Haunted Houses In Space

Alien, Event Horizon, Ship of Fools, Pandorum, Hull Zero Three, Life, Nightflyers, Dead Space, the list goes on. The basic premise of these stories are the same and boils down to a haunted house in space. It may sound like an odd combination, the haunted house in space, but when executed, this meshing of two genres usually produces some imaginative and scary sci-fi horror stories, films, TV shows, games, etc.

Why is this so? It all goes back to the concept that both genres when blended deal with the fear of the unknown. We don’t know what lies out in space, what we’ll encounter. But a core aspect of the classic haunted house story is the location itself. In such stories the protagonist is stuck in an old house and has to confront ghostly or demonic forces. Many of them are very terrifying and what makes them even more unsettling are their alleged basis on real events like The Conjuring films.

With sci-fi horror films the premise is moved out of rickety old houses and into a sci-fi setting, usually a spaceship or space station or a planet itself. Obvious examples include the mentioned films and games. Let’s focus on Alien. On a side note, its premise wasn’t new when the film came out in 1979 as a similar film It! The Terror from Beyond Space hit theaters way back in 1958.  Anyway, the crew of the space freighter Nostromo are hunted in their own spaceship by a murderous extra-terrestrial or xenomorph. Here you have the Nostromo, a spaceship, taking the place of the haunted house while the xenomorph is a perfect stand-in for a demonic entity or a ghost that is difficult to track. Adding to the horror element of Alien is the claustrophobic feel the spaceship emits. Corridors are dark and foreboding, hiding unexpected perils.

This type of setting highlighted the cult classic Event Horizon, a film that its director actually envisioned as a haunted house story in space. The spaceship design of the title ship is Gothic, cold, and even a bit Lovecraftian. Meanwhile, the non corporeal forces the rescue crew face are perfect updates on demonic forces and spirits as the film infers the spaceship Event Horizon actually traveled to hell and back.

What made the concept of Alien and others even more chilling is that unlike the traditional haunted house story, the characters don’t have anywhere else to go. They’re genuinely trapped. They cannot exactly just step outside the spaceship, it’s they’re life-giving oasis in the inhospitable environment of outer space. A common complaint about haunted house stories is that if a house is haunted why not just leave it and move someplace else? This doesn’t take into account poltergeists and demons that follow a victim everywhere, or the financial burden with suddenly leaving a home, but the question does have merit. The alien or other threat is on a spaceship deep in the cosmos? You’re stuck, my friend. Unless you want to take your chances with a lifepod in the middle of space, which ironically is how many of these sci-fi horror stories conclude. It’s that or take your chances and confront the threat head on.

Thinking about the characters’ limitations and the somewhat plausible nature of the threat then it’s easy to see why this type of sci-fi horror story is superior to a traditional haunted house tale.

 

 

 

Science Fiction & Horror: The Perfect Combination

Science fiction and horror have blended well together like peanut butter and chocolate for a long time. One of the earliest examples is Mary Shelley’s classic literary work Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and the melding continues to this day with assorted books, films, comic books, games and other media. Some of the standouts include the Alien films, I Am Legend, The Tommyknockers, the Predator films, Resident Evil, Event Horizon, The Fly, Dead Space, 28 Days Later, A Quiet Place, The Thing (and its source novel Who Goes There?), etc.

Why have the two genres been able to be combine so perfectly? That is to be debated since there are so many reasons and it may not be clear to many. But it can arguably be due for one factor and that is that the genre combo zeroes in to the fear of the unknown. Think about it, what makes horror so tantalizing is that it addresses what we’re afraid of, and that is ultimately death because it is the great unknown. What lies beyond death? Is it truly the end or the pathway to something truly horrific? Science fiction works have dealt with the nature of death and what it entails. As mentioned before, Frankenstein was all about defeating death and the horror of achieving this as Dr. Frankenstein found a way to bring the dead back to life through scientific means rather than using the supernatural.

Obviously it is the use of science or its grounded setting that sets science fiction horror separate from regular horror. And it is why it can be more unsettling…

With the regular horror genre, anyone experiencing it can take some small comfort with the idea in the back of the head that the horror story is implausible. There isn’t any way that a dead corpse will come back to life and start eating you, and despite all the so-called reality ghost hunting TV shows, the existence of spiritual entities still has not been scientifically proven. With films like The Thing, Alien or A Quiet Place, what makes them so terrifying is that we can encounter extra-terrestrial life that means us harm. Science experiments, research and discoveries that should benefit humanity can lead to disastrous results as seen in The Fly, Nightflyers, Event Horizon, Demon Seed, Blindsight, and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Then there is the sub-genre in science fiction and horror of humanity grappling with devastating diseases that falls into horror. Some like The Andromeda Strain are clear cut stories where diseases outright decimates us, but other works uses diseases to bring about body horror tales or create tenuously plausible zombie yarns. Examples include The Fireman, Black Hole, 28 Days Later, Cross, I Am Legend, and the Resident Evil franchise. Of course, saying that the events shown in these works are plausible is stretching things and as with any fictional work requires suspension of belief. But when the stories work and terrify us, they work quite well to the point that our rational brains stop questioning and start reacting to the horror of these stories.

Another thing to consider about how well the two genres blend so well is that the stories are often contemporary or take place in the future. These settings also lend to the feeling that what happens in them are possible. We don’t know that the first alien life we will encounter in the future will try to eat us or that using FTL will open a gateway to a hellish dimension. We cannot say for certain that these horrific events will happen.

What is even more unsettling is that what will actually occur in the future or just a few minutes from now can be far worse than what our puny minds can imagine. It all feeds into fear of the unknown and is why science fiction and horror are the perfect combination for storytelling.

 

All Hail Godzilla: King Of The Monsters

Despite what many critics are blaring, the latest American Godzilla film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is quite enjoyable. There are issues with the film, which is part of Legendary Entertainment’s Monsterverse cinematic universe, and I was hoping we would have gotten the definitive Godzilla film from Hollywood. That goal still evades us, but this film is a solid B, which is kind of appropriate given this can be considered a B-film even though Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a blockbuster event film.

The film’s plot is not complicated. A bunch of giant monsters are awakened from their prehistoric slumber; these include the famous kaijus Rodan, Mothra and the big baddie himself Ghidorah. These monsters start vying for the top spot as the apex Titan and joining this conflict is humanity’s most unexpected hope: the king himself, Godzilla.

To be clear, this film is a continuation of the Garth Edwards Godzilla released in 2014. The events from that film are mentioned here with a couple of characters returning, though this film focuses on a largely new cast. Godzilla was an enjoyable reboot of the Hollywood version of Godzilla and comparing the two, I’d have to say I prefer Godzilla: King of the Monsters because of all the epic kaiju battles. The monster scenes are the film’s best parts, they’re just amazing and beautifully choreographed. Their scale is simply jawdropping. The special effects are topnotch and the super powerful fight scenes are meant to be seen on the big screen!  Even compared to the Japanese versions, this film has the best Godzilla fight scenes I’ve ever seen. Godzilla: King of the Monsters also does an interesting job of showing the monsters’ place in world history and expands upon the mythology shown in the previous two films of the Monsterverse, Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island.

Believe it or not, the scenes with the humans are well done for the most part except for a flaw I’ll get to. The actors like Kyle Chandler and Millie Bobby Brown turn in fine performances that are not one-note like in Godzilla. The first Monsterverse film was hobbled with forgettable actors except for Bryan Cranston and he was not around too long in Godzilla. The big issue with the humans in this sequel, which bogs the film is that the humor falls flat most of the time. It feels forced and annoying. We came to see the film for giant monsters not bad attempts at comedy. Another problem with the film is that it lacks a suspension of disbelief. There a many scenes where the characters are right in the middle of intense monster action or are interacting directly with the kaiju and nothing happens to them, even though there is debris flying all around them. In previous kaiju films, the humans were always far away from the action and it was believable that they did not get hurt. But here, they’re right in the middle of the action and nothing happens to them. Sorry, but this is unbelievable and took me out of the film.

Putting the gripes about the film aside, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an enjoyable blockbuster. It has its issues and deserved to be better but it is what it is, a big romp of a kaiju movie. While not as great as other cinematic universes, the Monsterverse is delivering consistently entertaining films and hopefully next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong will up the ante and be an improvement.

Walter L. Stevenson

Alien: In Space No One Can Hear You Scream 40 Years Later

This month marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most influential sci-fi/horror films, Alien. Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Dan O’Bannon from a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the film shocked and thrilled unsuspecting audiences in theaters and continues to scare us to this day.

Alien is still regarded as a landmark film that successfully merged two of the best genres in cinema, science fiction and horror. Its success is evident in the way that it showcases a universe that seems real and almost used up in a way and draws us in with its terrifying premise. The movie starts with a crew of interesting characters that are in basically an outer space version of a tug ship called the Nostromo carrying ore back to Earth. Their journey is interrupted by a signal from a planet along their path that gets them to stop at a desolate world that houses what turns out to be a parasitic alien life form that impregnates one of their crew and then kills him as it bursts out of his chest in one of the most iconic and horrifying scenes in movie history.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of the ship gives off the vibe of a haunted house in outer space that builds tension as the crew is killed off one by one until only Lt. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) is left to fend off the creature. The death of Captain Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt) earlier in the film was shocking and let audiences know that no one was safe and ratcheted up the tension even more.

The setting of the movie is also interesting from a sci-fi standpoint. It is very different from previous films that came before it such as 2001, which had a very clean, almost sterile look to it. Alien basically features a group of truckers in space flying what looks like an oil rig, trying to make a living hauling fuel for a faceless corporation that ultimately sees them as expendable.

Alien is set in the near future (early 22nd century), but still has a somewhat familiar feel with the bridge and living quarters having a lived-in look. The tension and mistrust between the crew members, caused by things like pay disputes and later on the threat of the alien, is also realistic and puts the characters in a relatable light. This universe would be expanded in subsequent sequels, some more successful than others, that further explored this unique take on our future that featured colonial marines and prison planets that always had humans facing off against the insidious aliens trying to wipe them out.

Another landmark of Alien is the design of the creature itself. Designed by H.R. Giger, it is both hideous and beautiful at the same time as well as incredibly original. Its dual mouth and razor sharp teeth and skeletal appearance is the stuff of nightmares and stands with any other horror icon.

The slow but methodical way in which the alien kills off the crew of the Nostromo builds the suspense of the film until the very end. The design of the crab-like creature that plants the alien xenomorph in unfortunate crew member Kane is also something that is instinctively unnerving to the audience, as well its brutal way of giving birth to its offspring. Later movies would add some wrinkles to the xenomorph design but the basic look of the creature is still based on Giger’s incredibly unique design.

All of these unique qualities resulted in a new genre of film, sci-fi/horror, which led to such films like Event Horizon, and Life and even influenced other mediums like video games such as popular fare like Doom and Dead Space that also feature humans in space facing off against similar alien threats. Alien’s success also inevitable led to a veritable industry of cheaper knockoffs that has the same basic plot of space crew finding an alien that wipes them out. Obviously none of them could match the seemingly perfect combination of chills, mystery and monsters in space that makes the original Alien still a classic film four decades after its release.

Weaver’s portrayal of Ripley is iconic as well and served as the blueprint for subsequent strong female leads in movies such as Linda Hamilton’s role of Sarah Connor in the Terminator series, Katniss Everdeen, Kira Nerys, Furiosa, and most recently the film version of Alita.

Needless to say, Ripley is one of the many influential aspects of Alien and among the greatest on-screen heroines that re-shaped the role of the female protagonist in cinema.

The franchise spawned by this movie is still ongoing as well, all these years later. The first sequel Aliens is a classic sci-fi action movie. Subsequent entries and spinoffs such as Alien 3, Alien: Covenant, Prometheus, and Alien vs. Predator were not as well received, but I have enjoyed all of them and look forward to more movies that take us back to this rich universe populated by arguably the scariest creatures in space ever imagined.

C.S. Link

Top 10 Twilight Zone Episodes From The 1980s

The Twilight Zone has been in the public eye lately with the new version streaming on CBS All Access and the fact that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the original TV show. As many focus on Rod Serling’s masterpiece or Jordan Peele’s new take on the sci-fi, fantasy, horror anthology series, the first Twilight Zone revival from the 1980s often gets overlooked. That is a shame because in its own right The Twilight Zone from the 1980s was high caliber.

Many episodes were well done and ranged in quality from solid to so outstanding that it would be easy to imagine Rod Serling himself approving of the episodes to be included with his version. Respected and revered talents such as Wes Craven, William Friedkin, Joe Dante, Harlan Ellison, George R.R. Martin and J. Michael Straczynski worked behind the scenes to bring forth thought provoking or imaginative episodes that challenged viewers.

What made this revival stand out is that the showrunners allowed the stories to run as long as they should. Several stories only lasted about ten minutes and were the better for it. The most important thing in this version, like the original, is that the story was the most important element with fascinating morality plays, twist endings and allegories.

While respecting the original by mostly adhering to its high standards in terms of storytelling, not every episode was memorable, especially in its third and final season. Nonetheless, The Twilight Zone from the 1980s deserves a close examination since so many episodes are worthy of the Twilight Zone name.

Submitted for your approval are the top 10 Twilight Zone episodes from the 1980s:

10. “The Cold Equations”

A space pilot (Terence Knox) delivering critical medical supplies in his small spaceship discovers a stowaway (Christianne Hirt) which upsets the ship’s fuel ratio and endangers the mission. This adaptation of Tom Godwin’s short story effectively conveys a message about human emotion vs the cold, hard physics of space travel.

9. “Many, Many Monkeys”

This episode was originally written for the original show back in 1964 but was never used. In it a blindness epidemic sweeps the world and a nurse (Karen Valentine) struggles to treat her suddenly blind patients. It doesn’t take long to find out that their condition is related to their callous and selfish demeanor.

8. “Shelter Skelter”

Joe Mantegna plays a paranoid survivalist whose nightmare comes true. An apparent nuclear attack strands him in his fallout shelter as he prepares to deal with the outside world that will never intrude his home. This was a great look into a paranoid mind of the survivalist as he descends into madness and the ending was a true and ironic twist.

7. “The Last Defender of Camelot”

George R.R. Martin wrote this imaginative episode that adapts Roger Zelazny’s short story about Sir Lancelot (Richard Kiley) who is still alive but elderly in modern times. He reunites with Merlin (Norman Lloyd) and Morgan Le Fay (Jenny Agutter). Lancelot is soon caught up in a power struggle between the two as Merlin reveals his plans to take over the world for the betterment of humankind and Lancelot has to stop him.

6. “Cold Reading”

Several radio actors in the 1930s perform a live radio play and quickly learn to their horror that their script actually comes to life when spoken. For instance, when someone mentions that it’s raining in the story, the studio is quenched in an indoor rainstorm. Quite humorous and inventive, it’s fun to watch the actors and writers hastily rewriting the script in order to prevent dangerous things from appearing. The episode’s ending is very cute.

5. “I of Newton”

Perhaps the funniest and coolest Twilight Zone episode is also one of its shortest. Sherman Hemsley is a frustrated math professor who offhandedly wishes to sell his soul to solve a math problem. Enter a demon (played with fiendish aplomb by Ron Glass), who shows up to collect. The professor then desperately tries to talk his way out of the unwanted bargain. The lines and their delivery, particularly from Glass, were sparkling and full of vigor. When watching “I of Newton” take time to check out the demon’s always-changing t-shirts (ex: “Hell is a city much like Newark”)!

4. “A Small Talent for War”

It can be said that this short episode is a worthy companion to the classic “To Serve Man” from the original Twilight Zone. Giant aliens arrive on Earth and announce that they seeded humanity eons ago. They also intend to wipe out the human race because of its “small talent for war”. The UN Security Council then frantically tries to negotiate world peace to demonstrate to the aliens that humanity is worth sparing. What happens next is one of the most ironic endings in Twilight Zone history.

3, “The Toys of Caliban”

A rather touching and wrenching story co-written by George R.R. Martin about a young mentally challenged man (David Greenlee) with unusual powers. He is capable of conjuring to life whatever he sees or imagines, which could be disastrous. This forces his parents (Richard Mulligan and Anne Haney) to keep him sheltered to avoid unfortunate incidents. This only works for so long as exposure to the outside world disrupts their lives and forces the father to take extreme steps to ensure the safety of the world.

2. “Profile in Silver”

The tired time travel trope of someone trying to change history is given a jolt with this unexpectedly inventive episode. Lane Smith is a professor from the 22nd century who time travels to Dallas in 1963 to witness the assassination of his ancestor John F. Kennedy (Andrew Robinson). He decides to stop the incident and unlike other time travel stories, he succeeds and the result is unsettling. Soon the world is on the brink of World War III and the professor has to find a way to undo his actions. The ending is not only genuinely surprising but very stirring and a statement about the nobility of humankind.

1. “To See the Invisible Man”

The Twilight Zone is famed for presenting allegorical yarns, morality plays and statements about our society. This episode is a perfect example. Like in the original Twilight Zone, this story takes place in an imaginary society where Mitchell Chaplin (Cotter Smith) is punished for his unfriendly behavior. He is sentenced to a year of invisibility and has a mark placed on his forehead. At that point, he is ignored by everyone around him, which he finds liberating. Over time, Chaplin comes to disdain his nonexistence and yearns for human interaction. “To See the Invisible Man” represents the very best of The Twilight Zone as it examines the morality of the punishment and an astute character study. It also is a damning look at a society that imposes certain behaviors which deny free will. With so much to offer this is the best episode of The Twilight Zone from the 1980s.

Honorable Mentions:

“Act Break”, “The Elevator”, “Examination Day”, “Gramma”,  “Her Pilgrim Soul”,  “A  Matter of Minutes”, “Need to Know”,  “Nightcrawlers”, “The Once and Future King”, “Paladin of the Lost Hour”, “The Star”, “Still Life”, “Wordplay”

Have any of you seen this version of The Twilight Zone? What are your thoughts on the show and the episodes on this list? Take a moment to leave your comments below.

José Soto