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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 between conception and premiere. Notably, Snakes on a Plane was dramatically re-edited after a parody trailer was released (you would be shocked to learn how much of the film was changed by the parody). Some movies, however, are changed so much that they’re transformed into something completely different. That’s what happened with Steven Spielberg’s classic 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which began life, amazingly enough, as a horror film!
After the massive success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Columbia Pictures wanted Spielberg to do a sequel. The filmmaker wasn’t particularly interested, but he was still irked that Universal Pictures had produced a Jaws sequel after he declined to do one himself, so he figured if Columbia was going to make a follow-up to Close Encounters, he might as well direct it. He began thinking about a 180-degree spin on the concept, with the aliens being the villains this time. He came up with an idea originally called Watch the Skies!, based on the famous “Kelly–Hopkinsville Encounter,” where a Kentucky farm 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 story (now called Night Skies due to a trademark conflict) about a group of aliens that would terrorize a family. Sayles, who had written the Jaws spoof Piranha (which Spielberg loved), based his concept on the classic John Ford Western Drums Along the Mohawk, about a group of settlers besieged in a small fort by an army of Pro-British forces and the Mohawk tribe during the American Revolution. The movie would be about a family holed up at their farm while a group of aliens (referred to as “ETs” in the script) laid siege using their powers, which included limited telepathy and telekinesis and, of course, powerful glowing fingers (which one alien used to blow up cattle). Legendary special effects designer Rick Baker designed the aliens for the project. In Sayles’ final version, there were five aliens, including one dubbed “Buddy” who befriended the family’s autistic son Jaybird, and ultimately helped stop his fellow. He’s 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 middle of the filming Raiders of the Lost Ark when he began to have doubts about the upcoming project. When he was a boy, the director imagined he had an alien friend, and he began to wonder if there was not a different angle that could be taken with the story. He showed the script to Harrison Ford’s then-girlfriend (and soon wife) Melissa Mathison, and she cried after reading it, touched by the relationship between Buddy and Jaybird. That was enough for Spielberg to decide to take the script in a diffract direction and instead had Mathison (who was a screenwriter) pen a new take, only this time making it entirely about the Buddy/Jaybird relationship. 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 wasn’t happy that his design of the aliens was going to waste, so he declined to work on E.T..
Spielberg, however, wasn’t finished with the basic concept of Night Skies: He still thought it had promise, 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. (but with Tobe Hooper as director, because Spielberg was working on E.T. and contractually prohibited from tackling another project).
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, in which 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 …
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