Elliott: (in hushed tone) Nobody go out there!
Steven Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, is often remembered as the beloved and heart-warming tale of true friendship between a gentle alien who is stranded on Earth and a young boy named Elliot, but for many (myself included) this Spielberg classic is just as terrifying as anything directed by Wes Craven, John Carpenter, or the rest of the traditional horror crowd - at least for the first twenty minutes or so…
Clearly, Spielberg is a master storyteller and even I, an individual who fears E.T., can admit that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a powerful, emotional, and definitively classic film. There are few films in Spielberg’s career that truly lack heart, but the success and endurance of E.T. may prove it is the creation of his which, in fact, contains the most heart out of all of them. That said, the beginning of E.T. is filled with ominous tones and is clearly designed to instill some minor doubt into the audience as to what the alien’s intentions were towards the human boy it was attempting to interact with. Aside from creepily invading Elliot’s house and scaring the crap out of him in the corn field, here are just a few other reasons why the beginning of this film is so unsettling for some of us:
It Started Out as a Horror Film
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’s ability to scare might be partially rooted in the film’s origins, given that it was developed from a sci-fi horror film known as Night Skies that stalled in the 1970s. Night Skies told the story of gremlin-like aliens that terrorized a family in a farmhouse. Spielberg originally came up with the concept as an alternative to a studio-requested sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but in the early '80s, the director and E.T.’s writer, Melissa Mathison, took the Night Skies concept and turned it into the film audiences know and love. Apparently, Night Skies also helped inspire the concept behind Poltergeist, as well as the never-made E.T. sequel, E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears, which featured Night Skies’ animal-dissecting evil aliens.
When it comes to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, clearly, the horror genre is part of the DNA of the film and adds to its innate ability to get under an audience's skin.
John Williams’ Amazing Score
Let’s be honest, Williams is a legend and deservedly so. With his ridiculously impressive resume and ability to craft an instantly classic movie score time and time again, stating that his score for E.T. is brilliant is akin to stating the obvious.
Still, music is a powerful element in the medium of film, and William’s score for E.T. is powerful, foreboding, and matches the dark undercurrent that runs through Speilberg’s film. Whether amplifying the other-worldliness of its title character or adding an intimidating theme to the unidentified man who pursues the alien creature, William’s score adds both heart-warming and horrific moments to the film.
That Creepy, Little, Squatty Alien
Of course, nothing is more terrifying than E.T. himself. While a stunning accomplishment by special effects masters Carlo Rambaldi and Dennis Muren, the unnerving appearance, movements, and sounds of the creature all add to the primal, fear-inducing reaction many of us experience in regards to this “friendly” alien invader. Still, the most powerful contributor to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’s first frightening twenty minutes has to do mostly with what Spielberg chooses to show us on screen. Employing techniques used before in Jaws to cover for the malfunctioning shark, Spielberg refuses to give in to the temptation to show more than is necessary of the actual alien creature and leaves much to the imagination. Not only does this help cover the limits of the amazing special effects present in the film, but it makes the horror-inspired first quarter of the film that much more terrifying as we wait for the reveal of what E.T. is, what he wants to do, and just what exactly he looks like.
If, for some inexplicable reason, you have a hard time in believing in Spielberg’s talent for visual storytelling, check out the below “horror trailer” for the film, featuring some of the creepiest imagery of the movie recut into a preview for a chilling, scary flick.
No matter what, many of you reading will never fear E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial the way a select crowd of us do. Count yourself lucky and be sure you don’t leave any Reese's Pieces out this year.
Happy Halloween, comic book sniffers!