Sure, aliens pretty much hold a corner on the market in the science fiction genre, but they have also been a mainstay of the horror genre since its inception. Of course, the biggest surge in movies about aliens came in the 1950’s. Virtually every horror film in that decade was a foray into science fiction, the two genres were not at all exclusive. The Thing From Another World, The Blob, The Fly, It! The Terror From Beyond Space and many more focused on extraterrestrial creatures that were very much horrific. They were horror movies to their very core.
These movies continued into the 1960’s, but at nowhere near the level of output or success that they had seen previously. You could easily compare the situation to the difference between slasher films in the 1980’s vs. the 1990’s. They were obviously there, but there were fewer and most of them were not as successful. Instead, aliens began to dominate television with shows like Lost in Space and Star Trek. Where they had been genuine threats—as far as the public was concerned—in the ‘50s, extraterrestrials were now becoming the stuff of action and adventure stories.This only grew into the 1970’s. Alien creatures began appearing in more and more movies as villain, protagonist or both. But they had come pretty far from their horrific roots. Star Wars cemented this movement. It conquered whatever leftover fears of extraterrestrial threats the public had by turning the very idea of them into a merchandising empire. Instead of watching the skies in fear, children were looking up and wishing they could be there. They all wanted to share in the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Star Wars became almost like a modern fairy tale, a place to which any child could escap. As a result, sci-fi/horror was all but dead.
This all changed at the end of the decade, with the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Debate still rages to this day as to whether or not Alien is a science fiction movie or a horror film. Yet these people almost always mention how much the feature terrified them the first time they saw it. It’s both a horror movie and a science fiction film by default. It’s primal, frightening horror that just happens to be set in space. It’s a creeping, isolated gothic horror with a terrifying monster. The movie was a major hit with audiences and critics alike and opened up the floodgates for aliens to be monsters again.
The 1980’s saw a resurgence in alien creature features that almost rivaled the ‘50’s. The success of Alien, as well as a changing political climate and a new desire for B-Movies all contributed to this. The decade saw remakes like The Thing, The Blob and Invaders from Mars. But there were also original movies trying to recapture the success of the old B-Movies their directors grew up watching. These were films like The Deadly Spawn, Night of the Creeps, Critters, Killer Klowns From Outer Space and somany more. They had varying degrees of success, but they all found their audience.
These creature features were fun and gory; pure effects-driven entertainment. Yet they have disappeared. There are horror movies about aliens, every now and then, but in recent years they have all played out like History Channel specials—only somehow less effective. Like much of the genre, they found their way into the found footage niche. Unlike ghosts and demons, aliens have been curiously unable to crawl out. Maybe it has something to do with a lack of practical makeup in most modern horror films, at least those of a mid-range budget. But even the low-budget thrillers seem to be shying away from latex and glue.
Even the Alien franchise could not sustain itself into the current decade and Prometheus did nothing to resurrect the brand or the genre. It was everything the first one wasn’t: empty headed, driven by special effects and trying to be so much more than it was. Maybe it was the cold war fears that kept sci-fi creature features around, but that can’t be the only reason this niche sub-genre has all but disappeared.
Netflix and Blu-Ray have had great success in drawing new fans to the older horror movies. Thanks to Netflix, many of these movies are now accessible to virtually everyone, whereas many have been sought-after collector’s items in the past—particularly in the early days of DVD when everything was new. Thanks to Blu-Ray, the ‘80’s monster movies and even those from the ‘50’s have never looked better. These things do make a difference and they do attract new fans. All it might take is one person inspired by these movies to pick up a camera and make one of their own. That might not be happening right now, but the genre is always changing. What goes around always seems to come around again, and it may not be long before we find ourselves watching strange creatures from beyond the stars wreak havoc on small, unassuming towns.