‘Creature’: Alien Knock-Off or Misunderstood ‘80s Sci-Fi/Horror? (Yes, this is a terrible title)

Classifying films by genre can be a harrowing experience and not for the faint-hearted. Last year, a mere one year into the pandemic, a Twitter user caused online apoplexy by daring to ask if Alien was a horror film; it was a social media blip on a slow news day. Film Twitter was, as one can imagine, very huffy on the subject: Of course it’s a horror film! Ridley Scott’s film has justifiably earned a lot of praise since it was released 43 years ago, but one of the best things about the film is that it’s both a dystopic science fiction film and a visceral horror film. The blend of horror and science fiction is appealing because it makes a lot of sense: The vastness of outer space fuels both imagination and dread. For a species that’s barely gotten to know much about its own solar system, humanity’s desire to explore the unknown is an inherent trait, yet that exploration is neither easy nor without risk. Humans are vulnerable to many dangers in space, and Ridley Scott illustrates those dangers and fears when first contact with an alien species goes very awry. The titular lifeform in Alien isn’t concerned with communicating with the Nostromo crew and, while obviously intelligent, has no regard for the doomed humans. As Alien was a critical and financial success, Hollywood sought to duplicate its successful genre-blending with a slew of knock-offs during much of the ‘80s and beyond. Many of these imitations are very entertaining (Roger Corman’s low-budget one-two punch of Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World), dull (The Terror Within, Life), or plain weird, courtesy of imitative Italian filmmakers (Contamination, Alien 2: On Earth). If a science fiction film ventures into horror territory, Alien will be referenced somewhere in a film review. One of the better imitations is William Malone’s Creature (AKA Titan Find), a low-budget 1985 film that offers gore, goo, and some extraterrestrial nudity. Like Alien, Creature offers an intriguing mix of science fiction and horror that is sure to please fans of both genres without causing any social media discord.

In the distant future, space travel in our solar system is controlled primarily by two competing corporations, the American NTI, and West German Richter Dynamics. When two NTI employees discover a cave filled with alien technology on one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, the company orders one of its ships, the Shenandoah, to stake a claim before rival Richter Dynamics can. As the ship lands on unstable ground, damaging its systems, the crew discovers an abandoned German ship nearby. They discover a dead crew except for one scientist, the mysterious Hofner (Klaus Kinski), who offers few clues as to what happened to his crew. Something has escaped the alien cave, an alien intent on killing the entire Shenandoah crew.

As acclaimed as Alien is as a piece of genre cinema, it is not an original piece of science fiction-horror, heavily influenced by several science fictions films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, namely It! the Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Forbidden Planet (1956), and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1966). It’s the latter film that is more of an influence on Creature than Alien, as both films feature dead crewmembers resurrected in a zombified state. (Could you imagine Sigourney Weaver having to deal with both the xenomorph and a zombie version of Yaphet Kotto’s Parker? It might very well have been end of the line for Ripley and her cat Jonesy!) The titular alien in Malone’s film isn’t as mobile as a xenomorph, so the idea that it can kill people and yet control them remotely via parasites (and accessing their memories) is a good one. When Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus (2012) was released, critics and cinephiles complained that the film’s scientists would not behave as foolishly as depicted onscreen, but science fiction-horror films have always relied on human stupidity to move the plot along. The use of dead crew as frontline zombie soldiers works in Creature because it’s an efficient method of dispatching humans without having to navigate cumbersome bulkheads and travel time lumbering back and forth from the American and German spaceships. Susan (played by mesmerizing French-Canadian actor Marie Laurin), the first crewmember to be killed, doffs her protective spacesuit on the Titan surface to entice her lover, Jon (Robert Jaffe) to come out and meet her for a lunar tryst. Jon thinks with his penis and not his brain, so he is shocked when Susan removes his helmet in order to kiss him, and he suffocates in the Titan atmosphere while a smiling, nude, undead Susan looks on before attaching a parasite to his head. Zombie Jon hides his parasite with bandages and gauze (good thinking!) and is only discovered after luring Dr. Oliver (Annette McCarthy) into the perpetually dark Engineering section where the creature lurks. We tend to expect stupidity in horror movies, and in Creature the humans make some truly mind-boggling, ultimately fatal, decisions, starting with the corporate lackeys who wake up the alien when they stumble on the ancient reliquary. If you ever encounter your (nude) dead significant other on a planet with a poisonous atmosphere, run in the opposite direction!

Corporate greed that favors profit over the lives of its employees isn’t a new concept, in real life or in fiction, but it’s been used effectively in genre cinema. The evil Weyland-Yutani Corporation of the Alien films is the best-known example, along with Omni Consumer Products (OCP) in RoboCop (1987) but evil corporations in genre cinema were not invented by Alien. By the 1970s, pollution and an energy crisis helped transform global corporations from leading economic drivers to cinematic genre villains: The origins of popular food item Soylent are protected at any cost in Soylent Green (1973); corporations, not governments, rule the world beyond professional sports in Rollerball (1975); an oil company appropriates Skull Island’s leading inhabitant, courtesy of Charles Grodin’s smarmy oil executive, as a tourist attraction when oil isn’t found in King Kong (1976). In Creature, William Malone continues the tradition with cutthroat corporate competition between NTI and Richter Dynamics, ensuring that death and dismemberment are key performance indicators and not corporate innovation. The Shenandoah’s captain, Mike Davison (Stan Ivar, best known for his role as the farmer who buys the Ingalls home in Little House On the Prairie) butts heads with an NTI corporate officer, David Perkins (Lyman Ward—Ferris Bueller’s dad!) about their mission to Titan, even criticizing the inclusion of a company security officer (played memorably by Diane Salinger) who isn’t a regular member of the crew. Perkins is the typical humorless, stubborn corporate officer who overrides Captain Mike’s orders, but unlike Paul Reiser’s duplicitous Burke in Aliens, he realizes that corporate orders aren’t as important as the crew escaping Titan, even if it means using a corporate rival’s ship. He even sacrifices his soon-to-expire life (as the alien is munching on him), by detonating a bomb on the Shenandoah so the surviving crewmembers can escape.

What makes Creature stand out from the many ‘80s sci-fi horrors is its cast. While the Shenandoah crew isn’t as memorable as the Nostromo crew, Malone knows that hiring experienced character actors with extensive stage and screen credits helps sell the suspension of disbelief. Stan Ivar and Wendy Schaal have excellent chemistry as an interstellar couple who are able to mix NTI business and pleasure, even while fighting for survival on a Saturnian satellite; neither one of them would fall victim to naked space astronaut antics. Salinger and Klaus Kinski (thrust upon Malone by the film’s financiers) are delightfully antagonistic towards one another and Kinski relishes his brief screentime as the lone, eccentric survivor of the German ship, unnerving the viewer as he happily munches on sandwiches while discussing the grisly deaths of his colleagues.

For a low-budget film, Creature looks far better than its budget suggests, thanks to an experienced technical crew, many of whom worked for Roger Corman and James Cameron. Dennis and Robert Skotak create visual effects that are impressive for a B-movie, even if the lumbering alien is wisely photographed in shadows to hide the zippers and tags. Creature’s creature cannot rival H. R. Geiger’s sleek xenomorph design, but it’s far superior to the extraterrestrial monsters depicted in contemporaries like Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World. Malone knows to limit the alien’s appearances and keep it in the shadows for maximum effect and avoid unintentional laughs. The film’s memorable, grisly makeup effects were among my first exposures to cinematic gore and they still hold up over thirty years later, in widescreen high definition. The film might have been filmed in a Hollywood warehouse, but the sets, lighting, and props all work to make Creature a well-made B-movie and not just a cheap direct-to-video tax incentive.

The dangers and thrills of space exploration help explain why filmmakers have delighted in mixing both science fiction and horror to entertain movie audiences for decades. Alien might have started the modern era of slick visuals and imaginative production design, but it, in turn, was inspired by the science fiction-horror films that preceded it. While Creature might have been intended by craven film producers as an attempt to cash in on the Alien phenomena, William Malone’s love for science fiction and horror imbue the film with a sense of reverence and fun. The film won’t be mistaken for a heady science fiction odyssey, but it will delight fans of both genres who enjoy practical model effects, gratuitous nudity, viscera, and foolish corporate lackeys, hallmarks of ‘80s genre cinema. After first seeing the film on a murky pan-and-scan VHS tape all those years ago, seeing the film in its original aspect ratio (courtesy of the excellent recent Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray) is a revelation, confirming that my long-held interest in this ‘80s genre oddity has been worthwhile.

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