It’s just about Halloween and that means that we science fiction fans aren’t going to watch dumb horror films that have no imagination and rely completely on sophomoric morality tales and increasingly disgusting special effects (do I ever need to see someone stick a needle into someone’s eye? Ewww) but instead are ready for some films that find the perfect balance between scares and thoughtful science fiction themes. Think “Alien” rather than “Nightmare on Elm Street”. You know what I mean!
I watch just about everything – it’s an occupational hazard as a film critic — and while I enjoy a good horror film, I prefer more thoughtful, moody horror like “The Woman In Black” than a gorefest flick like “Saw II”. And I’ll admit, some of the more recent science fiction films also have a nice dose of horror in them too, including both “Prometheus” and “Cloud Atlas”.
Still, here are my favorite scary sci-fi films, for your frightened enjoyment:
The War of the Worlds (1953) — One of the first films to explore the theme of invasion from a force that cannot just be shot down or defeated through typical human hubris and firepower. When Dr. Forrester (Gene Barry) and Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) are hiding in the farmhouse trying to avoid the all-seeing alien probe? Scary stuff for its time, I tell you! The ending? Yeah, kinda dopey, but as we have seen again and again since this iconic film, how do you kill something that’s invincible? With kryptonite? Yeah, not so much.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) — One of the best of the Cold War era science fiction films, this is a loosely veiled parable of communism and collectivism that’s just as frightening now as it was when released. What happens when you’re in a society where everyone’s being assimilated and you’re the lone survivor, on the run and hoping that the ever-increasing mindless hordes don’t find you? The scene when Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) are running down the road and have no idea if anyone else left on Earth is able to think for themselves remains a chilling reminder of the tension between individualism and group-thought.
Village of the Damned (1960) –One of the creepiest alien invasion films ever made, this delightfully moody British import pits a group of eerie blond-haired children against the townspeople and, ultimately, against the world. In a nod to the eugenics of the Third Reich, these “perfect” children have telepathic and telekinetic powers that ensure no adults — or other children — mess with them while they learn about Earth and figure out how they can expand their numbers. My favorite scene? When Zellaby (George Sanders) forces a showdown at the end of the film. It’s terrifying because we know just how hard it’ll be to accomplish the necessary distraction.
The Andromeda Strain (1971) — Sometimes what we need to fear is our own daft hubris, our confidence that whatever the universe can throw at us, we can handle with ease. When a satellite lands in Piedmont, New Mexico, and all the residents are discovered dead, the Air Force triggers an emergency and activates the medical and scientific team that comprise Project Scoop. In a secret multi-level biohazard containment facility hidden under an agricultural research station, the team finds that it’s human error that helps them both miss a critical piece of the solution and ultimately figure out a solution, even as the strain changes into something benign. I really love this film as a great example of a sci-fi thriller.
Alien (1979) –Everyone knows the tag line for this film, and for good reason. “In space, no-one can hear you scream” is a good description of a standard horror trope — a monster in the basement — is played out on the dirty, semi-functional spaceship Nostromo, with the body count piling up, minute by minute. Worse, the alien creature attaches to a host by clasping onto its face, then planting the infant in the host’s abdomen. At a certain point it bursts free — a terrifying scene! — and grows into one big mutha of a monster, 8-10 feet tall with jaws within jaws. Way one of the scariest sci-fi films and a pitch-perfect film from ace director Ridley Scott.
Scanners (1981) –Telekinesis is a favorite element of sci-fi horror films and none do it better than this scary, gross entry about ‘scanners’, telekinetics who can literally make other people’s heads explode. There’s even an underground scanner organization headed by Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) who you just do not want to have mad at you. The government is concerned so they send their own scientist, Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) to find another scanner who can destroy the underground. Let the splattery head shots ensue!
The Terminator (1984) — Can anyone who has seen this film forget the implacable, unstoppable android (played perfectly by Arnold Schwazenegger) who is determined to find and kill John Conner, the young son of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who is destined to grow up and defeat Skynet, the robot-created government. Fortunately there’s a human also sent back from the future to protect the Connors, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). Who’s going to win? The indestructible robot with the human appearance or the humans, fighting for our very survival before they even know that the future holds a horrible holocaust? A milestone in robot / android cinema, for sure!
Pitch Black (2000) — Rather a formulaic film Pitch Black is still surprisingly effective as it tells the story of a group of people who end up marooned on a seemingly lifeless planet, with deadly criminal Riddick (Vin Diesel) in their midst. When the sun goes down, however, the night is full of big, terrifying creatures that are determined to pick off the survivors one by one and eat them. The film makes extraordinarily effective use of dark scenes where the only illumination is a flare or torch, and that casts just enough light to reveal the flesh-eating creatures poised to attack. Cliche, but effective.
The Forgotten (2004) — That child you think you have? It’s just your mind playing tricks on you, because that child has never existed. When doting mom Telly Paretta (Julianne Moore) is told this by the establishment, she knows they’re lying and that she does have a son. She just can’t quite remember who he is or find any real trace of his existence. Is she going insane? Then she meets up with another parent who is sure his daughter also existed, and vanished, even as everyone’s telling him that she never was. This isn’t a great film, but the premise is engagingly creepy and the underlying alien conspiracy? Works for me.
District 9 (2009) — One of the most original science fiction films of the decade, this quasi-documentary tells the story of an extraterrestrial race whose spaceship has failed over South Africa, causing them to all be rounded up and forced to live in a refugee camp, District 9. When smug government worker Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharito Copley) gets infected by an alien bug and starts to transform, he also begins to realize what a terrible situation humans have imposed upon the aliens, and begins to question his loyalty, even as he continues turning into a “prawn”. A brilliant film, intense, splattery and also a thoughtful exploration of racism and cultural manifest destiny. And, sadly, one of the most realistic portrayals of alien arrival in cinema.
Contagion (2011) — Thought slightly soulless at its core, Contagion is frightening in how believable it is, as it tracks a deadly disease from its beginnings in the jungle to an outright pandemic that’s killing people by the thousands. The reaction of the team from the Centers for Disease Control and other government agencies is reasonable, but what would happen if we encountered a truly deadly, incurable, untreatable bug that proved deadly? And what if we created it in the first place? A terrifying prospect believably executed. You’ll be washing your hands every time you touch someone after this film finishes.
There are tons of other films, either heavy sci-fi (like “Moon”) or so light in science that they’re really just considered horror films but one could make an argument (like “The Cell”). But this is my list. What’s yours?