ALIEN Life-Cycle: Examining the Patterns of Horror Franchises

How the Alien series, like all horror franchises, eventually come full circle.

Alien Versus Predator: Requiem when I saw a television advertisement that said it was opening that very week; at first I thought it was announcing the television screening of the 2004 film, and to clear up my confusion I opened up a newspaper and lo and behold-- they actually made a second Alien Versus Predator film. Alien has always been one of my favourite films--perhaps second only to Star Wars...perhaps--and it has always saddened me to see the heights of silliness it had fallen to. But, I realised at that moment that it was not only the norm for virtually every successful film (it doesn't even matter if the films are good or not but you can see this in everything from Terminator to Rocky to Rush Hour to Star Wars to Exorcist) but that this has basically been the way of the world since the beginning. Hollywood movie-making may very well be one of the most expensive businesses around, considering that the average cost of a typical production hovers around the $50 million mark and that it cranks out not just an handful of these products a year, but dozens and dozens of them, each unique and custom-made. Few local industries and businesses have such logistically complicated and financially expensive product-- perhaps manufacturers of sea and air vessels, but their annual output doesn't match the hundreds of films that come out of that small corner of California, USA. From this machinery of massive output and extreme cost comes the scavenging of viable product-- typically, what worked before shall work again. Enter the sequels, the prequels, the remakes, the spin-offs, the rip-offs and the franchising. Inevitably, the successful and original become bastardised by the creative plundering of their off-spring, as good movies become attached to money-making paradigms whose spinoffs often are exponentially hollow with each successive milking, until, dried out and unpopular, they are tossed aside for the next new thing. By the flip-side, of course, these are the necessary sacrificial victims needed to ensure the financial stability of the studios so that more original and creative films may be made in the future. None a genre is more lucrative than that of horror, and if there is one genre that is most prone to bastardisation there is not a more prime candidate than this. The horror genre is perhaps the most primal of cinema, tapping into our most basic emotions, the most ancient and primordial regions of our pysche; often the films simply boil down to "a character is being pursued by a menace intending to kill", and so such formula can be repeated adnauseum, either by substituting different victims or different menaces. We often personify our menaces with distinct faces and personalities, and often particular ones strike a chord with audiences and enter a collective local identification. Nearly from the beginning, movie studios have thrived on the horror genre, with its inexpensive cost and high profit, and nearly from the beginning it has been prone to cycles of discovery, popularity, over-exposure and death. Though the genre has its roots in silent cinema in films such as Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Nosferatu (1922), the horror genre did not take off as a true audience delight in the modern sense until the sound era. Just a few years after sync sound was invented, James Whale directed Boris Karloff in 1931's Frankenstein, while Tod Browning was directing Bela Lugosi in 1931's Dracula, both produced by Universal. They were smash hits to crowds that screamed and cheered, and the next year Universal also frightened Americans by way of The Mummy, also starring Lugosi. It did not take long to realise the market potential-- if audiences were scared of Frankenstein,Dracula and TheMummy once, the studios thought, then audiences ought to be scared of Frankenstein,Dracula and TheMummy three or four more times. 1935 brought the successful Bride of Frankenstein, while 1936 brought Daughter of Dracula. By the mid-40's there was a dizzying array of sequels-- Son of Dracula, House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Mummy's Hand, The Mummy's Tomb, The Mummy's Curse. The monsters had ceased to be monsters in the true sense, and had become iconic characters, their faces well known and emblazoned on posters, balloons and comic books. While they still endured with audiences as icons, their familiarity destroyed their mystique-- they simply weren't scary anymore. Horror is a catch-22 in which it can be easily repeated by formula, yet repeated exposure destroys the very appeal of the content; things are only scary when they are mysterious and unknown. To compensate, Universal upped the ante in an effort to keep bums in seats: enter the cross-over.

200px House of Dracula movie posterSon of Frankenstein movie poster

Universal's The Wolf-Man was released in 1941 at the height of the movement's popularity, and it was this character that led to the trend of cross-overs. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man was released in 1943 and injected some life into the dwindling Universal monsters popularity, showing the two monsters teaming up together. By the mid-40's, not just two monsters would suffice--with the crossing over and greater exposure of the monster characters an entire dream-team of creatures would be needed to entice audiences back for another two hours with them, which led to the House of Frankenstein/Dracula films, which featured not only Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, but the Wolfman and Hunchback as well, plus the Mad Doctor.

By then the characters had become staples of the screen, with fan-clubs and popular followings-- audiences came not to be frightened, nor even in the expectation that a good movie might be screened, but primarily out of the devotion to the iconic characters themselves. In 1948 Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Met Frankenstein (and shortly after, the invisible man and the mummy), signifying that what was once hit film and a brilliant personification of mankind's fear had devolved into parody. Universal had over-exposed their horror hits to such extent that they had been diluted into slapstick comedy, the antithesis to their original appeal as fright-fests.

For a long while, the horror genre was devoid of icons of terror in the way it had been so abdundant with them in the 30's and 40's. That is, until John Carpenter gave form to unstoppable evil in 1978, personifying it as "the Shape"-- the masked killer of Halloween. It was the first true horror hit since the days of Universal (barring The Exorcist--which was more a drama with supernatural elements than a horror or monster movie).

Endless knock-offs cashed in on its success, among them Friday the 13th in 1980--using predictable and identical formula, its cycled through victims and menaces for its early installments before it found new life in the third entry by way of hockey-mask-clad killer Jason Voorhees. By the fourth installment of Friday the 13th in 1984--and third outing for Jason, the second with his iconic mask-- the formula was becoming stale and audiences growing tired. Though the filmmakers literally killed the character in an effort to ensure no more sequels would be made, Paramount had other ideas-- with a cost of a mere one or two million dollars, these films were bringing in ten and twenty times that amount at the box office; if there were more than two or three million dollars worth of viewers out there-- and everyone knew there were-- then not even the grave could hold the character back. Exponentially elaborate death scenes and gory make-up were the only weapons capable of luring teens back to theaters, but at seven Friday sequels by the close of the 1980's the box office was reflecting audience boredom. Jason hadn't been genuinely scary since his pre -zombie entries because the formula was a decade out of date. The hockey mask was a cultural icon, and kids often dressed as the character for halloween. Familiarity had finally dug Jason a real grave (but not before Paramount was kept afloat all through the decade thanks to the high profits the films churned out). At the same time, Halloween, overshadowed by all of its imitators, had still managed to crank out four sequels, but it too suffered the same fate, and all the less-prestigious knock-offs like Sleepaway Camp had been abandoned as well. By far the most popular and successful of this "Slasher" wave was a relative latecomer-- Nightmare on Elm Street's demonic Freddy Kruger. Released in 1984, Nightmare on Elm Street was a terrifying, original and surprisingly well-crafted horror film that inherited the mantle left by Jason (who was mortally killed off that same year in his series' fourth installment), and did for sleeping what Jaws had done for swimming. With the slasher craze at full steam of course sequels were inevitable. Freddy Kruger had been effective because he hid in the shadows and only briefly appeared but sequel after sequel had effectively ruined this mystique. Like the Friday the 13th series, increasingly elaborate deaths and special effects were needed to bring audiences back as the actual promise of being frightened wore off, and by the fifth installment at the decade's close, Freddy's sadistic sarcasm had evolved into wisecracking comedy, and the character became a gruesome comedian of sorts. Like Dracula or Frankenstein, he had become a character unto hisself, one of such mainstream familiarity that he hosted shows on MTV, appeared as a DJ in music videos produced for his films, and had devolved into a child-friendly celebrity suitable for network television promos. Paramount sold its Friday the 13th franchise to Nightmare on Elm Street studio New Line Cinema (now owned by WB, but once referred to as "the house that Freddy built"). Like Universal in the 1940's, New Line now held onto the two kings of dwindling slasher craze. They released respective so-called "final installments" of each franchise in the early 1990's, though even by now the devoted fan clubs of each monster had recognized the end of their icons' cycle. That left one last trump card to get audiences back, the true sign of a last-ditch effort at the end of a franchise's life-span: the cross-over. Freddy Versus Jason was proposed as an immediate follow-up to 1993's Jason Goes to Hell, though inevitably it would find itself in pre -production hell for a solid decade (ironically, this break from the characters ended up boosting box office performance when it finally came out in 2002). Reboots of both franchises would follow in recent years but neither would please fans. The Universal monster pictures and the 1980's slasher pictures were cheap B-movies, low in cost and low in prestige. But one year after Halloween established the modern "slasher" film, an A-list, big budgeted, highly artistic film was released that not only elevated the horror genre but bridged the gap between the Universal monsters and 80's slashers, utilizing the slasher formula but substituting a memorable monster rather than a masked killer. The film, of course, is 1979's Alien, directed by Sir Ridley Scott. Considered one of the most suspenseful films ever made, Alien was worlds apart from the campy datedness of the Universal monsters and the crude coarseness of the slasher genre. With its ingenious design, first-rate acting and crafty construction, this slick, smart film became one of the biggest hits of the year. Its genius, of course, was its slow pace and its subtlety-- its monster was effective because it was never seen, only fleetingly on-camera and forever hidden in shadows; not knowing what lurked around the corner or down a dark tunnel was far more effective than any kind of action sequence. It was a solid seven years before anyone thought of returning to the film--and luckily, that person happened to be James Cameron. Though he radically re-interpreted the subject matter as a tense action picture, the conservative and suspenseful treatment of Cameron's retained much of the mystique of the creature from Alien. The film was an even bigger hit than the original, and a third entry in the series was a given. By now, however, it would be impossible to ever capture the same mystery-- that terror of the unknown-- that had been Alien's greatest asset. Through the course of the two films, audiences had been given good looks at the creature and become very familiar with it through the films' popularity. Lunch boxes, arcade games and comic books had fed the public's fascination with the creature, and when Alien 3 came about in 1992 there was only a fraction of the effectiveness of the original film left, and only modest box-office success. Professional Swiss weirdo H.R.Giger had designed one of the most effective creature's ever dreamed up but by the mid-90's the alien monster had been imitated in an assortment of lame movies, from Relic to Mimic. Its strength came from not knowing what the creature was but now it was iconic. In the meantime, another alien creature proved popular: the year after Aliens, 1987's Predator became an equally large hit, thanks in part to a big budget and the superstardom of Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the film could only be as effective as its featured creature, and despite having one of the biggest onscreen gun caches, Predator took the lead of Alien and refused to show its monster, utilising suspenseful POV shots and invisibility effects for most of the film, only revealing the monster in the final climax. A sequel was made shortly after, but after showing off the creature in the original's climax, the simplistic premise did not leave enough breathing room for a sequel-- everyone knew what the Predator looked like, so the POV shots lacked suspense, and without the star power of Arnold the film did not perform as well at the box office. Predator's effectiveness was as an unseen force in the primordial jungle, but after extended exposure and an ending that took place among an entire Predator clan onboard its space ship it had devolved into typical sci-fi monster silliness. Like Friday the 13th had done to its killer star, Alien 3 had killed off its protagonist in the (naive, in retrospect) hope that it would end the franchise and not let it devolve into an undignified franchise as the aformentioned slasher had-- and like Friday the 13th, not even the grave could hold back a studio eager to make another entry in what was its second-most-popular series (second only to Star Wars). 1997's Alien Resurrection was not enough to resurrect the series--unlike its mega-hit predecessors, the expensive film was an expensive bomb, one that only made half its budget domestically and faced some heavy criticism; there was little that differentiated it from its imitators, other than more expensive design. Alien Resurrection confirmed for many that the series had become stale and derivative, and with its financial failure it seemed the franchise had come to the end of its cycle. The Fox studio had tried to test its greed and it backfired. But like the slasher craze and Universal monster craze, there was of course one last stab at audiences wallets. And we all know what that is. Alien Versus Predator has its roots as far back as the late 80's. Dark Horse comics held the rights to the Alien series and had just began to publish dedicated Alien comic series when in 1989 they also recieved the rights to the comic adaptation of the upcoming Predator 2 film. Six months after the 1989 Predator 2 adaptation was released, they hit upon a cross-over of the two franchises-- "Aliens versus Predator", a four-part spin-off. The limited series was enormously successful, and while Dark Horse continued to run seperate Alien and Predator series, their most successful series were the ones that had the two species face each other (heading on this popularity, Dark Horse came up with a number of "vs" comics, such as the bizarre Batman vs Predator and Tarzan vs Predator). By 1993 there was a Alien Versus Predator video game for the SNES, which was then made into a first-person shooter for the world's first 64-bit game console-- Atari's Jaguar (remember that?). Novels and an arcade game soon followed, and of course Dark Horse had to up the ante like all of its predecessors with battle royale dream-teams: "Alien vs Predator vs Terminator", and then "Superman & Batman versus Alien and Predator". Outside of the more serious realm of the respective feature film series, such ridiculousness was embraced by fans. Perhaps the biggest push in popularity was the first-person-shooter computer game released in 1999, with advanced graphics and gameplay and multiplayer capability; a sequel was released in 2001, and the huge popularity of the game skyrocketed the "Alien versus Predator" franchise beyond comic geeks and into mainstream knowledge. In 2002, Fox put an Alien Versus Predator film into production. Like Universal and New Line (and Dark Horse) before them, Fox held the rights to both franchises; the concept had been in development at Fox since the early 90's but remained in limbo, perhaps due to the focusing on the then-lucrative Alien franchise. But as Alien Resurrection showed that the Alien franchise was dead and the massive popularity of the cross-over media arose at the same time, Fox was on-board for one final try at a fistful of dollars. Written as a PG-13 action picture for kids (who were presumed fans of the comic and video game) and with a reduced budget of some $45 million to protect against losses (compared to Alien Resurrection's $70 million budget many years earlier), Alien Versus Predator hit screens in the summer of 2004. Though the film drew atrocious reviews, many were surprised to find that the cross-over series had $80 million worth of fans domestically. Considering the original entries in the respective series, the comic-book antics of AvP was a rather undignified end-- but if there is one thing this cycle has taught us it's that if there's still life left in it then there's still life left to be drained. The only reason Universal abandoned its monsters, New Line its Nightmare on Elm Street and Paramount its Friday the 13th was because there was no more audience-- the films existed to make money, after all, and so long as there was potentiality there could be an excuse to continue the series. Like the monster that appears dead but lurches up for one last scare at the end, a second AvP film went into production after the success of the first. Fox was lucky the first-time 'round, as the AvP series was fresher and had a long-built audience of those curious to see what the result would be; considering the Alien series is Fox's most lucrative property (they don't own Star Wars), an $80 million tally is very dismal in this day and age, and should have signified that things were tapped out. Despite what is assuredly a lower budget, the 2007 release Alien Versus Predator: Requiem looks to bow out at a dismal $41 million. Set on earth and with the creatures running amok in Colorado like any other tacky slasher or monster flick, this was seen to finally be the fatal blow that kills the creature. But like the greats of Universal before it, not even silly cross-overs can take away any power or status of the original (or even its sequel, Aliens, and of course Predator). Audiences 70 years later are still watching James Whale's Frankenstein and Tod Browning's Dracula-- the silly spin-offs like Son of Dracula and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man are only known as footnotes of interest for completist film scholars. Nonetheless , the Alien series seems headed down a similar route as part of cultural mythology of the modern age, of the collective horror unconscious. Though Universal abandoned its monsters once they started appearing with Abbott and Costello, the characters endured-- Hammer provided darker, bloodier and sexier continuations of the Frankenstein and Dracula legacy in the 60's and 70's, while big-budget, serious interpretations were made with some of cinema's greatest contemporaries in the early 1990's (1991's Dracula and 1994's Frankenstein). There's nothing that suggests the Alien franchise won't continue strongly as Ridley Scott has is some weeks into filming Prometheus, his Alien prequel that explores the alien homeworld and how the derelict spacecraft of the original film came to be. In short, there is a third stage being carved out which will expand on the mythology. And the Alien franchise comes full circle next May. Whatever the case, cheers to you Alien for being strong enough to survive your own demise.
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Michael Kaminski hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.