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Breaking Down the Space Horror Formula

Leviathan

Prior to release, Daniel Espinosa’s Life was criticized for appearing to be yet another an Alien rip-off. The review out of SXSW confirmed as much with the criticism that it was a technically efficient paint-by-numbers space-set thriller.  Though Life seemed to borrow elements from Gravity as well, and several other space thrillers, the core plot setup bears a striking resemblance to the influential 1979 classic that changed the sci-fi genre for good with the introduction of serious space horror. Granted, Alien took many cues from ‘50s B-Horror movies, but drawing inspiration from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and killer designs by H.R. Giger, Ridley Scott set the pattern for the endless string of space horror films that would follow.

Naturally, the surprise box office success gave way to multiple sequels, prequels, and a variety of merchandise, which caused an influx of immediate copycats hoping to ride the wave of Alien’s success. While the influence of Scott’s seminal space horror can still be felt today, if Life is any indication, the unsurprising peak of copycats hit right after Alien proved to be an international hit; the early ‘80s.

Some would borrow blatant design cues and elements from Giger, as in 1980’s Contamination. Directed by Luigi Cozzi, this Italian production features a former astronaut trying to track down the source of acid filled alien eggs that causes victims in the vicinity to explode.  Bonus: the victim explosions landing this one on the Video Nasty list. The alien that’s hatching them is a silly derivative of a Giger-like design.  Even the U.S. release tried to lure in Alien audiences by distributing the film under Alien Contamination as a tie-in attempt. Though an argument can be made that the plot is different enough, there’s no denying this Italian film banked on the iconic imagery of its predecessor.

Contamination

Most rip-offs, though, would hone in on Alien’s plot formula. Take one part isolated space setting, throw in one tight-knit group of doomed characters, and add one or more deadly creatures to pick off said group of characters with no easy way to escape. Optional ingredient: toss in a smart female protagonist of which group should have listened to before things got rough.

The first half of the ‘80s churned out low budget rip-offs that borrowed heavily from this formula, albeit with much sleazier style. Take 1981’s Inseminoid, a flick by British cult horror filmmaker Norman J. Warren that sees his interplanetary archaeologists being picked off one by one when an alien creature assaults and impregnates one of their crew members, forcing her to become homicidal. Yeah, super sleazy. B-movie king Roger Corman, who nearly produced Alien before co-writer Ronald Shusett realized he could sell his script to a much bigger fish, produced two copy cats of his own in 1981’s Galaxy of Terror and 1982’s Forbidden World. The former is so wacky that it’s difficult to discern ties to the source material it’s borrowing from and is most memorable for the sequence that sees one member of the doomed space ship crew meet her death by rape of a large worm creature manifested by her imagination. Oh, and it also features Sid Haig and Robert Englund. Forbidden World much more closely aligns with the Alien formula, while still wearing its trashy heart on its sleeve with cheese and an abundance of nudity.

Galaxy of Terror

The latter half of the decade tried a different approach; forgoing the pure trash flick approach in favor of tweaking the original formula by trading in the isolated space setting for an isolated deep sea setting. Though neither Deepstar Six or Leviathan, both released in 1989, fooled anyone.  Directed by Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th), Deepstar Six saw its cast of characters fighting off an alien menace at the bottom of the ocean instead of deep space. Beyond a wider array of creatures and a lower budget, the core formula remains the same.  Leviathan attempts to further mask similarities by trading in the intelligent female protagonist, Ripley, for Peter Weller (a worthy attempt to deviate if you ask me). Giger’s designs were traded in for Stan Winston’s creature effects.  In other words, Leviathan is a pretty fun, forgivable ‘80s rip-off, but it’s still a carbon copy of Alien. Even later marketing touted it as such.

From there, many space set horror films would continue to tweak the formula in hopes of setting itself apart from the 1979 classic. What if the evil entity stalking the doomed crew wasn’t an alien, but hell itself? Or what if the creature was a person driven insane by overexposure to deep space, or even the sun?  The truth is that the extremely isolating deep space, or deep sea, setting that was mined initially in Alien doesn’t allow for much deviation.   There’s an inherent, intense claustrophobia about being trapped on a space ship with deadly forces closing in, but that’s also the problem in subsequent films; there’s not much room left for exploration or growth. Even when filmmakers are actively trying not to emulate Alien, it circles back around anyway. With the space horror formula as claustrophobic as its setting, it begs the question; is it possible to reinvent space-set horror the way Ridley Scott did in 1979?


15 Comments
  • Drew999

    Leviathan is such a goofy movie I can’t help but drop everything I’m doing and watch it whenever it comes on TV.

  • Wil McMullen

    I actually really enjoyed Event Horizon. So, I think an interesting premise for a horror film in space would find its astronauts (space travelers or whatever), traveling to a dark dimension through the black hole. None of that “it knows you fears” shit that plagues so many of these movies. Creep the audience out with some original creatures. Remove all signs of hope for the crew, let it be a great horrific cautionary tale about man tampering with shit they have no business messing with.

  • Satanzilla

    Yes we certainly can’t have horror movies being formulaic. I mean just last night I was talking about this same subject with Final Girl and she couldn’t agree more.

  • Brian McNatt

    I feel it’s a mistake to leave out the clear inspiration Leviathan took from John Carpenter’s The Thing, which for me at least was enough to set it apart as probably the best of the lower-budget Alien rip-offs.

    The lack of deviation the basic Alien formula allows is probably why I feel so forgiving regarding Life. I mean, with so many other rip-offs trying (and mostly failing) to tweak the formula, is there really any harm in a rip-off whose main tweak is that it actually has a respectable budget?

    Also! Anyone else feel that Galaxy of Terror could be remade into something pretty good if given the right budget and director? Maybe (maybe) less worm rape too?

    • aFriendlyAgenda

      Alien also borrows heavily from the thing
      The secluded trapped environment, the enemy who can hide inside someone and changes shapes (from the book)

      When John and Dan still had plans to work together as a team on their careers after Darkstar, one of the ideas they had together was a different take on the Thing

      They wrote “They Bite” together which was also a version of the thing set in the desert, but then after they split Dan would do Alien and John would do the Thing remake

      • Harley Mitchel Dirk

        While Alien took inspiration from many sources. I feel like its a bit of a stretch to say “Who Goes There?” Is one of them. They are pretty clearly different and you made some pretty weak comparisons. “The enemy who hides inside someone and changes shape” Um okay. The Alien impregnating one of the crew has been confirmed to be Ronald Shusett’s idea based on the Spider Wasp. The isolated environment is based on old B-movies like It! The Terror From Beyond Space.

  • diapers

    Hmm, never seen Contamination. Must find it!

  • Bloodspatta

    Everything is a copy of a copy. Slasher films have been doing it for decades and no one gives a flying fuck.

  • marklola12 .

    Listen all this copy shit fucks me right off, there are only so many ideas you can come up with in a space horror movie lol its all been done before just like every action movie has been done before, stop the fuck moaning

  • Pf Mahan

    Love Leviathon

    • ArmitageX

      Ditto.

  • Pf Mahan

    Pity the final creature design is barely glimpsed, sure due to budget and the limitation of effects at the time

  • aFriendlyAgenda

    Galaxy of terror and X-tro are still the best Alien knockoffs out of all of them IMO
    And that includes alienS

    “is it possible to reinvent space-set horror the way Ridley Scott did in 1979?”

    All ridley did was color everything in like a coloring book
    He’s a great visualist/crayonist, but the script was Dan and Hill, Dan brought Giger and Cobb and Foss and Moebious to the table And the model makers and Roger Christian…

    Ridley has a good eye and made some good calls from all the things that where presented to him by other artists, but all you have to do is look at the rest of his career to know that he wasn’t the one who invented that either by himself or indeed even most of it

    • Brian McNatt

      He’s a great director, and ONLY a great director, and things start to suffer when he works himself into any other aspects of film production.

  • Harley Mitchel Dirk

    I think Alien is just a hard act follow. A lightning in a bottle kind of movie that does so much right. I think the ‘space horror’ formula can be tweaked in new and interesting ways but in the end it all comes down to execution. Event Horizon has an interesting hook with the whole “What if the evil entity stalking the doomed crew wasn’t an alien, but hell itself?” concept that the article mentions. I just don’t think Paul W.S Anderson had the sensibilities or even the skill to execute the concept properly. Life was another interesting tweak to the forumla. A somewhat more ‘realistic’ contemporary Sci-Fi approach to the formula. Here it was a combination of the writing and the direction that held the film back from being anything truly special.

    Though the outright knockoffs can be fun in their own way. Leviathon in paticular is fun little crossing of Alien and The Thing. Pandorum and Life were also fun little thrill rides in my opinion.

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