The Lucky 13: Week Twelve: Sci-Fi Horror
by Brutal As Hell staff
Intro by Marc Patterson
The science fiction horror film is a unique brand of cinema that can take on many forms. It can be a formulated slasher, a jump scare heavy “gotcha” film, or even carry a heavy hand in political and social sub-text. One thing is certain in this genre, it inevitably explores our fears of the unknown, and takes us into dark spaces, and in most cases – quite literally.
This week in The Lucky 13 we talk about what our personal favorites are in this unique sub-genre of horror and once again the selections run the gamut. You’ll want to make sure to check out The Vault of Horror to see what Brian Solomon and crew have cooked up. With one week left in The Lucky 13 I can safely say that we’ve had a great time collaborating with The Vault of Horror on this summer long project are are sad to see it winding down. You’ll certainly not want to miss what we have in store for you next week. Now, without further ado… let’s batten down the hatches and launch ourselves into the unknown!
Marc Patterson on Alien:
I’ll let you all in on a little secret. I only own one of the Alien films, and that is numero uno, the original itself, Alien. I’m not saying anything slanderous towards the rest of the titles in the series. I actually enjoy them all very much, even *cough Alien Resurrection cough*. But I don’t love any of them as much as I do Alien. (Am I gushing yet? Because if not I’m about to start)
Even though the film was released in 1979 when I was a wee lad, I didn’t see this one until I was in high school and could catch it on VHS, sitting alone at home late at night. I’ll be honest, it scared me shitless. Then in my first year of college, and to my surprise, my professor in college dissected the film during an intro to film course. (Pun intended) It was during this scene by scene deconstruction that I really came to admire everything that Ridley Scott was doing on screen. It was one of the few films that really ignited my passion for not just horror, but cinema as a whole.
The script by Dan O’ Bannon (Return of the Living Dead) is sharp, fresh, original, and even today stands flawlessly against any other modern sci-fi horror flick, such as District 9, a film which in my opinion is the best sci-fi horror flick since Alien. Hell, for that matter it stands well against any genre film made since.
Like any good sci-fi film the pacing remains steady, yet slow, building the suspense carefully and methodically. I don’t know about you, but I’m generally worn out from the MTV generation style of filmmaking. God forbid a filmmaker slow things down and take time to develop deeper characterizations and a sense of suspense that will turn your stomach into knots. Alien is that slow boiling style of horror that sadly has become a lost art amongst most modern filmmakers. Even the new Alien films don’t come close to re-creating the brilliance of the original. With a quiet score that clangs, chirps, and echoes into your brain this film seeps into your psyche and becomes a very real nightmare.
The alien itself represents a larger, more perfect species, and while science officer Ash (Ian Holm) will declare that, “I admire its purity, its sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality,” his sense of wonder is at the same time contrasted with the innate human fear of the unknown, and an urgent need to survive. Ripley, (Sigourney Weaver) doesn’t share the doctor’s sentiment. For her she’d just as soon destroy the beast, and her sense of hatred is equally matched against the Aliens thirst for dominance. This primal battle taking place in space where “no one can hear you scream” provides enough sub-text to keep geeks chattering for days on end.
Simply put, Alien is a beautiful film that took the sci-fi genre into completely new territory. It’s not that sci-fi hadn’t seen “horrors” before, but not on this scale, and not with this depth. For all intents and purposes, this is as close to perfection as horror cinema gets.
Annie Riordan on Predator:
It starts out like any other adrenaline-driven, steroidal action movie: a squadron of camouflaged, testicular boneheads plow into the South American jungle to blow up some guerillas, spend about twenty minutes bulging their muscles and loading their weapons before finally emerging victorious from the smoke of battle amid many a lame one-liner and with a pretty female hostage on their hands to boot. You may not even be too alarmed when the first the first thermal POV shot presents you with an infrared vista and dead bodies begin turning up, skinned alive and hung upside down from their ankles like Ed Gein’s trophies.
If you’ve never seen or heard of 1987’s surprise sci-fi horror flick Predator, you might be as confused as I was the first time I saw this. Is it black ops? Columbian coke farmers? A rogue serial killer? Did someone splice a Ridley Scott film onto Commando? What the hell is going on? Patience, grasshopper – what’s going on becomes crystal clear soon enough: there’s a gigantic fucking extraterrestrial monster in them thar jungles, come to earth for the sole purpose of hunting down humans and collecting their skulls the way some little boys collect baseball cards.
Having grown bored with the sickening sweet ETs of the early 80s, Predator gave us a welcome change in scenery, presenting us with a hideous, ass-kicking goliath who made Arnold Schwarzenegger look like the Travelocity Gnome by comparison. We think – wrongly – that the soldiers who kick off the film are the ultimate badasses, armed to the teeth and able to withstand just about anything. They don’t have time to bleed, they’re sexual tyrannosauruses and R. Lee Ermey is their freaking C.O. But the Predator – played by the late Kevin Peter Hall, a 7 foot, 2 and a half inch tall colossus of a man – reduced them all to whimpering little girls, pissing in their army-issue panties.
Along with Giger’s Alien, the Predator is one of the all-time best and most memorable horror movie aliens, which is why the two were inevitably doomed to face off in 2004’s ho-hum Alien Vs. Predator. But this original, first film in what would soon become another horror franchise lit up the screen like an A-Bomb and made “Get to tha choppah!” almost as popular a phrase amongst NorCal’ers as “Hella.”
This is my absolute favorite guilty pleasure flick, and is the only Arnie flick I care to own. As a native NorCal liberal, I gotta say: it’s very therapeutic.
Britt Hayes on Moon
I think when it comes to sci-fi horror our minds automatically drift to space, and while Alien is definitely one of my favorite sci-fi horror films, the honor must go to Duncan Jones’ Moon.
Moon is the haunting tale of astronaut Sam Bell, stuck on a space station on – naturally – the moon. With only the companionship of robot GERTY (the soothing voice of Kevin Spacey, which will undoubtedly attract comparisons to 2001’s HAL), Sam seems to be handling his isolation pretty well. He receives communications from his wife and baby daughter regularly, and with his impending departure from the station, his spirits are rather high. But one day, Sam ventures outside the safe zone and has a little accident. When he wakes up, he is met by a man who looks just like him – a man who claims to be him. Has Sam finally lost his mind after three years of solitude?
Moon works effectively as both science fiction horror and psychological horror. As psychological horror, it bandies about the ideas of self image and sanity, and toys with not only Sam (played immaculately by Sam Rockwell, one of the best – and most overlooked – actors of this generation), but the audience as well. As the plot deepens, layers are peeled further back and new issues arise. Ethics and boundaries are crossed and questioned tremulously, and the seclusion of space adds the classic element of helplessness (“in space, no one can hear you scream”). Where Moon becomes science fiction is hard to describe without giving away the plot to those who – incredulously – have yet to see this astonishing film. The setting of the moon in the not-too-distant future and GERTY are pretty easy classifiers of science fiction, but the rest is spoiler territory.
Clint Mansell lends a beautiful, haunting score to support the film, and it really becomes a character of its own. (I have the score, and it’s honestly the best writing music.) Moon was shot for a fraction of a budget, using sets so polished you would never guess Jones had limited funds. As a first effort, it is one of the most effective, subdued pieces of science fiction horror I’ve seen in recent memory, although Danny Boyle’s Sunshine definitely comes in close second. Moon is a tragic, gut-wrenching, solemn tale, but perhaps the greatest tragedy is that you haven’t seen it yet.
Ben Bussey on Hardware
Looking to the future can be a spectacularly scary business. More often than not, it seems inevitable that the state of our world and our way of life will continue to go from bad to worse. As such, it’s no wonder that a large percentage of science fiction is so dystopian. Add horror to the mix, and the results can be unsettling indeed. A magnificent example of this is the debut (and to date penultimate, alas) feature film from writer-director Richard Stanley. On occasion Hardware has been described, or perhaps dismissed, as a British variation on The Terminator. Sure, at face value the two seem very similar. Both films centre on killer robots born of a nightmarish future, dedicated to ending the life of a young woman. Also, both were met with plagiarism lawsuits, the screenwriters having neglected to give credit to the stories they had slyly co-opted (Cameron having ripped off Harlan Ellison, and Stanley a 2000 AD comic strip). However, Hardware is a far cry from the fast-paced, action packed thrill ride that Cameron crafted; it’s a far more intimate, surreal, philosophical, and often unspeakably creepy movie that really gets under the skin.
Back on home ground after a stint in space, Mo (Dylan McDermott) reunites with his girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), an experimental sculptress and apparent agoraphobic, given that she never leaves her apartment. Along the way, Mo gets hold of a strange metal skull which he assumes to be the remains of a broken down maintenance droid, and gives it to Jill as a gift, thinking she can use it in her artwork. However, it turns out to be a prototype MARK 13, an intelligent robot capable of spontaneous self-reconstruction. Unsurprisingly, it’s not long before the machine wakes up, and sets out to serve its primary function: mass slaughter.
It may sound like a simple slasher with SF twist, and indeed that’s what the movie feels like at times, particularly in the almost entirely apartment-bound final act. But what makes Hardware so powerful, memorable, and genuinely unsettling is the world that Stanley paints in the background: a world ravaged by nuclear fallout, where every day is literally a fight to stay alive, where there is such scant hope that the only way to deal is to numb yourself: through solitude, through drugs, or in the case of William Hootkins’ character Lincoln, through voyeurism. Hootkins, most recognisable for his innocuous cameos in Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, goes a full 180 here, giving us one of the most frightening and repulsive sexual predators ever put to film; as much as the MARK 13 may be the big bad, Lincoln’s the real villain of the piece, a sickening presence that will cling to your subconscious like a stubborn stain.
And the other real star of the show: the soundtrack. Every bit as pivotal to the atmosphere as the production design and camerawork, the industrial rock of the day is utilised to astonishing effect. It’s perhaps inevitable this would be the case, given Stanley’s background directing music videos. Particularly brilliant, not to mention haunting, is the use of Public Image Limited’s The Order of Death (featured in the trailer below); much like Tubular Bells and The Exorcist, once you’ve heard the song used in the movie it’s impossible to disassociate the two. Although, while we’re on the subject of music: Iggy Pop’s turn as an unseen DJ is fine, but I for one could have done without the sore thumb of a cameo from Lemmy.
Damn it, man, I’m running out of space but I feel there’s so much more to say about this movie. I haven’t even touched on the heavy metaphysical overtones, or how John Lynch’s Shades plays like a semi-blueprint for Cassidy in the comic book Preacher, nor even gone into detail on the wonderfully excessive death scenes. I guess I’ll wrap it up by saying the obvious: if you haven’t seen Hardware, I thoroughly recommend you do so at the earliest opportunity. Then see Dust Devil. Then lament the absence of any further films from Richard Stanley, and join me in hoping he’ll come back to us soon.