By now we must have realized, this subgenre, this oddly obscure realm we call “creature features,” that blends science fiction and horror together, is fantastically intelligent as it is perspicacious, understanding the needs of the times, the questions that demand to be (not necessarily answered) dragged out into the light. Questions of ecology, science, naturalism, humanism, and even biology, questions of our own innate taxonomy. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Which ultimately brings us to the chef d’œuvre question of all humanistic endeavor, what else is out there? Today’s movie up for review on Creature Features in Review is one of those rare gems that combined thrilling storytelling and special effects and atmosphere to have the most impact in raising those eerily human questions. While the sequel, Aliens, may have been the bigger blockbuster, some of the thrills had been lost, the question had already been answered. In Aliens, we knew what was out there. In Alien, storyteller Dan O’Bannon, and director Ridley Scott, not only forced us to question our place in the cosmos but also in the cosmos of our own flesh.
Alien: You’ll Get Whatever’s Coming to You…
by William D. Prystauk
In 1979, after much print-based-hype, especially if one was a fan of science fiction and read “Starlog” on a regular basis, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN hit screens that summer. It wasn’t hard for sci-fi and horror geeks to get worked up because many publications ran some of H. R. Giger’s conceptual art, which rocked many readers. Other conceptual drawings, from the look of the Nostromo, to space suits, and even land vehicles, kept those readers intrigued about what was to come.
The late, great Dan O’Bannon penned the script from a story he developed with Ron Shusett. Written with a budget in mind, he never expected the screenplay to get A-list support from 20th Century Fox – but they were hungry. After the unexpected blockbuster success of 1977’s STAR WARS, they wanted something else in a galaxy far, far away. And as the story goes, when O’Bannon said ALIEN was “JAWS in space,” that sealed the deal (O’Callaghan).
Originally entitled STAR BEAST (thank the stars they changed it), the story features the crew of the Nostromo (Italian for “shipmate”), a barge in space hauling megatons of ore across the cosmos, who are in hibernation as they await orders from “Mother,” their onboard computer, to wake them up once they get closer to Earth. Mother picks up a supposed distress signal, and the crew’s awakened prematurely to check it out. Landing on a cold dwarf planet, three members of the seven-person team head out to find the vessel to see if they can save any souls. Instead, they return with an infected crew member, and in short order, their souls need saving.
Although Dan O’Bannon said, “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!” the film stands as an original (Macek). Many have made comparisons to PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and even THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, but ALIEN brought audiences many new elements they had never seen before in a science fiction horror.
Here’s why ALIEN (including material from the 1979 theatrical release and 2003’s director’s cut) is one of the greatest films of all time…
A Stellar Cast, an Out of this World Director
It’s hard to find films in any genre where every cast member is a standout. Other than David Mamet’s remarkable GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, ALIEN ranks at the top: Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Sigourney Weaver. (Helen Horton gave us the firm and foreboding, yet oddly seductive voice of Mother, and Bolaji Badejo, in his only film role, became Giger’s alien entity). Cartwright, Holm, Skerritt, and Stanton had been building their reputations on the small and silver screen since the fifties, Hurt and Kotto since the sixties, and after a couple of lesser roles, ALIEN proved to be Weaver’s breakout role as Lieutenant Ripley.
This acting foundation alone said much about the script’s value as well as 20th Century Fox’s commitment to the production. Some may say they were taking a chance with Scott, who only had his feature directorial debut two years before with THE DUELLISTS, but the film had received critical acclaim in short order – and all this after Scott had taken an eight-year hiatus from directing television episodes.
If STAR WARS were one of the first science fantasy films to feature a woman who didn’t scream, hide behind a manly-man, or faint thanks to Carrie Fisher’s strong-willed and determined Princess Leia, ALIEN’s Lieutenant Ripley took the liberation to a whole new level.
Third officer Ripley and Cartwright’s Lambert are the only female team members, and they are simply a part of the crew. Lambert’s the co-pilot/navigator, and Ripley’s a communication’s officer, and the third in charge after Captain Dallas (Skerritt) and Kane (Hurt). The women are on equal terrain and respected, other than an innuendo from Parker (Kotto) because he may have been in space without a partner for too damn long.
Although Lambert may come undone in the film, this is because of her character and the traumas she’s experienced, not because she’s a woman. After all, even Parker’s waylaid by the death of his friend Brett (Stanton), and his strong exterior waivers on a couple of occasions regardless of his anger and determination.
Ripley, on the other hand, has several facets to her character: She’s logical and pragmatic, and respects command, even with her role in the officer food chain. When that rank is challenged by Ash, the science officer, she visits him in his lab for a private meeting to lay down the law. Though that turns out to be a wash, Ripley stands her ground and left nothing to the imagination. Later, when the issue of quarantine comes up again, Ripley’s passive-aggressive comment is her version of an “I told you so.” To make certain Parker and Brett are working on ship repairs, she once again walks into that crew member’s domain to make certain she’s heard and understood. When Lambert slaps Ripley for wanting to keep her, Dallas, and Kane in quarantine for 24-hours, Ripley goes to war, and Parker and Brett must break up the pair.
Even with all the hell from an attacked crew member to the whereabouts of the face-hugger, when Ripley’s freaked out, she pulls herself together in short order. When she finally takes command, instead of trying to define her role with a new idea to destroy the alien, her logic and pragmatism shine through. Since Dallas’ plan is a viable one, Ripley goes with it. However, as a leader, she’s comfortable enough to ask if there are any other suggestions. If anyone thinks this represents a lack of confidence on her part, Ripley’s quick and loud in drowning out an overly frustrated Parker, and she has no problem telling Ash that he hasn’t been doing a damn thing to help. (If she hadn’t asked Ash earlier for suggestions about capturing or killing the alien, he may not have done anything at all.)
Ultimately, Ripley has to be her own savior and to do so, she must overcome her fear of an unyielding enemy while under the strictest of deadlines, and even with that pressure and need for self-preservation she has enough humanity to try and save the Nostromo mascot, Jonesy the cat.
Nothing works like isolation in a horror film. ALIEN features a small crew packed into the heart of a smaller ship, which is equivalent to a tug boat. And if that tugboat starts to capsize, there’s a small escape ship – a life raft – that can only fit three.
Even worse, the Nostromo is akin to being lost at sea. Due to the early wake up from Mother, they’re 70 million miles from the Milky Way and would have to go back to the old “freezerinos” for another ten-month sleep. There are no other ships in their part of the void. They are as alone as a group of people can get. And to add an exclamation point to the Nostromo crew’s predicament, ALIEN’s tagline says it all: “In space no one can hear you scream.”
Right from the beginning, from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Derek Vanlint’s cinematography, as well as Ian Whittaker’s set decoration, it’s clear the Nostromo is an all work and no play environment. Seating’s cramped at the front of the ship. And everything’s cold and dark. There may be light and white in the dining and sleeping quarters, but the remainder of the ship is either cavernous, though still encroaching, and the passageways are reminiscent of catacombs. Due to the small crew and the workload, the Nostromo is far from ship-shape. The equivalent of equipment based debris seems to appear at every turn, the lighting’s questionable in spots, and the nether regions of the vessel are cold and dank.
The only time we truly have any sense of peace and hope is at the very beginning and at the very end. Before ALIEN’s story gets underway, the hibernation area is all white with a center cylinder with each crew member extending from that “stem” to form the petals of a flower that blooms once they awaken. They each wear white undergarments, and they arise as if newborns from the bassinet of a hospital’s maternity ward. And they are born anew on a journey they never saw coming.
At the end, Ripley hibernates with Jonesy. A white glow emanates from her protective pod, another womb to nurture her, and we have the sense that she will awake as a new, stronger, and virtually fearless person. To add an exclamation to Ripley’s rebirth: Upon the annihilation of the Nostromo at her own hand, she bears witness to her own “Big Bang” and recreates herself. She becomes her own mother and gives birth to her new self as both creator, destroyer, and preserver, much like the Hindu goddess, Kali Ma. Once transformed, she not only overrides her fear in strong fashion but quickly forms a solid plan to vanquish her foe.
The status quo continues in ALIEN. Providing a dim look of the future, the white and blue collar mix of the crew remains stuck in the doldrums of working for “the company.” Regardless of the manual Ripley tries to cling onto, Captain Dallas is quick to point out that one does what the company tells one to do. This also means the object of fairness doesn’t hold up either. Both Parker and Brett signed on, but with their contracts, especially when it comes to “the bonus situation,” the pair won’t receive full shares.
Better still to make certain the Nostromo crew checks out that distress beacon, the fine print in their contract has a “full forfeiture of shares” clause if they decide to skip the alarm and head back home. (Mother, acting like Big Brother, would undoubtedly show through report tracking that the crew never left the vessel to check for survivors.)
We understand that as the crew is screwed by their employer, most of us have similar stories where the company that gives us a check every two weeks undermined us in some way, shape, or form. And when it comes to a cafeteria, and according to Parker, the only good thing on the ship is the coffee.
Parker wants to get home and party, but as team leader, Dallas has had it. At different times, he tells both Lambert and Parker to “knock it off” because as middle management, he’s just done. As he sits in the escape ship and tries to relax to classical music, we can imagine him trying to determine how the hell he’s going to write a report about this mess. But he has nothing to fear because a mole is amongst the crew who will help fulfill a different set of obligations for the company.
By not giving “the company” a name, it can be any entity we may work for on our little blue ball. Plus, with Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, we see the trouble of putting sponsors’ names on video phones and space ships, because Pan Am and The Bell System are long gone – though Hilton could build a space station in the next century.
Due to these items, and the wearing of many hats – those mining vehicles aren’t going to move themselves – the crews’ dissatisfaction may mirror our own.
Before ALIEN, most science fiction films were built on the backs of conservative, military-like communication full of boring conversation or scientific mumbo-jumbo or stiff reporting full of salutes. Right from the beginning, we can relate to the crew as “regular people” due to the dialogue and their exchanges. They curse, they rub each other the wrong way like children – “That’s not our system,” says Ripley, and Lambert almost sings her response as if a kid who doesn’t want to be bested, “I know that” – and Parker wants to get back home, with bonus in hand, and “party.”
However, the film goes one step further to make the dialogue and exchanges ring true. When the dead facehugger falls to the lab floor, Ash asks if it came from the overhead. Traumatized by the experience in his own way, Dallas peers down at their deceased guest and says in an annoyed fashion, “It was up there somewhere.”
When four crew members remain, a stressed out and now in command Ripley lays down the plan, which is a continuation of the old one. Parker’s also stressed and angered, and says, “Let’s hear it” as Ripley tries to speak, causing her to raise her voice and yell at Parker. Anxiety and frustration take their toll:
Ripley (to Parker): …We’ll move in pairs. We’ll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered, and then we’ll blow it the fuck out into space. Is that acceptable to you?
Parker: If it means killing it then it’s acceptable to me.
Ripley: Obviously it means killing it.
Having characters joke, speak over each other, and go from being ticked off to being accepting, serves as one of the best reflections of genuine dialogue and speaking patterns. This realness allows the audience to better connect with the characters due to this relatable and grounded communication. The crew may reside in the future, may live on a space vessel, but the audience knows exactly where they’re coming from.
The Universal Other
Like John Carpenter’s THE THING, ALIEN not only introduces “the Other,” the alien that must be assimilated or destroyed, but the Nostromo crew is “the Other” as well. Humans are not natural to space and the dwarf planet they land on is as alien to them as it is to the alien. Neither belong. But what Ash calls, “the perfect organism,” the creature’s as fearless as a honey badger and there’s no negotiation or assimilation. It’s kill or be killed. At no point does Parker try to sit down with the monster in a weak attempt to get the alien to help with the bonus situation.
No other monster from another planet in all the early science fiction fair has a life cycle like this one: From a leathery egg comes a spider-like facehugger that unleashes another egg through the mouth and down the throat of a host. Serving its purpose, and after the internal egg is protected and ready to hatch, the facehugger dies. Soon after, the young creature bursts from its host, killing the animal it leaves behind in the process and takes off on its own. In short order, the little monster that bleeds acid becomes a bipedal giant ready to kill, consume, and get the cycle up and running again. This means the Nostromo crew is left to fight an extraterrestrial endoparasitoid, which is an alien parasite that lives inside another creature and kills it. Wow.
Macrocosmos of Mysteries
ALIEN certainly has its mysteries. This doesn’t mean O’Bannon’s writing had flaws or that Scott overlooked things, but what follows are points to consider.
“Better break out the weapons”
Before heading outside to check on the distress beacon, Dallas uses that line before the away party suits up. Inside the Space Jockey’s vessel, Kane holds up a gun-like weapon right before the facehugger greets him with a kiss. The company supplied weapons are never mentioned again, and only primitive ones make from scratch are used. Why? Maybe the weapons were garbage, or more logically since the alien bleeds acid, which could burn through the hull, forcing it into the airlock with a flame thrower to send it into outer space is probably the best solution.
If the company sent up a robot to protect the alien and bring it back to Earth, how did it know about the creature in the first place? Maybe another expedition came along, and unlike Kane, those miners in space suits decided not to break that layer of mist and get up close to those eggs. Then again, maybe they did. Maybe they lost a crew member (or two or three), but won in the end and made it home to give a full report. That report became the catalyst to send out another crew in that general area to unwittingly bring the creature home.
Often forgiven by fans and critics since the movie was made in pre-personal computer 1979, Mother, her special “Eyes Only” room, and the computer graphics raise questions. In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, regardless of space flight, HAL 2000, and major technological advances, the astronauts still had to use clipboards as they sail towards Jupiter. When it comes to predicting what the hell we might have or create in a future world can prove daunting (follow the haircuts and clothing styles, as well as social interactions to help date films even more). Maybe the best reason one can use is that the Nostromo is an absolute worker bee of a ship, which means it doesn’t have state of the art anything. However, maybe as an homage to Kubrick, Scott created Mother and her room in HAL-esque style. Too bad the crew couldn’t speak to Mother, and she never even sang them a song.
Why would Dallas and company venture out into the unknown when Mother hadn’t deciphered the beacon? If they had waited another hour or two, they would have had a better clue about what was awaiting them. The answer may be Dallas’ grumpiness, which on some level mimicked Parker’s, as well as that old favorite feeling that can bring fortune or failure: curiosity. And maybe due to their ho-hum mining drudgery, no one puts the breaks on the “rescue mission.”
“Why don’t you just freeze him?!”
Curiosity also reigns supreme when Kane and facehugger come on board. Parker says the “freeze him” line on several occasions, but Dallas and Ash take no heed or pay him no mind. The nature of discovery has taken them over.
How did Jonesy end up in that closed locker? Since this is the first time we see the Nostromo mascot, and Brett, Parker, and Ripley certainly didn’t expect to find him there, one of the others must have put him in there, which would have been cruel. Or, he could have been accidentally locked in when someone was working or getting some supplies by the locker.
How old are you now?
Interstellar space travel will either leave aging astronauts to die aboard ship with the next generation to take over the journey, or some sort of hibernation will exist. After returning from the dwarf planet, a ten-month journey remains for the crew. We don’t know how long they’ve been out there or how long their mining assignment has taken, but that had better be some pretty expensive or rare ore to send a crew so far out into the cosmos. Does this mean their families are in hibernation as well? If not, their spouses, partners, and children, if they have any, of course, are going to age every time they head out to gather some ore. Check out “The Long Morrow” from “The Twilight Zone” to see what will happen if you don’t get it right.
This thematic dynamic may not be the reason ALIEN is at the top of the science fiction horror list, but it’s quite notable. In an interview, O’Bannon made this frightening comment:
“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number’” (Dietle).
And O’Bannon does just that. Not only does the facehugger do the above, but the adult alien sports a phallic like head and behind its silvery, dripping teeth exists a phallic juggernaut of a secondary mouth that juts out in erect fashion to tear apart flesh and bone as it penetrates the heads of both Brett and Parker. Its phallic-esque tale rips into Lambert.
When searching for the facehugger, Ash and Dallas do so with long-lighted prods. As Ripley looks about, Ash tells her not to do so without “one of these,” and holds up his prod. Ripley doesn’t grasp one.
But the crew fights phallus with phallus from the cattle prods to give the creature “incentive,” to the pointed motion detector, to the flame throwers, and to the gun and its respective grappling hook. (Both Ripley and Lambert wield the phallic detectors – Ripley does this with ease, but Lambert has issues.)
Feminine imagery exists as well. Dallas, Kane, and Lambert enter the Space Jockey’s ship through a hole. And the Jockey has a hole in its chest, as Kane will soon have. Dallas enters the duct system with his flamethrower, and the round hatches shut him off as he enters the hollow shafts within the ship. Finally, when Ripley squares off against the creature, she uses that phallic grappling hook to propel her foe through the open hatch of her escape craft, and when the creature tries to enter through one of the open engine exhausts, Ripley turns on the afterburners and blows him away once and for all.
The story, acting, direction, music, dialogue, set and setting, make ALIEN a film to be reckoned with. Due to the realism of the characters, their emotions and reactions, Scott’s film transcends genre labels. In this sense, O’Bannon, Shusett, and company created a remarkable tale to capture the imagination – and fear – of any audience.
Dietle, David. “Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape.” Cracked. Cracked, 02 Jan 2011. Web. 06 May 2017.
Macek, J. C., III. “Deconstructing the Star Beast: How the ‘Alien’ Saga Went
Wrong.” PopMatters. PopMatters.com, 04 May 2015. Web. 06 May 2017.
O’Callaghan, Paul. “Ridley Scott: Five Essential Films.” BFI. British Film Institute, 28 Nov 2014. Web. 06 May 2017.
William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) cohosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at http://crashpalaceproductions.com. He’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film he’ll shoot in Seattle with his company, Crash Palace Productions. When he’s not listening to punk rock and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.
You DO NOT want to miss a single episode of his award-winning podcast, The Last Knock!
May 11, 2017 | Categories: Horror, Movies, Reviews | Tags: 1979, Alien, atmospheric, blockbuster, Bolaji Badejo, Creature Feature, creature features, Creature Features in Review, Dan O'Bannon, dark, film, Guest, Guest author, Harry Dean Stanton, Helen Horton, Horror, horror reviews, Ian Holm, John Hurt, monster movies, monsters, movie reivews, Reviews, Ridley Scott, science fiction, Sigourney Weaver, social commentary, social satire, The Last Knock, Tom Skerritt, top ten movies, Veronica Cartwright, William D. Prystauk, Yaphet Kotto | 8 Comments
[WARNING: EXTREME DIGRESSIONS, LATERAL ASSOCIATIONS, AND UNSOLICITED MUSINGS FOLLOW] To start, a confession—as much as I enjoy Italian horror (and horror in general), I’m not sure if I’d ever seen one of Mario Bava’s films in its entirety [preemptive update: since choosing this film for review and watching it through a couple times, I coincidentally had the pleasure of finally watching Blood and Black Lace at a good friend’s birthday movie party]. I’d seen a few of his son Lamberto’s, but looking over the Elder Bava’s filmography I couldn’t honestly say I could attach a title listed to a film I could clearly remember. My early days of watching Giallo and other types of Italian horror coincided with attending art/film school in San Francisco, so you’ll have to forgive my own uncertainty—as I wasn’t always completely sober while viewing a great deal of the offerings from “Le Video” and other VHS-lined halls of magical filmic goodness. I’m much clearer on the Argento, Soavi, and Fulci (my personal favorite) films I devoured at the time, but there were others that, for whatever reason, remain a vague blur.
So, why did I choose this film of all films? Second confession—if you know me this won’t come as too big a shock, but I’m borderline obsessive about the Alien film franchise. It is taking a considerable effort to not expand upon that statement with the finer distinctions I make between the different film entries, EU comics, novels, games, etc. and their varying levels of individual quality. You’re welcome (just trust me… you’re welcome). Simple version—I like Alien-related things that are good.
Okay, I’ll just cut to it—I chose Planet of the Vampires for review because Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive) said this recently while introducing a new 4k print of Planet at Cannes as a “Cannes Classic”:
“Planet of the Vampires” is the film that Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon stole from to make ‘Alien.’ We found the elements, we have the evidence tonight. This is the origin!”
Could it be that a film I hold so close to my heart could have pilfered from another film openly, or at least been heavily influenced? I was torn by this… so this review will be a bit torn. I’m going to abandon the regular review what-I-liked/didn’t-like format I would do and try something different. I ended up watching the film twice, with two mindsets—first, looking for connections to Alien. Then, as its own film (which would’ve been impossible for me the first time, feverishly Alien-crazed as my feeble mind tends to be).
PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES AS POSSIBLE ALIEN INSPIRATION/SOURCE MATERIAL:
I’d heard in the past that Alien strongly resembled another film, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, but still haven’t watched that due to stumbling onto some images of the creature in the film—it… didn’t do much for me. That’s unfair, I know, but it’s hard when you’ve been spoiled (and scarred) by the diseased mind of a brilliant Swiss dark surrealist like Giger. Planet of the Vampires intrigued me for different reasons.
The Wikipedia article for Planet’s “Influence” page states that Ridley Scott (director of Alien) and Dan O’Bannon (main writer of Alien; co-written with Ronald Shusett, then revised heavily by Walter Hill and David Giler before being rolled back some), had stated they’d never seen Planet before making Alien. From what I know of Scott, that wouldn’t surprise me. After some snooping, though, I discovered some different things about O’Bannon’s history with it.
O’Bannon is quoted as saying he was ‘aware’ of Planet but didn’t feel like he’d ever watched all of it. He also says that he thought about Forbidden Planet (a classic I’m more familiar with) way more than It! while writing Alien. His approach seemed to be to make the ultimate scary-monster-on-a-ship movie, pulling from a lifetime of Sci-Fi film watching—something crystallized in this quote: “I didn’t steal from anybody—I stole from everybody!”
So, where does this Planet/Alien comparison—that I’ve now stumbled onto many times while researching this review—come from?
Planet of the Vampires starts with two ships (Argos and Galliot) in space near a planet. They discuss a signal they’ve been monitoring from an unknown origin somewhere down on the surface. A powerful force grabs their ships and exerts an incredible force on them, pulling them down into the planet’s atmosphere. They are set down in a strangely gentle fashion after such powerful artificial force. Upon touching down all but the captain of the Argos go mad, immediately attacking him and each other. He’s able to smack sense into most of them, and then he and a crew member chase the still-crazed doctor out onto the spooky planet surface. After he is released from whatever mysterious power had hold of him, the captain sends him back inside.
So far we have a mysterious planet (large moon in Alien, but close enough), a signal of unknown origin, and a rocky, dark planet surface. Okay, I see that. This is followed by a dangerous trip across the spooky, dark planet’s surface to investigate the fate of the Galliott. The Galliott’s crew are mostly dead, with a few missing.
There’s a decent chunk here with nothing comparable, then they find a third ship near the Argos while doing a survey, and a few of them go to investigate. So we also have space-suited ship crew investigating a planet’s surface, only to find a… “alien” ship. Not only that but the remains of said alien crew are skeletons of humanoids of great size—possibly up to three times that of an average human.
I see where this is going… These basic elements (and that they later take off, with malicious stowaways aboard) are similar between the two films, and from what I’ve come across the imagery of the skeletal alien crew is one of the strongest “gotcha!” things for those who feel Alien was directly influenced by Planet, due to the similarity to the former film’s “Space Jockey”/ “Pilot” scene.
But Planet was not the only film about a crew touching down on a spooky planet, finding weird things, and leaving with something that wasn’t exactly pleasant in their ship. Other than It! The Terror From Beyond Space, the director of another Sci-Fi movie called Queen of Blood, Curtis Harrington, is quoted as saying he felt the makers of Alien most likely had been heavily inspired by his film—due to it also having that same rough barebones plot. I’m no expert, but I’m sure there are at least a few other Sci-Fi films from before Alien’s late 1970s writing and production that could be boiled down to the same basic structure.
Also, It! The Terror From Beyond Space is the closer film to the follow-through of Alien by default—Planet doesn’t have what you would call a “creature” per se. There is a zombie- or revenant-like reanimation and possession that takes place, followed by more insidious mimicry of human behavior. I’d go so far as to say Planet’s last act more closely resembles John Carpenter’s The Thing in its emphasis on paranoia and mimics trying to use their human hosts’ technology to their advantage—that is if The Thing was also missing its well-loved practical creature effects. Giger’s nightmarish creations were undoubtedly a huge part of Alien’s power and success as a film. There is nothing like that in Planet of the Vampires.
To sum up my thoughts, I feel like it’s a little unfair to say Alien stole from anyone Sci-Fi film—it appears to have been more of a loving potpourri of elements from many earlier Sci-Fi films with attempts of their own at claustrophobia and scares. The setup of Alien is not its greatest strength and is its least original aspect. Thankfully, it more than makes up for that in the realms of atmosphere, design, special effects, acting, genuine fear, and well-earned and -executed scares.
Valaquen at Strange Shapes, a favorite blog of mine as an Alien series fan, puts it best I feel with this line: “The story of the Nostromo could easily be that of the Demeter, the ship that Dracula stowed upon on his way to London.”
It’s not the bare-bones plot, but what they did with it that made Alien groundbreaking and frightening.
Whereas the legacy of Planet of the Vampires is cheapened by it being treated as a footnote in the history of Alien. I honestly wish I’d heard of it in a different context. Which leads me to…
PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES AS A FILM ON ITS OWN TERMS:
As stated above, the film begins with two ships in space. Well, it starts with a title sequence with some pleasant spacy shots. Then, we see the two ships. Right off the bat, it’s clear we’re in for a B-movie affair of some kind, as the model work for the ships and space background is done well enough, but leaning toward cheap and a bit cheesy. This isn’t a strike against the film coming from me, for the record. A shot focused on a bright section of one ship model dissolves into a shot of space out through a circular ship bridge area, the camera tilting down to show more examples of what I’ve learned Bava was known for—getting the most out of low-budget production values. Large banks of glowing, pulsing readouts and other kinds of equipment are seemingly lit in such way as to make it less clear how much empty space the set actually has. This could also have been a stylistic choice, but I have a feeling I’m not entirely wrong either way.
Then we are treated to one of my favorite things about this film—the costuming. The crew spacesuits are dark, form-fitting, and sleek, with bright orange trim. One has to imagine that—and this is really the last Alien-ish part, I swear—whether or not Ridley Scott had ever seen Planet before making Alien, he’s seen it since, and wanted to either poke some fun at that or make a genuine homage.
My only complaint is they only wear their snazzy bright yellow helmets in the scene I mentioned earlier where the captain and a crewman chase the doctor out onto the planet surface after they touch down. They make great paperweights for the rest of the film, sitting on flat surfaces all over the Argos and Galliot just looking cool and not helping the space adventurers breathe safely.
The sets are also really well done. The interiors are deliberately minimal and have glowing and blinking machines placed strategically. But where the sets really impress is the exterior planet shots. A thick ankle-deep fog blankets the planet surface, swirling around at every step that breaks it. Rocky outcroppings, spires, and crags on the planet surface look suitably natural and menacing. Lava patches are well-executed with superimposition and matting. The ships’ implied sizes are reinforced by landing supports and airlock set constructions. The airlock hatch mechanics are smooth and believable. There’s a weight to their use that feels right as if they’re part of a large vessel and not a cheap suggestion of one.
Also, the use of the different sets and camera tricks gives the planet a good sense of size. They have to travel good distances between ships and don’t just jump around through editing.
Photographic effects bring the sets together and make the planet surface feel dangerous and foreboding, and this otherworldly feel is consistent. Optical printer post-production slo-mo is used to give the rising of a few dead Galliott crew members a strange and menacing feel.
The atmosphere, in general, is fantastic. The planet is mysterious and spooky, even before they find the remnants of the alien presence. The open interiors of the ships go from comforting chambers of safety to increasingly empty areas hiding possible terrors around every corner.
A lot of the heavy lifting for the atmosphere is the lighting. Having now seen Blood and Black Lace since deciding on Planet for this review, I can definitely express with confidence that Bava’s lighting is my favorite thing about his films (so far; I have much more to watch). Those two films have different cinematographers, but Bava seemed to have a strong enough sense of light and color that it was dictated at a directorial level. His bold, almost garish color choices are toned down some in Planet, going for darker, cooler colors than the bold reds and violets he plays off the darkness in Blood. There is some of that in Planet, though, when the reluctant planet explorers are traversing the surface and having to climb over and around lava flows.
He also uses a nice trick, backlighting the rocky set pieces from a distance, suggesting either light poking in through the thick atmosphere or unseen moons or other celestial bodies throwing light from afar. But the surface areas are dark, mostly lit up by lava or eerie, dim fill lighting. These two things contrast nicely.
The performances are pretty good too. According to Wikipedia (don’t hate), Barry Sullivan was the only actor speaking English, Norma Bengell (a Brazilian) spoke Portuguese, and the rest of the international cast spoke their own languages—not understanding each other as they performed.
I knew that most of the voices were dubbed, but wouldn’t have guessed they were so disconnected. They all perform well together. There are some “scream queen” worthy moments and some pleasantly hammy, scenery-chewing moments (unintentionally amplified by the dubbing, I’d say).
There’s even a twist ending. I won’t spoil the specifics, but whether you end up unsure if it was tacked on or not (as I still am), it gives the whole thing a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits outro feel.
As I expressed above in detail, I doubt this film was a huge influence on Alien directly. On its own merits, I really enjoyed it. It’s a straight-faced sci-fi/horror piece with great use of budget and plenty entertainment value. Or as the original trailer dubs it…
I’ll give Planet of the Vampires…………….7/10.
PATRICK LOVELAND writes screenplays, novels, and short stories. By day, he works at a state college in Southern California, where he lives with his wife and young daughter. His stories have appeared in anthologies published by April Moon Books, Bold Venture Press, The Sirens Call Ezine by Sirens Call Publications, and the award-winning Crime Factory zine. Patrick Loveland’s first novel, A TEAR IN THE VEIL, will be published in early 2017 by April Moon Books. Twitter: https://twitter.com/pmloveland Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pmloveland/ Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00S78LF9M Blog [under construction]: https://patrickloveland.wordpress.com/
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October 25, 2016 | Categories: Horror, Reviews | Tags: 1965, Alien, Aliens, Barry Sullivan, color, Evi Marandi, film, Fright Fest, fright fest 2016, Guest author, Halloween, Halloween Movie Marathon, Horror, horror reviews, Mario Bava, movie reviews, Norma Bengell, Patrick Loveland, Planet of the Vampires, Reviews, sci fi, science fiction, science fiction fantasy, space | 2 Comments
Imagine yourself, sitting in an empty theater, the lights dim to the point where your neighbors face is nothing but a shadow, the curtains draw back. You are now staring into space, white lines, slowly start to appear and a few minutes they reveal a title: ALIEN, the one word that can describe what you are about to see in perfect detail, a film, so foreign, you begin to feel uncomfortable, maybe even leave the theater. Is the mood set? Good.
This is what audiences may have felt experiencing the film in theaters on May, 25th 1979. Now let us fast-forward to a chilly day on September 11th, 2016. Where a thirty-one year old is experiencing the terror, not for the first time, and not for the last. On this night he will share with you his experiences, his thoughts. Be prepared, in space, no one can hear you scream.
Not too much can be said about the movie—the prime example of sci-fi and horror? What made this movie so great? Well—let’s take a quick look at the movie.
The movie takes place aboard USCCS Nostromo, which, had just completed a pickup of ore and traveling back to Earth. The crew awakens by Mother (The onboard AI), due to the ship receiving a distress signal, the crew is then sent to investigate. Upon arriving on the moon LV-426, they discover an Alien ship, once inside the ship they discover eggs, a creature attacks one of the crew members and they are taken back to the ship. During a short period Kane, the crewmember who was attacked and awakens to full health, the crew sits to enjoy a nice dinner, suddenly—a creature bursts from Kane’s chest and runs away. Now, the crew has a real problem, the creature grows and starts killing the crew one by one, until it. Ripley steps in. She sets the ship to self-destruct. Once making her way to the escape shuttle, she battles the creature for the last time. Spearing it through the chest and opening an airlock and sucking the creature into space.
As far as plots go, the movie remains kind of basic in a way—the movie, however, is more than what the plot sets.
One thing that sets this movie apart from the previous genre of Sci-Fi/Horror is the atmosphere. It plays on two things that humans fear most: The Beyond, and Isolation. Most of the movie plays out on the Nostromo, and it traps the characters in a place where there is no escape—if they do escape—it results in a slow suffocation. When you have characters trapped in a box in brings out one thing: survival instinct, in one scene when Capt. Dallas (Skerrit) brings Kane back to the Nostromo, there is a verbal altercation between himself and Ripley (Weaver), she is concerned about the survival of the crew and Dallas is concerned about the safety of one, while, it is a tense scene—it helps show the characters, and the beginning of their paranoia. Soon after Kane is brought back onboard (Guess, Dallas won this one). The try and take off the creature—it’s acidic blood melts through several decks of the Nostromo. Prompting the crew to chase the blood trail, and once the creature explodes from Kane’s chest. Their first thought is to kill the creature. Their survival is on the line.
While survival is one of the key elements to the movie—one element is detrimental the story—Isolation. Being alone is one thing, being alone, and out of your element is another. A majority of the deaths and fighting happens in space. Which, means—you have no escape—which puts the characters at a better chance to fight the creature.
We’ve talked about space, survival—we need to address the most important character: The Alien (Xenomorph, for the die-hard fans). What makes the creature scary? Is it bursting out of a chest? The second mouth? While, those answers do make it terrifying, it’s much, much, more.
H.R.Giger designed the creature. When you think of the creature, who better to design it? Giger’s work focuses on two things: 1. Sexual Organs 2. Machinery. The alien itself contains both these elements and gives it an edge of fear—reproduction through rape. And the way it acts, like a killing machine, whose sole purpose is to breed and kill more. Now, I know I mentioned rape. It’s a horrible, horrible thing and an action that should never be committed on another human being. Again, this one thing that makes this creature truly horrifying. The Alien may, in fact, be an allegory rape itself, by the way, it forces itself upon the characters to eat and breed.
We’ve discussed the creature, who, I feel is the star of the movie. In its own right, Alien to all other movie creatures.
One thing, I find, to be the most important aspect of the movie other than the characters, the alien, is the music. Music has a weird little trick up its sleeve—it will be able to place you—into the story itself. The music was composed by the genius Jerry Goldsmith. He did what very few composers are able to do (Williams, Silvestri, and Zimmer, are a few that can), Goldsmith created atmosphere, one that causes the viewer to be uncomfortable with the noise they hear, and the scenes their eyes are forced to witness. Not all the sounds make a coherent track, they noises of different pitches unknown to the human ear, similar to the ambient noise in space. The music is one of the defining aspects of film music, that mimics the tone of the movie, unknown and trapped.
Overall the movie is one not to be missed. It has stood the test of time as one of the creepiest and thought provoking movies of the seventies—would this be how our first interaction would go? Food for another—Alien takes serious tones and makes them into a coherent story. While, the movie has several sequels, none, will ever place next to the original. The pure horror of facing the deadliest creature in the universe, and having nowhere to run—remember, In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.
Born and raised in Northern Illinois, Kurt Thing vold spends a majority of his time writing, video games, and finding fun ways to pester the ever-loving sanity out his wife. His first short Roulette was released on October 2nd you can purchase here. He is currently working on a short story collection, along with his first full-length novel “To: Mark” Which will be released by fall of 2017 and his short story collection will be released mid-2016. He currently helms a blog http://kurtthingvold.blogspot.com where he updates, when he has something to say.
October 10, 2016 | Categories: Horror, Reviews | Tags: 1979, Alien, Bolaji Badejo, Fright Fest, fright fest 2016, Guest author, H.R.Giger, Halloween, Halloween Movie Marathon, Harry Dean Stanton, Horror, horror movies, horror reviews, Ian Holm, Jerry Goldsmith, John Hurt, Kurt Thingvold, movie reviews, Reviews, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto | 11 Comments