Sub-genres, you either love ‘em because they offer better detail in describing a film to a buddy or an adoring public, or you hate ‘em because they either start to get too ridiculous in their description or one just feels like the “parent” genre doesn’t require any further explanation. In my screenwriting class, we get even stricter and tell our students there are only three genres, since the beginning of theatre in ancient Greece, and those are just Drama, Romance, and Comedy. Which means, yes, Horror falls in drama, and so would Action films. Because that’s what they do: create drama of some kind.
But I digress, as usual. As the (totally self-proclaimed) Science Fiction aficionado on the team, I’ve decided to celebrate my first submission here at Horror Bound by listing my top five favorite Sci-Fi Horror films (and a couple of honorable mentions). Why only five (and a couple of honorable mentions)? Because, let’s face it, this is a tough sub-genre to nail and only a few masters have done so, add to that It’s an even tougher sub-genre to define. So let’s just dive in and you can always use the comments below to put in your two cents.
5. Event Horizon (1997)
A movie I affectionately refer to as “Hellraiser in Space,” minus all the cool ass Cenobites. Event Horizon follows the crew of the Lewis and Clark as they go off to Neptune to investigate the mysterious reappearance of the Event Horizon, a starship that disappeared just as mysteriously just seven years prior. Sam Neill co-stars as the tortured designer of the Event Horizon with Laurence Fishburne’s Capt. Miller, who plays the commander of the rescue vessel. But the whole film is peppered with some great performances, including early work form Sean Pertwee and Richard T. Jones as well as the legendary Kathleen Quinlan.
Without giving away the whole plot, I’ll just say that the unique “Gravity Drive” that powers the doomed starship may also be a trans-dimensional gateway to a universe that may or not be actual hell. Presumably, this is where the Event Horizon was dwelling those seven years it was off the radar. There may be no Cenobites in this otherworldly, dimensionally transcending adventure, but there are plenty of other disturbingly visual characters to haunt your nightmares once the supernaturally possessed starship starts to claim its victims amongst the crew. Let’s just say missing eyes are a recurring image throughout the film.
It’s a shame that one of Paul W.S. Anderson’s earliest directorial efforts is still known, at least in this writers opinion, as one of his best in the currently 25 year long career of his work. So seminal this work, it would go on to influence the hugely popular video game franchise, Dead Space, as well as the small screen adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s novella, Nightflyers.
4. The Fly (1986)
Wow, what can I say about Cronenberg’s re-envisioning of the 1958 cinematic Horror classic based on the Hugo nominated short story by George Langelaan? I saw this in the theater as an adolescent and I remember it legitimately grossing me out. Imagine a man-creature that must vomit its corrosive enzymes to ingest food, and then imagine that same enzyme being used a weapon. But wait, that’s only the beginning of the absolute horrific imagery that spans the entirety of this film. As Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle slowly transforms into the title character, his jaw falls off, his nails break and peel from his skin. It’s no wonder this film won the Oscar for best make-up it’s award year.
Cronenberg takes the content of the ’58 original and amps up the horror, the gore, and turns down the luminance, as this is also, visually, a very dark looking film. It’s as if the auteur wanted to outdo the original in such a dramatic fashion, that it almost becomes laughable putting the two next to each other. And this is most evident in the final, heartbreaking scene ====SPOILER ALERT==== when Brundlefly in attempts to merge himself with Geena Davis’ Veronica and their unborn child, puts her in one telepod and himself in the other. But before the process can be completed, John Getz’s heroic Stathis shoots the cables connecting the two pods, resulting in Brundlefly merging with the pod itself instead. Now transformed into some kind of twisted combo of organic matter and metal, this new creature displays the most humanity it has in the entire film and begs Veronica to end its life out of mercy. Then she does. Powerful. Tragic.
3. Signs (2002)
I tried to keep films off this list that don’t really reveal their Sci-Fi influence until act three, because to me, that’s too late. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a great example ========SPOILER ALERT======== because you don’t realize there’s aliens even in the film until after the resolution of the conflict, which is also not what the film is about anyway. Same goes for the expertly crafted A Quiet Place.
But even though we don’t actually see any aliens in Shyamalan’s 2002 masterpiece until the climax of act three (arguably the worst part of the film), from the beginning it’s pretty well established that the planet is under some kind of invasion. A lot of what makes Signs work so well right from the beginning hinges on the performance of the brilliant cast, especially the kids. Kids would get scared in a situation like this, and Abigail Breslin and younger Culkin brother, Rory, both put in believable performances. But when Joaquin Phoenix joins the children in their fear, instead of being the nurturing adult figure, that’s when the viewer gets really sucked into the magnitude of what is at stake in the film.
For me, that’s what makes Signs work so well: you start to feel with the characters. Instead of watching what they’re going through on screen, the fear becomes so primal; that you start to feel how palpable it is the further we delve into the unsettling narrative. It’s about as close as you can get to shooting a biopic without it actually ever happening. That’s how real it ends up feeling. It truly is creepy.
Sure, the climax feels forced and a little silly, especially with how invested Shyamalan has made you by the end, but it’s also an unbelievable tale in which anything can happen anyway. That’s kind of what draws us to Science Fiction, the fiction part of the term, right?
2. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
Yeah, I know it’s just called The Thing but I feel like every film he does needs to be preceded by his name. I think there’s even a story he tells about how he added his name to the opening credits of Halloween so that people would feel like it was a special film and he a special director, even though it was only his third feature, the other two not getting much recognition. Anyway, what could I say about The Thing that wouldn’t just sound like a love letter to one of the most important genre directors of our time (Romero, R.I.P., being another)?
If you haven’t seen the 1951 original, The Thing from Another World, also based on the novella, “Who Goes There?” by Science Fiction literary icon John W. Campbell Jr., you should. I actually saw the original first, believe it or not, completely by chance one late night decades ago. Carpenter’s had already been out, and achieved legendary cult status by this time, but embarrassingly, I had not seen it until about ten or fifteen years ago. I know, I know, for shame! If it helps me build back my street cred, I purchased it within days of having viewed it for the first time.
From his trademark synth musical score, to the groundbreaking (yeah, I said it) makeup and visual effects, that to this day are referenced by any and every modern effects artist, to some very fitting production design, and Carpenter’s commentary on paranoia, in what was the age of The Cold War in America, gets practically everything right. Like the previous entry in this list, the filmmaker here also does a great job in making the viewer feel the mood that is trying to be evoked; one of isolation, cold, and helplessness. And the practical effects alone are worth more than one viewing, literally making one’s skin crawl at the sight of them. And Kurt Russel’s beard! Man, is it an impressive one.
I debated putting this work of art in the number one position, and flip flopped back and forth a few times. But, as we are celebrating “Women in Horror Month,” here at the site, I opted to put in the number one spot…
1. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott has said that once he had seen what Lucas was doing visually in Star Wars, he told his entire production team that was the benchmark for what they were going to do with Alien. And they did! I have a special place in my heart for one of the most visionary filmmakers of our time because just three short years later, he would go on to make my most favorite film of all time, Blade Runner!
But Alien would be his first foray into the Sci-Fi genre paving the way for an illustrious career as a director that would span all the way into even today. In only his sophomore effort directing a feature length film, Alien would become one of the single most influential Sci-Fi, Horror, and Sci-Fi Horror films made. Graduate students write theses on this film covering a range of topics from the use of set design to create a feeling of claustrophobia, to strong heroines in modern film, all the way to how Alien defined a visual aesthetic in science fiction movies now known as “dirty sci-fi,” because of it’s polarizing depiction of the future as a cold, dark, and horrifying place over the antiseptic, bright, and shiny design of previous films that came before it.
This single movie has spawned a multitude of sequels, spin offs, and new narratives in a wide range of media including, novels, toys, video games, and comic books. It also introduced us to what would become one of the most badass heroines ever immortalized on celluloid in Sigourney Weaver’s warrant officer Ellen Ripley. But the true star of this film is most definitely the Xenomorph designed by acclaimed Swiss artist H. R. Giger. But Giger wasn’t the only credited European fantasy artist on the film as Frenchman Jean “Moëbius” Giraud was also given credit as Concept Artist and the assignment of such visual talent across the whole crew is what gave Alien its never before seen and unique looking universe that set the standard for Sci Fi Horror across all media that would come even still decades later.
Borrowing a page from what Spielberg accomplished just a few years prior in Jaws; Scott achieves a sense of terror by not showing the xenomorph in all its glory until the very intense and climactic showdown between Ripley and the title character. Throughout, the viewer only catches glimpses in shadow, silhouette, or washes of strobe light. A tail here, a jaw there, until the unsettling reveal in the escape shuttle, where Scott brilliantly used camouflage and set design to creepily unfold the full stature of the xenomorph! Still horrifying to this day, I tell you.
What else can I say about this masterpiece, and I don’t like to throw that word around lightly, that hasn’t already been said by millions of other people? I bought the Alien Anthology on Blu-Ray that came out in 2010 and this film, most noticeably of the four, really benefits from the HD re-master. But even owning it in my collection, it’s still one of those rare films that I’ll stop the remote on if it’s airing on television and watch it all the way until the end. Remember, In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.
So there you have it everyone, my top five Sci Fi horror films of all time. Some of the honorable mentions who didn’t quite make it to this list because either they just didn’t measure up to the ones already on here OR after close consideration I felt they were more in the realm of “thrillers or suspense” are (in no particular order):
Pitch Black (2000)
The Blob (1988)
Ex Machina (2014)