The Movies/TV 8 Ball: Top 8 Sci-Fi Horror Films
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
We’re officially in October, which means its horror month here at 8 Ball Headquarters! Every year we devote this month to looking at categories that are based around the goriest and spookiest genre out there. Science fiction is still on my brain following the success of The Martian at the box office, so this week we’re looking at science fiction horror. The mixing of the two genres has always been a formula for filmmakers to be incredibly creative and even subversive, touching on thematic elements that are deep for fright flicks. It’s a tricky mix to pull off though and a lot of films have done it to poor or mixed results. Hollow Man is a good example of a film failing utterly both in quality and as a mixing of the genres, while Splice is an example of where the film had its moments but failed overall. But when it works right, the mixing of the genres is perfect in enhancing both elements of the film. That’s what we’re discussing this week.
Caveat: To qualify for this list, a film had to be a horror film that was set firmly in a science fiction element. Pretty self-explanatory, I know. It is notable that I wanted films that looked more at horror than action, which left entries like Predator and Godzilla off the list. I also decided not to include zombie or zombie-like films, even ones in which viruses cause the undead to rise. Zombie films are their own genre so films like 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, Resident Evil and such didn’t qualify.
• They Live (1988)
• Re-Animator (1985)
• Pandorum (2009)
• Pitch Black (2000)
• Scanners (1981)
David Cronenberg has two movies on this list, as well as one in the honorable mentions with Scanners. The reasoning is simple: Cronenberg is one of the unmitigated master of both science fiction horror and body horror. He’s been making subversive films that are well ahead of their time in the sci-fi horror genre for a long time and Videodrome is one of his best. The techno-surrealist film’s story was well ahead of its time, tackling the problem of reality TV well before reality TV was even an idea. The film also touches on some pretty hefty concepts about violence in the media, the public’s consumption of it and more. James Woods delivers a great performance as Max Renn, the sleazy UHF channel who learns that there are nastier things out there than even he can handle. This has all the hallmarks of Cronenberg’s famous body horror elements, including a VHS machine slot that forms on Max’s chest, a gun that melds itself onto a hand and more. This film is exactly as disturbing as 8MM tried to be and features some great special effects work to boot. It has a somewhat divisive effect on the horror fanbase and I get why, but I love it.
Fans of the Saw franchise should bow down to this particular film because without it, it’s likely that there would be no Jigsaw. Call me crazy if you want, but the idea of the first film–two guys trapped in a room with no knowledge of why and death looming–is basically the same as James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s gory 2004 hit. And for that matter, Saw II is even more clearly-inspired by Vincenzo Natali’s tale of seven people trapped in a maze-like collection of trapped rooms with no idea of why they’re there. For my money the traps work even better here in Cube because of how simple and straight-forward they are. When your villain is unseen and personified only by the instruments of death that they’ve set up, it gives a filmmaker license to turn the protagonists against each other to create the dramatic conflict and it works here to great effect. Natali made incredible use of his limited budget, making one room and letting it account for all the various rooms they go in. The production design is stunning, there are some legitimately nasty moments and there is just enough backstory for it to work. The follow-ups were massive disappointments, but this one is a great movie.
Anyone who wants to call me out for including this after caveat-ing out zombie films should remember that Frankenstein’s monster is not a zombie but an amalgamated body resurrected to full life. Frankenstein is one of the most iconic horror films of all-time and is, essentially, the very first sci-fi horror film. (For those curious, I consider Bride of Frankenstein to be a better film but it is far less oriented toward horror, which is why it’s not on the list.) There is so much that has been said about this film that it seems almost clichéd to praise the various aspects of it, but it all holds true. Boris Karloff gives one of the more underrated performances in the history of horror here as the monster. People talk about how the performances of Kane Hodder and other actors have given Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and their ilk life but this is a performance that blows them all out of the water. You care about this film because you care about the monster, and Karloff makes you care. Colin Clive is a great manic Frankenstein as well. Some people marginalize it based on how old it is — and sure, it’s not as terrifying these days — but this is still a fantastic piece of horror from the golden age of horror films.
Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers has been a real favorite of Hollywood’s, having been adapted no less than four times into feature films. Not all of them have been great (The Invasion, I’m looking at you) but the 1978 film is a true classic. The idea of alien invasion largely has its roots in the paranoid Cold War era, when there were others who were out there and they wanted to make us their slaves, or to brainwash us, or any number of other nefarious goals. Phillip Kaufman’s adaptation takes that paranoia and seats it in the way that people were becoming increasingly alienated from each other in the post-Vietnam era. The point is the same in each of them: individuality is something that humanity must aspire to but often fails to achieve, which is contributing to the death of society. Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams deliver great performances and Kaufman keeps things creepy throughout, building tension with an expert’s touch. Kaufman hits all the notes to be faithful to the original but doesn’t merely ape what’s there; he made it relevant to a new era of movie-goers. This film is still creepy even thirty-seven years after the fact, standing tall among science fiction-based horror.
The top four films on this list are so close together that I easily could have shuffled them around and still been perfectly happy with it. First is David Cronenberg’s second film on the list, and arguably the best film he ever made. One wouldn’t necessarily have expected a remake of The Fly to be a great film. I have a lot of appreciation for the Vincent Price-starring original, but it is a relatively lesser effort than most of the classics. That being said, when you consider that the remake allows the master of body horror to explore what happens when a man is merged with fly DNA, it’s not all that surprising that brilliance ensued. Disgusting, lunch-losing brilliance. The Fly is largely credited as being the film that made Jeff Goldblum a star, and deservedly so. It’s also one of the nastiest sci-fi horror flicks for those who go in big for that kind of thing; the slow transition from human to Brundlefly is one of the great gross-out effects of all-time. And yet, somehow even when this happens the story manages to have an emotional heart. That’s found in the relationship between Seth and Veronica, which is not sappy and has just enough effect to make you care. The consequences of messing with science have rarely been portrayed better in a horror aspect.
This is two weeks in a row that Event Horizon has placed on the list, which wasn’t intentional. Still, I can’t talk about great science fiction horror without discussing this creepy-as-hell film in that starts off as a sort of salvage thriller and turns into pure, shocking horror by the end. Paul W.S. Anderson has made some other decent films but this is his unequivocal masterpiece to date and one of the few films that still legitimately frightens me. The cast is exceptional, the script is top-notch and the effects are used very well. Upon its release it wasn’t very well-liked by critics, but that has definitely changed. Anderson uses just enough gore to enhance the already-there terror and the pace builds nicely until it becomes a relentless assault on your psyche. Sam Neill is creepy as hell and the sequence of quick flashes near the end of the film is the stuff that nightmares are truly made of. This is the one movie that I know someone literally blanked the idea that she had seen it out of her head. I don’t blame her; it’s that messed up.
It boggles my mind that there are people who thought that the 2011 prequel to The Thing was an original film, as they weren’t aware of the original. It’s one of John Carpenter’s best efforts and a chilling story of survival and paranoia against an unknowable enemy. I don’t have the disdain for the prequel that some others do, but it doesn’t hold a candle to this tale of a creature from space that ends up unleashed on an arctic research team. The suspense in this film is so effectively managed by Carpenter, who uses the remote snowbound setting to great effect. The visual effects work still holds up very well to this day, proving the value of practical effects that just feel more real and take much longer to appear dated. The scene in which Russell’s MacReady does the blood test to determine who is real and who is a Thing is one of the great suspense moments in horror and sells the paranoia of the film nicely. And I love the ending which is quite bleak, all things considered.
#1: Alien (1979)
There really was no other choice here, as Ridley Scott the quintessential melding of science fiction and horror with 1979’s Alien. Later films in the franchise were more oriented more toward action than horror but no one can deny that this was anything but a scare film in space. There’s so much to praise about this film that it almost deserves its own column. H.R. Giger designed one of the great horror monsters in history; the Xenomorphs are just flat-out terrifying. They are perfect killing machines that have absolutely no conscience because they aren’t human in any way. Many space features like to humanize their monsters, such as Species which gave its villain a human shape. The Xenomorphs are animals fulfilling their life cycle, pure and simple. It’s just unfortunate for us that their life cycle involves dead bipedals. Scott also uses the Nostromo’s environment to great effect; it feels very claustrophobic, particularly when Dallas gets down in the tubes to flush it out. In fact, the Nostromo almost feels like more of a Xenomorph home than a place for humans with its hiding places, dark places and lots of tubes and hoses hanging down. It’s a film where technology seems to turn against the heroes and even the android is a threat. You have a great “final girl” as well in Ripley, who created the template of female action stars in the sequel. When it comes to sci-fi horror, this one’s the champion.
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.