Surreal arthouse mind trips are all the rage at the moment in the horror movie genre. Ari Aster has made his way to the top with his stunningly shot cult movies Hereditary and Midsommar. The road to spooksville now is paved in quiet dread and contrasted dim lighting. The focus much more on existential dread and grief than on the monsters themselves like popular Netflix series The Haunting on Hill House.
Taking a break from the modern emotional horrors, we should also try not to forget the sub-genre of horror that actually has a lot in common with them, space horror. What better setting do you have than the expansive desolation of space? It’s infinite, unexplored and typically journeyed by few.
In space, where no one can hear you scream, the real horror is more about the human psyche than just the aliens that may or may not be lurking around the corner. Watching space horror movies it’s easy to discern a clear theme, madness. Sure, there are a variety of these movies that are really about the creature on board, but many are also about the creeping space madness, be it about a looming sun or the claustrophobia of the ship.
Venture into the beyond with these must-see flicks that will satisfy sci-fi and horror in one go.
The Alien franchise began in 1979, following on the heels of Star Wars: A New Hope, Ridley Scott gave audiences a new monster to fear, H. R. Giger’s Xenomorphs. Most people have definitely seen or at least heard of the volatile extraterrestrials from Alien, which have made a place for themselves in mainstream media, so it’s no surprise that to find it at the top of everyone’s list.
Alien is the epitome of a space crew out in deep space finding a strange planet and abandoned ship only to pick up a practically immortal hijacker. The film holds up even by today’s standards thanks to superb acting especially between Weaver as Ellen Ripley and the late Ian Holm as Ash. The second film in the franchise is just as good too, with stellar performances from Lance Henriksen as Bishop and Carrie Henn as little kid Newt.
The storyline and acting aren’t just the standouts in the movie. Alien is also iconic for the spectacular set design that was so different for its time. Unlike the shiny platinum walls of Star Trek or even the sleek insides of the Death Star in Star Wars, Alien was gritty. The labyrinth-like hallways were claustrophobic to see, even to the cast themselves. Scott had the ship’s interior made from electrical scrap and parts of an old aircraft.
Enhance your viewing experience by watching documentaries like The Beast Within: The Making of ‘Alien’ and Memory: The Origins of Alien. Find out more about the fantastic set designs as well as the story behind the concepts that made this franchise beloved well beyond the realms of just sci-fi and horror fans. This is especially apparent with the fact that the chest-busting scene were the actors’ own initial reactions because Scott didn’t give them a heads up about what was going to happen.
Pitch Black (2000)
Before Vin Diesel became known only for driving fast cars and going toe-to-toe with The Rock, he was in a little movie called Pitch Black. His role as Richard B. Riddick, the universe’s most infamous criminal from the planet Furya, is well known now, with the franchise movies even popping up recently.
To really appreciate him in his role as sensitive sighted hunter Riddick, one must go back to the start and the start was not called Riddick. Instead, it was a dark and gruesome movie which hid Riddick in the shadows until it was his time to shine.
The ship Hunter-Gratzner crashes on a strange planet while on it’s way to deliver a very varied set of passengers ranging from merchants to Muslims on a pilgrimage. Once out on the planet, they discover what hell they have landed on as soon as the suns set over the horizon and monsters screech in the night.
Although it has many mixed reviews and Roger Ebert gave it only 2 out of 4 stars, the movie was a sleeper hit and became a cult favourite. What’s intriguing about this are the characters, Riddick’s mysterious enhanced eyesight and the monsters in the dark. It is a fast-paced action movie with just that bit of intensity to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Event Horizon (1997)
This movie has built a reputation from its cult following. It’s usually recommended on lists like this but it was never a favourite in mainstream media. Instead of more aliens, this movie is more focused on a slightly more supernatural side to outer space. The possibilities are after all, endless in the depths of the universe.
Jam-packed with some excellent actors like Laurence Fishburne before he donned his nose pinching sunglasses for The Matrix and Sam Neill after his foray with the Jurassic Park era. This movie isn’t like Alien; it’s not a household name because it’s not made for everyone, which is probably why it didn’t do well at the box office at the time. Instead, it was found by its fans and the cult following has pushed its fame up to a point where now throwbacks can be found in other works of popular culture.
Think along the lines of space madness combined with Hellraiser, Event Horizon is much more a straight-up horror movie set in space. The crew of vessel Lewis and Clark are sent out to check on the distress signal from the Event Horizon ship that went missing seven years prior only to turn up again near Neptune.
Unfortunately for hardcore fans, the movie was heavily edited to make it more palatable for everyday audiences and those who wanted more of the madness at the end of the movie will never get to see it because the footage has been lost to decay. Bear in mind the theatrical cut is still fairly disturbing to the average viewer.
This one is a bit off the beaten track. It’s not up there with the cult following nor is it a stunner like Alien, but we can’t all be stars can we? In the distant future, the world has gone cold, glacial even because the sun in our solar system is dying. A ship, the Icarus II, outfitted with what is essentially a ginormous bomb is headed towards the sun to jumpstart it in an effort to save Earth.
Sunshine is an intense look into a group of scientists who are on an impossible mission. Even though their journey seems like it should be a simple one, they are waylaid by finding the lost Icarus I as they slingshot around Mercury.
Although there are no aliens in this thriller, the tension in the movie is driven by the mishaps that happen when they decide to go to Icarus I. This combined with what they find aboard the seemingly empty vessel is what drives the thrill of this film.
The cast is an ensemble of specifically selected actors, director Danny Boyle, of previous 28 Days Later fame, put much thought into each character. This can be seen in Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis and Cillian Murphy when they portray their very varied characters, from the logic-driven military man young Evans plays to the quiet contemplative physicist Murphy embodies. Also, you can find our very own Michelle Yeoh in this movie as a plant-loving biologist.
Sunshine dealt with sunlight related madness but Pandorum’s title is the definition of space madness. The word is the fictional slang for Orbital Dysfunctional Syndrome (ODS) caused by deep space and triggered by emotional stress.
The ratings on Rotten Tomatoes don’t look good for this movie, but the thing about Pandorum is that it is quite enjoyable to those fascinated by space movies that aren’t The Martian or 2001: A Space Odyssey, who instead just crave an action thriller with terrifying monsters in space. For those who love twisty stories that deal with crazed characters struggling to survive with an interesting set, this is the movie to see.
Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid push the movie into this suggested list, with the chemistry between the characters an easy fit that makes the twist all the more messed up at the end. I would suggest knowing next to nothing about this movie before diving in, and leave logic at the door because you won’t find much here.
Other Things That Live in Space
Most sci-fi nowadays is less horror related and more exploratory, with films like Arrival, Interstellar and The Martian making more waves than any recent space horror movies. It is probably also due to the fact that a lot of space horror tends to imitate older trends although there are some newer ones that space spook fans can try for a bit of variety, such as Sputnik (2019) the Russian alien thriller or Life (2017) in which Ryan Reynolds fights with a starfish looking alien.
If you want a proper alien horror, there is always the popular Alien: Isolation game that’s an experience all on its own.