How a horror script called Night Skies inspired E.T., Poltergeist, and Gremlins

. 4 weeks ago
Universal Pictures

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial turns 40 on June 11, and to celebrate, we’re taking a look back at the horror movie it very nearly was.

Looking for a way to follow up Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg planned to make a science-fiction horror called Watch the Skies. And while this film ultimately didn’t get made, ideas and scenes from its script did make it into the likes of Poltergeist and Gremlins, as well as E.T. itself.

Inspired by the so-called Kelly-Hopkinsville Enounter, the story was to revolve around 11 malicious E.T.s visiting earth and dissecting a farming family’s livestock.

Due to contractual obligations, Spielberg planned to produce and not direct.

E.T. was very nearly a horror movie called Night Skies.

What is Night Skies?

Steven Spielberg was a fan of Jaws spoof Piranha, so he hired the writer of that movie – John Sayles – to work on his horror idea, which was now called Night Skies due to rights issues.

The plan was for Texas Chainsaw Massacre helmer Tobe Hooper to direct, while Rick Baker – who was then working on An American Werewolf in London – was hired to design the aliens.

Sayles then wrote a first draft which was very different to E.T., but in terms of plot and tone it does contain elements that were ultimately used in the 1982 film.

What happens in Night Skies?

Sayles’ script cuts the number of E.T.s down from 11 to five, while the story itself centres on a group of tough teens living in farm country, and a 10-year-old boy called Jaybird who has learning difficulties.

Before we meet the aliens, we see the cattle they mutilate, suggesting that these extra-terrestrials don’t come in peace. However, while their leader Skar is evil personified, one of their numbers – named Buddee – is far friendlier.

Buddee bonds with Jay, while Skar and his team of Klud, Squirt, and Hoodoo attack the story’s central farmhouse and do battle with the humans.

The film ends with a larger alien called Cyprus descending on the scene, communicating with the humans, and helping Jay to speak for the first time. They then fly off, but like in the beginning of E.T., they leave Buddee behind as “a solitary stranger in a strange land.”

Much of Night Skies influenced Poltergeist.

How did Night Skies influence E.T.?

Having spent the best part of a year killing Nazis on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg wanted to make something less violent and more spiritual than Night Skies.

When he spoke to screenwriter Melissa Matheson about his plans, she loved the bond between alien and boy in the Sayles script, and so E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was born.

The aliens in Night Skies are about the same height as E.T., and have similarly long arms. Where they differ is in the eyes, as they are described as being like those of a grasshopper in the horror version.

The aliens in Night Skies are telepathic, which also seems to be the case in E.T., as Buddee uses a short-wave rig to send a message, much like what E.T. makes to phone home.

Warner Bros.
There’s also lots of Night Skies in Gremlins, especially this guy.

How did Night Skies influence Poltergeist and Gremlins?

The concept of a family under siege in their own home is straight out of Poltergeist, as is the electrics playing up and their appliances melting.

Early in proceedings, a character utters the iconic Poltergeist line, “They’re here.” Plus the films share a director, with Tobe Hopper supposed to helm Night Skies, and ultimately directing Poltergeist.

In terms of Gremlins, Skar is very similar to Stripe, being the leader of the evil tribe, and the villainous counterpoint to the film’s adorable hero.

When violent chaos erupts all over the farm, it feels like a scene from the end of Gremlins. While one sequence in particular – when Squirt fights Grandma in the kitchen – is exactly the same as when the gremlins terrorize Lynn Peltzer in her home.

Finally, there’s a cinema showing a film called Watch the Skies in Gremlins, the aforementioned initial title for Night Skies. And the other film on that double-bill? A Boy’s Life, which was the working title for…E.T.

So while we never got to see the Night Skies and the horrors therein, the script itself is all over the 1980s, influencing some of the decade’s most popular and beloved genre films.

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