Science fiction concerns the future, and the future is often far more terrifying than it is enticing. That explains why science fiction and horror so often go hand in hand. Filmmakers use unknown lands and unknown technologies to conjure up creatures or forces that are so terrifying in part because they are so far beyond the realm of understanding. Sci-fi horror has provided plenty of fertile territory for great directors to scare the crap out of viewers, and we’re here to celebrate some of the best of the best.
1. The Thing (1982)
The alien monster unfrozen in John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing from Another World doesn’t have any motivation beyond pure instinct to survive and expand. The group of surly Antarctic outpost workers led by Kurt Russell’s not-so-heroic R.J. MacReady find themselves up against a creature so efficient and unfeeling that it will almost certainly take over Earth if allowed to escape their snowy hideaway. An escape wouldn’t be difficult, seeing as the monster can consume and create a perfect imitation of any living creature.
Carpenter uses the chilling setup to turn the men against one another, as they devolve into paranoid finger-pointing. The paranoia is only outmatched by the unbearable tension and occasional surprise from the film, as well as a sickening feeling of inevitability — that these simple men will never be able to stop this thing.
2. Alien (1979)
Alien was one of the first films to show us a futuristic world wherein space travel wasn’t about scientific discovery, but about normal people doing normal work, within a changed world. The interchangeable blue collar workers pal around for a while before the film unleashes the perfect killing machine to thin out their ranks until only Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley — not yet the hero she is in later movies, but simply an accidental survivor — is left.
H.R. Giger’s gooey, phallic design work and the skillful concealing of the titular alien makes for a terrifying experience, wherein one is constantly discovering new characteristics of this monster that make the danger more palpable with every passing minute. The later films would dull the power of the alien somewhat, but here it is too mythic and powerful to be defeated — it can only be evaded.
3. Videodrome (1983)
The best films from body horror maestro David Cronenberg feel like manifestations of the most buried parts of the human psyche, featuring violent but sexualized imagery that makes one squirm without knowing precisely why. Perhaps no movie is more Cronenbergian than his Videodrome, which concerns a sleazy TV producer (James Woods) who begins to experience strange visions as he tries to discover more about a mysterious snuff program called Videodrome. The violent sexuality of the program seems to infect his mind and even the television itself, merging flesh and technology quite literally into one new sort of organic matter. It doesn’t make the most sense, but it provokes such strong feelings that you’ll probably need to take a shower after watching.
4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Sometimes overshadowed by the more timely original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the 1978 version actually mines paranoia out of its timeless premise more effectively. Donald Sutherland leads a small group of friends who discover that the world around them is subtly changing, as even those closest to them are apparently being replaced by an alien life force aiming to control the world. The characters witness an assimilation in process, and the film sends them on a heart-racing chase across San Francisco, wherein seemingly every other person and entity is against them. It takes skill to wring so much tension out of a paranoid delusion like this.
5. The Fly (1986)
Cronenberg’s second entry on this list is perhaps his most deeply felt to date, thanks primarily to the heart-wrenching performances of stars Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum plays an eccentric scientist who falls in love with Davis’ reporter shortly before a test of his latest invention goes horribly wrong. His teleporter merges his DNA with that of a housefly, beginning a gruesome transformation that sees Goldblum’s Seth Brundle slowly and painfully devolving into Brundlefly. Like Davis, we have little choice but to watch as the likable hero’s body turns him into an unrecognizable monster, helped along by some of the best special effects ever committed to film. The horror comes from these visuals, but the film is as tragic as it is scary, recreating the feeling of having to watch a loved one devolve and die.
6. The Host (2006)
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s monster movie isn’t so much about the monster as it is about the government neglect that led to its creation, and the ordinary people affected by it. The well-designed creature that emerges from Seoul’s toxic waste-polluted Han River snatches the daughter of a slow single father (played by Song Kang-ho, a regular in Bong’s films), who flees a disaster center with his father and siblings to try to find his daughter. The dysfunctional family unit struggles against government bureaucracy more than against the monster itself, as Bong cleverly uses a genre exercise as a damning indictment of U.S. military involvement in South Korea. Both sorts of monsters are terrifying either way, throwing every lighthearted moment into stark relief to make a truly unique film experience.
7. Slither (2006)
Before he was making high-profile Marvel movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn was dabbling in bizarre horror comedy exercises like this one. In Slither, a small town is terrorized by an ever-morphing alien creature that turns some people into insatiable eating monsters and others into walking zombies who join an ever-growing mass of bodies. The single creature with multiple forms owes much to Alien, but the tone here has more in common with Tremors, as Nathan Fillion’s local sheriff and the girl that got away (Elizabeth Banks) attempt to understand this mutant monster before it can transform their entire town, and eventually the world. The jokes land, but none of them can dull the disturbing, creative alien life form at the center of Slither.
8. Pulse (2006)
One of the only films to successfully merge digital age technology with timeless ghost stories is the Japanese film Pulse, which follows multiple characters as they witness the world being invaded by ghosts that emerge via the internet. The silly-sounding concept is played out using terrifying imagery — ghostly black stains on carpet, unknowable faces staring out of computer screens, people seeming to dissolve into nothing, and eventually, an entire world deprived of almost all humanity. While the other films on this list mostly concern alien presences, Pulse sees another sort of mythical danger present in modern technology, less visceral and more psychological in terror.
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Many have argued that this movie would have been great if it wasn’t tied to Cloverfield. But the fact that it is gives us a very interesting ending. The movie follows a woman who finds herself locked in a shelter with two men after surviving a car accident. The whole film you’re questioning along with the character, what is the truth and what is a lie. The movie is very well acted and the story is an interesting mix between the two genres.
10. Frankenstein (1931)
There have been numerous reincarnations of the story, but the original movie was a game changer for the industry. The movie still gets the job done, thanks to its style and timeless story. It was very shocking in its day and people have tried to recreate this magic ever since. If you have a chance you should try to watch the film on YouTube.
Additional reporting by Nicole Weaver.