With Halloween looming I thought it would be interesting to look at Steven Spielberg’s work in horror, fantasy and science fiction in isolation. As I opined in my earlier post, though Spielberg makes films in other genres, such as war films, historical dramas and the like, with a couple of notable exceptions, his strongest suit remains the one he started out in. This survey will look at both his television and film work, and works he produced as well as ones he directed. This is my second in a series of posts about horror films by mainstream New Hollywood directors not normally regarded as “horror directors”. The first was about John Landis. I am also planning similar ones about Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma. (If I don’t get to them this year, look for them next October!)
Night Gallery episodes (1969-1971)
Two of Spielberg’s earliest directorial credits were on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery series, less horror per se than stories in the writer’s patented “weird tales with an O. Henry twist” tradition. Amazingly, the 21 year old Spielberg’s first professional directorial assignment was “Eyes”, a segment in the 1969 Night Gallery feature length pilot starring none other than Joan Crawford as an evil, rich blind woman who pays a desperate gambler (Tom Bosley) for his ocular organs (she’s blackmailed a doctor into performing the unsavory operation). The rub is that she will only enjoy sight temporarily (she’s that evil) and the twist is that when she opens her new eyes after the operation it is evening — in the middle of a power black-out.
Two years later, Spielberg was asked back to direct a second episode, entitled “Make Me Laugh”. This one is a riff on the Midas myth. Godfrey Cambridge is a comedian who wishes for the unfailing gift of making people laugh. A swami (Jackie Vernon) gives him more than he bargained for. Now no one will stop laughing at whatever he says, even when he’s serious! Tom Bosley plays his agent, and Al Lewis a club owner. Both these episodes were penned by Serling himself. Spielberg’s gratitude for his career having been launched in such a fortuitous manner would be evident in his tributes Twilight Zone: The Movie and Amazing Stories a decade later.
L.A. 2017 (1971)
Spielberg’s first feature length script was presented as an episode of the series The Name of the Game. It is set in a then-future Los Angeles where everyone lives underground due to air pollution, and America is now a fascist-corporate state where the police are all psychiatrists. The cast includes numerous old-guard Hollywood vets, including Gene Barry, Barry Sullivan, Edmond O’Brien, Paul Stewart and Joan Crawford. We’ll be returning to the subject of this telefilm in a couple of months for reasons that should be obvious from the film’s title.
Widely regarded as Spielberg’s first “masterpiece”, one of the best tv-movies of all time, and the film that put Spielberg on the map. Duel was an ABC Movie of the Week written by the legendary Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Shrinking Man, The Night Stalker, numerous Roger Corman collaborations, as well as a Twilight Zone vet). It concerns a motorist (Dennis Weaver) who is being run down by a malevolent trailer truck driver on an isolated stretch of desert highway. The driver is never shown, so the truck itself begins to take on an identity like some sort of Moby Dick like predatory creature animated by the devil himself, an impression magnified by the psychological toll the ordeal begins to take on Weaver. The streamlined shape of this telefilm is especially impressive. It is all harrowing action, just a ride from beginning to end, paving the way for much of Spielberg’s later work.
Something Evil (1972)
I have informally retitled this early telefilm Something’s Missing. At this stage of his career Spielberg was still just a journeyman tv director. While Duel happens to be pretty great, Something Evil is more in line with a lot of his early work — straightforward storytelling with a few artistic touches here and there. He is struggling with a not-very-compelling story, and one that was done to death in the early 70s: a family moves into a house that is inhabited by the devil. This one is helped by an interesting angle: it is set in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania and the events revolve around what happens when you tamper with those painted witch pentacles that the Pennsylvania Dutch put on barns to ward off evil. And it is likewise made more watchable by a cast that includes Darren McGavin (who’d done The Night Stalker pilot the year before, though the series wouldn’t be launched until 1974, Sandy Dennis, Johnny Whitaker (fresh off of Family Affair), Ralph Bellamy, and Jeff Corey as the obligatory creepy old codger and caretaker. Much that happens is “unseen”, possibly in Sandy Dennis’s mind, and that gets to be tiresome after a while, but there are also scenes where those unseen forces move stuff around, anticipating the terrific scene before the toddler is abducted in Close Encounters. And there’s lots of early mother-child stuff that register as the beginnings of Spielberg’s career-long thematic preoccupation with that theme.
As we wrote in our earlier post, we consider this Spielberg’s best movie bar none. Though it doesn’t seem to often be characterized as such nowadays (probably because Spielberg rapidly became known as an all-around Hollywood auteur), Jaws is a straight-up horror film and was certainly marketed and received as such when it came out. Unlike most graphic horror movies of its day (or any day, really), it is extraordinarily strong on character. The movie would have already been extremely effective as an amusement park ride strictly on how it is shot, edited and scored. That’s basically what people were lining up to buy tickets for in 1975 — the bloody spectacle of seeing people get gobbled up by a great white shark. But what gives Jaws its real staying power as a classic are the performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, Robert Shaw and (the sometimes neglected but very important) Murray Hamilton (the mayor). People quote lines from the film. Shaw’s performance will intrigue me to the end of my days — he put a LOT into this role. Not just the film’s most harrowing scene where he is unable to stop himself from slowly sliding into the shark’s open mouth and then shrieks in a way that we imagine is almost TOO realistic…but also subtler stuff, like his drunken monologue about his ordeal after the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. And above all, Spielberg’s genius in making the shark a “character” (I believe the robot’s nickname was “Bruce”). Most “animals gone wild” films fail on multiple levels. This one succeeds superlatively, both as horror and as a story about people.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
As a UFO buff in my childhood, I was obsessed with this movie when it came out. Its brilliance is in the turning on its head the old 50s “alien invaders from outer space” genre, and plugging it into 70s concerns. While the flying saucers thrill us with fear for most of the movie, that feeling gets transmuted to innocence and wonder by the end, and in essence paranoia and secrecy (by the government authorities) becomes the enemy. So many chilling moments in the film. Richard Dreyfus alone on a country road being “measured” or “read” by the aliens. That terrifying scene in Melinda Dillon’s house when the toys and appliances come to life and despite her best efforts her baby is kidnapped. The scene where the dude who is running with them to Devil’s Tower gets gassed. And the then-revolutionary realization of the aliens, obviously informed by modern eyewitness accounts by people who claim to have encountered aliens, making it seem, in an odd way “realistic”. More thoughts on the film here.
Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels (1981, etc)
Raiders is obviously a tribute to the old mystery and adventure serials of the 1930s and ’40s, a form which was closely related to horror. In fact, almost all of the classic horror actors also starred in these kind of mystery and suspense pictures, usually as the villains. Raiders gives us scares both natural (spiders, snakes, headhunters, Nazis) and supernatural (mummies, ghosts and an Angel of Death with the power to melt the faces of villains and turn his henchmen to dust). Temple of Doom has black magic and crocodiles. The Last Crusade, like Raiders has Nazis and booby traps, but also the magical Holy Grail. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has the titular telepathic item, from the head of an alien, a nuclear bomb, and a hill of fire ants.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
The outlines of this film certainly make it a science fiction story, but in reality it’s too warm and fuzzy to be much but a kid’s movie, though widely regarded as a classic one. I was much disappointed to discover that though when I saw it upon its first release. Though it has some thrills in the early beats, ultimately it’s a “family film”, which of course is perfectly valid if you like that sort of thing.
This one was produced by Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, though by all accounts (and it seems evident from the final product) Spielberg maintained an iron grip on the production, essentially directing the thing himself by making Hooper do everything he wanted. With its fetishization of suburban living it looks like a Spielberg film. As with E.T., the promising title produced inevitable disappointment in me. I was a ghost buff. A film with the ballsy name Poltergeist damn well better be the archetypical poltergeist tale, which this one is anything but. Your basic poltergeist yarn centers on an unhappy, awkward adolescent, whose violent energy attracts and fuels mischievous spirits who perform what are basically acts of vandalism. The one scene in the film that reminded me of that is the memorable scene where the kitchen furniture moves around of its own accord. But the rest of the movie is cockamamie — an exercise in ineffective excess and dumb ideas. It’s TOO Much. Ghosts in the tv. Some sort of dimensional door in the closet. An evil tree. An evil clown doll. A mysterious psychic little person. The physical theft of children by whatever-this-is. I find none of it scary because its just a bunch of claptrap and nonsense not rooted in anything. However, I do find the movie interesting and effective in a completely different way — as satire. It’s very rewarding to watch nowadays from that perspective. There is much about Reagan’s America here. Selfishness and privilege, and ultimately greed. The characters are all suffering because the subdivision was built on graves. The spectacle of JoBeth Williams dumped into a flooded basement full of muddy corpses is indeed one of the most powerful images in the film, both as satire and as horror.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Co-produced with John Landis, and co-directed with Landis and Joe Dante. Spielberg’s contribution to this tribute to Rod Serling’s landmark tv series is a predictably warm and fuzzy tale of senior citizens longing for youth called “Kick the Can”. It was based on an episode from the original series.
Spielberg was executive producer of this silliness, written by Chris Columbus and directed by Joe Dante. I’ve never been a fan, it’s too dumb to be scary and yet I wouldn’t describe it as funny either. Like Close Encounters, E.T., and Poltergeist though it shares an obsession with suburban tract housing.
Amazing Stories (1985-1987)
I LOVED this tv series, created and executive produced by Spielberg. Every Sunday, I would annoy my family by switching the tv audio settings to “stereo” so it would play through the speakers for maximum aesthetic impact. Spielberg came up with most of the story ideas himself, and the episodes were directed by him and other major directors like Martin Scorsese, Bob Clark, Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, Danny DeVito, Tobe Hooper and Paul Bartel. It was thrilling to have something so high quality on network television. Like all such “weird tales” anthology shows, some episodes are horror, some fantasy or science fiction, some merely have an ironic twist.
Spielberg was executive producer of this enjoyable bug movie, starring hundreds of large, deadly spiders and Jeff Daniels as a small town doctor who suffers from the titular condition. Much smarter and more rollicking than this kind of movie usually is.
Jurassic Park and sequels (1993, etc)
The original Jurassic Park is near the top of my favorite Spielberg films, and is easily the king (the T Rex, if you will) of all “Lost World Dinosaur” movies, a minor horror subgenre that goes back to the days of the silents. This is thanks to the relentless research and impeccable realism of the special effects, and (as with Jaws) the three dimensional characters. Nearly every moment in this film is riveting and memorable, and many are terrifying. Each succeeding sequel gives diminishing returns of course, which is not so very unusual.
The Haunting (1999)
Spielberg executive produced this widely panned remake of the 1963 Robert Wise film based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House. Starring Liam Neeson as a scientist who invites several people (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Owen Wilson) to a haunted castle under the pretense of a “sleep study” — which turns out to be a fear study. But soon Neeson’s contrived spookery gets overwhelmed by ACTUAL spookery since the house is really haunted. As an added bonus — the caretakers are Marian Seldes and Bruce Dern.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
An interesting experiment, half Stanley Kubrick and half Steven Spielberg, and all cold and lifeless. I only saw it the once, when it came out, but I found it so bleak and black, visually impressive but with nothing really to latch on to, not just for comfort, but at all.
Minority Report (2002)
Based on Philip K. Dick material, and like much of hiss writing, is less science fiction and more like a futuristic mystery/crime story. Here Tom Cruise is a detective who has been accused by two out of a committee of three psychics of committing a murder in the future. He escapes in order to find the third psychic (who provided the titular report) and clear his name. While it’s full of interesting technology, neither the story nor the star are my cup of tea at all.
War of the Worlds (2005)
I thought this movie was incredible and that Spielberg nearly achieved the impossible — out-doing the original 1953 screen adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, which is one of my favorite movies. Spielberg’s vision of the alien craft, the sound they make, their rays, their effect on humans, the behavior of crowds, are all riveting. I especially loved the first half of this movie; I’ll undoubtedly watch it many more times. What ultimately spoils it for me is the casting of the soulless cipher Tom Cruise as the star, and a screenplay with so much toxic energy in it. It’s enough that people have to battle aliens. I detest the current Hollywood Orthodoxy that every movie needs to carry the additional baggage of patching up families at the same time they save the planet or whatever.
Super 8 (2011)
Spielberg co-produced (co-wrote the story for) this J.J. Abrams film, which is funny, because it is such a tribute to both Close Encounters and E.T. I especially loved it because in the same year the film is set (1979) my friends and I (the same age as the kids in the film and the same age as Abrams) made a Super 8 feature movie of our own. (Ours was a James Bond style spy story). The alien aspect was less interesting to me, but still gave me nostalgic feelings due to the obvious relationship to the aforementioned films.
Jurassic World (2015) was executive produced by Spielberg, and his most recent relevant credit. He also has announced films out through the end of the decade, although most of them look like bullshitty sequels. It has been over 20 years since his last horror masterpiece (Jurassic Park) and a decade since his last horror near-masterpiece (War of the Worlds). And while I very much enjoyed his recent historical dramas like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, I’d equally love to see if he can pull out at least one more mind-blowing thrill ride.