10 great sci-fi horror films

From Alien to Under the Skin, we chart some of the modern era's most terrifying fusions of sci-fi and horror.

28 February 2019

By Matthew Thrift

Alien (1979)

Science fiction and horror have long been happy bedfellows. Scary sci-fi films, horror movies with a sci-fi bent. This unholy matrimony of genres was consecrated in the earliest days of the medium. It’s hardly a stretch to assign a sense of horror to audiences of pioneer Georges Méliès’ earliest sci-fi experiments, while 1930s mad-scientist landmarks like Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933) perfectly straddle the genre divide.

Some movies, just by virtue of their allegorical readings, take on horrific overtones. It’s an easy, barely subtextual interpretation for many a 1950s sci-fi picture, for example, to trace the socio-political horrors of the Cold War era in their outsized monsters and extraterrestrial invasions.

Having already listed 10 of our favourites from that decade once before, the 40th anniversary re-release of Ridley Scott’s outer-space horror Alien (1979) got us thinking about the modern era. Since the arrival of the blockbuster age, bigger budgets and mind-meltingly sophisticated special effects have spawned no shortage of split-genre classics. Here are 10 everyone should see.

God Told Me To (1976)

Director: Larry Cohen

God Told Me To (1976)

Forget The Exorcist (1973), the greatest crisis of faith in 70s American cinema comes courtesy of exploitation maestro Larry Cohen. A spate of unpremeditated homicides is plaguing New York City, their only connection being the titular words of the killers: “God told me to.” Psychologists are calling it a classic case of mass hysteria, but perhaps it has something to do with the Kiss Me Deadly (1955) flashback and the naked woman running down a rural Jersey road, shouting about the aliens that snatched her from Cape Cod and impregnated her. “A child was born of that union,” an hermaphroditic astro-being, deified by a cabal of businessmen, and wreaking his holy will on the city streets.

God-bothering cop Tony Lo Bianco is on the case, a man of staunch faith, singled-out to take the stigmatic shrapnel from Cohen’s dirty bomb of religious provocation. Providing a time capsule of specific social unease, Cohen’s street-level photography ensures one foot remains planted in the gutter, while the soul of the righteous screams spiritual agony into the void.

Demon Seed (1977)

Director: Donald Cammell

Demon Seed (1977)

Scottish artist Donald Cammell’s debut feature, Performance (co-directed with Nicolas Roeg), saw the psychic fusion of a gangster on the lam with a reclusive rock star. Seven years later, Cammell dropped the head-trip for more physical extremes, edging into body-horror territory with a Dean Koontz adaptation that follows a super computer’s bid to achieve corporeality by impregnating the captive wife (Julie Christie) of its creator.

MGM wanted a woman-in-peril picture on the dangers of artificial intelligence; Cammell wanted a comic love story between woman and machine. The studio ultimately won out, locking the director out of the edit. The film we have speaks to the tension in that conflict of interests, with its weird, indelible imagery, somnolent dissolves and slippery sympathies; appropriately, given the computer’s surveillance of its prisoner, shot by The Conversation’s Bill Butler. A sorry experience for Cammell, perhaps, but a film deserving of rescue from its reputation.

The Fury (1978)

Director: Brian de Palma

The Fury (1978)

The film whose ending led Pauline Kael, in her contemporaneous review, to conjure an image of “Welles, Peckinpah, Scorsese and Spielberg stunned, bowing to the ground, choking with laughter.” As well they might. Would Cassavetes have joined them, in on the joke? After all, it’s The Godfather of American Independent Cinema™ that De Palma blows to smithereens in The Fury’s final frames. A shrine to the actor, immolated by the cackling high priest of the cult of the director. Read into it what you will.

The film, in the most superficial sense, hitches a lift on the success of Carrie (1976) with a typically ludicrous tale of psychometric warriors. If with the opening of Sisters (1972), De Palma schooled the audience on how to watch a De Palma picture, with its luridly readable panoply of set-pieces and barely coded, repressed (or rather, irrepressible) sexual energies, The Fury effectively serves as the exam.

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

Alien (1979)

Excepting a couple of accidental wonders in Blade Runner and The Counsellor (and about 10 minutes of Thelma & Louise), it’s pretty hard these days to reconcile the exacting brilliance of Ridley Scott’s work on Alien with the career that followed. A prolific and hugely successful director of commercials back in the early 70s, Scott’s latter-day m.o. lies in the reliable (but rarely scratch-resistant) gilding of dramatic content for anyone who can afford his quote. Trailer shot? Check. Once an ad man, always etc.

Given it was just his second feature, it’s little surprise that Alien wears so much care and attention on its sleeve. One of Hollywood’s great post-Jaws calling cards, Scott’s sinuous updating of haunted house tropes sees an unwanted guest hitch a ride with the blue-collar mob (served à la Hawks) of commercial space-freighter Nostromo. A superlative sequel followed in 1986, then two more, before Sir Ridley returned to render the xenomorph extinct; box office receipts and answers to questions no one was asking proving deadlier than any airlock.

The Brood (1979)

Director: David Cronenberg

The Brood (1979)

No list of sci-fi horror films is ever going to be complete without an entry from Canadian auteur David Cronenberg. Nine of his 21 features fit the remit in one way or another, so instead of waxing lyrical over a canonised work like Videodrome (1983) or The Fly (1986), we thought we’d pay tribute to one of his less famous gems.

Much like Scanners, which followed two years later, The Brood was a transitional work for Cronenberg, bridging his low-budget early efforts and the acclaimed masterworks that would arrive from the 1980s onwards. The ‘king of body horror’ is well known for his metaphorical physicalisation of psychological dysfunction, but nowhere else in his work does said manifestation feel so violently personal. Written in the heat of an ugly divorce and custody battle, The Brood casts a cold eye on a broken relationship’s open sores, lethally personified in the most destructively rampant maternal projections this side of Psycho (1960).

Re-Animator (1985)

Director: Stuart Gordon

Re-Animator (1985)

A sensational bucketload of grand guignol kicks, adapted from a series of H.P. Lovecraft stories, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator is one of the great go-for-broke debuts in the horror canon. Much as in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), Gordon serves up a canny blend of guts and lols with a precocious assurance of tone, subversively reinvigorating the Frankenstein prototype with glutinous glee.

As frequently hilarious as it is, Re-Animator is no spoof. There’s real sincerity and affection in Gordon’s telling of a mad scientist who discovers the means to bring the dead back to life with his hypodermic of fluorescent reagent. Bret Culpepper leads the effects team through an escalating series of jaw-dropping set pieces, but it’s the perfectly judged, complementary performances – often pitched to the gods – that ground Re-Animator through its magnificently deranged excesses. With irony a mainstay of the midnight movie scene these days, the real deal proves a barnstorming Friday night tonic.

Lifeforce (1985)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Lifeforce (1985)

Three years after Poltergeist (1982), Tobe Hooper swapped the restrictions of the Spielberg machine for the freedom of Cannon Films, taking to London – via Halley’s Comet – for this space vampire romp. It’s co-written by Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, and the connection to that earlier film is obvious, as a US-UK space mission discovers an energy-feasting, extraterrestrial goddess at the end of the comet’s uterine passage.

We’re soon on terra firma, where Lifeforce reveals itself to be Hooper and O’Bannon’s take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In Arrow Video’s behind-the-scenes doc, cast and crew delicately describe the shoot as “caffeinated,” and the film certainly isn’t lacking for energy and stylistic imagination. Said style arguably peaks with the out-there consummation of American hero Steve Railsback’s infatuation for the space girl, a perpetually naked Mathilda May. At heart it’s a romantic tragedy in the Stoker tradition, but one shot through with Hooper’s characteristically satirical, knowing wit.

Tetsuo (1989)

Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

“Long live the new flesh,” extolled Cronenberg at the end of Videodrome. Six years later, Shin’ya Tsukamoto takes him at his word with a singular debut that collides body-horror with a Ballardian crunch of twisted steel – long before Cronenberg could get there himself.

For a film so fixated on penetration, Tetsuo’s plot, such as it is, proves largely impenetrable. The Metal Fetishist (Tsukamoto) undergoes some auto-surgery, inserting a metal bar into his thigh. He’s run over by The Salaryman (Tomoro Taguchi), who – as a result of the crash? – finds himself on the receiving end of his own mechanical mutations. How much of what follows is a projection of The Salaryman’s deteriorating psyche, and what it all means – a commentary on the mechanisation of the Japanese worker? A virility nightmare? – is open to interpretation. It ultimately matters little in the moment, given Tsukamoto’s relentless formal barrage across its 67 minutes. A real one-off (despite two sequels), and a disturbing industrial hallucination to rank with Eraserhead (1977).

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

Director: Paul W. S. Anderson

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997) would serve our purposes here, but there’s no way it’s getting picked over his masterpiece, Resident Evil: Retribution. A lithe sugar rush of conceptual and formal experimentalism, the film delivers on the fleetingly glimpsed promise of the previous film (Resident Evil: Afterlife, 2010), itself a welcome surprise given the franchise’s inauspicious origins. For this fifth entry, Anderson throws caution to the wind, dropping any pretence of narrative cohesion for a balls-to-the-wall symphony of movement and abstraction in thrall to its leading lady, Milla Jovovich.

Anderson has previous in the video game adaptation race, but none come close to Retribution’s thematic engagement with the form. Effectively beginning at Afterlife’s save point, the film sees long-dead characters return as part of an exhaustive conceptual design, an infinite loop of multiple, parallel realities. Video game logic that sees the dead – and the undead – rise to fight again ad infinitum? Sure, but also nifty commentary on the inexhaustible nature of franchise cinema.

Under the Skin (2013)

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Under the Skin (2013)

When the best-of-the-decade lists start to appear, you can expect Under the Skin to figure prominently, and rightly so. It’s hard to think of many pictures with the ability to mainline such a sustained sense of dread. Adapted from the novel by Michel Faber, in the most superficial narrative terms the film follows Scarlett Johansson’s alien succubus through Glasgow, cruising the city streets in her transit van, picking up unsuspecting men to lure back to her gooey lair.

Such a synopsis does little credit to Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary directorial vision, one that melds docu-realism with something altogether more extra-terrestrial. There’s a real Kubrickian chill to Glazer’s defamiliarisation techniques, an alien eye cast over rural and urban landscapes. Sound design leads the otherworldly charge, with Mica Levi’s abstracted score front and centre. Johansson gives the performance of her career, switching between siren-call charm and dispassionate predation in a blink. One for the ages.

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