content by

Noah Berlatsky

Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars: Genocide and the Space Western

Star Wars was widely hailed as a space western. So Roger Corman, with his talent for the obvious, decided to remake it by adding 90% more Westernness. George Lucas, in making his film, borrowed some scenes and visuals from John Ford’s The Searchers. Corman, in 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars, ripped off the plot of The Magnificent Seven wholesale—a theft which was all the more brazen since The Magnificent Seven was already a shameless imitation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

Once again, peasants threatened by ruthless marauders seek help from a ragged band of underdog mercenaries… but this time in space, with the swords-replaced-by guns replaced, one final time, by futuristic energy weapons.

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A Long Time Ago, on a Ranch Far, Far Away: Star Wars as a Space Western

The original Star Wars is not exactly a Western. But it likes to dress up as one.

George Lucas’ film (also known as Episode IV: A New Hope), released in 1977, is a bricolage of iconographic and generic references. As many critics have noted, Lucas was a visual pack rat, taking bits and pieces from numerous other films. Everything from the distinctive wipe screen transitions to widescreen composition to the female lead who gets to fight was lifted from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. The serial adventure structure came from early space adventures like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The Mos Eiseley cantina on Tatooine, a “hive of scum and villainy” nestled under the nose of an authoritarian regime, is borrowed from Casablanca. So is one of the movie’s most important character arcs; like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in the 1942 film, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is introduced as an amoral ruffian who, by the end of the film, is committed to battling the authoritarian regime.

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Cowboys With Phasers: Star Trek’s “Spectre of the Gun” and the Genre of Space Western

“Space: the final frontier.” The opening words of the original Star Trek series intro handily sums up the logic of the space western genre. The Wild West is no longer wild, and has not been for some time. But space is unexplored, untamed, and not fully under the control of a central government, and/or federation. Exchange six-guns for lasers, a horse for a starship, and cattle rustlers for Klingons, and you’re ready to send those old adventure tropes off to the galactic rodeo.

In the original series, Captain Kirk swaggers like a border sheriff through many a lawless outpost. But the episode that most directly shoots at Star Trek’s Western roots is Season Three’s “The Spectre of the Gun,” aired in 1968. Faced with old timey gun fighters, the crew of the Enterprise both lean into the Western genre and try to escape from it—with mixed success. Even at warp speed, it turns out, it’s hard to outride the horse you’re sitting on.

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“Insects Don’t Have Politics”: Jekyll, Hyde, and The Fly

Now the hand of Henry Jekyll…was professional in shape and size: it was large, firm, white, and comely. But the hand which I now saw, clearly enough…was lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair. It was the hand of Edward Hyde.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1886 science-fiction novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the estimable Dr. Jekyll’s hand is white. But the hand of his evil alter-ego, Mr. Hyde, is “of a dusky pallor.” Jekyll creates a potion that turns him from an upstanding citizen into someone “wholly evil.” And for Stevenson, someone who was wholly evil had also to be non-white.

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Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives: Feminist Horror That Can’t Escape the Patriarchy

“I like to watch women doing little domestic chores,” says Diz Coba, the creepily smug leader of the Men’s Club in Ira Levin’s 1972 SF paranoid feminist thriller The Stepford Wives. The women in Stepford scrub floors and clean counters; they straighten and dust and fix their makeup. “[T]hey even fill their [grocery] carts neatly!” as protagonist, and new Stepford resident, Joanna Eberhart realizes in horror.

The cleanly, ominous order of Stepford is an uncanny threat. But it’s also the structural aesthetic of the novel itself. The Stepford Wives, like the Stepford wives, is a flawless machine, every detail of the plot carefully arranged like a well-ordered kitchen. The frictionlessness, fussy regimentation is so insistent that it calls into question the novel’s sympathies. Is Levin, with Joanna, looking with horror into those symmetrically-ordered grocery carts? Or is he, with Coba, leaning against the wall, appreciating the smooth polish of perfection?

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Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby: Patriarchy Without Feminism Is Hell

Ira Levin’s bestselling horror novel Rosemary’s Baby is a paranoid fever dream about patriarchy. The main character, Rosemary Woodhouse, is the target of a literally Satanic plot of rape, forced birth, and domesticity. She is, in other words, the victim of the same conspiracy of sexism, misogyny and male entitlement which targets all women in a sexist society. “There are plots against people, aren’t there?” she asks, with a plaintive insight.

But while Levin’s book is devastatingly precise in its analysis of patriarchy’s disempowerment and control of women, it isn’t exactly a feminist novel. In his 1971 book The Stepford Wives, Levin mentions Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and talks directly about the growing women’s movement. But in Rosemary’s Baby, feminist consciousness is notably absence, which is part of why the novel is so bleak and terrifying. The narrative recognizes that Rosemary’s fate is diabolically unjust. But it offers no way out, narratively or theoretically. The devil’s victory is total not because he defeats feminism, but because he rules over a world in which feminist possibilities don’t exist.

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The Evil Dead Reboot: Stealing Sam Raimi’s Soul

Since Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II is essentially a remake of The Evil Dead, the film that had launched his career six years earlier, you might think that yet another remake would be gory, superfluous overkill. And you wouldn’t be wrong. The 2013 Evil Dead reboot, directed by Fede Álvarez, takes the Raimi originals as a blueprint and borifies them by about 50%. In doing so, though, the newer Evil Dead highlights what was brilliant in Raimi’s work—and shows why a conventionally well-made movie and a good movie are often not the same thing.

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Sam Raimi vs. Evil Ash: Army of Darkness

“Good, bad—I’m the guy with the gun,” Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) tells his evil doppelgänger after blowing him away in Army of Darkness. The third film in the Evil Dead series is notable for its ambivalence about evil. Part of that is because the whole movie is a goof; like The Naked Gun or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, its plot is little more than an excuse to get from one gag to another. But it’s also because director Sam Raimi and Campbell are semi-ironically, semi-genuinely fascinated with the toxic masculinity of action movie heroes.

Ash is, to put it bluntly, a jerk; there’s not much difference between him and his evil double, except that, as he says, he’s the one with the gun. As a result, it’s not exactly clear whether we’re rooting for him because he’s on the side of the angels, or simply because he’s better looking than the evil dead, and because we know he’s going to win.

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Evil Dead II: The Deadites Are Right

Like much horror over the past 80 odd years, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films are indebted to H.P. Lovecraft. Evil Dead II in particular opens with intoned exposition about the Necronomicon. Lovecraft’s eldritch book is associated with madness and tentacular things that should not be. It’s also, as with most things Lovecraft, infected with the author’s racist loathing and terror of non-Western cultures. Supposedly written by a “Mad Arab,” the book within Lovecraft’s work links extradimensional eldritch evil with non-Western culture, tying them up together in a vile bow of cosmic terror and xenophobia.

Raimi isn’t a committed eugenic racist as Lovecraft was, but Lovecraft’s monstrous beliefs still snuffle and whisper around Raimi’s cheerful gorefest, whispering “Join us! Join us!” You can cast out the demons with an incantation, but there are uglier things in those woods that are harder to exorcize.

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The Feral Fake Horror of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead

The Blair Witch Project is generally credited with inventing the found footage horror genre in 1999. But if you are looking for the first film with shaky camera work and amateurish actors stumbling around in the woods, you need to go back 18 years earlier to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, a movie whose scrappy anti-slickness was, unexpectedly, both inimitable and one of the most prescient looks of the ’80s.

The Evil Dead was made for only about $350,000, and it looks like it. But where found footage movies use their low-budget aesthetic to signal authenticity and ground-level hand-held documentary verité, Raimi leans into the wrongness of his ersatz grungy fakeness. The giddy terror of Evil Dead comes from the way it plunges its hapless protagonists into a pasteboard world, in which literally anything can come tearing through the cabin walls. “It’s not real” can be a comforting mantra—until, suddenly, it isn’t.

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Edgar Wright Reaches the World’s End

The World’s End is about a pub named “The World’s End” and also about the actual end of the world. But most of all, it’s about the end of the Edgar Wright cinematic world of small budgets, ensemble players, and a chew-them-up-and-spew-them-out-every-which-way approach to genre tropes. Wright the indie genius is turning into Wright the big-time Hollywood mover and shaker—and The World’s End is where those two Wrights meet and bash each other’s brains out in kinetic stumbling choreographed fight scenes and stupendous sprays of beer and blue ichor.

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Edgar Wright vs. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) may be Edgar Wright’s most perfect film, though hardcore fans of his earlier efforts may miss the imperfections. The movie marks Wright’s transition to Hollywood-size big budgets ($80.7 million over Hot Fuzz’s $16 million), and he uses the additional money to turn out an indie pop song movie filled with slickly catchy quirk.

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Hot Fuzz: A Police Film for Those Who Love (and Hate) Police Films

Edgar Wright’s 2007 Hot Fuzz is a kind of inverted mirror image of his previous film, Shaun of the Dead. In Shaun, the zombie genre is split open to reveal a relationship comedy nestling amidst the soft, bloody innards. Hot Fuzz, in contrast, starts as a relationship comedy before buckling on the violent accoutrements of an aggressively, and gloriously, empty genre exercise. For those who love cop films, and for those who hate them, the hollow explosion of policing is a kind of hot fuzz heaven.

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Shaun of the Dead Eats the Zombie Genre’s Brain

Edgar Wright’s 2004 big budget film debut Shaun of the Dead is widely praised as a masterful and loving tribute to the zombie movie. It’s also, though, a critique, or at least a gentle questioning, of the genre’s misanthropy and pessimism. If you’re looking for a film to make you feel good about failures of personal hygiene while sitting at home during a global pandemic and catastrophe, you won’t find one more committed to letting you be you, in all your slovenliness, than Shaun of the Dead.

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