The use of sci-fi themes in filmmaking has been around since the dawn of cinema. During this early era (1890-1920s), these images focused primarily on a vision of the future by employing tricks, slight of hand camera illusions which served as the foundation for early special effects, to drew hoards of moviegoers, much as they do today, to theaters. While at the same time here in the States, filmmakers using a narrative approach began exploring the dangers of science as was evident in the first incarnation of “Frankenstein” (1910).
The thirties saw the genre being overrun by mad scientists leading it to an all-time low in the forties, until a quirky little film called The Purple Monster Strikes (1945) would forever change sci-fi movie landscape. As the decade came to an end, reported cover-ups at Rosewell, the further growth of the atomic age, and the anxiety/paranoia of the RED SCARE would lead sci-fi towards an explosion in the next decade.
The mid-century marked the beginning of a fast and furious space race between the superpowers. Childhood dreams of space travel flourished wildly out of control, but were now clouded with questions of “life on other planets”. This was further fueled by newspapers who continued to carry numerous reports of UFO sightings. Hollywood looking to cash in on the fear of nuclear annihilation and questions of alien existences, decided to take the genre in two distinctive directions.
The first, which will be the focus of this portion of the Parlor, dealt with terror from beyond the stars and spawned such early classics as: The Thing from Another World The Day the Earth Stood Still, “War of the Worlds“, The Blob, and even the cult hit Plan 9 from Outer Space. The second, which will be the focus of another section of the Parlor, dealt with the effects of radiation on the environment, producing the the giant monster genre (ie. Them,
The Beast from 20,000 Fathom, Gojiria (aka Godzilla), etc). These stories intermixed with the horrific fears of what tomorrow could bring made these movies highly successful, but as the decade was coming to an end sci-fi again began to lose steam with the reemerging classic monster genre ( i.e. Hammer).
In 1968, sci-fi began to receive the critical acclaim it so sorely deserved when Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” received four Oscar nominations (Best Director (Stanley Kubrick), Best Writing directly for the Screen (Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick) Best Art Direction, and Best Visual Effects (Stanley Kubrick (won). “2001” went on to set the standards for such classics as: “Bladerunner“, “Alien” and of course the granddaddy of all sci-fi films, “Star Wars“. Finally technology had caught up with the imagination of the moviegoer and now Hollywood could not only take him to the final frontier, but they could bring to the life the terror that awaited.
During the eighties, we saw the genre totally infused with horror. Gone were the days of the defeatable thing from another. These alien invaders were no longer faceless creatures who hid in the shadow only to be revealed during the final reel, but rather menacing monsters bent on not only destroying mankind, but ripping him to shreds. Films such as “Aliens“, “The Thing“, and “Predator” were in direct contradiction to the loving misguided alien “E.T.” The message was clear, “we are not alone and we better be prepared”.
Today, the world of sci-fi is right around the corner. Filmmakers can barely keep up with the advancements of technology and the worlds of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Clarke, and others are the here and now. What does the future hold for the genre, who knows, but it should be fun to watch.
In this section of the Parlor, we explore the historical mergence of sci-fi and horror cinemas. We provide our picks of some the greatest film to come out of this sub-genre. Most of these film are driven by horrific themes, but we have taking some liberties in highlighting our personal favorites in the genre such as: “2001: A Space Odyssey“, “Star Wars“, “The Matrix“, and “Omega Man“. So enjoy!!!!
The Thing Story
The story begins as an Air Force crew (with a lone newsman (Douglas Spencer) tagging along) is ordered to fly up to a remote base in the North Pole to investigate reports of a mysterious aircraft crash. Led by Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), the crew is greeted by a chilling Artic air, which serves as an omen of “things” to come. The base also serves as an outpost for Polar Expedition #6 where a group of scientist have assemble for a convention. After examining the information available, head scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Carthwaite) surmise that this craft it is not of this world and with the help of the good Captain decide to lead an expedition out to the crash site.
Upon arriving at the crash site, their assumptions prove to be correct. The saucer now lies under tons of ice. Captain Hendry orders his crew to plant thermite bombs around the circumference of the ship to help melt away the ice. After a series of explosions and a large fireball presumably from the engine of the craft, everyone fears that they have lost one of the greatest finds in the history of man, but when examining the wreckage, they notice what appears to be a person or in this case, the pilot buried in the ice below. With axes in hand, the crew carefully removes a block of ice that now serves as a tomb for the visitor and decide to take it back for further investigation.
Back at the base, Hendry decides to keep the creature frozen until he receives orders on what to do otherwise. He places it under guard in a storage room. This is met with furious distained from the scientist especially Dr. Carrington who demands his right to examining the creature. Hendrey calmly explains that this is no longer a civilian mission, but rather a military operation now. This causes the scientist to quickly scurry back to the confines of their lab so that they may plot a way to circumvent Hendrey’s authority and make first contact. As the creature lies apparently dormant, a strange eeriness can be felt as the guard unknowingly puts a blanket on and places a space heater near the block of ice. Before you know it, we find the guard semiconscious and The Thing having escaped to being it’s reign of terror.
Thus begins a classic clash between the military and the scientist. This has been a reoccurring theme in many films of this type. On one hand, you have the military wanting to destroy the beast to protect mankind and on the other hand, you have the scientist who wants to capture and study it. This is one of those rare occasions in sci-fi/horror film history, where the military is actually the level headed side of this equation. It isn’t to later that we find out that this “highly intellectual carrot”, as it is called, has a need for blood. Guess who’s coming for dinner??? The battle continues until the end comes with Scotty declaring across the airwaves, “watch the skies”.
It was the time of McCarthyism and the “red scare”, but far worst paranoia ran deep with whispers of “we are not alone”. Just a few years after Roswell, the time was ripe for a film adaptation of John Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” and Howard Hawks was the man to bring it to the silver screen. For years, controversy has been bantering around about who actually directed “The Thing From Another World“. Was it the credited Christina Nyby or Howard Hawks??? Many have stated and it appears rightly so, that Hawks, in fact, did direct this feature, but to me, it really doesn’t matter, because it’s still a great film.
The Day the Earth Stood Still Story
All over the world, an object traveling at 4000 miles per hour has been sighted – and now it’s heading for the eastern seaboard! The craft, a silvery flying saucer, touches down in Washington DC. Immediately, troops, artillery, and armored vehicles surround the saucer. A hatch opens as the soldiers nervously point their weapons, and out steps a masked humanoid.
The humanoid announces that he has come in peace, and walks towards the men. However, he is shot by a panicky officer when he pulls out a strange-looking object. A robot, who is addressed as Gort, immediately steps out of the ship and uses a disintegration beam in his faceplate to blast the weapons right out of the soldiers’ hands and the tanks right out from under their crews. Scared, the men rush the wounded alien to a nearby hospital. The object, incidentally, was a harmless gift intended for the President.
At the hospital, it is revealed that the visitor, who calls himself Klaatu (Michael Rennie), is doing just fine. He is called upon by a White House official, where he announces he has an agenda. He must meet with representatives from every nation on the globe immediately. When the man announces that this is impossible because of the current world situation, Klaatu announces his intention to leave the hospital and get to know the strange people of earth whom his visit concerns. The military responds by locking the visitor’s door, but nonetheless, he manages to escape.
Taking on the name of Carpenter, he takes residence in a small boarding house run by widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). Quickly making a bond with Billy, the two visit the home of prominent scientist Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). He’s not home, but the alien finishes a problem in celestial mechanics on his blackboard. When Barnhardt discovers it, Carpenter reveals himself to be Klaatu and asks that the professor arrange a meeting of scientists from all over the world so they can bring his message back to their leaders. Barnhardt obliges, and Klaatu agrees to stage a brief, nondestructive show of force to help get his message across to the world.
The next day, in every part of the globe save for hospitals and flying aircraft, the power goes dead. However, Helen’s boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe) is getting suspicious of Carpenter, and it isn’t long before his identity is revealed and the unfortunate visitor is gunned down by the military. Knowing he might meet this fate though, Klaatu had given Helen in order to give to Gort -who has been standing around outside the saucer waiting for just such an order – “Klaatu Barata niktu” (sound familiar, “Army of Darkness” fans?). She gives it. But what happens next? I’ll save that one for viewers of the movie.
The quintessential 50’s sci-fi movie, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is ripe with symbolism to give it a more sophisticated edge. Although Director Robert Wise (“The Haunting”, “West Side Story”), and writers Harry Bates and Edmund H. North were unaware of it, the story of Klaatu parallels the story of Christ in too many ways to catalog. Jesus was also a carpenter, by the way. But what “The Day the Earth Stood Still” does very well is make the world of 1951 look like a cross between a tragedy and a farce. It works just as well as a satire on our deep-seated paranoia and fears as a fantasy picture. No sci-fi/horror film of the 1950’s approaches it on these levels. Only a few have since.
Quatermass and the Pit Story
The story begins at the excavation site of a London subway. The excavation comes to an abrupt halt when workers unearth several prehistoric skulls and skeletal remains. Dr. Roney (James Donald), an anthropologist and his assistant, Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) are called in to examine and study the unearthed remains. As excavating continues, what is thought to be a missile-like object is uncovered. Once this is discovered, Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) and Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) are called in and they quickly determine the object is an unexploded bomb left over from the World War II.
As Professor Quatermass begins to look deeper into the origins of these remains he believes they are not of this Earth. Dr. Roney later informs Quatermass that he feels the skeletal remains are approximately five million years old, much older than any previous discovery. Further investigation into this specific neighborhood determines that for centuries it has been haunted by ghastly stories of beastly sightings, sounds, and strange occurrences
As Colonel Breen and his men completely unearth the “missile”, it’s discovered to be an alien craft, with a compartment inside that seems impenetrable to modern means to open it. The compartment suddenly opens and reveals occupants that appear to be large locust-like creatures. Quatermass, Roney, and Judd quickly remove the creatures and take them back to Roney’s lab for further study. What they discover in the lab will shake the very foundation of Earth’s history. What secrets do these insectoid creatures hold to the very existence of man on Earth? Where did these creatures come from and why did they travel to this planet?
Nigel Kneale’s excellent story and screenplay make for one of the best films from the Quatermass series. This film is atmospheric and thought-provoking and a much more pessimistic film than, “2001: A Space Odyssey“, a film released the same year as, “Quatermass and the Pit“. The direction of Roy Ward Baker keeps the film moving along at a wonderful pace and the overall atmosphere and acting only make this a film a must-see by sci-fi fans. Andrew Keir is perfectly cast in the role of Professor Quatermass, he combines the passion of the scientist with just the perfect touch of a man learning much more about his history than possibly wanted.
Julian Glover as Colonel Breen is a great antagonist to Quatermass, his unyielding views make his character much more interesting. James Donald and Barbara Shelley round out this top-notch cast with solid performances. “Quatermass and the Pit” or “Five Million Years To Earth” as it is also known is a fabulous combination of science fiction, horror and the occult. Hammer Studios did several science fiction films, but “Quatermass and the Pit” is one of the best and one film that all science fiction as well as Hammer fans should add to their list of “must-see” films.
2001: A Space Odyssey Story
Creationism? Evolutionism? While the debate rages on, viewers of “2001: A Space Odyssey” will be introduced to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s own vision. We begin at the Dawn of Man, many millenia ago. Prehistoric apes, our distant ancestors, wage a bitter and primitive war for survival. However, that starts to change one day when a mysterious black monolith appears overnight near their caves. From there, the learning begins. Tools, weapons, the monolith communicates the secrets of development to the creatures; the spark that will drive mankind has been created.
The year 1999 is now upon us. Ships, station s and satellites now fill the darkness of outer space. Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), noted space scientist, arrives at the Clavius moon base, under the guise of investigating an epidemic. However, at a briefing, it is revealed that something has been found on the moon. Some sort of alien artifact, around four million years old. Taking a shuttlecraft to the site of the discovery, it is revealed to be a large black monolith, eerily identical to the one the apes discovered so long ago. As the sun rises over the lunar surface, it emits a powerful signal into space, beamed in the direction of Jupiter.
It is now 2001, and the Discovery I, an American spacecraft, is on course to the planet Jupiter, man’s first trip this far into deep space. The ship is manned by astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), and three scientists in a state of artificial hibernation, as well as HAL 9000 (voice of Douglas Rain), am super-intelligent computer capable of independent thought.
The voyage is going smoothly – until HAL reports a malfunction of a critical unit that appears to be in error. No 9000 unit has ever made a mistake, causing David and Frank to discuss shutting HAL down. HAL then proceeds to go berserk, killing Frank and the hibernating scientists. After a harrowing ordeal with the psychotic machine that almost takes David’s life, he pulls the plug. But the Discovery is nearing Jupiter, and a startling find is awaiting David – a giant black monolith in orbit, exactly the same, except in size, to the others. David takes a space pod to investigate the object, resulting in a climax that is as thought provoking as it is visually stimulating.