Nothing defines the last frontier quite like the NASA organization, but it was actually just the beginning. Since humans first saw the sun rise and set, wonder has elevated to the space above and yet, we still do not have all the answers. In an effort to address both concerns and curiosities, and other purposes, the United States created a space agency that simultaneously influenced a shift in the cinematic sequences of sci-fi horror films. As genre films grew comfortable in a domestic environment, the rapid development in technological constructs both universally and worldwide brought about polarizing affirmations for audiences of all ages. Adapting its formula of culturally relevant motifs and nuanced narratives to the expansion of our galaxy, horror happily engaged itself to science fiction in the latter part of the 1950’s.
Horror and sci-fi categories of film can both be classified by milestones in societal behaviors and concepts. When looking at films that fit the undefined mold for sci-fi horror, one of the most groundbreaking, or sky-breaking, events in history begins with one of the grandest areas of the unknown: space. Separating time between the period of film before NASA and the indefinite period of film after NASA may seem like an inconsequential task, but has deemed some surprising points of view that seem to go unnoticed when discussing many major analyses of horror and sci-fi film trends. Since Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune in 1902, stories about traveling to space and the creatures that reside on other planets have been subjects of interest for a variety of filmmakers due to the uncertainty and creative control carried by our limited knowledge of space itself. How did the moniker of sci-fi differ once we had a better grasp on NASA’s purpose for humankind? To the stars, we go!
“An Act to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” is how President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Congress addressed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (known as the acronym NASA) on October 1st, 1958. Following the polarizing effects of World War II and the bitter battle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States’ began to question the allegiances and motives of outside territories resulting in an everlasting focus on national defense. With the official act signed by Eisenhower on July 29th, 1968, NASA would conduct all applications of space exploration as a federal agency. As sciences and technology in the United States advanced, the two were included in the development of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) branch, designated specifically for military means. We had learned how to navigate global lands, defend and conquer them, so there was only one place left to secure: space.
“…horror happily engaged itself to science fiction in the latter part of the 1950’s.”
As awareness of the final frontier began to take serious shape, space exploration turned into a global contest of technological knowledge, advances, and leadership. As the United States Department of Defense used the solar system and all associated establishments as a way to get ahead, and look around, the Soviets kept pace. Implementation of a satellite system and the ruthless drive to land on top became known as the great “space race”. From tests of survival and sustainability to constructing transportation to landing on the moon in 1969, NASA continueds to research, study, and engage us with life above our atmosphere. Ultimately changing life as we know and understand it, while also still leaving us with questions, each mission brings us closer to the stars and potential extraterrestrial inhabitants. Are you bored yet? Let’s take a look at what else was going on in alternative industries at the time… and beyond.
The horror genre easily and steadily adapts to the present culture in which it finds itself. The abilities of all filmmakers to present major themes and elements go unchallenged as society moves through motions of time and space. Prior to NASA’s establishment in 1958, cinematic venues for horror were set more “at home” with domestic-based frights and monstrosities. At the start of the 1930’s, the likes of James Whale’s Frankenstein and Tod Browning’s Dracula emerged onto the scene followed by a subsequent slew of Universal monster movies. The “monster rally” era of the 1940’s, beginning with Erle C. Kenton’s House of Frankenstein, cashed in on these iconic beings and mashed (yes, they did the monster mash!) their stories together to maximize screen time and fan service. Whether these monsters were generated in a lab or crafted from the deepest parts of hell, they were all somewhat grounded in a familiar reality.
“…each [NASA] mission brings us closer to the stars and potential extraterrestrial inhabitants.”
Before NASA took humans to the stars, films like Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still in 1951 and Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla in 1953 brought disaster and devastation on a nuclear level to Earth’s soil, expanding on scientific disadvantages that reach outward from our planet and, therefore, means of experimentation. A majority of films from inception to the late 1950’s brought foreign civilizations to us from beyond. Visitors from the solar system landed or invaded in pre-NASA sci-fi films, creating horrors and monsters at home before venturing beyond Earth’s sphere. Kenton’s Island Of Lost Souls dabbled in fringe science in the early 1930’s and Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space toyed with an invasion of human duplicators, similar to Don Siegel’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers in 1956. However, like poor John Putnam, it was not taken as seriously as it would post-NASA cinema. The vision of alien intentions and our own ventures outside of the planet as well as the consequences shown in film has since evolved, just like space travel itself.
Altering the fabric of cinema, the horror and sci-fi genre climates following the space race of the late fifties brought on a new age of realism through experimentations gone wrong and invasions gone right. While it was released prior to the official publication of NASA, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers took a direct approach to our species becoming silently overtaken by space parasites. Irvin Yeaworth and Russell Doughten’s The Blob of 1958, released on the heels of Eisenhower’s signing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, offered a more unique invasion with humanity succumbing to an unstoppable matter from outer space. The presentation of alien life transformed from green men in black and white to more sinister and dangerous entities that fed on the fear of the unknown and the possible.
“The vision of alien intentions […] in film has since evolved, just like space travel itself.”
As the race progressed and the world was exposed to more and more information regarding NASA abilities to reach different planets and set sights above all hemispheres, the themes of science and technology became major hubs for genre films. Kurt Newmann’s adaptation of George Langelaan’s infamous short story, The Fly, observed the horrid effects of failed science. Right before Neil Armstrong’s foot hit the terrain of the moon, Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) not only took man to a daunting, jarring realm of space, but he also drew creative leaps to the future (and I’m not talking about the rumored moon landing he staged!). In 1968 his 2001: A Space Odyssey, man went up against machine, illuminating our everlasting dependency on and battle against advancing technology. As we attempted to reach newer territories of our own, horror and sci-fi filmmakers took it upon themselves to portray the terrifying possibilities of destructive science and technology.
We still have the films that were made before the birth of NASA and the historical space race. We still have the films that were made as a result of NASA’s initial and ongoing purposes. One of the most important things that we have ultimately derived from both eras of cinema is the possession of a transformative selection and variation of the two. When it comes to modern evolution in the sci-fi horror subgenre, many of what we consider classics are immediate products of pre-existing elements born from the minute we were issued our ticket to space. From the moment NASA launched the first shuttle into the great universe around us, horror and science fiction have made revolutionary strides building on subjects of invention, existence, technology, and even God.
“As we attempted to reach newer territories of our own, horror and sci-fi filmmakers took it upon themselves to portray the terrifying possibilities of destructive science and technology.”
Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg crafted UFOs who came in peace like those in his 1977 stylish sci-fi film, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and his beloved 1982 family-friendly blockbuster, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. A movement of primal horror was ushered in with Ridley Scott’s legendary Alien in 1979, John Carpenter’s assimilation of organisms in The Thing in 1982, and John McTiernan’s tactical action-packed Predator in 1987. Once gory consumption and bloodshed saw its last quality drop for a while or at least until Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon in 1997, space found a niche in dark comedy with films like Stephen Herek’s Critters in 1986, Stephen Chiodo’s Killer Klowns From Outer Space in 1988, Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Leprechaun 4: In Space, and of course, James Isaac’s Jason X in 2001. Modern sci-fi horror has produced proof that there has never been nor will there ever be a shortage of alien life forms, cosmic obsessions, alternate realms and dimensions (I’m looking at you, Stranger Things), crooked sciences, governmental cover-ups, or questions to be asked… with or without NASA.
What are your favorite sci-fi horror films before NASA? What are your favorite sci-fi horror films after NASA? What do you think about the sci-fi horror genre following the space race? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!