“We all have a universe of our own terrors to face” – Doctor Who, Ghost Light
It’s a vast, mind-boggling universe, with who knows what waiting in the cold, depths of space for us to find. Which is perhaps why science fiction and horror have made such good bedfellows when it comes to movie making. So join Ed Boff for a count down ten of cinema’s Best Sci-Fi Horrors …
10. The Whisperer In Darkness
There have been many attempts to bring HP Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos to the screen over the years and one of the most successful takes is an independent production from the HP Lovecraft Historical Society. This tale of alien beings in the Vermont Hills not only brings to life all the memorable imagery of the original short story, but also enhances, upgrades and expands upon it, adding in richer characters and a whole new final act. The black-&-white look and style of the film, perfectly pastiches the cinematic styles of 1931 when the story was written, and are incredibly atmospheric, and the Mi-Go and their nightmarish technologies are superbly realised. At the moment, it’s only available direct from the HPLHS, but a UK release is planned, so keep an eye (or brain!) out for this!
9. Island Of Lost Souls
From a ‘30s homage to a real product of the time, this Pre-Hays Code studio horror shocked audiences and critics to the point that it was banned for many years on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet this adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island Of Dr. Moreau remains perhaps the definitive Mad Scientist movie, with Charles Laughton perfectly portraying the titular character. Moreau in this film does far better and far more literally what many on screen (and regrettably real life) scientists are often accused of doing; playing God. The story has him literally creating a race of people in his own image (from animals transformed by surgery) who he gives laws to, from on high. It’s this theme, coupled with the characters’ ego and ruthlessness that makes clear, despite the horrors of the “House of Pain” and Moreau’s creations, who the real monster here is and where the terror truly lies.
In a desolate, polluted future, where life in the cities is just about continuing, a young artist uses robot pieces for one of her installations, unaware that the parts of a military grade “population control unit” isn’t quite dead yet. Effectively, this film is like Terminator confined it to a studio flat, or maybe what you’d get if Dario Argento directed Short Circuit. However you look at it, Hardware is a tense ride that shows off director Richard Stanley‘s visual flare, has excellent world building and it touches on a lot of interesting concepts. It’s no surprise that the film’s tagline is “You Can’t Stop Progress”. This film was actually unavailable for many years due to it being a little too similar to a strip in 2000AD, which resulted in legal action but, thankfully, that’s all sorted now. Come to think of it, this and Dredd would make a pretty good double bill…
Frankenstein is probably the ubur example of a tale of science gone wrong, and the concept is updated for the modern era extremely well in this movie from director Vincenzo Natali. Main leads Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are compelling as scientists Clive and Elsa in a clever storyline that avoids very neatly the trap of just going “They meddled in Gawd’s domain!” Instead, the problems caused by creating genetic experiment Dren (ethereally played by Delphine Chaneac in adult form) are far more complex and adult. Great performances, an incredible creature design and a storyline that has no fear of going into some very weird places, make this one of the best takes on the old formula.
6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1978)
This the first of two ties on this list, as it’s extremely hard to pick between which is the better of these two versions of this story. Both these adaptations of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers share many strengths, such as excellent direction by real pros, a strong cast and a storyline reflecting the concerns and events of the time. It’s that last point, though, which leads to the main differences between the two. The original from Don Siegal, is set in small town America, and is often seen in the context of the Cold War and the McCarthy Witch Hunts. The remake, from Philip Kaufman, moves things to a big city, and here the theme is more urban alienation. Whichever you prefer, both of these have a lot to recommend them and both make for truly terrifying experiences.
5. The Fly (1986) (Main Picture)
Another remake, but this time there’s little doubt which is the superior version. The 1958 version was an intelligent little chiller with a tragic central storyline, though some aspects were a tad implausible to say the least. This version, by David Cronenberg, keeps the idea of framing the story as a tragedy, but alters the concept somewhat; the teleportation accident mixing up a man and a fly still happens, but here it’s on a genetic level, resulting in a slow metamorphosis. Not only does this make it a great metaphor for disease in general, it also allows Jeff Goldblum (acting opposite real life wife Geena Davies) to give a fantastic performance before the special effects take over. A small, personal tale that uses some big ideas really well; shame The Fly II forgot all that spectacularly …
4. The Quatermass Trilogy
The second tie on this list. The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2, are both grim, black-&-white affairs dealing with themes of loss of humanity and body horror. The third, Quatermass and the Pit, directed by Roy Ward Baker, is a full colour extravaganza, with huge sci-fi ideas and a thrilling apocalyptic climax. Whichever you enjoy most, all three have a scare content that’ll stick with you long after watching and its excellent take on alien life are out of this world.
David Cronenberg again? Honestly, most of this list could have been filled by his films, but that would have been far too easy. This film has all of the body horror issues one can expect from Cronenberg’s horror work (bought to life by Stan Winston‘s amazing effects). However here, the real horror is not from the body in revolt, but a mind turned against itself. The whole nature of the story, where Max Renn (James Woods) is exposed to a mind altering TV signal, means that the line between what Max perceives and what’s actually happening is completely blurred. The concept of losing not only control over your life, but of your perception is a terrifying prospect, and it’s bought to life very strongly here, in a highly paranoid story with even more disturbing layers to it.
2. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
1951’s The Thing from Another World was a fun monster movie that still holds up well, but it took very little from its source material, John W. Campbell‘s novella Who Goes There. Thus John Carpenter‘s remake made the smart move of going back to that story and making a more faithful version. This results in not only an excellent amount of “who can you trust” tension in the vein of Body Snatchers, but also some nightmarish creature imagery courtesy of effects maestro Rob Bottin. Throw in excellent performances, especially lead Kurt Russell, Dean Cundy’s perfect photography and a creepy score by Ennio Morricone, and the end result is a classic. This actually did pretty poorly on original release, but time has been very kind. Its reputation is now better than ever; good enough to earn it a not-bad-but-not-great prequel recently.
Was there any doubt? In many ways this may be an obvious choice, but the more you think about it, the more you realise this has to be number one. The 1979 original, like Star Wars before, showed what you get if you take a concept that was strictly B-Movie material, and treat it like an A-picture. It has great direction from Ridley Scott, a strong cast and impressive visuals designed by artists like Ron Cobb and H.R. Giger that gave us one of cinema’s most iconic and original monsters. The xenomorph was a truly new creation, with its biomechanical look and sex-death undertones. It also lead to a whole new look in sci-fi. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon touched on this in his earlier film Dark Star but here he fully establishes a look which is a stark contrast to the clean, antiseptic futures of 2001 and Star Trek. We get ships and tech that are dirty, manned not by heroic astronauts but working stiffs (“Truckers in Space” in this case). This aesthetic has been termed “The Used Frontier”, and can be seen everywhere from Outland, to Red Dwarf, to Firefly and to Dead Space. Forget the damage done to the franchise over the years. The original had a huge impact and still holds up today. If nothing else, it has the best ever tagline for sci-fi horror; “In space, no-one can hear you scream…”.