Thursday, October 19, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: N is for Night Skies -- a Film that Wasn't But Probably Should've Been.

On the night of Sunday, August 21, 1955, in a small isolated farmhouse located about eight miles north of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a relatively quiet night took a strange turn when the family dog started barking, alerting the occupants to something weird going on outside. These numerous occupants included Glennie Lankford and her three children; John and Elmer “Lucky” Sutton -- Lankford’s two older sons from a previous marriage, and their respective wives, Vera and Alene; and Alene's brother, O.P. Baker, and a couple of friends from Pennsylvania, Billy Ray Taylor and his wife, June. It was Taylor who first noticed something “unusual” when he went out to pump some water around sundown and witnessed an object moving across the sky, shooting flames out the back-end, until it stopped suddenly and dropped into a gully 300-or-so yards behind the house. But his outlandish sighting was treated with much skepticism from the others -- at least it was until the dog starting barking up a storm about an hour later.

And so, a little after 8pm, Taylor and Elmer Sutton headed outside to check on the ruckus and spotted a glowing object headed for the house that both men would later swear radiated from a small, human-like creature in the center of it that was at “least three feet tall, with an unusually large, bald head with crinkly, bat-like ears extending from either side of its head.” The creature was also “very thin, with disproportionately long arms that ended in talon-like claws. The creature had unusually large eyes with no apparent eyelids, no nose, and a lipless mouth, which extended from one side of its face to the other.” According to further testimony, the creature never touched the ground, only hovered, moving through the air as if it were swimming; and it appeared to be wearing a shiny, silvery, metallic bodysuit. And most frightening of all: there would turn out to be more than one of them.

At first the lone creature kept its distance until realizing it’d been spotted; and then, arms raised, moved toward the house, causing the two observers to beat a quick retreat inside to arm themselves. And when the glowing thing was less than 20ft from the porch the men opened fire. And while they claimed to have hit the creature the bullets and slugs had no seeming effect except cause the alien thing to flip a u-ee and disappear. But it wasn’t long until the creatures came back en masse, peeping into windows and terrorizing the whole household. At that point, Taylor and Sutton, still thinking there was only one creature, went back outside to try and run it off again; but the second Taylor set foot out the back door something on the roof reached down and snatched him by the hair. And while the rest of the family wrested him free, Elmer Sutton blew the creature off the roof with his shotgun; but once again, the creature was unharmed and gently lit onto the ground. It was at this point they noticed multiple glowing objects in the shelter-belt trees. They were surrounded.

Once again, the men opened fire as they retreated into the house as more and more creatures kept approaching them. But each one they hit would only glow brighter before retreating into the shadows. The men described a metallic sound with each landed shot, like “a coin tossed into a bucket.” And this pattern of attack and retreat lasted for several hours until things seemed to stop around 11pm. And so, the house was quickly abandoned as all the occupants piled into two cars and raced into Hopkinsville, where they reported the incident to the local Sheriff, Russell Greenwell. And while the report of a dozen malevolent “goblins” sounded fantastic, Greenwell sensed the witnesses were genuinely terrified by what they claimed to have seen. And so, he led a patrol in force out to the farmhouse, joined by a couple of MPs from nearby Fort Campbell; but apart from some broken glass, shredded window screens, spent shells, and a dubious “glowing patch” of something on a nearby fence, no evidence of the creatures was found. 

This inconclusive investigation wrapped up at approximately 2:30am. And after the cops left, the occupants returned -- and so did the creatures, apparently, as they once again started peeking into windows and crawled all over the roof in defiance of the returned fire whenever they stuck their misshapen heads into view. This second attack finally petered-out around 5am. And when the sun came up, once again, no solid evidence of the invaders could be found.

The following day, a report of the encounter was published in The Kentucky New Era, the local Hopkinsville newspaper, which was soon picked up by a national wire service; and what was to become known as “The Hopkinsville Incident” or “The Hopkinsville Goblins” broke big. Thus and so, reporters from all over the country descended on the farmhouse, along with a ton of speculative UFO enthusiasts, hoping the creatures would return. Again, evidence was scarce (-- that dubious glow stain was written off as foxfire mold). What they did find for sure was an empty house, as the occupants -- most listed as “itinerant carnival workers” -- had long since vacated the property. Both the sheriff’s department and other area residents claimed to have spotted unusual lights in the sky on that same August night; and while the “goblins” never returned to Hopkinsville, the story became legendary in ufology circles due to its duration and by the number of witnesses involved.

Still, the official Air Force investigation into the incident via Project Blue Book officially lists The Hopkinsville Incident as a hoax, feeling what the tenants actually saw that night was nothing more than a flock of horned owls. And at this point, our story shifts to Josef Allen Hynek, an astronomer and physicist who was hired by the Air Force in 1948 to investigate reports of flying saucers and other strange phenomenon for them under Project Sign (-- which would eventually morph into Project Grudge, then Blue Book). At the time, Hynek was a skeptic and thought “the whole subject seemed utterly ridiculous" and felt the current spate of UFO-mania, triggered by Kenneth Arnold’s flying saucer sighting in 1947, was a fad that would soon pass. Hynek would later admit at this time he would be best described as a biased debunker, a role he enjoyed, which, he also noted, was exactly what the Air Force expected of him.

However, over time, Hynek’s views began to change as he grew tired of the “dismissive or arrogant attitude” of both the Air Force and many mainstream scientists and the media towards UFO reports and witnesses, which is best exemplified by an article he wrote in the April, 1953, issue of Journal of Optical Society of America titled “Unusual Aerial Phenomenon” where he stated, “Ridicule is not part of the scientific method, and people should not be taught that it is. The steady flow of reports, often made in concert by reliable observers, raises questions of scientific obligation and responsibility. Is there ... any residue that is worthy of scientific attention? Or, if there isn't, does not an obligation exist to say so to the public -- not in words of open ridicule but seriously, to keep faith with the trust the public places in science and scientists?” Hynek was also struggling with the caliber of witnesses that came forward, a lot of them military pilots, who he felt were well-trained and not prone to delusions or hysteria. And with this quantum shift in thinking, Hynek began to think maybe there was something to this UFO stuff after all.

And when Project Blue Book officially folded in 1969, Hynek formed the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) in 1973, which continued his advocation for scientific analysis of UFO cases both old and new. And it was around this same time Hynek published his first book, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry, in which he proposed a scale of classification for UFO sightings. The first three levels begins with nocturnal lights, then daylight sightings, and then sightings confirmed by radar. This was then followed by a Close Encounter of the First Kind: or “visual sightings of an unidentified flying object seemingly less than 500 feet away that show an appreciable angular extension and considerable detail.” Then, a Close Encounter of the Second Kind: or “a UFO event in which a physical effect is alleged. This can be interference in the functioning of a vehicle or electronic device; animals reacting; a physiological effect such as paralysis or heat and discomfort in the witness; or some physical trace like impressions in the ground, scorched or otherwise affected vegetation, or a chemical trace.” And at the top of the scale, a Close Encounter of the Third Kind: or “a UFO encounter in which an animated creature is present. These include humanoids, robots, and humans who seem to be occupants or pilots of a UFO."

That same year (1973), Steven Spielberg put the finishing touches on a deal with Columbia to make a long desired personal pet-project, Watch the Skies, once he wrapped up (and survived the making of) JAWS (1975) for Universal. The proposed film drew inspiration from Hynek’s book; in fact, Hynek would be hired on as a creative consultant once the film went into production (-- and would have a cameo as the pipe-smoker on the "Dark Side of the Moon"). And once the title Watch the Skies couldn’t be cleared due to a copyright claim, the film was rechristened Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). And it was at some point during the production phase of Close Encounters that Hynek related the tale of The Hopkinsville Goblins to Spielberg (-- which might’ve inspired the look and feel of the assault on the Guiler farmhouse, when Barry is abducted), who was currently in the middle of another production that was running both over time and budget -- slotted at $20 million, due to F/X glitches and delays, which made the suits at the near bankrupt studio very nervous. In fact, the future of Columbia rested solely on the success or failure of Spielberg’s unfinished film.

Luckily for both, the film was blockbuster and saved the studio. And the studio was so grateful, they were eager to get another contractually obligated film from Spielberg. In fact, they wanted a direct sequel to Close Encounters. And whether they just wanted more of the same or something to compete with the forthcoming sequel to Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), is anyone’s guess. But like with JAWS, Spielberg wasn’t all that interested in doing a sequel but had regrets for losing creative control over the franchise he birthed, which was about to unleash JAWS 2 (1978) -- a film that was sorely lacking the Spielberg touch. And for awhile, Spielberg managed to wrestle control of that franchise back and was one of the major backers for the National Lampoon’s take on JAWS 3 People 0, even bringing in Joe Dante to direct; but this film had a quick but very painful death when no one could decide if it should be played as a PG-rated thriller or an R-rated comedy, opening the door for the gawdawful but highly entertaining JAWS 3-D (1983) and the gawdawfulest, JAWS the Revenge (1987), which the wunderkind director had nothing to do with.

Thus and so, not wanting Columbia to just make a sequel without him, Spielberg was anxious to retain at least some degree of creative influence over a Close Encounters 2. And since he was busy trying to finish 1941 (1979) -- yet another film destined to get away from him both physically and financially, only this one was destined to be his first box-office bomb (-- even though I love that flick to death), and was also in the natal pre-production stages of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Spielberg decided he would not direct the sequel but would try his hand at producing for the first time. And not wanting to repeat himself, with Hynek’s inspiration, he came up with a treatment that would offer a “dark counterpoint to the awe and wonder of Close Encounters” where instead of the existential possibilities of benign alien contact, the sequel, once again under the working title, Watch the Skies, would feature aliens as unruly visitors with a dubious agenda that included abduction, dissection, and mutilation as they lay siege on an isolated farmhouse.

In his role as producer, the first person Spielberg brought on board was noted production designer and illustrator, Ron Cobb, who had worked on Dark Star (1974), Star Wars and Alien (1979) to help flesh out his treatment for the pitch to Columbia, which concerned a dozen malicious alien explorers on a fact-finding mission on Earth to discover what the dominant species on the planet was, beginning with animals and then working their way up to a human family.

And then the first bump on the road to production came when none of the surviving victims of the inspiring Hopkinsville Incident would agree to sign off on the film. And so, Watch the Skies would have to be changed or extremely fictionalized in the script to avoid any lawsuits. To accomplish this, Spielberg first offered the job to Lawrence Kasdan but he was too busy trying to salvage The Empire Strikes Back for George Lucas at the time. And so, Spielberg turned to novice screenwriter, John Sayles, who had just penned the script for Roger Corman and Joe Dante’s JAWS knock-off, Piranha (1978); a spoof Spielberg liked so much he personally intervened and called off Universal’s lawyers, who wanted to block the release of the film like they did later with Enzo Castellari’s Great White a/k/a The Last Shark (1981), which, to be fair, was essentially JAWS with the serial numbers filed-off and a hope no one would notice.

Sayles took the job, immediately went to work, and churned out a 99-page first draft called Night Skies: a “grisly yet sometimes quirkily funny tale” that was the tonal polar opposite of Close Encounters. Still somewhat inspired by the goblin incident, Sayles treatment was largely told from the perspective of the youngest siblings of the besieged family: a teenage girl named Tess, a teenage boy named Wyatt, and an autistic 10-year old boy named Jaybird. And I say “somewhat inspired” by the incident because Sayles would later admit he based most of his draft on John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), subbing in hostile aliens for the attacking natives. He even named the head alien Skarr after the Comanche war chief in Ford’s The Searchers (1956).

As for the story itself, it featured five aliens (cut down from the original dozen in a cost-cutting effort most probably) led by Skarr, who, according to the script, had a beak-like mouth and eyes like grasshopper, landing near an isolated farm, where they start killing and mutilating the animals in an effort to discover what the dominant species is, culminating with an attack on the house. Now, according to Sayles, Skarr killed these animals by touching them with a long bony finger which gave off an eerie light from the tip (-- sound familiar? Yeah, to me, too. Hang on, we’re getting there). The other alien of note was referred to as Buddy, who was kinder and gentler and wound up befriending and saving Jaybird from being vivisected. But for this betrayal, Buddy is left marooned on earth by his fellow aliens, cowering under the shadow of an approaching hawk as the screen fades to black.

And while Sayles hammered out a script, Spielberg needed to come up with some aliens that would be able to do a helluva lot more than the spindly critter and baby pot-bellies that showed up during the climax of Close Encounters courtesy of Carlo Rambaldi. And so, taking advice from his friend, John Landis, Spielberg approached Rick Baker, who was currently working out the kinks for his soon to be groundbreaking F/X for Landis in An American Werewolf in London (1981). Baker, excited by Spielberg’s pitch and anxious to work with him, was still upfront with the producer, saying it would probably cost close to $3 million to pull off the animatronics needed for the alien characters. Spielberg didn’t even blink and gave Baker the go ahead to begin work on a prototype as he headed off to Tunisia to work on Raiders.

But before he left, Spielberg had to get the final OK from the execs at Columbia, who, perhaps still feeling the burn of the box-office disappointment of 1941, were a little hesitant with the green-light. And besides, producer Spielberg still hadn’t picked out a director either. But he did have a few ideas on that, which he floated by the studio. First up was Tobe Hooper, still notorious for directing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), whose blunt, matter-of-factness had a huge influence on JAWS, but he turned it down as he was gearing up for The Funhouse (1981). Spielberg’s second (and last) choice was designer Cobb, who had never directed a film before. Columbia still wasn’t sold on this idea or the film quite yet, but they were willing to put up $100,000 for some F/X tests.

And so, Baker went to work. And when he completed the first sculpts of the aliens and a working prototype of an animatronic Skarr, he sent photos and a video tape of the creature in motion to Spielberg, now hunkered down in Tunisia; and the producer absolutely flipped out at the progress Baker had made. Then, Spielberg’s assistant, Kathleen Kennedy, called Baker with the good news, saying their boss was ecstatic and his efforts made “Yoda look like a toy.” Baker’s work gave the film a much need shot of momentum that it direly needed at the time. Columbia concurred and agreed to spend another $500,000 on the development of the F/X. (There was even a rumor floating around Hollywood that Spielberg contacted NASA to reserve cargo space on the inaugural space shuttle flight in order to film the Earth and the Moon for the film’s opening sequence.) Thus and so, Baker hired on several assistants and set-up a brand new shop to work simultaneously on the aliens for Night Skies and the wolfman for American Werewolf, pushing himself hard, working long nights and weekends to pull off what Spielberg and Landis needed.

Yeah. Things were looking pretty good for Night Skies at this point, but then came a fateful night out in the deserts of Africa, when Melissa Mathison showed up to visit her future husband, Harrison Ford. Mathison was a screenwriter, who co-wrote The Black Stallion (1979) for mutual friend, Francis Ford Coppola; and at some point during a lull Spielberg read the entire Night Skies script to her and by the end she was in tears -- no, not because it was bad, but because she fell in love with the notion of “an alien creature who was benevolent, tender, emotional and sweet ... and the idea of the creature's striking up a relationship with a child who came from a broken home was very affecting" to her. Spielberg, meanwhile, had just come off the mounting chaos of 1941 and had been up to his neck in the serialized adventures of Indiana Jones for several months, melting Nazis and blowing things up; and perhaps caught up in a sudden mid-life crisis / anxiety attack, he decided right then and there that he needed to leave this kind of violence behind, return to the tranquility of Close Encounters, and hit upon an idea to essentially scrap Night Skies altogether except for that one plot thread and make a movie out of that friendship instead. He then convinced Mathison to write it. And eight weeks later, she turned in a rough draft for a film called E.T. and Me.

The exact sequence of what happened next is a bit fuzzy. But what we do know for sure is John Sayles, after reading Mathison’s script, was philosophical about the change of direction, feeling his script was just a sign post or jumping off point, shrugged, gave his blessing, and amicably walked away with no hard feelings. This abrupt change in direction, however, did not go over quite as well with Rick Baker, who remained mum on the subject for almost twenty years before opening up to author David Hughes on his indispensable book, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, which devotes an entire chapter to Night Skies, where it went wrong, and what it eventually wrought. Seems after wrapping Raiders, Spielberg walked into Baker’s workshop to give him some bad news and some good news. And here, unaware of Spielberg’s change of plans, he was told the bad news first: Night Skies wasn’t going to happen. And then the good news: they were going to make another, nicer alien movie together instead.

Perhaps if Spielberg’s approach had been a tad more nuanced, here, more understanding, and perhaps if Spielberg’s reputation for being a tad duplicitous in his business dealings, Baker might’ve been a little less paranoid and taken the news a little better. As is, he’d spent almost $700,000 developing the aliens for Night Skies, and now, after all that work, sweat, and long hours, all of it was going to be scrapped on, basically, the whim of the producer, who just couldn’t understand why the veteran F/X man was so pissed off at the news -- and Spielberg was a little pissed off, himself, that Baker wasn’t as excited as he was over this new prospective film. And so, tensions were high, and a fight suddenly broke out over Baker’s understandable lack of enthusiasm for the new film. Threats of lawsuits followed as more heated words were exchanged; and then Baker was essentially relieved of duty when Spielberg stormed out the room, slammed the door, and said, loud enough for Baker to hear, “Get me Carlo Rambaldi!"

The next day, Baker was locked out of his shop and all of his work was confiscated by the studio -- designs, models and animatronics that would essentially form the basis of Rambaldi’s E.T. puppet, including that glowing finger. Here, it should probably be noted that after their falling out, Rambaldi actually wasn’t Spielberg’s first choice to realize E.T. But Chris Walas turned it down due to him working with David Cronenberg on Scanners (1981). And Rob Bottin, who just wrapped up The Howling (1981), was now committed to do some amazing things with John Carpenter on The Thing (1982). And so, Spielberg was kinda stuck with Rambaldi, who was notoriously slow, but eventually won himself an Academy Award based on Baker’s designs. And so, you can kinda understand why Baker would never work for Spielberg directly again.

And Baker wasn’t the only problem Spielberg faced as Columbia's president, Frank Price, wasn’t real happy with Night Skies’ new direction, either, having already blown nearly a million on pre-production with now nothing to show for it (-- during negotiations, Spielberg tried to fold that money into the budget of his proposed new film but it didn’t fly). And besides that, the studio already had a benevolent alien visitor film in the pipeline -- which would turn out to be Starman (1984), and weren’t real thrilled with Mathison’s script, feeling it was a “wimpy Walt Disney kids’ movie” that no one would want to see. And so, Price kinds washed his hands of the whole thing as the former Night Skies - now - E.T. and Me production was tossed into the abyss of the Hollywood turnaround, writing the whole thing off for tax purposes, meaning the studio and Spielberg could no longer exploit the property any further -- unless another studio stepped in and took over the debt.

E.T. and Me was "a very personal story about the divorce of my parents,” said Spielberg. “How I felt when my parents broke up. When I was a kid, I used to imagine strange creatures lurking outside my bedroom window, and I'd wish that they'd come into my life and magically change it.” Thus, ever the wheeler-under-the-table-dealer, an invested Spielberg wasn’t ready to give up on E.T. and Me just yet. And so, he first fulfilled his contractual obligation of a sequel for Columbia by cobbling together a few cut scenes and splicing them into Close Encounters for The Special Edition (1981). (And how he actually got away with that crap is mind-boggling.) He then contacted his old friend and mentor, Sid Sheinberg, over at MCA/Universal, who was more than happy and eager to collaborate with Spielberg again on E.T. and Me, negotiating a deal with Columbia where they agreed to not only reimburse the money Baker had spent but also guaranteed the other studio 5% of the new film’s net profits.

History, of course, shows Columbia made a huge mistake by letting E.T. and Me go, as E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) would go on to be one of the biggest moneymakers of all time, grossing nearly $800 million dollars since its first release. The running joke around Columbia in 1982 was the studio actually made more money on E.T. than any of their own releases. And Frank Cobb, remember him? Well, he also made out pretty good, too, as the appointed director of Night Skies was guaranteed 1% of the net profit of the finished film whether he directed it or not. He made millions for, essentially, doing nothing. Hollywood, amIright?!

Still, even with the success of E.T. it’s still too bad that Night Skies never saw the light of day. Again, imagine a feature-length version of the raid and abduction sequence at the Guiler house from Close Encounters, produced by Spielberg, back when he still wasn’t afraid to scare people, directed by Tobe Hooper or Ron Cobb, scripted by John Sayles, back when he was writing things like Alligator (1980) and The Howling (1981), with aliens and butchered cows rendered by Rick Baker, who landed himself his own Oscar for his spectacular work on An American Werewolf in London in the interim. And if you can’t imagine it, well, you can still kind of see it. Sort of. See, turns out Spielberg wasn’t quite ready to give up on Night Skies just yet either. Turns out ‘the film that wasn’t’ that had already sprung one major blockbuster was destined to inspire another bona fide hit. All you had to do is sub in some ghosts for the aliens. But for that tale, Boils and Ghouls, you’ll have to wait a couple days and then check back in when we take a look at the making and release of Poltergeist (1982).

Author’s note: Confession time. Originally, I had slotted the remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990) for the N-slot for Hubrisween this year. But as I was writing up Poltergeist (1982) and really dug into the history of its origins, which all tied into Night Skies, that review was quickly getting out of hand. And so, I decided to split it in two and have a separate review dedicated to the aborted Night Skies all on its own. And there ya go and here we are and now you know and knowing is half the battle, Boils and Ghouls.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 14 down with 12 to go! Up next: The origin of something I don't even remember. Be there!

1 comment:

David said...

I was 11 when ET came out and when it was over, I was like "That's it? That's what was supposed to be so great?" I think it was the beginning of my realizations that I was in no way under a contract to like mainstream films. And I've been marching to my beat ever since. But man, I wuld have loved Night Skies, from what was written here. Truly a dman shame this never made.

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