Sci-fi horror is one of those sub-genres that’s incredibly hard to define. Is any horror film with a sci-fi element automatically part of the genre? Or any sci-fi movie with a jump scare? I’d say, No.
For instance, Pontypool is undoubtedly technologically centered, but ultimately a zombie film and therefore pure horror. Conversely, while The Core has some intense and possibly frightening moments, it’s definitely not focused enough on fear to be a horror movie.
The best way to pin down this slippery genre is to think of both audiences: Would a sci-fi fan who’s not a horror buff like a film? Would a horror fan who doesn’t dig sci-fi dig this? If the answer to both is “yes,” then it’s probably sci-fi horror.
Here are my recommendations for eight chilling sci-fi horror movies certain to satisfy fans of both genres, and perfect for watching this Halloween season. Did I leave off one of your frightening faves? Sound off in the comments below, and give us some frightening sci-fi to look forward to this fall.
8. Sunshine (2007)
Set in 2057, Sunshine follows a spaceship crew tasked with restarting the dying Sun to save Earth. It casts a chilling light on our solar system and is an unsettling reminder of humanity’s expiration date. Sunshine also features jump scares and a creepy cat-and-mouse game that will be familiar to fans of horror. However, the last act of the film falls apart—hard—which is why it’s only at number eight on my list. What starts as a quiet and claustrophobic tale devolves into strange religious undertones. Still, it’s worth a watch for the first three quarters of the movie—just be prepared for some serious “huh?” moments by the end.
Sunshine had an impressive array of sci-fi horror talent behind it. The film was directed by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) from a script by Alex Garland (Annihilation, Ex Machina). Boyle cited 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and Solaris as major influences on Sunshine. Much of the creeping unease of the movie comes from the claustrophobia amongst the crew, and Boyle fostered this through an intense preparation process for the actors. Boyle had the ensemble cast prepare to depict the extreme intimacy of the crew by living communally and undergoing scuba diving training and space flight simulators.
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7. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
The title really says it all: IT meets Independence Day meets B-movie in this strange story about aliens who crash land on Earth and join a supernatural circus. You’ve probably overlooked this film for years, thinking it’s schlock. And it totally is—but it’s self-aware schlock. The clowns wrap their victims in cotton candy, for Pennywise’s sake! Killer Klowns is a masterful homage-slash-send-up of classic (terrible) monster movies, that also has some genuinely frightening moments. After all, these are deadly clowns—there’s got to be some terror just from that. If the recent IT adaptation left you craving something more out-of-this-world, check out this goofy extraterrestrial clown treat instead.
6. Prince of Darkness (1987)
One of horror master John Carpenter’s less renowned films, Prince of Darkness is a bizarre and fascinating examination of science, religion, and humanity’s apparent need for an “other.” A group of scientists gather to analyze a mysterious vial of liquid that was discovered in a Los Angeles church and seems to be transmitting complex streams of information. As the researchers delve into the data, they discover that the strange goo may be from another realm, another dimension—or even hell. Prince of Darkness has everything you could want from a movie: science, Satan, Alice Cooper. In fact, it has so much going on, at times it almost feels like two great, and slightly confusing, movies. Still, this title is an intriguing blend of quiet science fiction and religion-based horror that grows more compelling with every watch.
If Prince of Darkness feeds all your sci-fi horror Halloween cravings, it's worth exploring all the films in John Carpenter's 'Apocalypse Trilogy.' Although each movie stands on its own, Carpenter has said that The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness (1995) are part of one trilogy thematically united by its exploration of "the end of everything." In The Thing, scientific researchers in an Antarctic outpost are terrorized by a creature that can mutate to assume human form. In the Mouth of Madness explores the carnage and chaos that follow the disappearance of horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Each film in the trilogy is an unsettling, challenging, and super-fun exploration of, as Carpenter says, "the end of everything."
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5. Attack the Block (2011)
Attack the Block is a low-budget, must-watch hidden horror gem. An alien invasion film set in an underprivileged area of London, it’s as much an insightful and powerful social commentary as it is a gripping and well-executed man-versus-monster flick. On Guy Fawkes Night, human-eating aliens arrive on Earth, touching down in a South London housing estate. Young nurse Samantha (Jode Whittaker of Doctor Who) is on her way home when she's held up by a group of young men led by Moses (John Boyega). Samantha's night goes from bad to worse when a meteor then strikes the neighborhood, nearly killing her. While exploring the wreckage, Moses and his friends discover the meteor has brought with it some overwhelming invaders. Before long, the survivors are running to Wyndham Tower, forced to work together in a desperate attempt to stay alive — and to save the block from destruction.
Attack the Block‘s aliens are some of the most memorable creature creations in years, and the film’s star John Boyega (now better known as Finn from Star Wars) has charm for days. This is a smart, quippy, and genuinely impactful sci-fi horror that deserves much more notice than it got. Plus, it features some of the coolest-looking aliens in any recent alien invasion movie. Check it out and see why Boyega's Moses has so many fans.
Attack the Block was written and directed by Joe Cornish, who went on to direct the feel-good young adult fantasy film The Kid Who Would Be King, and is also slated to direct an upcoming adaptation of Neal Stephenson's sci-fi novel Snow Crash.
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4. Moon (2009)
It might be controversial to classify this title as horror, but I personally feel that few films capture the unnerving elements of being alone in space as well as Moon. A man, played stunningly by Sam Rockwell, is spending three isolated years on a lunar space station, waiting until he’s called back home. But his tenure in the lunar module isn’t what it seems—and his employers have done something unthinkable to keep him there. Quiet, intelligent, and haunting, Moon moves inexorably towards an ending that will leave you thinking for a long time to come. It’s so good, you might even forgive Sam Rockwell for that awful Poltergeist remake.
3. Alien (1979)
What? Alien isn’t number one? The reason Alien isn’t higher on my list, despite undoubtedly being one of the best horror movies ever made, is simple: I don’t think it fits the definition of a sci-fi horror as well as some other films. Sure, it’s set in space and has aliens, but the story plays out more like a haunted house film than a science fiction movie. It’s filled with horror staples: Creatures in the shadows, possessions, bumps in the night, the familiar turning into the unknown. It’s the tale of a classic haunting, except with a xenomorph instead of a ghost. Alien is an amazing film, but in my opinion it’s horror in sci-fi clothing, rather than truly sci-fi horror. (Sometime I’ll tell you why it’s also really about Jonesy the cat, not Ripley, but that’s a different story for a different day.)
2. Cube (1997)
Cube is a mind-blowing film that makes fewer “best of” lists than it deserves. This claustrophobic, gory tale follows a small group of people, who wake up trapped in strange square rooms with hatches leading to similar blank cubes. The rooms turn out to be deadly traps, part of a nefarious life-or-death puzzle that will test the prisoners’ knowledge and sanity. Clever, unique, and unrelenting, this is a movie that will delight fans of intelligently crafted sci-fi as well as fans of darkly chilling horror. Word to the wise: If you can't stand body horror, Cube might not be for you.
1. Event Horizon (1997)
This is, to me, the definitive sci-fi horror film. The premise is classic space opera: a deep space ship is sent to investigate a disabled vessel. The vessel in question had been experimenting with black holes and interstellar travel before seemingly going dead. From there, Event Horizon swiftly and seamlessly morphs into terrifying nightmare fuel. As the search-and-rescue team encounters the scientific experiment the original crew was working on, their mission devolves into a battle with their own haunted pasts. Thanks to fabulous performances by Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill (who plays a scientist obsessed with the interspace drive he designed), imagery so beautifully disturbing that it will be burned into your mind forever, and a tortuous plot that will have you jumping at every turn, Event Horizon is a film that exemplifies both sci-fi and horror.
Featured still from "Event Horizon" via Paramount Pictures