FRIGHT-Day: Terror in Space

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Every Friday in October, The Open Man is spotlighting genres and themes of horror cinema. This is FRIGHT-Day! For the faint of heart, remind yourself: It’s only a blog.

Much of the thrill of horror is the unknown. Likewise, the genre lends itself to creativity; the best works are completely unique concepts, no matter if the creator is H.P. Lovecraft, Terence Fisher, John Carpenter or Wes Craven.

Thus, taking horror to the greatest unknown space for humankind — space itself — is a natural fit. The end result of combining the final frontier and the darkest recesses of man’s mind is varied. Some of the worst films in horror cinema use outer space as their location, but so do some of the very best.

The bad include such entries as Hellraiser: Bloodline. The Hellraiser franchise really didn’t space as a backdrop, considering the original premise was rooted in its own unknown universe of the Afterlife, but the series was already running on fumes by its third installment.

Couple that with production issues, and the finished product is terribly uninteresting.

Leprechaun was goofy from the outset, so blasting Warwick Davis into the cosmos really wasn’t a desperate attempt to revitalize the franchise so much as it was a natural progression of campiness. Similarly, I personally feel criticisms of Jason X are misplaced. Nine previous installments had already rendered the zombified mama’s boy into a punchline, so why not play that up with a tongue-in-cheek entry beyond the stars?

But as misplaced or silly the concept of horror in space may be in certain franchises, the proper execution of the idea produces classics.

1979’s Alien is one of those rare horror films that transcends the genre. It’s acclaimed simply as an excellent movie, but it’s execution makes it a quintessential horror title.

Alien takes elements of the unknowns in space, manifested in the xenomorph — a horror monster on par with Dracula, Michael Myers or Freddy Kruger in terms of recognizability and originality — and blends them with a very real, natural fear: claustrophobia.

Alien touches on the same primal fear that attracts us to haunted houses. Being in a confined area with a terrifying…something is simply nerve-racking.

Aliens eschews the claustrophobic feeling for the sensation of running for ones life. Have you ever been working on a landscaping project, moved aside a bush, and discovered a nest of rattlesnakes? No?

I have. And let me assure you, the marines entering into the xenomorph hive triggers the same immediate feeling of fight-or-flight.

The first installments in the Alien franchise were game-changers for horror. A flood of space-themed films attempted to capitalize; schlockmeister Roger Corman pumped out a variety of cash-ins that varied in quality. Galaxy of Terror is worth a watch.

Alien life-forms as a central antagonist spawned much better spiritual successors than any of the direct copycats, though. The years following Alien brought the mystery of space and time to Earth in the form of the titular creature from The Thing.

John Carpenter is one of the greatest horror film creators of all-time, so it’s no surprise his turn in the outer space sub-genre is an all-time classic. The Thing is actually a remake of The Thing from Another World, which came from the first wave of space-themed horror in the 1950s.

Alien‘s release three years prior to The Thing reinvigorated the genre, and the next decade produced The Terminator; Predator; and less popular but worthwhile films like From Beyond.

Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, From Beyond was less about outer space so much as an existence beyond Earth. Either way, it’s gained cult significance in recent years — much like the Cannon Film Group title Lifeforce, which was very much an outer-space horror story.

Lifeforce is utterly bizarre, but completely unique and underrated. It’s the 1980s version of Event Horizon, another under-appreciated space horror film.

Event Horizon arrived in theaters in 1997, one year after the disastrous Hellraiser: Bloodline. That’s noteworthy, because Event Horizon successfully combines the elements Bloodline employed unsuccessfully, weaving space travel with our cultural understanding of Heaven and Hell.

More recent attempts at blending space travel, aliens and horror have fallen flat. The Alien vs. Predator series was disappointing; The Thing remake fell well short of its predecessor; Pandorum missed the mark; Prometheus was good, but not quite up to par with the first two Alien films.