The Best Sci-fi/Horror Mash-ups, Part 1: The Origins
Growing up, I always noticed a strange disconnect amongst horror and science fiction fans. It was almost as if you could be a fan of one, but not both. Typically, horror fans were referred to as geeks, while sci-fi fans were dubbed nerds, even though they amount to about the same thing, really, if you think about it.
Yet, even among the outcasts, there was a noticeable divide. Sci-fans tended to be the intellectual, computer-savvy types; while horror fans were seen as the weirdoes, the loners. Sci-fi was a forward-thinking genre; horror was seen as base and beneath most “normal” people. I myself was a die-hard horror fan, and for the most part, I just didn’t “get” sci-fi at all.
A funny thing has happened over the years, though. It’s as if an essential line of thinking shifted altogether and people- or at least the mainstream- realized that not only was there room for both to co-exist peacefully, but to join forces. As a direct result, the two previously disparate genres now co-mingle at all the various Cons: Comic, Dragon, or otherwise- not to mention at the local multiplex.
Further, both genres are big business now and have shown appeal that clearly goes beyond outcast status or previous lines of thinking. Indeed, female fans, once thought to be completely non-existent in the horror and sci-fi camps, now make up a sizable portion of each genre’s respective audiences. One only need look at footage from the aforementioned Cons to recognize that these genres have plenty of female fans, and that they are just as die-hard as the males these days. Now that’s progress.
Of course, it didn’t happen overnight, nor did it just happen out of nowhere. A key part of the puzzle was the two previously disparate crowds learning to respect one another. A big part of that was the various films over the years that sought to bridge the gap between the two genres, and it is that which I seek to pay homage to today.
In this first installment, I show the roots of horror and sci-fi joining forces. Keep in mind this is merely an overview. Space doesn’t permit me to get too comprehensive, but by all means if I forgot one of your favorites, let me know, but keep in mind that this part only covers the early days, right up to the end of the 70’s, so you’ll have to tune into the next installment for the 80s and beyond.
Be sure to click on the hyperlinks for links to info, clips, music, and in some cases, the entire movies themselves! So, without further ado, here are my favorite horror/sci-fi mash-ups…
Combining science-fiction and horror is hardly a new idea, and indeed, preconfigured film itself , notably within the classic H.G. Wells novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which was subsequently adapted into at least six films, including the 1932 classic “Island of the Lost Souls,” with Bela Lugosi, a hugely influential film that inspired the classic saying “The natives are restless” as well as forming partial inspiration for songs from Devo
It was remade as “The Twilight People” in 1972, with Pam Grier, and under its original title in both 1977 and 1996, the latter version a troubled production notable for its super-campy performance by the legendary Marlon Brando. Stick with the original, unless you enjoy making fun of bad movies with your buddies, in which case, the 1996 version is perfect fodder for that.
Filmmakers went back to the Wells well for various adaptations of his classic “The Invisible Man,” starting in 1933 with the version by “Frankenstein”-director James Whale, starring Claude Rains. This inspired a host of sequels and rip-offs, plus the occasional sex change, as with “The Invisible Woman” in 1940. Indeed, between Wells’ offerings and “Frankenstein,” the “mad scientist” archetype comes up regularly in horror/sci-fi mash-ups.
Another classic tome pilfered by Hollywood was Jack Finney’s 1955 novel “The Body Snatchers,” which became “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in film form in both 1956 and 1978, before reverting back to the original title in 1993 and then becoming “The Invasion” in 2007. Stick with the first two, with the 1956 version famously conflated with the then-in-full-swing Red Scare of the 50s and the 70s version serving as a nice commentary on the “Me” Generation. Without these real-life historical backdrops informing the plotlines, the others play as also-rans at best. See also 1953’s “It Came from Outer Space,” from Ray Bradbury, which actually pre-dates “IOTBS,” though it was based on a short story, not a novel.
Things in the horror-sci-fi combo arena got off to a fantastic start in the Sixties with 1960’s classic “Village of the Damned,” based on John Wyndham’s 1957 novel “The Midwich Cuckoos.” When an entire village passes out inexplicably out of nowhere, it seems like a freak occurrence, especially when everything goes back to normal. Then, mere months later, all the women turn up pregnant and not in a natural way. They eventually all give birth on the same day as well, and all the babies are marked by pale skin, blonde hair, and distinctive eyes. Things only get weirder from there. The film spawned a decent sequel, “Children of the Damned,” and a remake by John Carpenter in 1995 with Superman Christopher Reeve, but nothing beats the original.
A favorite of horror maestro Stephen King, 1963’s “X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” is an effective little chiller about a scientist whose eye-drops work a little too well, going beyond mere better vision and into…well, you’ll just have to see for yourself, if you’ll pardon the pun. Directed by master B-movie man Roger Corman, and starring Ray Milland and an uncharacteristically serious Don Rickles, it’s well worth seeking out. You might also want to check out Corman’s campy-but-fun “Not of this Earth,” from 1957, which was subsequently remade with Traci Lords in 1988, marking her first post-adult film endeavor.
Of key interest to fans of the “Pitch Black” franchise -the third installment of which, “Riddick,” opens September 6th– is 1965’s “Planet of the Vampires,” from Italian legend Mario Bava. Though much better known for his horror flicks like “Black Sunday” and “Kill Baby Kill,” Bava took a stab at sci-fi with “Vampires,” but couldn’t quite keep himself from interjecting some horrific elements. The end result will seem familiar to fans of the “Alien” franchise as well, not to mention other films like “Mission to Mars” and “Event Horizon.” This one is highly recommended, even if certain things may seem a bit dated to modern audiences. The set design and cinematography are top-notch for a B-movie, to be sure, regardless.
Of course, you can’t talk 70’s sci-fi horror without talking about the aforementioned “Alien,” which has spawned three sequels, a prequel (last year’s “Prometheus,” which marked director Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise he kicked off for the first time since the original), and an oddball spin-off in the “Alien vs. Predator” movies, a mash-up of the decidedly dubious kind. Though essentially a slasher movie with sci-fi trappings- think about it: a group of people in an isolated locale are picked off one by one by a shadowy menace- it’s nonetheless ground zero for most sci-fi horror movies from then on out, inspiring countless rip-offs. Still, there’s no denying how awesome the alien itself is in any of its forms, and that chest-bursting scene is still one of the best gross-outs ever committed to celluloid. It doesn’t get much better than that, let’s be honest.
However, I want to highlight the more left-of-center stuff, so let’s move on. In 1973, the King of the zombies, George Romero, released “The Crazies,” which is basically the precursor to the likes of “28 Days Later” and “World War Z” and films of that ilk, which are sort of zombie-adjacent but not really, in that the people infected run instead of walk, like a proper zombie- accept no substitutes. So, a case could be made that Romero, in fact, inspired both strains of the zombie, whichever you might prefer. So there, haters- it all comes back to the King. There’s also a decent recent remake with “Justified”-star Timothy Olyphant that’s worth a look as well.
Not too far removed from “The Crazies” is one of my fave cult films ever, 1976’s “God Told Me To,” which is an oddball mash-up of all sorts of things, actually, beginning as a police procedural about a sniper who goes on a killing rampage seemingly out of nowhere. Why? Because, like the title says: “God told me to.” Then other, heretofore normal people start to do the same thing, and a distinct pattern emerges, all revolving around a mysterious cult leader. But is the leader of this earth?
Well, the film wouldn’t be on this list is there weren’t some sci-fi trappings, but I’ll leave you to see for yourself what they are. The film was written and directed by celebrated cult director Larry Cohen (“It’s Alive,” “Q”) and features the first film appearance of cult icon Andy Kaufman, who does indeed play one of those “possessed” by the urge to kill- as a policeman, no less! It’s great.
Long before he took us on a trip to “Jurassic Park,” writer Michael Crichton created another amusement park gone horribly awry in 1973’s “Westworld.” Here, it’s an adult playground that takes the Disney theme park template and applies it to appropriately-decadent milieus like Rome, Medieval times and the Old West, populating it with full-service androids- in every sense of the word. Naturally, things go south and the robots start running amok, killing people left and right.
The film features James Brolin (aka Josh’s dad), comedic actor Richard Benjamin (“Saturday the 14th,” the “Scary Movie” of the 80s) and Yul Brynner (“The Magnificent Seven”) as an all-too effective gunslinger. A huge hit at the time, it was the first film to feature digital image processing (think robot POV), and spawned a sequel, “Futureworld” and a short-lived TV show. HBO is reportedly preparing a reboot of the concept for a new series in 2014, so check out the original to get ready!
Another nifty flick is 1976’s “Embryo,” which stars Rock Hudson as a scientist that experiments on a fetus, causing it to age rapidly, becoming a full-on babe (Bond Girl Barbara Carrera) in the process. Things only get ickier from there, though 2009’s “Splice” goes even further with the premise, for better or worse, tossing in elements of “Dr. Moreau” to boot. Watch that one at your own risk, but “Embryo” is the better film, IMHO, plus you also get Diane Ladd and Roddy McDowell for good measure.
A friend of mine took me to task for my initial failure not to include 1977’s “Demon Seed” and upon further reflection, he was right to, given the premise. Based on an early novel by Dean Koontz, the film stars Julie Christie– a long way from “Dr. Zhivago”- as a woman held captive by an artificially-intelligent computer hell-bent on impregnating her. Yes, you read that correctly. You’ll just have to see the movie to see how it plans on doing so and how it plays out, but suffice it to say, it ain’t pretty.
I adored 1977’s “The Incredible Melting Man” as a kid, and many fellow children of the 80’s will recall it being featured on the cult fave “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” While that version is certainly amusing, try and get a hold of the original if you can, because it’s a fun little movie, notable for its early work from a then-budding FX guy by the name of Rick Baker. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
Another overlooked gem is 1979’s “Thirst,” an Australian sleeper that combines sci-fi and vampires in a way that remains unique to this day. Like “God Told Me To,” this one also involves a cult, one tied into the legendary Elizabeth Bathory, a real-life figure known for killing virgins and bathing in their blood in an attempt to stay forever young. It’s a neat little film that has a very unique feel to it that, while slow-moving at times, is well-worth seeing. It’s kind of an art-house sci-fi/horror movie.
Last but definitely not least, is the remarkable “Phantasm,” a much-beloved cult fave that is near-indescribable. Suffice it to say that it involves a sinister Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), zombie dwarf slaves in Jawa outfits, a kick-ass ice cream vendor named Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and a really pissed-off metal ball that likes to drain its victims of all their blood. Fun stuff! It spawned three sequels, but the original is still the best of the bunch. Aren’t they always?
Well, that about does it for Part One of my list. Join me for the next installment, in which we’ll tackle my 80’s childhood heyday head-on, including, lest you think I forgot him, the ultimate sci-fi horror auteur, David Cronenberg!