Science Fiction, Sci Fi, Skiffy, SyFy, SF. What a strange genre to define. As far as I am concerned anything with a technical explanation of anything, which is based in what we know so far about science, and is not a true story, is SciFi. Jurassic Park, Inception, Star Wars, Star Trek, Contact, Modern Times, CSI, all SciFi because they have science in them and are fiction. Easy right? Well if thats the case this list could go on and on. Lets just agree that for our purposes we will be talking about stuff in or from space and try to avoid nitpicky overlaps as much as possible. I only want to examine movies that are actually scary and fall under Horror. Just because there are scary moments in ID4 and Empire doesn't mean that they are horror films.
I have compiled a list of movies that will compete with the movie Alien. If I remember correctly it is considered to be one of the scariest movies of all time, whether in space or not. I agree, and it will be the touchstone against all the other ones. That being said, it seems to me that the best ones happen in space, on a spaceship and not with aliens landing on earth. So here is a list of movies that didn't make the full cut for me to talk about but fall into the genre.
Critters - Stupid.
Cube - Fun when on tv late night, and truly creepy, sometimes, but the sequels are crap and it doesn't have anything to do with space.
Bad Taste - Just not that good.
Xfiles - come on, way too much happens in that show for it to be lumped into another group.
War of the Worlds (either or) - just not really a horror film so much as a survival disaster type thing.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers - The pods didn't have to be from space, they could have just been from the amazon or something.
Predator - Action Movie with a monster. Not a horror movie.
CloverField - we are going to file this under Monster Movie and talk about it later.
Pitch Black - Action Horror but still awesome.
Ok so here we go Lets see what stacks up against Ridley Scott's Alien.
ALIEN VS. THE OTHER ALIEN FILMS:
Alien, Aliens, Alien3, Alien Resurrection. In that order are the best to the least. Alien Resurrection is not a bad movie. Its simply the worst of the for and also the worst of Jeunut's as well, But still better than most other movies out there. But its more of an action horror, and I think action trumps horror.
Ironically this knocks out Aliens as well. But it is without a doubt the single scariest action movie of all time. Two reasons it upped the ante of the first movie and played off of the mythos in a great way. But more importantly, motion detectors. The radar that is used to sense movement acts as a soundtrack for the movie, replacing the need for scary violins. We as the audience can become immersed in the fear with the marines and for whatever reason James Cameron chose the exact right sound and volume for it. The face huggers are more prevalent and they are fucking creepy. I am doubting my decision to cut it out of the running but, I am going to stick with it. Aliens is superb just not so much a pure horror film.
Which leaves use with Alien3. I like Alien3. Lots of people hate on it. What I think is important to remember is that there were a lot of issues with the studio and delays with script that put a lot of wrenches in a lot of gears. It went back to the idea of a single Xenomorph stalking its prey. Some crazy prison monks who haven't seen a woman in years, no weapons, no power and a few idiots plus lots of vents equal some scary scenes. Its really good and I wish that Fincher was allowed to make the movie he wanted. The technology for the effects wasn't up to snuff and over time it has suffered because of it. It is also more chest pounding anxiety of what is coming than fear. So Alien wins.
So lets talk about Alien for a little while. Gothic horror film in space. Thats what it is. What is particularly interesting in many horror films but more so it seems in space is the idea of isolation and fear of the unknown. Lets all go to a deserted cabin, or into the desert, or in a small town. Well in all of those situations you have to just walk a little ways and you can reach civilization. In space you can't just leave the ship. You have to wait for it to travel a few light years before you can disembark. Isolation, blackness, and the unknown could be the three scariest things in the world. Imagine waking up after sleeping for a few decades and then seeing nothing but darkness around you while discovering you are not where you are supposed to be. People get scared in their own homes when its dark all the time. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a great short story about being in space for the first time called "Thanasphere." It scared the crap out of me when I was 14.
Now add a giant fucking monster. H.R. Gieger did a great job of creating the thing, and the producers did an even better job of realizing that they should get him to make it in the first place. The lack of eyes and streamlined head and body is what does it. Anything that can see you without eyes is creepy.
Now through in some small confined air vents that it can move around in so it can be anywhere and if you go in there, you can't move or see. There is even less of a place to go.
Ridley hired some of the best actors around to be in his movie and it shows. It is a wonderful piece of acting and has some great dialogue. Everyone seems as though they have been on the road for years and are tired of one another. Relationships are informed and executed. Everyone seems to like Hurt as well which makes it even worse when his chest explodes. Also, and this is going to be rough, imagine never having seen Spaceballs, or simply not knowing that eventually someone was going to have an alien come out of them. Thats always hard with classic movies, you hear about them and things are ruined. It makes me want to show it to my kids at an early age so they can experience it for the first time like they should but then my kids would be scarred and start to look like the boy from The Ring and they would be all fucked up. SO I will just have to hope that they don't hear about it before they get to see it.
Dan O'Bannon said that his inspiration for the face huggers was that he wanted to scare the men in the audience. With that in mind he decided that the scariest thing for a man was Oral Rape. His words. The face hugger looks a little bit like a vagina on the bottom side as well and the body looks like a set of hands that are choking and suffocating you. And they scamper. Scampering is always scary. Why I don't know, but I think because only small things scamper and small things are are to catch. They are also generally more likely to pierce our skin than simply bludgeon us. No one likes it when their skin has a needle in it, well almost no one.
No one had ever seen anything like the xenomorph and there isn't anything else like it. Even if you kill it chances are it will bleed on you and your face will melt off. All of these are things that are things we don't like, but during this movie we are experiencing them indirectly, through a filter. We don't see someone choking a victim, but we do see hands around a neck.
After all of that imagine that your doctor tries to shove a magazine down your throat and then bleeds milk and marbles.
Not that great of a movie. It seems almost that the only reason its scary is because it is supposed to be. Too much of the fear is on the surface in special effects and set design and gore. All of it is shock value, which is cheap. I'm not really afraid of hell. I don't want to go there but, it is such a sensory overload that my mind shuts down and tells me it isn't real. Sensory overload is a good way to describe it. Hostel is the same way but there is always a spotlight on what we should focus on, a real tangible horrific act. I don't have anything in my life to relate to Event Horizon's version of Bosch's Hell. ALien keeps thigns in the shadows, doesn't show its hand until we have built up to it. It is a slow churning in the gut rather than a blinding light burning the eyes. Also the acting isn't very good, because there aren't really any well written scenes. Its hard to act well when there is a bad script. Something special has to happen in order for it to be overcome.
And Joely Richardson is the worst. (quick side note just in case you don't believe it, watch her eat something on screen, in Nip/Tuck she eats a piece of steak and a piece of banana bread, she tries way too hard)
2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY / SUNSHINE / MOON
These are interesting because they aren't really horror films, but are still scary. Moon less so. It is a brilliant movie with a huge fear of the unknown and sense of isolation. I also believe it, in terms of it being possible. There is always an impending fear of what is coming, what is going to happen next. And that sense is hard to get so it deserves some mention.
Sunshine is proof that Danny Boyle can direct anything. Space, Zombies, Druggies, Coming of age Journey, A childrens film, Love story. Its nuts. Sunshine turns into a horror film after having been a survival drama. There are tense moments of basic ship repairs and standard space snafus but walking into an abandoned ship covered in dust because, dust is mainly human skin. Reading that in the script is crazy to think about, but Boyle saw it as an opportunity to raise tension and apprehension of what comes next. A man driven crazy by the sun. Literally. After having spliced in some headshots of the ex-crew, ala Friedkin, we finally see what became of them, and a manhunt begins. All while trying to save the world. His tempo and use of angles in his shots as well as light and shadow is eerie. I just wish he had used the focus a little more sometimes towards the end. Also I don't understand why a scalpel would need to vibrate.
2001:A Space Odyssey. See The Shining. Now Imagine that Jack Nicholson was a computer. A computer who is in charge of everything and can control everything around you. Every movie in space owes a lot to Kubrick. Slow steady build in a cold sterile environment. It is a big investment to sit down and watch and might be better without the vague beginning and end. Once you know what is going on it makes sense but the story telling of something based in science should be a tad clearer.
All three of these are great films and have some major horror elements to them but they just don't have enough to beat monsters.
The trailer and the poster for this film were good and lead to me to approach it in a certain way. The first 20 to 30 minutes of it held up to that agreement. You will put me on a spaceship and weird creepy shti will happen and it will be scary. Ben Foster wakes up from hyper sleep, for his four year shift of running the ship. His body as shrunk and skin has died, he literally no longer fits in his skin and has to shed. Tubes and cables are going in and out of him, he finds another survivor they have no memory and have to figure it out. Then there are some weird noises. It is creepy. Tight spaces, at one point it looks like he will be stuck in a duct forever when he finally gets out it looks like the ship is giving birth to him. At this point The pacing was perfect the suspense was right where it should have been, I knew a reveal was coming up and was all ready to sit back and enjoy the modern day Alien.
That is when everything got stupid. Post apocalyptic tribal mutant cannibals start attacking. Some French Samoan is awesome at Jedi Gymnastics and some Milla Jovovich wannabe is there to. Some convoluted flashbacks and a silly twist happen after they find the reason for the mutation and then something cool happens. Sincerely, its cool. Remember that these guys were floating adrift unsure of where they were, yada yada, generic space plot? They were underwater the whole time. In looking out the window it looked dark because it was deep. They had already reached their destination and were just sitting in the water thinking that Will Robinson is in danger.It was an interesting way to guarantee a happy ending and add to the notion that it is scary not to know where you are even if it is where you are supposed to be.
Not in space, but is Isolated and has an Alien. Normally I would say this is a monster movie but the isolation and the simple fact that you don't ever know who might kill you trumps it. Kurt Russell is the shit, always. Its a simple plot, but something about it, i think its unpredictability again, is scary. This monster never looks the same so you never know what part of it might have a mouth to eat you. There is no escape in the antarctic, and rather than black everywhere its white. I don't have much else to say about that.