Was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Originally Going to be a Horror Film?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was originally going to be a horror film.

It’s interesting to see how much movies sometimes change from their conception to the ultimate film that is released. Notably, Snakes on a Plane was dramatically re-edited after a famous parody trailer was released (you would be shocked to learn how much of the film was changed by the parody). Some movies, though, are changed so much that they cease to be the original movie and become something completely different.

This was what happened with Steven Spielberg’s classic 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which began life, amazingly enough, as a horror film! Read on to see what happened.

After the massive success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Columbia Pictures wanted Steven Spielberg to do a sequel to the film.

Spielberg was not particularly interested, but he was still a bit irked at how Universal Pictures had done a Jaws sequel without him after he declined to do one himself, so he figured that if Columbia was going to do it, it might as well be him as the director. He began thinking about perhaps doing a 180 degree spin on the Close Encounters concept. What if the aliens this time around were bad guys? He came up with a concept originally called Watch the Skies! based on the famous UFO encounter story known as the “Kelly–Hopkinsville encounter,” where a Kentucky farmer family named the Suttons claimed to be tormented by aliens (their farm was between the towns of Kelly and Hopkinsville, hence the name).

Spielberg then hired screenwriter John Sayles to flesh out his bare bones concept (now called Night Skies due to a trademark conflict), which was about a group of aliens who would terrorize a family. Sayles, who had written the Jaws-spoof Piranha (which Spielberg loved), based his concept in general on the classic John Ford western film Drums Along the Mohawk, about a group of settlers besieged in a small fort by an army of Pro-British forces and the Mohawk Native American tribe during the American Revolution. The concept basically would be about a family holed up in their farm while a group of aliens laid siege to their home (the aliens are actually referred to as “ETs” in the script) with their powers, which included limited telepathy and telekinesis and, of course, powerful glowing fingers (which one alien used to blow up cows). Legendary special effects designer Rick Baker (of Stars Wars fame) designed the aliens for the project. In Sayles final version of the story, there were five aliens and one of the aliens (dubbed “Buddy”) befriended the family’s autistic son, Jaybird, and ultimately helped stop his fellow aliens and is left behind on Earth due to his actions (the film would end with an injured Buddy alone in the woods, his hopes of survival uncertain).

Spielberg, meanwhile, was in the midst of the filming of the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark when he began to have doubts about the project. When Spielberg was a boy, he imagined that he had an alien friend and he began to wonder if there was not a different angle that you could take on this story. He showed the script to Harrison Ford’s then-girlfriend (and soon wife) Melissa Mathison, and she cried reading it, touched by the relationship between Buddy and Jaybird. This was enough for Spielberg to decide to take the script in a whole other direction and instead have Mathison (who was a screenwriter) do a new take on the film, only this time making it entirely about the Buddy/Jaybird aspect. In just two months, Mathison finished work on the screenplay dubbed E.T. and Me, which was eventually filmed as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Baker was pretty irked at all of his work designing the aliens going to waste, so he declined working on E.T..

Spielberg, though, was not finished with the basic concept of Night Skies. He still thought that there was promise there, so he decided to develop the idea as a different sort of horror film and the idea of a family being attacked in their home by aliens instead became a family being attacked in their home by ghosts, and the result was the 1982 horror classic, Poltergeist, released soon after E.T..

Sayles, for his part, did a different take on the idea of aliens coming to Earth with the social commentary The Brother From Another Planet (where an alien who appears African-American ends up in New York City).

Spielberg, eventually also directed War of the Worlds, which WAS about malevolent aliens.

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

2 Responses to “Was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Originally Going to be a Horror Film?”

  1. [...] even the NYT feels compelled to mention it. •Would you believe ET was originally conceived as a horror film? Share this:ShareFacebookTwitterLike this:Like [...]

  2. The expression “Watch the Skies” comes from the classic film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD which would itself would be the subject of a (then-panned, now-overrated) remake the same year as E.T. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS itself was inspired by another classic 50s film, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, which was written by Ray Bradbury. When Spielberg met Bradbury, he thanked him for inspiring the film

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