Matty revisits the Master of Horror’s splendid sci-shocker.
The mark Alien (1978) left on William Malone is undeniable — though, personally, I would question how much the actual film itself influenced Malone’s debut, Scared to Death (1980), since Scared to Death started filming two and a half months before Alien hit U.S. theatres. An avowed monster and sci-fi nut, perhaps Malone clocked a couple of stills in the pages of Starlog, Fangoria or a zine when designing his xenomorph-tinged beastie, The Syngenor? Or maybe he was privy to a few conceptual sketches during his tenure as a sculptor at Don Post Studios, a company that famously made a collectible facehugger mask, and figured he’d homage them? Either way, Malone himself is pretty insistent on citing Ridley Scott’s classic as an inspiration, often alongside Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), and Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956) — and all four of these iconic pictures’ impact on the most underappreciated of the Masters of Horror have never been more obvious than they are in CREATURE (1985).
The first feature film produced by B-flick outfit Trans World Entertainment, Creature began life in near typical exploitation fashion. Founded in 1983 by Israeli businessman Moshe Diamant, Trans World started in distribution, riding the VHS boom and releasing a bucketload of cheaply acquired action, horror, and drive-in programmers on tape. Keen to move into production and noticing the success of similarly styled movies, Diamant reasoned an Alien-type frightener would afford Trans World the best chance of cracking the theatrical market. As the work had hardly flooded in following Scared to Death, Malone was happy to tout his wares as a gun-for-hire once he caught wind of Diamant’s plan via a mutual acquaintance, Creature’s eventual producer, William G. Dunn. Malone pitched Diamant an idea he and his Scared to Death co-scribe, FX man Robert Short (who’s pseudonymously credited on the final film as ‘Alan Reed’), were noodling with that fit the aspiring mogul’s criteria. The rest is history.
Written and shot as ‘The Titan Find’ (and retaining that title here in the U.K.), Creature was initially budgeted at $350,000 until Diamant threw another $400,000 at Malone two weeks into the film’s eight week summer ‘84 schedule. Having made Scared to Death on nothing but buttons and good intentions, Malone slathers every cent of Diamant’s seven-fifty across the screen. Indeed, watching Creature thirty-five years later, and with Malone’s subsequent ultra-slick offerings such as House on Haunted Hill (1999), FeardotCom (2002), and Parasomnia (2008) in mind, the biggest takeaway is how gorgeous it looks. Creature might be positively impoverished when measured against House on Haunted Hill and FeardotCom, but Malone’s sophomore offering should be seen as his first big-feeling film. Alas, having long slipped into the public domain, the most readily accessible versions of Creature available to buy on disc or to stream are truncated and badly cropped, and they really do a disservice to how delicately composed it is — but you’d never know that today unless you were one of the lucky folk who snagged Malone’s self-released SE DVD back in 2013 (which was ceased n’ desisted when MGM laid a somewhat dubious claim to it) or are in possession of this 2015 set, both of which showcase the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. For what it’s worth, it’s Creature’s widescreen presentation that’s referred to in the remainder of this retrospective, particularly as Harry Mathias’ opulent photography is so integral to appreciating the film’s beauty and its spot within Malone’s artistic evolution.
Draped with the same expressionist flourishes that would define House on Haunted Hill, FeardotCom, Parasomnia, and even his middling Masters of Horror episode, The Fair-Haired Child (2006), Malone convinced Diamant to let him lens Creature in Panavision to give the space-based film an epic scope. Despite Diamant being uneasy with Malone’s proposal, the helmer’s gamble paid off; Creature could easily convince as a $3-$4million production and, if rumour is to be believed, Diamant even elected to promote and sell it as such. Every shot oozes class and elegance. Not a single vista is out of place, and whatever Malone puts before Mathias’ camera — the cast, wisps of smoke, an endlessly flickering lightning machine, amazing miniatures — is framed with a jeweller’s eye for detail. Of course, what helps is that Creature’s production design is likewise astounding. Highlighted by Mathias’ Ulmer-aping use of light and shadow (as with the bulk of Malone’s feature output, Creature would play beautifully in stark black and white), the angular, Caligari-soaked touches of Michael Novotny’s oppressive art direction emit a wooze-inducing sense of doom that are counterbalanced by stabs of eerie sterility as a team of astronauts fall afoul of the mind-controlling star-beast that boards their ship as they investigate a distress call on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
Considered by Malone to be his ‘spiritual prequel’ to Forbidden Planet, the notion of Creature’s eponymous, id-driven monster being able to manipulate the film’s gaggle of spacemen and women is the root of the terror. While Malone doesn’t shirk on the bloody and visceral side of things, unloading a wealth of satisfying gore that includes a face-ripping, a decapitation, some parasite-puppeted zombies, and a head explosion to rival Scanners (1980), Maniac (1980), and Chopping Mall (1986), he anchors Creature’s finest frissons in the psychological. For instance, as cool and as gross as Robert Skotak’s titular xtro is upon its reveal (it’s a blissfully rubbery, slime-coated hybrid of a king prawn and a velociraptor that deservedly landed Skotak and his brother, Dennis, a place on James Cameron’s FX crew for Aliens (1986) after Cameron, who they’d previously toiled with on Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror (1981), came to a screening of Creature), Malone wisely keeps it hidden until the film’s penultimate reel. Instead, for the majority of Creature’s duration, we’re shown only snippets: a gloop-laden claw, a glimpse of an elongated and scarily smooth cranium, and a pair of beady, glowing eyes…
Malone has an innate understanding of how to craft suspense, and he augments his ‘let the audience fill in the blanks’ approach with nightmarish, Wiene-indebted images that appear pulled from the deepest recesses of his subconscious — which is completely in tune with his and writing partner Short’s ‘this thing will exploit your fears’ premise. Interestingly, in a burst of dizzying interconnectivity, in addition to positioning Creature in line with Forbidden Planet and the above-noted Galaxy of Terror, ‘reality being manipulated by outside forces’ is a concept that Malone would go on to explore in each of his dream-spiked visions hereafter — which makes the non-making of his sadly unrealised space gothic, Dead Star, which was going to mine the same terrain, all the more tragic.*
Disappointingly, regardless of how majestically rendered and effective Creature’s passages of oneiric horror are on an aesthetic and atmospheric level, it would be wrong to say they’re perfect. They’re close for sure; any criticism is a relatively minor gripe as Creature is, generally, an excellent intergalactic spine-scraper that smashes its modest goals and emerges as the top contender for best Alien cash-in. But where it falters is that the emotional payoffs to the frights are slightly clipped by Malone and Short’s cardboard characters. Creature’s ensemble aren’t fleshed out enough for their ‘it knows what scares you’ gimmick to wallop with the dramatic power it ought to. They’re stock, plain and simple; a bunch identifiable solely by their remarkably coiffed hairstyles, and the fact that, now, they’re recognisable as: that guy who was in The Little House on the Prairie (Stan Ivar); the voice of Francine in American Dad (Wendy Schaal); Ferris Bueller’s Pop (Lyman Ward); or The Penguin’s Mum in Batman Returns (1992) (Diane Salinger). Oh, and Klaus Kinski, who submits a terrifically kooky performance but, true to ghastly form, was an A-grade prick to deal with behind the scenes, arguing with the usually rather serene Malone for sport and, worst of all, sexually harassing the female members of Creature’s cast and crew like the rancid bastard that he was. An acting genius, yes, but a mound of sewage as a person. It’s a shame Malone didn’t kill him as he allegedly threatened to…
* OK, not quite: irresistibly described by Malone as “Hellraiser (1987) meets Dead Calm (1988) in space”, a decade of development hell did twist his Dead Star script into Walter Hill’s Supernova (2000), which Hill subsequently disowned amidst studio tinkering. Malone retains story credit. And if you want further information on Dead Star, I recommend you check out this breakdown from Alien Explorations.