Two genre masterpieces were released on the same day in the summer of 1982, both exploring a world in which hard-boiled blue-collar characters struggle to survive in an oppressive, inhospitable landscape, hunted by beings that only appear to be human. One of these films — John Carpenter’s The Thing — is usually referred to as a horror film; the other — Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner — is known primarily as a science-fiction parable.
But those descriptors can easily be swapped. Carpenter made a name for himself as a premier director of horror films, but Scott in no slouch in the horror department. When he made Blade Runner, Scott was already preparing, his next film, a dark fantasy entitled Legend (1985) which concerns an innocent hero journeying into a mythological version of Hell. Scott had also just completed his sci-fi/horror masterpiece Alien (1979), a film that he prepared for in part by studying Tobe Hooper’s horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Blade Runner, while undeniably a science-fiction film, contains strong elements of horror threaded throughout.
The most immediate and obvious horror element in Blade Runner is its visceral, graphic violence. “Immediate and obvious,” that is, if you happen to be watching the 1982 International Theatrical Cut of the film (this is Blade Runner we’re talking about after all, the movie that put the term “Director’s Cut” on the map). Until 1992, this version was the only commercially available cut of Blade Runner, and was many people’s first viewing of the film, myself included. Along with the theatrical cut’s infamous narration from Harrison Ford and incongruous “happy ending,” the international cut adds additional footage of graphic violence to a handful of scenes. Why these were added and then used as a selling point is hard to say — perhaps it had something to do with the slasher boom of the early ’80s, those films sold almost exclusively on their gore quotient.
Whatever the reason, the scenes shot by Scott are brutal indeed, and serve to emphasize the “more-human-than-human”-ness of the Replicants. When Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) murders Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the Replicant crushes his creator’s head. In the other cuts of the film this is mostly implied, but in the international cut we see Roy’s thumbs plunge into Tyrell’s eye sockets as blood pours out (in an effect oddly reminiscent of a scene in Sam Raimi’s gorefest The Evil Dead from 1983). The moment is made even stranger by the very next shot of Roy in Tyrell’s elevator alone, contemplating his act of murder, with Vangelis’ score screaming away in the background. When Rick Deckard (Ford) finds where the Replicants have been hiding, he confronts Pris (Daryl Hannah), who attacks him viciously, holding Deckard’s entire body up with just her fingers in his nostrils. Later on, Roy chases Deckard in a game of cat-and-mouse, with the Replicant mocking the poor performance of his human hunter. However, Roy’s built-in lifespan is running out, and he plunges a rusty nail straight through his palm in order to keep himself alert just a little longer. These scenes of extreme violence add slightly to the film’s narrative, but contribute a great deal more to the elements of dread and menace present throughout the movie.
Scott establishes Blade Runner’s dread and menace from the opening scene, when Blade Runner Holden (Morgan Paull) gives Leon (Brion James) a Voight-Kampff test to see whether he’s a Replicant. After the iconic opening shot of the exterior of Los Angeles 2019 (a model shot that the production team referred to as the “Hades Landscape”), Holden and Leon confront each other in a claustrophobically small, dark, and smoky room. A faint heartbeat can be heard on the soundtrack as Leon’s test continues, his odd and worried responses to Holden’s bizarre philosophical questions increasing the tension. Holden breaks that tension by observing that it’s all “just a test,” and asks blithely about Leon’s mother. At that, a loud booming sound occurs along with a flash of light, and Holden’s limp body goes flying backwards. Leon lines up another shot with his weapon, fires, and Holden slams into a wall, as the film smash cuts to another landscape exterior. The editing and sound design of the sequence are used to maximum effect, so that when Leon’s first shot occurs it functions much like a jump scare would. Using his excellent sense of timing, Scott establishes Replicants as beings who are extremely dangerous when cornered.
One of the major themes of Blade Runner is the decline of humanity culturally as well as physically, and Scott exploits the inherent horror of that theme. The overall look of the film is dark and bleak, with swaths of neon usually the only light source coming through constant rain, allowing for a perpetual “dark and stormy night” atmosphere. Thanks to Leon’s introductory scene, every subsequent scene featuring the Replicants is brimming with menace, with the human characters (and the audience) never knowing when they’re about to strike. When he’s not being shown to be a remorseless killer shooting Replicants in the back, Deckard is constantly outmatched and ineffectual in every altercation, causing the audience to fear for his life as the protagonist (despite how they may feel about him morally). This culminates in the climactic chase scene between Deckard and Roy, with the Replicant pursuing the Blade Runner through the remains of the dilapidated Bradbury building. Roy moves and howls like an animal, in between spouting taunts to Deckard, even going so far as to slam his own head through a wall to catch him. It’s behavior that wouldn’t be out of place in a slasher film, and Scott knows that it will increase the stakes by increasing fear.
Ultimately, it’d be hard to classify Blade Runner as a horror film, but that has less to do with the movie itself and more to do with how horror is typically classified. Blade Runner isn’t “scary,” but as previously mentioned, it has a lot in common with The Thing, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a child scared by the movie if they saw it. While it can be debated whether to add the “horror” modifier to its “sci-fi,” it’s undeniable that Ridley Scott imbued Blade Runner with a pervasive mood and a visual world that’s lasted for decades, in large part due to the mix of elements and techniques he used — terror among them.
Bill Bria runs blade in New York City.