Most horror is Earthbound. The terror on our screens is based on monsters from our own world, or at the very least, worlds that are connected to ours. Creatures emerge from the woods or the sea to hunt us for dinner. Murderers and psychopaths escape from asylums or wander out of abandoned campgrounds to stalk us from the shadows. Vengeful spirits and malevolent demons arise from Hell itself while the undead clamor out of their muddy graves.
No matter how strange or supernatural, these archetypes of horror are inherently terrestrial. They come from places we know and recognize, and therefore can be understood. We get ghosts and serial killers. We may never encounter a werewolf or a wendigo, but we can rationalize their place in the natural world.
But what if they aren’t a part of our world, either physically or spiritually? What if they come from far, far away?
I’m talking, of course, about aliens. Extraterrestrials. Spacemen. Whatever you want to call them, those sneaky, sci-fi bastards come from far away out in the stars and only ever seem to want one thing: To scare the living hell out of us.
And, you know, eat us or something.
Here’s a quick list of some of my favorite films featuring danger from the bleak void of space.
The Fourth Kind
If The Blair Witch Project proved anything, besides the fact that found footage was a cheap, viable filmmaking option even in a mainstream setting, it’s that one of the most effective tools in an a horror writer’s arsenal is the ability to convince your audience that what they’re seeing actually happened. With The Fourth Kind, the ruse was so effective that Universal Pictures, who produced the film, was actually sued due to the misleading nature of the advertising campaign for the film. Told in a mockumentary style that you would see on something akin to a Forensic Files episode, the film follows the story of Abigail Tyler, a psychiatrist living in a remote town in Alaska, as increasingly bizarre and unexplained occurrences start happening in her quiet, isolated community. The film is split between the “real” footage, supposedly shot by the real Tyler, and the “re-enacted” footage, starring Milla Jovovich, which dramatizes the events like a TV crime documentary. Despite being panned by critics, there’s just something about this movie that creeps the hell out of me, even to this day. The “real” footage is so eerie and unnatural, I can help but to be a little disturbed by it. It’s the first movie I think ever really made me scared to look out of my window at night.
The McPherson Tape
If The Fourth Kind can be said to have been stylistically inspired by The Blair Witch Project, then The McPherson Tape can be said to be ITS inspiration in turn. Predating the 1998 sleeper found footage flick by nearly a decade, The McPherson Tape (also known as UFO Abduction and later remade by the same director as Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County with a larger budget) is styled as a family-made home video that happens to capture their encounter with some dangerously mischievous alien trespassers. Made for pennies, which can be painfully obvious at times, The McPherson tape is still a wonderfully unnerving, incredibly authentic-feeling movie that really captures both the spirit of old VHS home movies. The family in the film feels impressively real and genuine, which only helps to elevate the now somewhat-cheesy horror fodder that unfolds over the film’s short, hour-long runtime. It may not have aged as gracefully as many of the other movies on this list, but it’s still a delightfully fun little sci-fi romp, one that really sets the stage for a lot of horror that would later be considered to be groundbreaking and fresh. And The McPherson Tape manages to put a valiant effort in the same direction, all the way back in the 80s.
Fire in the Sky
The final alien-abduction movie on this list, I swear! Not really a horror film in the traditional sense, Fire in the Sky still manages to have one of the most terrifying depictions of an extraterrestrial encounter in cinema history. A biopic centered around famed alien-abductee Travis Walton, the film follows Walton through his supposed kidnapping and subsequent release by malevolent alien visitors, who torture and experiment on him before unceremoniously dumping him back down to Earth. The film is primarily a study on the psychological effects that the experiment had on Walton, as well as the people around him as they understandably begin to question his sanity following the harrowing event, and is more of a character piece than a science fiction film for the most part. But when we’re finally shown what Walton supposedly experienced on the alien craft that he was taken to, the film cranks it up to 11 and goes all-out in a suffocatingly tense, unbelievably disturbing sequence that rivals anything that traditional horror cinema has ever offered before. I saw this movie briefly as a kid, just a tiny snippet from the abduction scene, and it scarred me for years. It’s a fantastic film outside of that particular scene as well, with the montage of nightmares on the spaceship really being the cherry on top of a near-perfect science fiction mystery.
Speaking of films that gave me nightmares as a kid, Event Horizon scared me so bad at the age of 6 or 7 that I avoided it at all costs until I was in my early 20s. While the film presents itself as a straight-forward, classically-cliché sci-fi story about a mysterious long-lost deep space vessel suddenly reappearing, it quickly veers left and skirts all preconceived notions you might have about a film with that premise. Less Alien and more Hellraiser, Event Horizon doesn’t feature alien abductors or creatures from deep space wanting to snack on humans like movie theater popcorn. No, the horrors from this film come straight from Hell itself. A fever dream of nightmarish, stomach-turning horrors straight out of a Clive Barker daydream, Event Horizon puts its cast of talented performers like Sam Neil and Laurence Fishburne through the cosmic equivalent of Dante’s Inferno as they battle it out with bloodthirsty demons, vengeful spirits, and their own pending insanity. Making a religious horror film set in the existentially terrifying nothingness of outer space is thematically brilliant, and Event Horizon may be one of the best depictions of Lovecraftian horror that wasn’t directly inspired by the works of Lovecraft himself.
The Color Out of Space
While we’re on the subject of Lovecraft, The Color Out of Space is the most recent entry on this list, having been released in 2019, and is based on the Lovecraft short story by the same name. Directed by South African cult-filmmaker Richard Stanley in his first directorial release in nearly 20 years, The Color Out of Space features perhaps the most genius combination of elements possible for a horror/sci-fi film: H.P. Lovecraft and Nic Cage. Honestly, the fact that it took this long for someone to shove Cage into a Lovecraftian cosmic horror story is frankly baffling to me: He fits the strange, confusing, horrific landscape of the author’s work perfectly, as if he was made for it. The film, like the story, follows the effects of a strange, otherworldly object that has fallen to Earth as it slowly turns and corrupts everything around it into ungodly abominations. It’s a Cronenberg-esque cavalcade of body horror and psychedelic visuals that feels like simultaneously the best and worst type of acid trip, all at once. Think Annihilation, only with much tripper, vibrant colors, and more Nic Cage screaming. Honestly, even if this weren’t an incredibly well-made (if bizarre) movie, it would be worth the price of admission alone for Cage’s performance (which, in my opinion, is generally the case). If you loved 2018’s Mandy as much as I did, you’ll enjoy this just as much. It’s the Nicholas Cage Renaissance, baby, and I’m here for it.
Greatest. Practical. Effects. Of all time. John Carpenter’s remake/re-adaptation of the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, The Thing, which would be released in 1982, takes all of the paranoia and suspense from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and amplifies it to the extreme with a healthy dose of testosterone and carnage. Starring all-time greats (and frequent Carpenter collaborators) Kurt Russel and Keith David, The Thing is the disgustingly, viscerally frightening story of what happens when you can trust the people around you in a life-or-death fight for your life. A group of researchers on a remote arctic base encounter a shape-shifting alien organism that can take on the appearance of any living thing it comes in contact with. It’s all the tension of a Cold-War spy thriller, filtered through the lens of a gory body horror story, and laced with a sizable pinch of 80s machismo and action. But what really sets this film apart is the look of the titular Thing itself. With jaw-dropping practical effects by Rob Bottin, who would later go on to work on such films as Robocop and Total Recall, the alien monster in The Thing is perhaps the gnarliest, grossest, freakiest thing you’ll ever see onscreen. And it’s incredible.
I mean, obviously. If you haven’t already seen this 100 times yet, it’s a serious moral failing on your part that needs to be corrected immediately. Ridley Scott. Sigourney Weaver. Gorgeous cinematography. Fantastic atmosphere. Legendary scares. And the best goddamn monster design in movie history. Alien is not only the best sci-fi/horror film ever made, it’s a serious contender for the greatest in both genres individually as well. My all-time favorite film, for an infinite number of reasons. Go see it. Now.
Aliens are scary, man. Other than rare occasions like E.T. where they’re friendly, lovable creatures who exist solely to teach us lessons of friendship and coming-of-age maturity, or big-budget action/disaster films where they’re pretty much just an army of faceless grunts who show up to blow up major American landmarks every fifteen minutes, they’re usually here to capture us, vivisect us, or use our bodies to incubate their babies. They’re nasty, mean, and they’re ugly as hell, and they’re one of my absolute favorite horror antagonists. And yet, it’s a surprisingly untapped well of content, with a disappointingly small library of true sci-fi/horror films. And what does exist out there is usually pretty mediocre.
If you’ve seen everything on this list, and still want a fix of that spooky alien good stuff, check out things like Europa Report or Apollo 13. They aren’t great by any means, but they’ll do the job in a pinch. The “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” segment of VHS 2 is pretty solid, but it’s basically just a shorter, more amped-up version of The McPherson Tape. Let me know if you think I’m neglecting anything!
But seriously, just watch Alien, people. It’s perfect.
And as always, Happy Halloween!