NB: this article contains some saucy language and imagery that may be considered not safe for work.
Director Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin took a B-movie concept – that of the female alien seductress – and turned it into an arthouse masterpiece starring Scarlett Johansson. 1995’s Species, on the other hand, positively revels in its trashiness, with a mutating lady monster (played by Natasha Henstridge) scurrying around Los Angeles and attempting to copulate with its populace.
At the time of release, your humble writer went to a local cinema to watch Species with a group of friends, purely on the basis that it featured some creature designs by Swiss artist HR Giger – most commonly noted for his work on the classic Alien. Surely, we all thought, Giger would add a touch of class to the movie. Yes, Species‘ premise was pure B-grade stuff, but wasn’t the same true of Alien?
When we stumbled out of that mid-90s fleapit some 108 minutes later, we were all chattering bemusedly at the madness we’d just seen. It’s fair to say that Species isn’t quite in the same league as Alien – even if it does share certain traits in common – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few remarkable things to note about it. Things like these…
1. It has the most eclectic cast of any 90s B-movie
The plot of Species is simple: aliens have transmitted a signal to scientists on Earth, which contains a mysterious genetic formula. The scientists, assuming the aliens to be friendly, follow the transmission’s instructions and create a genetic hybrid of human and xenomorph DNA. The result of this scientific tinkering is Sil – an apparently normal female human who happens to grow at an accelerated rate.
It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the astonishing cast director Roger Donaldson managed to gather for Species. The Oscar-winning Ben Kingsley heads up the list as Xavier Fitch, a scientist whose experiment escapes from his top secret lab when attempts are made to kill it. Fitch then assembles a team of specialists to track down and kill the creature – the team consisting of Michael Madsen’s “Press” Lennox, a government-sponsored assassin, anthropologist Dr Arden (Alfred Molina), a biologist, Dr Baker (Marg Helgenberger) and twitchy “empath” Dan Smithson (Forest Whitaker).
From the first moment we see all these actors together to the last, it’s fascinating to watch them work. Partly because all of them made plenty of acclaimed films both before and after Species, but also because they frequently look either lost of filled with regret:
The early scene where Xavier Fitch explains why he and his scientists created a female alien-human hybrid is one example. As Kingsley drawls, “We decided to make it female to make it more docile and controllable,” he wears an expression that says, “I need to speak to my agent…”
2. The alien dreams of a giant killer train
As Species begins, Sil (played by Michelle Williams, who would later find acclaim in such films as Blue Valentine and My Week With Marilyn) escapes Fitch’s clutches and escapes on a train bound for Los Angeles. Having killed a vagrant, stolen a bag full of money, eaten a banana whole and fallen asleep, Sil has a feverish dream of an alien landscape, where she’s chased by a locomotive made from skulls and bones.
It’s a sequence that could only have come from the mind of HR Giger, and it’s disappointing that, like so many moments in Species, it was never realised exactly as the artist intended. Originally, Giger had storyboarded and designed a far lengthier 30-second sequence, which he later wrote about in his book, HR Giger’s Film Design. MGM were never entirely sold on the idea, and ultimately, only a very brief shot of Giger’s train model was shown off in the finished film.
Determined to put his designs to practical use, Giger decided, in the autumn of 1995, to construct a large model train set in his back garden. Naturally, this wasn’t the kind of thing you’d be able to buy in Toys R Us: the engine pulling the train looked like something from a Jules Verne nightmare, all swooping bony outcroppings and suggestive curves. The carriages were formed from the twisted bodies of what looked like fornicating aliens. Around the tracks were models of naked men and women, sprayed lime green, and from a tree hung a plastic crocodile.
While construction was underway, Giger thoughtfully wrote a letter to his neighbours, who were probably wondering he was digging gigantic tunnels in his back garden. “You may rest easy,” Giger wrote. “I am building neither a garbage dump nor a public playground […] The train is for me and a couple of friends, not open to the public. I will gladly show you the whole thing sometime.”
On the basis of this letter alone, we’d love to see a film about the experiences of being HR Giger’s next door neighbour.
3. The alien wears a wedding dress and bum bag, stares at a fox holding a sword
By the time the train carrying Sil has reached Los Angeles, she’s emerged from a dribbling cocoon as a full-grown, 20-something woman played by Natasha Henstridge. Wandering off into the California sunshine, she learns all she can from the strange humans around her. There are parallels, in fact, with Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin here, as the alien walks unnoticed around the city streets.
“Los Angeles is perfectly for her,” observes Alfred Molina’s Arden. “It’s the city of the future. Nothing in this town is taboo – she could do anything and no one would notice.”
As if to prove Arden’s point, we see Sil walk into a dress shop and emerge a few minutes later wearing a wedding dress. As Arden predicted, Sil’s strange choice of outfit is studiously ignored by LA’s residents – which is surprising, given that she’s walking down the middle of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. All of this leads to this inexplicable shot:
This is, we’re sure you’ll agree, one of the most remarkable images in any 90s genre film.
4. The insights of Forest Whitaker
As professional empath Dan Smithson, Forest Whitaker is forced to wear a little white hat and utter some of the most inane things ever written in a science fiction script. Dan states near the start of Species that he specialises in understanding what someone’s thinking or feeling just by reading the emotions on their face. In practice, all Dan does is state the absurdly obvious.
As Fitch and his team follow the trail left by Sil, they stumble on the private train carriage where she’d emerged from her cocoon. The room’s covered in empty food containers and detritus, there’s a mass of alien goo in one corner, and a dead ticket inspector lying on the floor, a look of terror etched into her pallid face.
“Something bad happened here,” Dan notes.
When the team first set eyes on some grainy TV footage of Sil, Dan says, “She looks nice.”
Later, they find a car Sil stole and later left abandoned by the side of the road when it ran of petrol. “She walked,” Dan observes.
In a night club, Dan watches Michael Madsen’s assassin smiling and chatting to Marg Helgenberger’s Dr Baker at the bar.
“They like each other,” Dan suggests. Sigh.
5. There’s a Crystal Maze sequence
Some readers may fondly remember the 80s Channel Four television show, The Crystal Maze. In it, Richard O’Brien led a team of jittery men and women through a selection of challenges, where each contestant would be locked in a room and forced to complete a test of their physical or mental prowess.
With these tests being carried out against a ticking clock, the contestants were often left to panic and fumble the task in hand while their team mates shouted advice from outside. Amid all the chaos, O’Brien would make wry observations to the camera, or maybe just sit down and play his harmonica for a bit. If you’ve never seen the programme before, here’s a brief excerpt:
Curiously, Species contains a sequence that is exactly like a challenge from The Crystal Maze. Attempting to get a look at what happens when alien and human DNA is spliced, Dr Baker starts tinkering around with her scientific instruments while the rest of the team look on, possibly embarrassed at the white lab outfits they’re forced to wear. When a camera suddenly breaks down, Dr Baker and Lennox head into a quarantined part of the lab to repair it.
While they’re doing so, the alien DNA begins to spread out of control, and rapidly mutates into a tentacle-d, screeching monster. As the situation unfolds, Fitch is watching the pair through the safety of a bullet-proof (and alien-proof) window, and perhaps channelling the spirit of Richard O’Brien, begins to shout advice through the glass.
“Get the top back on, or I can’t let you out,” Fitch says, referring to the lid that will keep the sprouting alien from escaping.
“Something’s wrong,” Dan says, in between shouts.
“It’s started already,” Fitch yells to Dr Baker and Lennox, ignoring Dan. “Get the top back on!”
With shaking hands, Dr Baker and Lennox try to get the top back on the container. Lennox fumbles a screw, which falls through a grating.
“I think it fell through the grate,” Lennox says.
“Then lift the grate!” Fitch advises. “You have two minutes!”
Within seconds, the situation’s escalated out of control. Michael Madsen tries to kill the rapidly-growing creature with first a makeshift flamethrower, and then a length of broken pipe.
It’s a bit more violent and sweary than your average Crystal Maze episode, but not by much. All it needs is Ben Kingsley playing a mouth organ.
6. No one seems too worried about the world ending
As Sil begins to prowl the nightclubs of Los Angeles for unwary men to have sex with, Dr Arden explains exactly what she’s up to. Sil’s determined to get herself pregnant and give birth to more offspring, which could then grow and breed and take over the planet. Despite this potentially apocalyptic scenario, nobody seems in too much of a hurry to do anything about it.
When Fitch and his team arrives in Los Angeles, the first thing they do is book themselves into what looks like the most expensive hotel in town. Meanwhile, Sil picks up a pleasant-seeming fellow, and the pair head back to his expensive Pacific Palisades apartment, complete with swimming pool in the garden.
As Lennox and Dr Baker close in on Sil’s location, they laugh and joke and drive as though they’re on a Sunday afternoon jaunt in the countryside. When Dr Baker tries to call Sil’s unsuspecting lover to warn him that his life’s in danger, she gets an answer machine instead.
“What shall I say?” Dr Baker asks, tittering.
“Tell him he’s about to copulate with a creature from outer space,” Lennox says with a smirk.
Dr Baker titters coquettishly at the word “copulate”, neither knowing nor caring that, as she does so, an innocent man is being murdered in his own swimming pool.
7. Sil has killer breasts
Species arrived at the tail end of a quintessentially 90s Hollywood phenomenon: the glossy erotic thriller. Brought to its box office zenith by Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, before nose-diving rapidly with films like Sliver and Body Of Evidence, Species reads as a curious hybrid of 50s creature feature and a Joe Esterhaz-penned genre skin flick. This collision of competing strands of cinematic DNA leaves us with Sil, who looks like the comely Natasha Henstridge when she’s in seduction mode, but looks like a semi-translucent hell beast when she’s upset.
You can see HR Giger’s handiwork in Sil’s design, with her svelte lines and grotesque, spiky growths. But, partly thanks to some awkward mismatches of practical and dated CG effects, she fails to create the same air of exoticism and menace as the title creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Sure, Sil’s strong and deadly – in one scene, she rips a woman’s spine out, while in another, she pokes a hole through the back of a man’s head with her spiked tongue – but some of her attributes are more, shall we say, distracting than frightening.
When she’s in full alien mode, Sil can eject snakelike tentacles from her breasts, which she then uses to strangle her prey. In Giger’s drawings and sculptures, it looks rather more elegant than it does in the finished film, where we see one chap drowned in a swimming pool, and Michael Madsen hoisted aloft by one of her writhing appendages.
If we were Sil, we’d probably put these tentacles to less murderous use. You could, for example, use the tentacles to hold a TV remote control while still leaving your hands free to eat a packet of crisps.
8. There’s a gratuitous squirrel attack
The false start is a genre staple, and horror films wouldn’t be the same without a jump scare or two before the really frightening stuff kicks in. Species has one of the most half-hearted jump-scares we’ve seen, where a squirrel leaps out of a tree and clings to Dr Baker’s shoulder, screeching.
We might be wrong, but we’re guessing that instances of squirrels attacking humans are vanishingly rare in real life. Are the squirrels more aggressive in Los Angeles, or are they Sil’s furry agents of chaos? Unfortunately, Dan isn’t around to tell us what the squirrel’s thinking.
“Fucking squirrel!” Dr Baker says.
9. Giger wasn’t too impressed with the finished film
Despite his misgivings about certain sequences in Species – especially some of its iffy CG effects – Giger was relatively restrained in his criticism of the film when he wrote it about it in HR Giger’s Film Design. But one of his sketches, tucked away in the book, might give a better clue as to how he felt about the experience. In it, an instantly-recognisable xenomorph from Alien squats on the ground, defecating what appear to be giant, wriggling maggots from its posterior. These maggots, labelled “Sil”, are wriggling purposefully across the page, towards a sign marked “Hollywood”…
10. Species may have a connection to a bloodsucking monster in Puerto Rico
Species ends with a bewilderingly silly final act, in which Sil fakes her own death, tracks her hunters back to their posh hotel, gets pregnant, and gives birth in a sewer. Giger rightly noted the similarity between the Species‘ firey conclusion and that of Terminator 2 and Alien 3 – though neither had contained anything as poetic as Michael Madsen shouting, “Let go you motherfucker” while waving a rocket launcher about.
Reviews for Species weren’t particularly favourable, but its box office was strong enough to hasten the making of one theatrical sequel (Species 2, 1998) and the direct-to-video outings Species III (2004) and Species: The Awakening (2007).
Weirdly, Species lives on in modern culture in a way that HR Giger nor Roger Donaldson could have possibly foreseen. In the mid-1990s, a reports began to surface that livestock in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries had been found dead and apparently drained of their blood. Puerto Rico resident Madelyne Tolentino claimed to have seen the culprit: a short, athletic humanoid creature with dark reptilian skin and spines running up and down its back.
Writer and crypto-zoologist Benjamin Radford spent several years investigating the legend of the chupacabra (literally, “goat-sucker”), and published the book, Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast In Fact, Fiction And Folklore. Radford concluded that Tolentino’s description of the creature was almost certainly influenced by Sil’s appearance in Species – the witness even admitted she’d seen the film, which came out just one month before she reported her sighting.
Since 1995, reports of chubacapras and animal slayings have proliferated all over the Americas. In most instances, experts have concluded that the sightings were probably of mange-ridden coyotes rather than something unexplainable. We wonder whether the creature could be the evil squirrel that leapt out of a tree and attacked Dr Baker almost two decades years ago.
We’re hoping that, with Species approaching its 20th birthday, MGM greenlights Species: The Reunion, where Michael Madsen, Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker and the rest of the crew get back together again to hunt a goat-sucking squirrel in Puerto Rico. “It’s quite an angry squirrel,” Dan would probably say, adjusting his little white hat.
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