Although it wasn’t entirely evident at the time, the horror movie genre reached a major crossroads in 1979.
Two monster films would premiere that summer and wage a war not just for box office supremacy, but for the future trajectory of the format.
I became aware of these two movie monsters of 1979 only by accident. I was in a Ben Franklin store in Wisconsin, I believe, while on a six-week cross-country trip with my family. I was ten.
Over in the book section were two scary titles: Prophecy by David Seltzer and Alien by Alan Dean Foster.
Both books were based on film screenplays, and their packaging or publicity carried important similarities.
For example, both films (and books) were advertised with images of monstrous, misshapen, monster eggs.
In both cases, something terrible was going to hatch…
Prophecy (released August 22, 1979) was described as “The Monster Movie,” suggesting its singular nature. And the ad copy read: “She Lives. Don’t Move. Don’t Breathe. There’s Nowhere to Run. She Will Find You.”
Alien (released June 22, 1979), by contrast, was advertised with the immortal, and much snappier ad-line: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Here are trailers for the films:
Intriguingly, each movie involved reproduction, and a threat to human reproduction in the form of something unknown and homicidal.
Similarly, both films also involved a gigantic nemesis whose form is not immediately known or understood. But Prophecy draws its life force from American history and the American past, while Alien draws its energy from the future, and cosmic unknowns.
In general terms then, Prophecy looked at Native American myth and the 1970s obsession with pollution and other eco-terrors. Alien forged a new, “space truckers” paradigm for space travel, eschewing the approaches of Star Trek and Star Wars.
The big difference was stark in terms of the featured monster. Prophecy’s monster bear looked rubbery and fake, while H.R. Giger’s now-famous xenomorph seemed frighteningly real.
The horror scenes were very different too.
Alien’s most famous death scene involved a chest-bursting alien, which had hidden inside a living human host. The scene involving its birth was so terrifying that there were reports of audiences vomiting, or running from the theater.
The big scare scene in Prophecy involved a family of campers attacked by a mutant bear. As you can see from the clip below, it plays as funny rather than authentically scary.
Today, we know that in the summer sweepstakes of 1979, one film won the monster war, while the other became something of a cult-obscurity.
I enjoy both films, it’s true, but Alien was the shape of things to come in terms of popular movie monsters.