Horror Triple Feature – Alien/It! The Terror from Beyond Space/Planet of the Vampires
I watch at least 31 scary movies in October for no other reason than I can. It’s fun, and why the hell wouldn’t I? This year I kicked off a little early on September 30th by watching Alien on the big(ish) screen at the Grand Illusion Cinema in Seattle. During my film journey this month, I’ve watched a couple of other movies that predate Alien, but are surprisingly similar to it. I don’t know for sure that the creators of Alien saw these movies, but I would not be at all surprised if they had. All three movies deal with rescue missions on inhospitable planets, but each one is enjoyable for a completely different reason. Also, for full disclosure, I can never tell the difference between airshafts and engineering access tunnels in space movies, so I’m just gonna call them airshafts. This will make more sense later.
Alien (1979): I don’t really know what I can say about this movie that has not already been said, but I’ll give it a try. I was only eleven when this film came out, so I did not get to see it in the theater, but I did read the novelization by Alan Dean Foster. (Which scared the crap out of me.) I ended up seeing it much later with my parents, once we had finally gotten a VCR. (It also scared the crap out of me. The movie, not the VCR.) I’m going to give the short version of the synopsis, because a lot of people have already seen this movie, and if you haven’t, you should stop reading immediately, go watch the movie, and then come back and finish this article. Your life will be better for it. I am also going to give away the ending because I am going to be referring to it when writing about the other movies. You have been forewarned.
On their way back to earth, the crew of mining ship Nostromo is woken early from their deep sleep to attend to a transmission from an unknown planet. As part of their employment contract, they must investigate the signal or forfeit their pay. They find an abandoned ship that contains a giant skeleton of an alien species, and one of the crew finds a room full of eggs. The contents of one of those eggs manages to attach itself to the face of the crewman Kane (John Hurt). They get Kane back on board the ship, try to remove the parasite, fail because it has acid blood, and freak out. Eventually, the alien disengages and goes off to die. Unfortunately, it has inserted something/laid another type of egg in Kane, and it decides to hatch in the most direct way possible—through his chest. The new little alien escapes and very quickly becomes a big alien, hunting down the ship’s crew by travelling through the airshafts. Eventually, the last survivor, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), manages to launch herself and the ship’s cat, Jones, in the ship’s shuttle before the Nostromo self-destructs. Unfortunately, they have a hitchhiker on board, and Ripley must save herself by donning her spacesuit and expelling the deadly alien from the airlock.
I have a friend who thinks this film is dead boring, and there are others who share that opinion. I do not know what the hell they are talking about. There is no way around it; this movie is scary. Some of the scares are based on anticipation, and others are based on surprise. The look of the movie is beautiful and the special effects have held up really well over the last 32 years. I’ve watched this movie over and over again, and it remains my favorite in the franchise because it has all the components of a great film: excellent story, wonderful performances, believable world-building, and some subtext thrown in as well. The next movie in the series, Aliens, is bigger, faster, and stronger, but I don’t think it’s better. It’s more fun maybe, but it cannot capture the dread one feels waiting for a glimpse of the alien in the airshaft.
It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958): The planet: Mars. The situation: deadly. A rescue ship has been sent to Mars to respond to an SOS. While exploring the Red Planet, the crew of the first ship was killed off one by one, and the only survivor, Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson), maintains his innocence. He is being escorted back to Earth on the second ship to face a court-martial for MURDER! While planning for departure, one of the men leaves the emergency airlock open and unattended for a while and something with a mysterious shadow sneaks onto the ship.
As they begin their journey back to Earth, Carruthers tells his story of what happened back on Mars. As he and the rest of the crew were returning to base one day, something unseen started grabbing the explorers and killing them until only he was left. Most of the crew of the second ship has their doubts about his story, until one by one they also start disappearing, and are later found with all of the moisture sucked out of their bodies. They discover one of the men in an airshaft, and realize that is where the creature has been hiding. They try to destroy the alien using guns, hand grenades, poison gas, and radiation. None of these remedies work, and as a last resort, they all don their spacesuits, open the airlock, and remove all of the oxygen from the room. The monster dies because there is no air for his giant lungs to breathe, and the ship resumes its course to Earth.
This is a fun, if somewhat stolid, movie. Its small budget shows with simple sets and a guy in a monster suit, but those limitations did not at all mar my enjoyment of this film. There’s nothing flashy here, but it has a good story, and the actors seem to take the premise seriously. There is a certain mindset that fans of B-movie sci-fi and horror must have, which is the ability to see beyond the cheap effects and wooden acting to find the core of the movie: a great story or idea. (An appreciation of cheese is also often useful.) This movie has the same elements as Alien: an alien hunts down the crew of a ship on its way to Earth, and even the airshaft and airlock details match up, but it’s done on a much smaller scale. Alien is by far the superior movie, but that doesn’t mean that the simpler pleasures of this movie can’t be enjoyed as well.