Remembering Three Classic Movies That Inspired ‘Alien’

Today, 4/26, is Alien Day, in honor of the exoplanet LV-426 where the slimy Xenomorph is first found in the original Alien. Naturally, fans are fondly remembering the classic horror franchise, but like any great idea, it didn’t burst fully formed out of the mind of Dan O’Bannon (who’s credited with the screenplay) and Ron Shusett (who shares a story credit with O’Bannon). In fact, there are several horror classics that inspired O’Bannon, and they’re all worth catching up with on Alien Day.

It! The Terror From Beyond Space!

This 1958 science fiction movie opens with a nuclear-powered spacecraft launching from Mars, carrying with it a crew of ten and the disgraced and possibly mad Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson). Carruthers is the only survivor of a Mars expedition where the rest wound up dead, murdered for their food and water rations as the mission went wrong, and Carruthers’ defense beggars belief: An alien life form murdered his crew, and he’s the only survivor.

As you might have guessed, Carruthers is telling the truth, and It! and the movie it inspired share quite a few plot points, from the alien creature hiding in the ducts to the crew of the ship dying one by one to the final fate of the monster in question, who’s fired out an airlock.

The script comes from science fiction legend Jerome Bixby, who also invented the concept of Star Trek‘s “Mirror Universe” and wrote the short story that inspired the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life.” And the independently made movie itself is surprisingly efficient at just 70 minutes. One wonders what might have happened had Bixby’s script wandered into the office of a major studio at the time, but on its own it’s one of the better B-movies of the 1950s.

Planet of the Vampires

The name Mario Bava is little known outside fans of genre films, but he’s had an outsized influence on some beloved movies. He’s widely credited with inventing the giallo, lurid, modern thrillers that would inspire filmmakers from Brian De Palma to Quentin Tarantino. Twitch of the Death Nerve is one of the first slasher movies (and Friday The 13th Part 2 serves as an unofficial remake). This atmospheric 1965 horror movie will feel slightly familiar to Alien fans.

Two interplanetary cargo ships receive a mysterious distress call. One, The Argos, suddenly sees its crew members possessed by an unseen force, that only Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) can resist, breaking the crew out of their hypnotic state and landing the ship. The crew quickly discovers a planet covered with an unnerving, pulsating mist, and also that corpses seem to have a tendency to get up, walk, and kill. Once they discover an ancient ship with enormous skeletal remains, they realize the planet is a trap and, well, we won’t spoil it from there.

Dark Star

Finally, there’s this 1974 dark comedy, the first movie directed by John Carpenter of Halloween fame and co-written by Carpenter and O’Bannon. It includes a rough draft of what would become Alien. The premise is simple: A demolition team explores the universe, destroying unstable planets to pave the way for colonization. Unfortunately, it’s a long, isolating, patience-straining deep-space mission with limited supplies — not to mention a feisty computer that wants to understand the meaning of life.

Also, there’s an alien to feed, which forms the root of an extended sequence as the crew chases the “alien,” a painted beach ball with puppet feet, through the ventilation shafts and fight off its various attacks. The whole sequence feels, not surprisingly, like a parody of It! The Terror From Beyond Space, suggesting that movie was very much on O’Bannon’s mind even back in 1974. In fact, O’Bannon noted he was unhappy with the alien from Dark Star, and the idea of making a movie where the alien felt like a real creature planted the seed for Alien.

This isn’t to say that everything from Alien comes from another movie. The famous chestburster sequence wasn’t inspired by a movie, but by O’Bannon’s struggles with Crohn’s disease, and Walter Hill, director of genre classics like The Warriors, added an element of corporate espionage that later films would build on. But no film happens without the inspiration of the films that came before, and it’s always good to look at the classics that inspired a movie, and wonder what classics they might inspire in turn.