By Desmond Reddick
30 July 2007 — Science fiction and horror, despite popular consensus, don't often cross streams. Too often a guy with a sharp implement chases nubile young coeds through the halls of a space station. He is only bested when the hero locks himself and the killer in the air lock, and jettisons the both of them into the vacuum of space. It is then marketed as the strange little subgenre: horror / sci-fi.
Simply setting a story in space does not make a film "science fiction." There is much more involved in that. Films like Jason X and Leprechaun 4: In Space are simply ridiculous attempts to tread new ground. When your favorite terrestrial franchise is sent to space, you know they have truly run out of ideas. This doesn't have anything to do with science fiction whatsoever. To prove this, let's define the genre itself.
Wikipedia tells us that science fiction "involves speculations based on current or future technology" and "differs from fantasy in that... its imaginary elements are possible within established or postulated laws of nature." That really limits what we can consider horror / sci-fi within the confines of that definition doesn't it? I like it that way.
The "science" of science fiction is not arbitrary, it is a necessity. Without it, it's pretty damn hard to make a sci-fi film. And even then, the presence of technology does not automatically grant sci-fi status. Take, for example, John Carpenter's The Thing. I consider this film to be one of the greatest horror films ever made. It contains space ships and alien life forms, but these aspects play second fiddle compared to the isolation, grotesque imagery, sense of dread and Ten Little Indians-style plot. Therefore, for me, The Thing cannot be considered horror / science fiction. The Alien series has to fall in that category too. These films are merely horror dressed up in science fiction elements in the way that the Underworld films are action films dressed in horror elements.
For the most part, the genre-crossing does not work. There is a fundamental reason for this: horror excels at exploiting what scares us about our lives while science fiction excels at depicting possible futures. Trying to scare people with something that is entirely outside of their frame of reference is difficult.
So where does horror / science fiction come in? It stems from mankind overstepping their boundaries by playing God. It has technology run amok. It has humans using technology for which they don't know the consequences. It has the ghastly results of mankind's use of technology. And, on occasion, it has that technology being forced on an innocent or unsuspecting character.
Mankind playing God is the oldest branch of this genre-crossing. In fact, many consider Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein to be the first example of science fiction. It was also written in the gothic style and contains more horror elements than one can shake a stick at. Frankenstein is as much a story about unhealthy obsession and the specter of madness as it is about bending science. Still, you cannot deny that, at heart, Frankenstein is a story about a medical student stretching the boundaries of known science to create life out of dead flesh. Re-Animator and its many cohorts follow very closely in those footsteps.
Technology run amok is a touchy subject because there are those that just don't fit the science fiction model (see Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive... or better yet, don't), and those that don't fit the horror model (I, Robot). But, on occasion, there is a perfect mixture of the two. Kubrick's seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey is neither a science fiction film, nor a horror film. It is a philosophical rumination on what technology has done to mankind from the first time a tool is used to kill to artificial intelligence. But the film straddles that fence brilliantly, not only portraying realistic technological advances but doing so in a terrifying manner. Think 2001 isn't horror? Few things have been more chilling than when AI computer HAL says, "I could see your lips move."
Occasionally, science and technology are used like magic in horror / sci-fi films. The commonplace magic trope is that a young guy or girl accidentally lets loose a rape demon while they are conjuring a love spell or something. When that magic is untested technology? Same result. Event Horizon (no, I don't care what you think... it's awesome) posits a rescue crew salvaging a deserted ship called the Event Horizon whose engine has put it in trouble. As one of the male leads, Sam Neill, puts it, the engine of the Event Horizon can bend space and time like folding paper, punch a hole and come through the other side. Of course, what they see in that process follows them through. Is it Hell or just a dimension of insanity? It's really just an extension of mankind's overreaching with technology, but it's such a common plot device that it deserves the mention.
The result of technology on the environment is never more apparent than in those monster films like Godzilla and The Host. There doesn't need to be much discussion on this topic (as I will be covering giant monsters down the road) but very clearly nuclear waste makes monsters or zombies, so we should really change the way we do things as a race.
Earlier I mentioned technology being used against an unsuspecting character, however, rarely is it done right. My Little Eye is a fun little indy film that has a group of people answering an ad to be in a reality TV show filmed inside a house. They only discover later on that they aren't in a reality show at all. They're being observed by a killer. But, the best example of this is the Canadian Cube series. The conceit behind Cube is that a group of people have been kidnapped and wake up inside a cubic room. Through various booby traps, a fewer number of people make it into the next room each time. It is so very nihilistic, but it's hard not to watch with your fingers clenched into the seat cushion.
When I started this column almost a year ago, I made a note that I would be covering horror / sci-fi, leading to more coverage of science fiction in Reel Dread. Since then, I really thought I had nothing to say about the genre. Yet as I watched and re-watched some of these movies, these separate examples came to me. And I have to say it rekindled an interest in the genre-crossing and indeed the sci-fi genre in itself. Look for more of those... in the future!!!