The melding of science fiction and horror have produced some great movies. This is because the two genres in many ways naturally pair with one another. Science fiction generally speaking has to do with humanity’s reach for the upper limits, whether it be technology, human abilities, or even space itself. It is about endless possibilities, final frontiers, and unknown futures. Horror meanwhile deals with the darker instincts of humanity, our capacity for fear and its ability to dictate our lives. When combined sci-fi horror is the terrifying thought that our quest and push to uncharted territory may have unintended and horrific consequences.
While science-fiction and horror are easy bedfellows it can be tricky trying to determine exactly what is or isn’t a “sci-fi horror” movie. For instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey asks existential questions of us with some terrifying implications while a sequence with the malevolent computer HAL has elements that borrow outright from the horror genre. Yet no one in their right mind is going to call 2001 a horror movie. Similarly 28 Days Later (and 28 Weeks Later for that matter) has a more science based twist to the zombie movie, yet it firmly is a movie that remains in the horror camp.
Therefore, in the wake of such seeming ambiguity, what more can we do but come with some rules! To qualify for this list one (or more) of these elements have to play a prominent role in the film:
- Hubris – If the film has people who are pushing past known boundaries in the name of science or some other achievement, then it counts. We’re looking for the mad scientists, greedy owners, or power-hungry rulers who set aside conventional morality in pursuit of their goals. Basically, anything that could resemble “Icarus”-like behaviour.
- Things falling apart – A movie in which humanity reaches for the stars and achieves it without issue is not a horror movie. Things have to go south, and the more chaotic and gruesome, the better.
- Science content – Even if all of the scientific words and concepts used in the screenplay are gibberish and nonsense, there should be at least some pretence that some scientific knowledge must be used either in creating or solving the problem.
- Created Monstrosities – If the movie has monsters, and those monster were somehow created intentionally or inadvertently by the actions of humans, then the movie qualifies.
- Aliens – Because they’re aliens obviously.
Sunshine – The sci-fi content is top notch as a group of scientists fly a vessel to our dying sun to kickstart it again (through science!), but the horror turn in the final third is obviously the weakest link in the movie.
The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll – Most adaptations of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” make Mr. Hyde look monstrous. This adaptation from Hammer films manages to rise above the rest by suggesting that Mr. Hyde’s monstrousness could hide beneath a gentlemanly surface.
The Last Man On Earth – The first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” is clearly the best, andarguably is Vincent Price’s greatest role (at least by this author).
Predator – Don’t get me wrong, the monster in Predator is an incredible sci-fi horror creation and the film does follow a traditional slasher horror film narrative. But when the creatures potential victims are the combined muscle of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Carl Weathers, the movie veers ever so heavily away from horror and into the action category.
Them! – The movie about giant nuclear ants terrorizing the California countryside stands mostly as a placeholder for the glorious science fiction monster B-movies of the 50s and 60s. While Them! is marginally better than the ridiculous quality of most of them, it’s not so by much.
Jurassic Park – While Spielberg’s dinosaur saga does cover four of the five criteria I set up, I just can’t get past the fact that no matter how terrifying the Velociraptors and the T-Rex were it’s still more awe-inducing to see DINOSAURS come alive.
Contagion – Listen. Contagion has an enormous amount of science content, and most of it is accurate. And Contagion is terrifying because of all the movies on this list, this is the only one that could possibly come true. But therein lies the problem. The movie is so realistic that it seems a stretch to call it science fiction. So it’s on the outside looking in.
A trio of original movies whose reboots show up on this list – we’ll get to those as we go through the list.
10. ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011) dir. Joe Cornish
Joe Cornish’s directorial debut Attack the Block has a refreshingly simple plot: A bunch of aliens land in the middle of a low income residence block in London and without any underlying reason begin wrecking havoc. The only thing standing in the aliens’ way is the local teenage street gang who use every trick in the book and every weapon in their less-than-stellar arsenal to bring the fight to the aliens. Far from the high-concept sci-fi that might be present later in this list, this movie is decidedly low concept but with high kinetic energy as the action never lets up. The aliens in question are refreshingly efficient and terrifying in design, seemingly designed just to maim, kill, and destroy and doing much to give this movie all the horror credentials it needs. As for it’s sci-fi cred, it also stars John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as the leader of the street gang Moses and Jodie Whitaker (the future Thirteenth Doctor on Doctor Who) as one of his neighbors. What more could you want?
9. UNDER THE SKIN (2013) dir. Jonathan Glazer
In the complete opposite direction to the previous entry is the cerebral and unsettling Under The Skin. A mysterious woman (Scarlett Johansson) drives in a nondescript van around the streets of Glasgow, picking up men. When she manages to lure one into her house, the man is submerged and consumed in a alien liquid shockingly and suddenly in a hallucinogenic dream sequence. This sudden left-turn indicates that this will be a movie that plays fast and loose with its narrative structure, being almost frustratingly opaque with what is going on. We can surmise that the unnamed woman is otherworldly and that she lures people into her lair to consume them. And while that is all we can glean for sure, like her victims the movie lures us deeper and deeper under its hypnotic spell until our perception of what is real and what is imagined is completely compromised. Punctuating this uncertainty is the score by Mica Levi that is every bit as uncomfortably disconcerting as it is original and revelatory. I’ve seen this twice and am still not sure what I’ve seen, but I’ve been unable to shake its haunting power.
8. THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) dir. James Whale
Unlike many of the other classic Universal monsters the Invisible Man is surprisingly underused which probably explains why this 1933 pre-Code film still feels so fresh as it is allowed to stand alone without having to compare it to numerous reboots, changes in creative direction (with the stereotypical and dreaded “make it darker” movie), or increasingly bad and ridiculous sequels. Instead we just get a classic mad scientist story told extremely well. Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) is a chemist who has discovered a new drug that causes invisibility but has the added side effect of making him violent and megalomaniacal. Predictably, this deadly combination leads to a very long body trail as the police try to catch the invisible killer. What is most remarkable about this movie is the special effects, where by using only the most rudimentary of practical effects the filmmakers successfully make the man invisible in ways that still hold up almost nine decades later.
7. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) dir. Wolf Rilla
A normal day in the unassuming British village of Midwich is disrupted when all of a sudden all of the living inhabitants of the village fall unconscious, human or not. Upon awakening they discover that all the women and girls of child-bearing age are pregnant and nine months later they give birth to similar looking children with sinister powers of control over the rest of the village. This movie has three main appeals that lands it on this list. First is the presence of George Sanders as Professor Zellaby who simultaneously plays parent to all these children while also viewing them as a grand experiment. Second are the children themselves who manage to embody pure creepiness in their every being, whether as individuals or especially in a group. But finally, come and see this because the whole film is so quintessentially British as home ministers and generals argue politely but forcefully as to the proper course of action moving forward with these children. Delightful.
6. GODZILLA (1954) dir. Ishiro Honda
Thanks in no part to cheesy sequels and less than stellar remakes, it is easy to see the original Godzilla as belonging in the same campy territory of its successors. But to do that would be a great disservice to a movie that among other things is pitch perfect allegory for the horrors Japan suffered because of the atomic bombs dropped on them. The story is unsurprisingly about a giant radioactive lizard creature that goes on a slow, steady, and unchanging rampage through Japan causing death and destruction in his wake. The humans of the story spend much time and effort mounting counter-offensives and evasive maneuvers to stop his trek but for all intents and purposes are essentially useless to Godzilla’s immovable plight. Apart from the amusing special effects used, there is little humour to be found. Instead it plays as a powerful funeral dirge in a time and place where nuclear annihilation seemed at least imminent if not inevitable. One note: There is an “Americanized” version to this and unless you have personal relatives who appear in that version, you should do everything to avoid it and just watch the Japanese original.
5. THE FLY (1986) dir. David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg is arguably Canada’s greatest contribution to the film industry and his brand of body horror (Scanners, Videodrome, and The Brood among them) are priceless additions to the horror genre. But arguably even amongst such prolific modern classics, The Fly stands as his best work. Part of that has to do with the magnetically charismatic performance of Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, a scientist who manages to create a transportation device. When his research hits a plateau he decides to experiment with this device on himself and inadvertently transports himself along with a harmless housefly. Up to this juncture the movie pretty much follows a similar trajectory as the original The Fly (1958). But thanks to Cronenberg’s proclivity for the grotesque, it quickly descends into a visceral and terrifying movie as Brundle’s slow transformation into a fly takes hold. But again, it is Goldblum’s complex and sympathetic portrayal of Brundle, and the way his journey mimics terminal and incurable disease that elevates the movie beyond mere body horror.
4. FRANKENSTEIN (1931) dir. James Whale
I tried hard not to put a film on here just because it was a “legacy” pick, but I just could not justifiably create a list of the best sci-fi horror movies without including the progenitor of the entire genre with the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. Whether it is the “It’s alive” sequence at the heart of the movie or the introduction of horror movie legend Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster this movie is from beginning to end an iconic movie and an essential movie for any self-respecting horror fan to see. It is also slightly amusing to see something that to our modern eyes seem tame qualified as being so horrific that it caused people to faint in theatres and states to call for censorships and bans. Coincidentally, it’s also probably the film on this list that I’d be brave enough to show my kids first (when the time comes) to introduce them to sci-fi horror.
3. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) dir. Philip Kaufman
Usually I will be the first in line to mock Hollywood’s attempts to reboot classic films. But for whatever reason, this has happened often in horror films and these reboots often succeed not just in matching the original movie but exceeding it. Such is again the case here with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. While the original is a very good allegory of the communist scare of the McCarthy-era, the remake is superior because it borrowed from the exact same playbook as the original in setting the movie in contemporary culture with the difference being that 1978 was represented a much murkier period of history. While the original had the benefit of being made in the certitude of the superiority of American democracy and the moral bankruptcy of communism, the remake is made in the wake of the failure of the Vietnam War and Watergate in which the average citizen’s confidence in the infallibility of those in authority had been seriously undermined. And it is in this moral grayness that the remake thrives as it mines the paranoia of the age to produce a terrifying movie of an insidious alien takeover.
2. THE THING (1982) dir. John Carpenter
As I mentioned in my review earlier this week, The Thing is a movie whose greatness has grown the more time has passed. It is a claustrophobic tale of a group of men who slowly turn on one another as it becomes more and more apparent that one of them is an alien imposter that is out to kill them. Famously the movie was reviled because it was deemed too bleak and nihilistic but in the intervening years the idea that an outside threat might turn former allies destructively against one another is one that is frighteningly believable. But beyond those contemporary corollaries, The Thing is also just a creature feature movie done exceptionally well with a superbly designed and executed monster at its core.
- ALIEN (1979) dir. Ridley Scott
While on the one hand this is an entirely predictable choice, it is also necessarily so. After Star Wars moved the sci-fi genre into the realm of childlike fantasy, Ridley Scott thankfully brought it back to its horrific roots with Alien. Just about everything of this austerely plotted movie is perfect whether it is the superb design of the alien itself, the grit and grime that makes the ship the human crew inhabit seem so vibrant and alive, or in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, the creation of one of the best protagonists of all time (female or otherwise). This tightly wound story is a masterclass in pacing, taking its time to build up the scares so that by its end it earns the feverish crescendo it produces. Though many movies have tried to imitate its frights none have managed to match the dark intensity that earns Alien the top spot on this list.