWEEN II, THE FOG, and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK…well, he was a Film LEGEND. So I had an inclination as to what we were in for. Of course, THE THING was rated “R” and I begged by dad to take me to see this new John Carpenter joint, and finally, he relented once my mom was certain there was no explicit nudity or sex in the movie [“it’s an ALL GUY cast!” I whined]. After all, if I’m remembering correctly, this was the summer of E.T. as well, so we had seen that as a family a couple of times. And yes, I am a fan of E.T.– it’s a great little movie, has lots of scary and suspenseful scenes, and it’s a tearjerker as well, OLD YELLER style! [I grew up with the Disney Show being a staple of Sunday nights at 7pm, where I saw everything from BAMBI to THE SHAGGY D.A.] Spielberg, in his early days, somehow mixed all the elements in his movies, the best of everything- CLOSE ENCOUNTERS included, even though the ending was a little disappointing, all things considered…[Which is probably why he went back and redid it a couple of times, including that SPECIAL EDITION re-release…I think there’s three cuts to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND .
Anyway, my dad took me to see THE THING, and I’ll never forget his expression as we left the theater. His jaw was practically dragging along the floor as we exited the theater auditorium and he was bone white! Those effects had knocked his socks off, he had no clue what hit him! And that bleak ending…NO HOPE IN SIGHT! Of course, I was elated and on a magical monster-gore high, dazzled by how good those effects and transformations were. I don’t think THE THING has been outdone, and may NEVER be outdone, in terms of just an excellent movie with shape-shifting paranoia coupled with dazzling practical makeup effects. The creativity behind the special effects was just amazing, even as the story very much mimics INVASION ’78—an alien life form is discovered…this time not a plant but something viral and very contagious maybe, a cell…and it creates a new version of the person it attacks, destroying the old one in the process. It seeks to become us all…A much messier version of INVASION, as the transformation scenes have flesh being torn, ripped, stretched, gouged, and twisted like pretzel dough every which way but loose! It’s such an amazing film to watch, and Kurt Russell [SNAAAAAKE PLISSKEN!] is just so rock solid and steady in the lead role, trying to figure out what’s going on and how to handle it. Can’t forget Keith David, either, I mean the whole cast is good, but Keith really rocks the house co-starring in this movie with his excellent acting chops, and wow, what an ending, eh? Who’s who? Who’s human? TRUST IN NO ONE! The whole subject, again, of identity loss and losing control of what happens to your body and who you can trust translates into real life in so many ways.
And let’s talk about those special effects! Again…Rob Bottin…is just an effects superhero. Who can forget the CPR scene with the chest opening up and biting the guy’s hands off? Or the head that drips down the table onto the floor, still attached to a cheesy stretch of skin, sprouting spider legs and scurrying off? Then there’s the FLAME THROWER destruction that THE THING has in common with ALIEN [how to kill the beast- fire!] and wow, that opening scene where the dog becomes the monster… I love animals and have a harder time watching the animal transformations that the people ones and have run into many other folks with the same perspective. Another subtext is the VIRAL spreading of the monster, and how relevant that is in life today, with all the constant spread of diseases [ANTIBIOTICS DON’T WORK ANYMORE!] that seem to be in the headlines. The blood test sequence in THE THING, where the one blood sample jumps out of the vial when heated up and causes madness and destruction…still makes me jump out of my chair in shock and delight! How about that bleak ending? It’s something that could’ve played into the movie not being as successful as it should have been in theaters, because honestly, people don’t want to see that the good guys don’t always win and that the bad THING may still be other there…I mean, hey, it’s JOHN CARPENTER, man, in his prime! Obviously, I can’t say enough good things about this movie, it’s one of my favorite films of all time and always has been since I’ve seen it. Gotta dig that score, too, a wild morphing of Ennio Morricone with John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, who added plenty of supplementary stingers and beats into the mix. Another soundtrack totally worthy of any avid fan’s collection.
Now there was a THING prequel that came out in 2011 or so, and although there was and always is much hoopla made on practical effects vs. today’s computer effects, I found it to be a compelling, worthy precursor to the original film that was not only respectful of the material, but downright spot-on in terms of getting all the tie-ins just perfect. Mary Winstead did a fine job in the lead MacReady [Russell] style role. It’s one you can watch right before the original film, to see how the team of Norwegians that they discover in the ’82 film dealt with the monster, and be entertained. The directing style is very much in line with Carpenter, so much that it feels almost like he DID direct the movie. So this is one I’d definitely recommend if you have an open mind and aren’t anti-CGI. The special effects worked for me and I thought the tied into the original film well. Not quite as good, but…is anything compared to when you first see it as a wide-eyed teen? I didn’t know what to expect from it and just sat down to check it out and came away very satisfied as a fan. Also has a great score by Marco Beltrami.
I’ve covered quite a few of my favorite movies, TV shows, obsessions, and observations from the 1970’s and into early 1980 a bit. By then I had fully discovered the world of Stephen King’s writing and was completely inspired, devouring books like THE STAND, CARRIE, THE DEAD ZONE, SALEM’S LOT and his other early works. I was transforming even more into a horror fan, completely obsessed by it all, including magazines like FAMOUS MONSTERS and a brand-new one that hit 1979 newsstands with GODZILLA on the cover called…FANGORIA. This one seemed ultra hip and current, featuring incredible photos of GORE MAKE-UP EFFECTS and movies I had only heard WHISPERED about up until this time but in these blood-soaked pages, there were articles, interviews, and SPLENDID information on all these incredible movies coming down the pike, inspired by HALLOWEEN. [And here effects artists like Rob Bottin and Tom Savini were ICONS, and directors like Carpenter, Romero, Wes Craven, and David Cronenberg received the love and respect they deserved!] FANGORIA quickly replaced my previously fave magazine, FAMOUS MONSTERS, and would remain my horror Bible for decades to come. When I first perused its pages, one of my biggest dreams was to be featured in its pages as a filmmaker, especially as I devoured articles on my new horror heroes.
There was also this new way to view movies making its way into the mainstream…something called VIDEO TAPE that was played in a VIDEO CASSETTE PLAYER and it was getting A LOT of attention with Beta players slowly making their way into people’s lives at this time. I vaguely knew they had been working on the technology since the 1960’s and had seen it here and there on TV shows, but only people who were well-off seemed to have access to videotape in the 1970’s. Super-8 was still the rage then, I didn’t know anyone who had a video CAMERA who could use the technology for their own moviemaking purposes. But suddenly video was finally being marketed and aimed at consumers in the very late 70’s…slowly catching on in the early 1980’s, of course…And here I was getting ready to start high school…where I would have access to some equipment through the library…