Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Past, Present and Future of Sci-Fi Horror

gotta/enk cohort Stephanie Cox-Williams, Supreme Commander of Gort and "the Tom Savini of Off-Off Broadway," tells us that "Sci-Fi Horror" has been around a lot longer than since it started actually being called "Sci-Fi Horror." Join Stephanie where no one can hear you scream

It was a dark and stormy night.

There were sounds, a humming, coming from below the floor.

I looked, and I could see nothing.

In space no one can hear you scream.

The above are some good ways a horror story can start out.

For most, “Sci-Fi Horror” may seem like a relatively new genre, really only hitting its stride cinematically with Alien (1979). However, this genre has been around and lumped into every other Science Fiction subgenre for a long time (maybe because horror, for a long time, was seen as camp or unintelligent mind candy).

Since the 1950s, some science fiction has followed the outline of the classic horror plot and played heavily on the fear of what we do not know – and outer space, being chock full of mysteries, has always been a field ripe for the picking. Take, for example, The Thing (From Another World) (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). 

Theaters that screened The Thing (From Another World) had nurses and doctors on call to make sure that audience members wouldn’t have a heart attack or faint at the sight of the “Thing”; there were accounts of women fainting during some of the first viewings so they actually re-cut the movie to show less of the alien creature. My father saw this when he was very young at the drive-in and that night, while sleepwalking, crawled over his sleeping brother and out the window above him and ended up walking into the street.  When someone found him and brought him back home, he said he had a nightmare that the “Thing” was chasing him. The old horror movies thrive on such stories.

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we are quietly taken over by an alien race, inhabiting our bodies and making us devoid of humanity and human emotion … something far more frightening than a dream demon or a robot sent to kill the mother of the future human resistance. Here, we fall asleep only to wake up in a never-ending nightmare of being controlled by something alien in an attempt to create a “better race of humans,” an overarching theme that goes back to the horrors of World War II and Hitler’s SS regime – an idea (and practice) more “horrific” than “science fiction.” 

The Day the Earth Stood Still is probably less horrifying and more a tale of caution as one of the first “humanoid” aliens tries to tell us that the Earth’s newfound atomic energy has made all of the very highly advanced alien beings out there in the universe very nervous. Indeed, if we use space travel to destroy and/or take over outer space civilizations with our atomic bombs, then they will sick their large indestructible robots on us.

The journey of this film is really that of an alien on another world as he tries to discern how aggressive our race is. And then there is the indestructible robot named Gort – from the beam of light where its eyes should be, it can zap and kill a human being with one blink. Here the “horror” comes from an alien being that is a technological advancement, not from the humanoid alien who can speak English. Its ominous silence and us not knowing where or when he may strike next makes the robot horrifying.

Flash forward closer to my day and age and you get some really good remakes of Invasion and The Thing. Along with that comes to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and, of course, the beloved Alien (1979).

Before I get into those two, however, here are some other horrific sci-fi films that made an impression on me at a tender young age:

  1. The Black Hole (1979) takes place in space within the proximity of a black hole. There is only one human on board the USS Cygnus as the rest of the crew are robots, including this really scary one that floats and looks like a linebacker on a football team. (SPOILER) Actually, the captain of the ship lobotomized his crew after they mutinied and turned them into the robot crew. The film also stars Anthony Perkins – the presence of the “Psycho” star automatically gives it a scary edge. Even though it’s a Disney flick and has some cute laughs, The Black Hole could easily be categorized as Sci-Fi Horror.
  2. Tron (1982) this one doesn’t technically happen in space but within a mainframe of a super-computer. Our hero gets zapped into the mainframe and must play for his life against other computer programs and the Master Control Program, which is a large spinning talking column creature of death. The closing scene with the MCP was pretty horrific for me as a child. 
  3. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979): I had nightmares about getting turned into the representative of V’Ger, bald and with a shining disc in the middle of my neck. This isn’t really a Sci-Fi Horror film, but the idea of a human being losing their conscience and their soul and killed just to relay a message to other humans is pretty horrific.
2001: A Space Odyssey is probably one of the slowest examples of “slow-burn horror.” I remember seeing this film at a very young age on network television, and after I had seen what they called the sequel - 2010: The Year We Make Contact - I knew I needed to go back and watch the original. I tried to watch it on and off again for years before finally getting through this epic movie that’s divided into four major sections.

It’s interesting as - with almost no dialogue - the tension level of the first section (“The Dawn of Man”) becomes a bit unnerving, either because you want one of the characters to just say something or because the film really does create a sense of mystery as to what you are watching and what you could be waiting for. 

Once the crew of the Discovery is en route to Jupiter, the movie really feels like three shorter films connected together. This is where the real horror comes in as we have our three-person crew sleeping soundly while two mild-mannered pilots – Bowman and Poole - spend years at the wheel. They are utterly alone. 

Then we get to the red glowing light of HAL 9000, the computer. Here we find the computer that we programmed and created turning against the crew, killing them all except for Bowman. And then there’s the creepy end to HAL, singing “Daisy Bell,” the first song he ever learned. Right before he goes, he asks Bowman if he can sing it to him.  

Then there’s the portion of the movie that’s a surrealistic journey through color, time and space with Bowman. I remember being a little bit scared and apprehensive of the black monolith and still am a bit to this day.

Alien is the first science fiction film (that I know of) to be categorized as a “science fiction horror film” or Sci-Fi Horror. This was the embodiment of a haunted house in space. Now, granted, I saw Aliens first and then went back to Alien a year or so later, but both more or less follow a familiar sci-fi formula: Outer space, no escape, an alien race that only cares about surviving and making prey/food out of anything in its way … and, of course the new spin - you can’t kill it because it bleeds acid.  

However, the kicker of this series was the idea that the aliens - although, very, very scary - were just as scary as humankind. In the first iteration, “The Company” deemed the humans on the ship expendable and demanded the capture of this horrific creature at any cost. The second was a human being, a friend, from “The Company” who made us all believe he was in it to destroy these creatures and save the settlers on the planet; however, this was not the case. The third was technically “The Company” as an entity again. The fourth was yet again humans - military this time - trying to harness the aliens to finally make/train them to be a military weapon.

Alien and all its iterations made for the perfect horror movie - fearing the alien, the fear of being trapped with nowhere to run, no communication with anyone who can help you, fearing the wiping out of the human race and fearing your own neighbor.

I work with a lot of independent theatre productions and I have definitely seen a surge of more film-like theatre productions. One genre that is attempted on stage again and again is horror, whether with a yearly Halloween production or going back to the roots of splatter in the style of grand guignol. Last year, I was asked to assist in over five zombie productions for independent theatre and thought that this was going to go on for a long time.  

However, the beginning of this year brought a different tune. It started with The Honeycomb Trilogy produced by Gideon Productions, a three-part story of aliens invading the Earth in an attempt to save it from the humans slowly destroying it by using up all its resources, the alien occupation of the Earth, the end of that occupation and the beginning of the new human race. This epic journey took into account the horror of the destruction of the family unit, where the killer slowly picks the family off one by one - or, like in the remake of The Thing, everyone finally stops trusting and loving one another. 

Now I am in the midst of working on effects/gore for another Sci-Fi Horror piece called Motherboard, set in 2485, 20 years after a barely-suppressed robot uprising wiped out most of humanity. This play follows the last robot, a humanoid nanny unit, as she reawakens into this world her kind wrought and tries to find her place in it. This show is chocked full of horrific scenes of death and destruction in a futuristic new reality. 

This brings me to thinking that maybe we are coming back to fearing the unknown of space and technology; that this will be the genre that will start to dominate film and theatre. Maybe with the advancements of technology moving faster than we can keep up comes the idea that maybe we are moving too fast. Maybe these tales are telling us to take a moment, look to the heavens, be prepared and be amazed at what will come. 

No comments:

Post a Comment