The Best Sci-fi/Horror Mash-ups, Part 2: The 80s
In my previous installment, I dealt with the origins of combining science-fiction and horror, including everything from early works like “The Island of Lost Souls” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in their various iterations, to the 70’s era, including the “Alien” and “Phantasm” franchises. In this list, I’m going to deal with the 80’s. Let’s get started!
Arguably the best sci-fi-horror mash-up of all time has to be writer/director auteur John Carpenter’s re-imagining of “The Thing.” Inspired by John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” the story was previously adapted as Howard Hawks’ “The Thing from Another World” in 1951, but Carpenter’s version is much more faithful to the story. The special effects, by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, were all done old-school style, as this was pre-CGI. Remarkably, they not only still hold up today, but actually outshine most computer-generated efforts, including the ones used in the more recent prequel, also entitled “The Thing,” which was a flawed but interesting stab at extending the material.
Carpenter considers this part of an essentially unconnected trilogy of films he calls the ‘Apocalypse’ series, all of which revolve around end-of-the-world type scenarios and include the subsequent films “Prince of Darkness” and “In the Mouth of Madness.” Both are worth seeing, but one would be hard-pressed to top “The Thing,” which remains one of the pinnacles of Carpenter’s illustrious career. Sadly, he had an idea for a direct sequel featuring the survivors of his original film, which would take place directly after the events of this one, but could never get the funding needed to realize the project, as the film was only a moderate success at the time, finding its audience over time on home video.
Also worth noting is the fact that it’s the rare film with a score by someone other than Carpenter himself, in this case legendary composer Ennio Morricone (the “Man with No Name” trilogy), who, ironically, offered up a score that is virtually indistinguishable from Carpenter’s own efforts! Carpenter and associate Alan Howarth, who he collaborated with extensively over the years, did contribute some music to the film, however, and their efforts can be found on the expanded version of the soundtrack, which was released in 2011.
As impressive as Carpenter’s output in the sci-fi/horror subgenre was, even he didn’t explore it to the lengths of twisted tale-teller David Cronenberg. From his earliest short films, “Stereo” and “Crimes of the Future,” Cronenberg has always been fascinated by the intersection of horror, sex and science. His film career began in earnest with the excellent- and completely bonkers- “Shivers,” which is like a zombie flick about nymphomaniacs instead of, ahem, flesh-eaters. Fittingly, porn star Marilyn Chambers headlined his next, “Rabid,” which was about an operation gone horribly awry, leading to a variation of the vampire mythos. However, it was “The Brood” that really kicked things into high gear. This nightmare-inducing flick involving killer kids and a mentally-impaired woman seeking help at an institute with some decidedly off-kilter methods is something to see, to say the least.
Next up was “Scanners,” which has spawned four sequels to date, and has long-rumored to be the subject of a remake or a television series, though nothing official has been announced as of yet. This one combines Cronenberg’s usual science-gone-amok approach with a more action-oriented approach, which may be why it was one of his more successful and enduring efforts. Those who have seen it won’t soon forget the infamous head-exploding sequence, but the film itself still holds up well to this day.
Most of Cronenberg’s subsequent work in the 80’s through the 90’s is a variation on these themes, with the cult classic “Videodrome,” starring James Woods and Blondie singer Debbie Harry (as a redhead!) and his re-imagining of the 50’s classic “The Fly,” starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis being especially excellent examples. “The Fly” in particular launched Cronenberg onto Hollywood’s A-List, though they have always been uneasy bedfellows at best. “Dead Ringers” features one of Jeremy Irons’ best performances to date- or should I say his best two performances, as he plays twins in the unnerving film about gynecologists gone horribly wrong, which is just as unsettling as it sounds.
Though Cronenberg has vaguely mellowed in recent years, with films like “A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method” basically abandoning the more horrific elements he’s known for, I wouldn’t count him out just yet. The upcoming “Maps to the Stars” has spooky underpinnings involving a ghost, and he stated in Rue Morgue magazine that he has a companion piece to “The Fly” that he has written that he would love to do. Both sound intriguing, so hopefully, he hasn’t fully abandoned the subgenre he so greatly pioneered.
Chicago-born writer/director/producer Stuart Gordon is one of those cult filmmakers that have never quite gotten his due. Though none of his films have been huge hits, many of them are considered cult classics by genre fans. Gordon has done his fare share of straight sci-fi, including the likes of “Robot Jox,” “Space Truckers,” and his best-known hit, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” which he wrote but didn’t direct, and later spawned several sequels and a TV show that he also worked on.
However, far and away the work he’s best-known for is his adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s writings. Though the term “loosely” adapted is putting it mildly, the films are a lot of fun, with over-the-top sex and violence that has to be seen to be believed. The most successful of these is far and away “The Re-Animator,” featuring Jeffrey Combs in the titular role, as Herbert West, a scientist that redefines mad. Once you’ve seen it, you won’t soon forget the scene involving a severed head and delectable former soap actress Barbara Crampton, who would go onto star in Gordon’s excellent, underrated follow-up, “From Beyond,” also based on a Lovecraft story.
“The Re-Animator” itself would go onto inspire two more sequels: “Bride of the Re-Animator” and “Beyond Re-Animator” and even a stage musical! Other notable sci-fi/horror achievements by Gordon include the interesting Lovecraft adaptation “Dagon,” which, unlike the aforementioned flicks, is played straight; the sci-fi-actioner “Fortress” with “Highlander”-star Christopher Lambert; the 1993 version of “The Body Snatchers,” and “Progeny,” about an alien abduction-turned-conception. Gordon’s work is well-worth further investigating, and he remains one of the more underrated filmmakers out there.
You couldn’t throw a rock into a movie theater without hitting an “Alien” rip-off in the 80s. But some of them were actually pretty good- or at the very least, of the “so bad, it’s good” variety. Here are some of my favorites, guilty though some of them may be. What can I say? I was a child of the 80s, so I’m prejudiced.
Released in 1981, “Galaxy of Terror” was legendary producer Roger Corman’s take on an “Alien”-type tale, featuring his trademark T&A and hyper-violence. The interesting cast includes sci-fi legend Ray Walston, of “My Favorite Martian” fame; Grace Zabriskie, best known for her work with David Lynch, such as “Twin Peaks” (she was Laura Palmer’s much-beleaguered mom); Erin Moran, of “Happy Days” fame; Sid Haig, of Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses,” among others; Robert Englund, aka Freddy Kruger; and then-future erotica specialist Zalman King, who went on to write, produce and/or direct the likes of “9 1/2 Weeks” and “Red Shoe Diaries.” The film was also an early job for James Cameron, who would go on to helm…drum roll, please…“Aliens,” the direct sequel to the original “Alien.”
However, the film is most notorious for a scene involving a horny giant space worm that rapes poor Taafe O’Connell and almost landed the film an X-rating. Rumors of a much-more explicit version have long since been floating around, but as of this date, an unrated version has yet to be released, though a special edition of the film is readily available on DVD, in which the scene is discussed at length. The general consensus is that the footage has been lost for good, but what’s left is disturbing enough, though not nearly as disturbing as Corman’s assertion that the character was supposed to have enjoyed it and died of pleasure, not pain! Hey, whatever floats your boat, Corman.
Another “Alien” rip-off with an interesting cast is 1982’s “Parasite,” which marked the debut starring role of Demi Moore, though I’m guessing she would prefer this be left off her resume. Also cropping up are Runaways-singer Cherrie Currie, cult legend Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith (also of the sci-fi horror flicks “Laserblast” and “The Incredible Melting Man”), and playwright Robert Glaudini (“Jack Goes Boating”). It was originally in 3D and featured a creature that burst out at the audience, a la the face-hugger in “Alien.” It’s pretty bad, but fun.
The Brits threw their hat into the ring with “Xtro,” an intriguing, underrated entry into the “Alien” rip-off arena that would go on to spawn two sequels, pun intended. It kind of plays like a combination of “Alien” and “The Beast Within,” and features a nifty alien creature that is worth the price of admission. Many have adopted its general conceit of an alien impregnating a human, who later gives birth to a rapidly coming-of-age “child,” notably “Species” and TV’s “V” and “The 4400.”
The 80’s is filled to the brim with sci-fi-horror mash-ups, too many to get into at length, but some are at least worth a mention. 1980’s “Without Warning” is known for featuring well-respected character actors Jack Palance (“City Slickers”) and Martin Landau (“Ed Wood”) among other classic Hollywood faces, such as Cameron Mitchell, Larry Storch, and Ralph Meeker; plus a young David Caruso, of “CSI: Miami” fame. The nifty alien effects are by respected FX artist Greg Cannom (“Jurassic Park”). Most people who remember this, remember it for the ninja-star-like “jellyfish” creatures that the aliens use for quick killing purposes, though a full-size creature is also on display, played by then-future “Predator” Kevin Peter Hall.
The highly-influential “Altered States” is from far-out director Ken Russell, who adapted playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s only novel, who is best-known for writing “Network,” “Marty” and “Paint Your Wagon.” It’s about a scientist experimenting with sensory-deprivation techniques and psychoactive drugs, played by William Hurt. It was also the feature film debut of Drew Barrymore, and co-stars Blair Brown, who would go on to appear in the film’s most direct inspiration, the TV show “Fringe,” which revolves around similar experiments. By Russell’s nutty standards, which include the out-there movie version of The Who’s “Tommy” and the witchcraft/possession flick “The Devils,” this is actually pretty restrained, but still wild.
One film that always seems to fall through the cracks when discussing notable 80’s sci-fi or horror is Tobe Hooper’s mind-blowing “Lifeforce.” Arguably the most ambitious film of his career, which includes the landmark “Texas Chain-Saw Massacre” and “Poltergeist,” this loopy mix of aliens, vampires and “Outbreak”-style virus apocalyptic thriller was perhaps too overwhelming for some who like their horror or sci-fi more straight-forward. Some critics called it scattered and overblown, but I admire its scope and epic sweep.
The script is by “Alien” writer Dan O’Bannon, and the film features Steve Railsback, best known as Charles Manson in the original “Helter Skelter” and Patrick Stewart, of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame. Perhaps part of the problem was that the theatrical cut of the film was fifteen minutes shorter than the international cut, which was eventually released on DVD, and is definitely the way to go with the film if you’re going to see it. I think it’s an underrated near-masterpiece, personally, albeit not without its flaws. But come on, space vampires!
Another overlooked gem is 1986’s “Night of the Creeps,” a cult favorite that is available on Blu-Ray in a must-have version that features both the original cut and the alternate ending used in theaters. This one-of-a-kind flick features aliens, zombies, and a serial killer, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor, making it the rare sci-fi/horror comedy that works like a charm. Especially excellent is Tom “Thrill Me!” Atkins (“The Fog”) as a hard-boiled detective in the Film Noir mode, plus Blake Lively’s half-brother Jason, of “European Vacation” fame. It’s an undeniable influence on the more recent “Slither” and features the immortal line, delivered by a deadpan Atkins: “The good news is, your dates are here…the bad news is, they’re dead.” That about sums it up. Don’t miss this one, and if you like it, be sure and check out writer/director Fred Dekker’s similarly genre-bending “The Monster Squad.”
Last but not least, there’s the super-cool cult classic “The Hidden,” featuring a pre-“Twin Peaks” Kyle MacLachlan all but pre-configuring his role as Agent Dale Cooper here as an equally-quirky FBI agent- or so he says. Like “Night of the Creeps,” it involves a body-hopping space slug that possesses its victims, only where “Creeps” turns its victims into mindless zombies, “The Hidden” turns its hosts into insane people compelled to go on crime sprees. As such, this plays like an action-thriller, complete with car chases and the like, but it’s a lot of fun, nonetheless, and well worth a look, especially for MacLachlan fans, and fellow “Peaks” vet Chris Mulkey also crops up, as well as “Machete” himself, Danny Trejo. A belated sequel followed, but none of the original cast and crew is involved and it’s nowhere near as good.
Also worth a mention are the loopy “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” the sequel in-name-only to the original “Halloween,” which is like some insane mash-up of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Terminator” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” with the aforementioned Tom Atkins in the lead and some grisly FX; “Night of the Comet,” an apocalyptic comedy about two Valley Girl-types that survive a passing comet that wipes out most of the Earth’s population and turns the rest into zombies, save a lucky few; and “Dreamscape,” about a man (Dennis Quaid), who can project himself into other people’s dreams, released way before “Inception,” with a more horrific vibe but a similar set-up.
The one-two punch of the intended trilogy of the Strange: “Strange Behavior” and “Strange Invaders,” which sadly never got its third entry, are both worth seeing, with the former featuring Oscar winner Louise Fletcher (“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and cult favorite Fiona Lewis and a soundtrack by electronic music pioneers Tangerine Dream and the latter featuring those two actresses, as well as “Robocop” star Nancy Allen and Diana Scarwid (“Mommie Dearest”).
If you’re into robots gone wild, there’s also Wes Craven’s ridiculous-but-fun “Deadly Friend,” about a killer robot girl hybrid (original “Buffy” Kristy Swanson), which is worth seeing for a death-by-basketball scene that has to be seen to be believed and “Chopping Mall,” about actual robots that serve as security for a mall that go nuts and hold a group of teens captive, including the aforementioned Barbara Crampton, plus cameos from cult movie vets Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, and Dick Miller, all reprising famous roles.
The Dean Koontz adaptation “Watchers,” about an escaped mutated monster and a hyper-intelligent dog, with former teen star Corey Haim and Michael Ironside (of “Scanners” fame), spawned three sequels of varying quality and is reasonably entertaining. Think “A Boy and His Dog” with a more action bent and you’ve almost got it.
Whatever you do, though, don’t miss cult filmmaker Frank Henenlotter’s completely-deranged “Brain Damage,” about a talking parasite (voiced by legendary creature feature host John Zacherle!) that attaches itself to a human host, talking him into doing all sorts of nasty things in exchange for a highly-addictive drug-like fluid. At one point, the parasite does a song-and-dance number! Last and probably least, is the equally nutty “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” which is pretty self-explanatory and probably not for coulrophobics, needless to say! The special effects and sets in this one, by the legendary Chiodo Brothers (best-known for creating the “Critters”), who also wrote and directed, are alone worth seeing this one for.
Well, that about does it for the 80’s. Join me for the third and final installment, which will tackle the 90’s and beyond- and remember, keep watching the skies!