Chances are, I will be stating the obvious on these films, but as someone newly introduced to these genre classics, my mind is completely blown. Previously, I simply lacked interest in any type of sci-fi horror film, mostly because fantastical universes seemed too fake and unrelatable. Additionally, feeling scared just wasn’t fun for me and was the last thing I sought after. These next films were what totally changed my perspective of the genre. Reading the descriptions and seeing the trailers didn’t have me convinced at first. But shout out to the Music Box Theatre, a historical cinema here in Chicago. It’s because of their showings that I was able to see these films on the big screen, be completely transformed, and now have a passion for classic genre films and practical effects.
The Thing (1982) – Horror, Mystery, Sci-Fi
If you’re looking for a feel–good isolation movie that’s kinda cozy, but also not so comforting – watch John Carpenter’s The Thing! We must give credit to John W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” and screenwriter Bill Lancaster, for both writing a beautifully simplistic mystery that is horrifying and keeps your attention. Watching it for the first time, 37 years after its debut, I was still fully captivated by the thrills and practical effects. All of which just shows how this film stands the test of time.
Why didn’t I expect to like it? I wasn’t a horror fan prior and didn’t think I cared much for science fiction. Bloody guts, gore, and jump scares just aren’t for me – until I saw The Thing. The practical and special effects make-up by Albert Whitlock and Rob Bottin are insane. That dog scene… The autopsies… Norris’s head! I couldn’t look away and I was surprised I didn’t want to. This art is way more impressive than any computer-generated imagery could ever be.
Total Recall (1990) – Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
A masterful film set in the future, looks like the past, and feels too close to the present. The screenplay is based on Phillip K Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966). The opening scene immediately thrusts the audience into this futuristic world that takes you on an excursion. I didn’t expect to enjoy this film because as crazy as it may sound, a 90s action sci-fi movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger just didn’t intrigue me. What I learned – rooting for young muscle man Arnold during those action shots is inevitable.
The special effects by Rob Bottin and his production crew were realistic and cartoonish in the best way. I totally believed these characters were struggling to breathe on Mars and that it was likely their faces would contort that way. According to IMDB, this film was one of the last blockbusters to use an extensive amount of miniature effects, compared to CGI, while at the same time being one of the first to use CGI! Some of my favorite effects moments included the immigration checkpoint with the face/bomb of the “Fat Lady”, played by Priscilla Allen (yes that’s the unfortunate character name listed in the credits), the mutant community at The Last Resort, and um, can we talk about George/Kuato?
The cast is a strong one. Sharon Stone was surprisingly not what I had her pegged for, the Megan Fox of the 90s. I wrongfully assumed she’d be a pretty face and hot commodity but was delighted to see an impressive performance. The fight scene with Rachel Ticotin’s character, Melina, has her in a respectfully badass battle for women at that time. Michael Ironside is the ultimate villain who has a punchable face. But the way he commits by exclaiming his lines makes you kind of love him. This film is chalk full of interesting characters and it’s hard to choose a favorite!
The story is an extremely entertaining thriller that exposes complex themes of classism, corruption, and identity theft on a whole new level. Paul Verhoeven seemed to depict violence seriously while simultaneously shedding light on it all. I’d take this film over Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) any day. The theme of advanced technology still holding prevalence today is bewildering. Okay and the plot twists?! There are multiple moments that turned my predictions upside down and kept me guessing. Highly recommend watching this with a group of friends to laugh, gasp, and pause to debrief with.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Adventure, Sci-Fi
In the words of Frank Ocean regarding Stanley Kubrick, “This is some visionary shit”. How was this film created in 1968? How?! I didn’t expect to like this film because it’s more than 50 years old and as a sci-fi story set in space, my previous opinion was that they are either typically boring or too action packed. But it captivated me throughout the two and a half hour duration. 2001’s visually stimulating scenes and glorious soundtrack make it impossible to notice that no one speaks for the first twenty five minutes. Need I even say that CGI didn’t exist during this time which begs the question, is it always necessary?
Arthur C. Clarke wrote the short story “The Sentinel” (1948), as well as the film’s screenplay with Kubrick. The thought of having these ideas and concepts in the mid-20th century is incomprehensible. Everything about it was ahead of its time and remains timeless as we navigate the trials of artificial intelligence today.
The casting for Douglas Rain’s voice acting for the computer, HAL 9000, was spot on. His friendly and calm tone with a hint of distrust makes your skin crawl and your mind confused. Speaking of skin crawling, the close up shots of HAL’s red light symbolizing the constant surveillance and invasion of privacy is so disarming it’ll have you holding your breath during the most quiet scenes.
Alright, but back to the soundtrack. Johann Strauss’s score “The Blue Danube” (1866) is the main theme and will forever be paired with the iconic ape scene. However, four of the ten scores in the soundtrack are by Gyorgy Ligeti. The most unnerving being Requiem, performed by the Bavarian Radio Orchestra (1963). These mind bending sounds added so much force to the film.
At the end as I returned to reality, I noticed the parallels of the epidemic of an unknown origin in the film and the similarities of what we’re experiencing today. This story of evolution reminds me that we will persevere through the current coronavirus pandemic and continue to evolve as a stronger species… on to the next monolith placer.
After careful consideration of my new found affection for the sci-fi horror genre, a big thanks is owed to The Music Box Theatre (and to my deep horror fan fiancé). Music Box, like many other local businesses, is being affected right now due to the COVID-19. You can support them through their Virtual Cinema or by joining their Membership for benefits. Along with providing viewing-at-home options, they’re offering a music link of their house organist, Dennis Scott, to watch before the film, giving the same classic sensory effects as if we were in the theatre!
Finally, please comment with your suggestions of other sci-fi horror classics that I should watch and review next! Help provide me with some historic/classic film entertainment and allow me to provide you with some comic relief by continuing to state the obvious in this newbie’s guide.
This article was written by a guest contributor
Catherine became a member of the Chicago-based Music Box Theatre, which opened up her world to unexpected interests in horror and obscure classics, particularly ones with practical effects. She attended the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival and was fully captivated by the film community. Follow her on Instagram