Hitting the Reset Button (Classic Sci-Fi Remakes) – By Philip Smolen

The 1950s are acknowledged as the first great decade for the sci-fi film. And if you take a look at the world during that time, it’s easy to see why they dominated the cinematic landscape. The world was changing so fast that it was almost too much for people to comprehend, and thus very frightening.

Movie producers (being the opportunistic type) seized on these fears and struck box office gold time and time again with imaginative tales that started with the question “what if”? The result was some true sci-fi classics. From 1951’s “The Thing from Another World” to 1954’s “Them”, and 1956’s “Forbidden Planet”, the 1950s were the home of some iconic sci-fi movies that remain beloved to this day.

And the images from these movies seared themselves into the sub-consciousness of millions of malleable young minds. Some of the kids who saw and fell in love with these films went on to become writers and film makers themselves. They never forgot the thrills they felt watching these classics over and over again, so when the opportunity presented itself, they created their own versions.

The first “remakes” of sci-fi films from the 1950s were made in the 1960s by American International. AI had signed a contract to provide sci-fi movies to TV stations around the country so they decided to use their own films as a basis for some remakes. They gave a young filmmaker from Texas named Larry Buchanan an obscenely tiny amount of money (less than $60,000 for each movie) along with their original scripts and told him to recreate their low-budget wonders. The results (including “The Eye Creatures” [1966] and “Creature of Destruction” [1967]) are still considered among the worst movies ever made.

But not all remakes are worthy of such disdain. So this month we’ll look at four different 1950 sci-fi classics that were remade in the 1980s. The original ideas from these films were used as the launching point, but each movie explores different themes and bears the distinctive vision of its creator.

1. THE THING (1982 – Universal) – Director: John Carpenter

In the winter of 1982, boredom is setting in at the American scientific outpost in Antarctica. The quiet is shattered by the arrival of a terrified sled dog being hotly pursued by a Norwegian helicopter. Upon landing, the agitated crew tries to kill the exhausted husky, but instead are destroyed themselves. The dog is taken in by the Americans, and later that night it transforms into a hideous monster and tries to absorb all of the other sled dogs. Quick thinking by pilot MacReady (stalwart Kurt Russell) and several others destroy the creature before it can harm any humans. The next day MacReady and Doc Copper (Richard Dysart) fly out to the Norwegian outpost and find it totally destroyed. They gather what scientific notes they can (along with a strange burnt out corpse) and return to their base. After an examination, scientist Blair (the great A. Wilford Brimley) realizes that the Norwegians discovered a spacecraft long buried in the Antarctic ice along with its occupant. He deduces that the alien awoke from suspended animation and comes from a horrible species that can absorb and imitate any life form perfectly. And if Blair’s calculations are right, this species will take over the earth in about a year, unless it can be stopped. Now all of the Americans look on each other suspiciously. If they can’t determine who’s human and who’s not, the team (and all of the earth) are doomed.

Although now acknowledged as a sci-fi classic, John Carpenter’s seminal remake of the Howard Hawks’ favorite was vilified in the media when it was first released (I remember a review in Starlog magazine being especially brutal). No one seemed to understand what Carpenter was trying to accomplish, which was to go back and film John W. Campbell’s original novella, since Hawks only used the basic premise of an alien and an Arctic location for his version. Carpenter used Campbell’s idea of a shape-altering alien and updated it for the greedy me-first 1980s. The characters here aren’t as likeable as those in the original, but that makes the paranoia they feel more unsettling and their fear becomes very, very palpable. People hastily form bonds with others and then turn on each other a moment later, all in an effort to survive. Carpenter assembled a great group of actors who all turn in bravura performances, from the terse and laconic Russell to the intense Brimley. Rob Bottin’s make up effects were a wonder to behold back in 1982 and though they look a bit rubbery now, they still are the stuff of genuine nightmares. “The Thing” remains one of John Carpenter’s greatest cinematic triumphs and gets better and better with repeated viewings.

Quotable Movie Line: “I know what you mean Blair. Trust is a hard thing to come by these days. Maybe you’d better just trust in the Lord.”

2. INVADERS FROM MARS (1986 – Cannon Group) – Director: Tobe Hooper

Young David Gardner (Hunter Carson) lives with his parents in an idyllic small American town. But early one morning David sees a strange light-covered object descend into the sand pit nearby his house. Mom (Larraine Newman) and Dad (Timothy Bottoms) don’t believe him, but later go out to investigate. When they return, both are cold and robotic, and David also notices a strange mark on both of their necks. At school David notices the strange behavior of his teacher Mrs. McKellch (Louise Fletcher). She also has that mark on the back of her neck. David follows her after school right to a cave above the sand pit. He enters a weird doorway and realizes that he’s now in a spaceship from Mars inhabited by ugly monsters that are enslaving humans and want to take over the earth. David runs away in terror, but no one will believe his wild tale until the kindly school nurse Linda (Karen Black) realizes that David is genuinely frightened. She drives David to the nearby rocket base so they can alert General “Mad Dog” Wilson (Pathmark ad man James Karen). The general believes David’s story because there have been acts of sabotage at the base. Troops are mobilized and the military descends on the sand pit, ready to kick Martian butt. But before they can attack, David and Linda are sucked under the sand. Now the Marines must send a rescue team in before they can blast the aliens right back to Mars.

After watching his remake, it’s clear that Tobe Hooper has a genuine love and affection for William Cameron Menzies original 1953 paranoid classic (he even casts Jimmy Hunt, the star of the original movie in a cameo). But by updating the film to the 1980s, he makes two major mistakes. The first is his choice of production design. Menzies was the greatest production designer of all time (David Selznick coined the term specifically for Menzies for 1939’s “Gone with the Wind”). And his set designs for the original evoke an ethereal dream-like feeling throughout, which makes the famous “it’s only a nightmare ending” plausible. Hooper’s design ignores this aspect so the dream ending approach seems to come out of left field. It doesn’t work. The other main problem is that Hunter Carson was not a good choice for the lead role. While he has that generic 1980s child look, he doesn’t convince you of his character’s fear and paranoia. And that’s critical for “Invaders from Mars” to work. Hooper does sprinkle the film with some good in-jokes (such as the original Martian alien head that can be seen in the school basement) and there’s a lot of good special effects from John Dykstra (“Star Wars”) and Stan Winston (“Jurassic Park”), but that said, “Invaders from Mars” is a tepid and lackluster remake. Coming from the man who gave us “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), I expected a lot more.

Quotable Movie Line: “Don’t worry David. Marines have no qualms about killing Martians!”

3. THE FLY (1986 – 20th Century Fox) – Director: David Cronenberg

Scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) tries to convince beautiful science reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) of the importance of his research. He cons her into joining him at his laboratory/loft and successfully demonstrates his device – a pair of telepods that can instantaneously transport matter between them. Veronica is amazed and wants to write about Seth’s invention. But Seth refuses and instead offers Veronica the option of filming him as he continues to refine his telepods (they can’t transmit living tissue– yet). Veronica agrees, and as the two work closely together they also fall in love. But one day when Veronica returns home, she finds her mentor (and former lover) Stathis Borans (John Getz) in her apartment. She throws him out, but while she’s gone, Seth mistakenly thinks that she has left him. So he bravely enters one of the telepods and transmits himself. He emerges and feels revitalized. When Veronica returns, she is at first amazed at Seth’s accomplishments, but later is frightened by his alarming physical changes. The scientist slowly becomes grossly misshapen. Seth works diligently to discover the cause of his illness, and at last discovers that a common housefly entered the telepod moments before he transmitted himself. Seth is no longer human, but a horrible combination of human and housefly. He knows that it is only a matter of time before his insect side takes over his human side. The only way to become more human is if he teleports himself with another human being. And his insect side tells him that Veronica would make a perfect test subject.

David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” stands shoulder to shoulder with John Carpenter’s “The Thing” as one of the great remakes of classic sci-fi. The movie is an intense and gut-wrenching experience. A lot of critics point out that this movie is a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic that was sweeping the nation in the 1980s and I can see that. But to me Cronenberg is also examining the consequences of growing up emotionally stunted. Seth is the epitome of the 1980s super company worker; supremely gifted, talented and driven to the point where his work is his soul passion. He has not grown emotionally, and has never had mature, natural relationships, especially with the opposite sex. When Veronica comes into his life, he is both smitten and emotionally overwhelmed, so much so that when he learns that Ronnie has gone to see Stathis, his immediate reaction is so emotionally juvenile that it leads to an action that seals his doom. Veronica is much more mature than Seth and as he physically changes, she is the first to warn him about this. Seth merely thinks that all his changes are the result of some great transformation of the species that he’s undertaken for mankind (the whole plasma pool thing). He realizes his error only when the physical changes take control of him.

Cronenberg has made a mature adult sci-fi/horror film that has lost none of its power 27 years later. Featuring outstanding performances by Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis (along with Oscar-nominated makeup by the great Chris Walas), this is a draining movie experience. And it’s one of those movies that stays with you long after you’ve turned off your DVD player.

Quotable Movie Line: “You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t you? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you? I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, grave fear of the flesh. Drink deep or taste not the plasma spring. See what I’m saying?”

4. THE BLOB (1988 – TriStar) – Director: Chuck Russell

In the small vacation town of Arborville, things are rough. Business is bad and all of the townspeople are hoping that an early winter will bring in skiers. However, the town’s situation dramatically changes when a meteorite crashes in the nearby woods releasing a blob of sentient protoplasm. The monster first attaches itself to a homeless man (Billy Beck) who’s rescued by teenagers Paul Taylor (Donovan Leitch) and Meg Penny (Shawnee Smith). They take him to the town hospital accompanied by town punk Brian Flagg (Kevin Dillion). At the hospital, the blob grows and consumes the old man, and devours Paul right in front of Meg’s horrified eyes. No one believes her story of a large jelly-like creature, so Meg sneaks out of her house to find Brian so they can search for evidence of the beast. Meanwhile, the many disappearances in town alarm the local sheriff Herb Geller (Jeffrey DeMunn). But by the time a military contamination team led by the sinister Dr. Meddows (Joe Seneca) arrives in town, the creature has grown to such gigantic proportions that it is in no mood to be contained.

While Chuck Russell’s lively movie doesn’t have the innocent charm of the Steve McQueen original, his “Blob” remains a terrific 1950s remake. Among its virtues are a competent and scary script courtesy of Russell and then newcomer Frank Darabont. Darabont and Russell knock off cast members left and right so you’re never sure who’s going to survive the blob attacks, which forces you to be concerned for just about everyone. Just as you get to like a lot of these characters, they’re consumed in horrible, disgusting ways. They also take a cue from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece “Psycho” by killing off a main character. There are also many inventive, creative deaths in the film including a cook being sucked in and digested through a sink drain (a cinematic first!). Lyle Conway (Creature Effects), Tony Gardner (Makeup Effects) and Hoyt Yeatman (Visual Effects) all contribute spectacular pre-CGI effects that help sell the all consuming nature of the blob. Featuring solid direction by Russell, and good performances by supporting actors Jeffrey DeMunn, Candy Clark, Joe Seneca and Del Close, “The Blob” is a satisfying and grisly remake that comfortably stakes out its own niche in the world of 1950s remakes.

Quotable Movie Line: “Well you’re meteor brought something all right. But if it’s a germ, it’s the biggest son of a bitch you’ve ever seen.”

These are certainly not the only remakes of 1950s sci-fi (see below for some additional entries, along with a few suggestions of which ones Hollywood should remake), but they are among the more worthy entries. And it’s probably only a matter of time before the entire catalog gets the CGI treatment. After all, Hollywood prefers to recycle and re-invent rather than to create something new!

Additional Remakes of 1950s Classic Sci-Fi Movies (not a complete listing)

1. Godzilla (1998) – Godzilla’s body looks far too humanoid.
2. War of the Worlds (2005) – Love the Tripods, but Tom Cruise? Really?
3. The Quatermass Experiment (2005) – BBC remake not shown here yet.
4. It Came from Outer Space (2006) – Sloppy Sy Fy garbage without the lyricism or intelligence of the original.
5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, 1993, 2008) – so good it’s been remade 3 times!
6. Not of This Earth (1988, 1995) – Roger Corman loves to remake this!
7. Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman – Remade for HBO in 1993.
8. The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) – disastrous, useless remake of the Robert Wise classic.

1950s Sci-Fi Films that Should be Remade

1. The Crawling Eye (1958) – this pulpy tale of cantaloupe-like aliens living in the Swiss mountains is literally ripe for a remake.
2. Kronos (1957) – A great ignored semi-classic about a giant energy-sucking dreadnaught sent from another galaxy.
3. I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) – another neglected thriller about disgusting aliens who want to mate with earth women.
4. The Lost Missile (1958) – a fantastic sc-fi and disaster movie all in one!

Selected References

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films of the 1980s. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2007.

Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.