As seemingly boundless as the stars themselves are the different ways film has explored the science fiction genre. If you like it when movies about extraterrestrials, prolonged visits to outer space, or the perils of time travel take certain cues from horror, you have a long list of terrifying, fantastical examples of when sci-fi planted itself firmly in terror for the best sci-fi horror movies.
Some can’t imagine science fiction without at least a healthy respect for how thoroughly disturbing the universe is by its very definition. Meaning what we already know about our galaxy and beyond, as well as the fact that we don’t know absolutely everything.
Some sci-fi horror movies, as we’re going to find with this look at the best sci-fi horror movies ever made, inhabit the inherent anxiety of tapping into the human condition. Others play on the very real claustrophobia we can relate to, as it’s not too difficult to imagine the cramped conditions of a small ship in the middle of what feels like an inky oblivion.
Throw a creature into the mix, something that also just happens to prove we’re not alone in the universe?
Indeed, horror and science fiction can get along just fine.
The Best Sci-Fi Horror Movies
1. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
The great thing about this sequel to the impressively dumb Cloverfield is that you don’t have to even see the first film to enjoy this. 10 Cloverfield Lane is simply set in the same universe, with the characters here being completely independent of the story and people we dealt with the first time.
Built around a group of strangers who are forced to cohabitate in an underground bunker during an alien invasion/apocalypse scenario, the film offers so much more than the previous entry. We have grounded, memorable, and sometimes frightening characters, supported by career-high performances by Mary Elizabeth-Winstead, John Gallagher Jr, and John Goodman in one of the best performances of his distinguished career.
10 Cloverfield Lane has monsters and chaos, but it also has ample amounts of tightened space paranoia, dark humor, and a genuine respect and appreciation for the human element of these types of stories.
To date, it might be the only film in the Cloverfield franchise that’s worth a damn.
Alien has the distinction of being one of the most important science fiction movies ever made. If you haven’t seen the movie before, you’ve probably heard it talked up in such terms. While that might be true as far as this list is concerned, how does it actually function as a science-fiction horror movie?
As you’re almost certainly going to find, it functions very well on every cylinder.
Alien begins in a state that could almost be described as benign. Director Ridley Scott lulls us a bit, as we meet a group of working class merchants on a commercial starship, who are instructed by their company to check out a distress call made by an alien ship. A perfect ensemble creates compelling characters, while the tension slowly begins, as this alien ship holds a grim, cataclysmic secret.
When this almost languid pace is shattered, Alien becomes one of the most powerful combinations of psychological and physical terror ever made. No other Alien film has done horror this well.
A lot of the work of Ken Russell will contain at least two things: Wild creativity in the creation of disturbing images, with a deep dive into the consequences of people who go dangerously too far in one way or another. His best films explore these ideas in wildly different ways, and Altered States might be the most accessible example of how unsettling his drive can be.
Dr. Edward Jessup is going to be one of those individuals who is willing to risk it all for something that doesn’t make much sense to virtually anyone around them. His experiments with sensory deprivation and powerful hallucinogens sets up the possibility that maybe you can take it too far, and that maybe the consequences are worth it. Altered States wants us to be curious, as we watch the results of Jessup’s mind being brought to unimaginable extremes. His body becomes suspect to incredible, eventually horrible changes, as well.
Yet we can’t stop watching. As this movie goes increasingly off the rails, we can’t stop hoping that we’ll get to see something even more wonderous in its nightmare fuel potential.
When a rescue vessel is sent to meet with a starship that has recently been found after a long disappearance, the best kind of horror movie bedlam breaks out.
From the haunted house atmosphere of the titular Event Horizon ship, to the moment when the crew members of the Lewis and Clark are forced to confront an unknown intruder that can annihilate them from every possible angle, Event Horizon has a good time throwing a lot of fun big budget horror movie madness at the wall.
Most of it sticks, with suitably heightened performances by Kathleen Quinlan, Sam Neil, and Laurence Fishburne. Event Horizon shows us the outcome when you confine enough Hell for the entire Earth to a relatively smaller entity, like a modest spaceship.
Event Horizon is what happens when you give a lot of money to someone who knows exactly how to make it go far in a science fiction horror movie. It’s just a shame we will never see the entirety of what Paul W.S. Anderson had in mind.
The Fly is widely considered to be one of the best examples of a remake done well.
It keeps the basic premise of a scientist who tampers in god’s domain, as you do, and winds up combining his DNA with that of a common housefly. To that end, it also keeps the opportunity to make a gruesome monster movie, with legendary special effects by Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis (who later directed an honestly-not-bad sequel).
Where this 1986 critical and commercial darling differs from the original is in David Cronenberg (with co-screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue) taking the transformation itself into some very dark body horror and psychological horror realms. While the movie also benefits greatly from separate and shared performances by Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum, it’s those visuals and writing that connects us to how deeply uncomfortable this movie can make you in your own skin.
You also can’t forget the iconic score of The Fly by Howard Shore, contributing a good deal to this remarkable classic, and undeniably one of the best sci-fi horror movies out there.
The Hidden is what happens when you combine The Terminator with the buddy cop formula, except replacing the cyborg with an alien that can travel between “hosts” orally. The Hidden also distinguishes itself by embracing a certain weirdness in its sense of humor, in going for broke on the horror aspects, and for its willingness to go as big with its ambitions for the plot as the budget will allow.
In other words, a movie like this, with a great pair of performances by Michael Nouri as a homicide detective, and Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI agent with something to hide, is almost effortlessly entertaining. The film might be a sum of different movies that came before it, but it finds a lot of different opportunities to be more than that. In large part, it succeeds, particularly in how effectively it establishes a tense race to the showdown.
The Hidden is pure pleasure, if you love seeing a low-budget movie with all the right components to succeed brilliantly.
Made several times over the years, the 1978 Phillip Kaufman-directed version of Jack Finney’s groundbreaking science fiction classic is considered by many to be the best Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It certainly goes deeper into the loss of identity, a waking nightmare state many consider worse than death, than any other version made thus far.
With a stellar cast of names like Donald Sutherland, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Brooke Adams, and Jeff Goldblum, the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers just hangs on the creepy details of this story to the point of getting deep into the DNA of its audience, as well. This strength is heightened by the film’s dedication to make this story as black and utterly encompassing in the defeat of the human race as possible. No one bands together. No one finds a way. We’re essentially dead the moment we touch the ground.
Humanity is wiped out handily, and we sometimes really do feel helpless to do anything but watch.
Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, goes for an absolute hurricane of surreal imagery and ludicrous plotting with his space vampire epic Lifeforce. An encounter with extraterrestrials leaves humanity with a mysterious, perpetually nude woman (Mathilda May, who creates a captivating, sincerely threatening presence) who drains the life essence of any human she encounters. This eventually leads to a larger plot by the aliens to destroy the planet as we know it.
Lifeforce is one of the best examples of controlled chaos. The movie often doesn’t feel like it makes much sense, and we are in an almost constant state of everything falling apart in a way that can be accurately described as frightening.
It also doesn’t hurt that this movie features a stellar cast, including Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, and Patrick Stewart, taking the increasingly absurd material with deathly seriousness.
This is a lot of fun, but it’s not the kind of fun we’d want to go through ourselves.
Well, most people wouldn’t. A lot of folks have very strong feelings about Mathilda May on this one.
The nocturnal, singular-in-their-purpose creatures of Pitch Black are scary enough on their own. Their overwhelming numbers on an unfamiliar planet makes for some good horror movie fun, although not so much for the doomed crew who encounter them. This film can sometimes feel like Aliens if it had leaned more into horror than outright action.
Pitch Black is more than just a clear example of Alien’s far-reaching influence. Using Vin Diesel to create perhaps his best antihero persona to date gives the film a unique place from which to build. It also makes the absolute most of its desert locations, with the added bonus that these ravenous creatures coming out of hibernation for a month-long eclipse are absolutely famished.
Oh, and good news: they also have bat-like sonar capabilities.
Pitch Black stacks the deck but doesn’t completely go for despair. It’s a good tightrope act for an underrated sci-fi horror film that is also easy to call one of the best sci-fi horror movies out there.
When a politically charged rescue operation in Central America shifts from standard, but nonetheless exciting, action fare, Predator turns into a sci-fi horror movie in the best way possible.
The action film aspect doesn’t disappear from the movie, even as a group of mercenaries played by guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and Jesse Ventura, find themselves being hunted by an alien being. It just suddenly has to share space with a movie in which these often-invincible men are attacked, fooled, and systematically destroyed one by one. It’s a blast in more ways than one to watch this dynamic play out across the thrilling running time of Predator.
This is a movie that delivers soundly on what it promises with John McTiernan’s famous talent for building suspense. The final showdown between Schwarzenegger and the Predator in particular is as funny as it is clever, not to mention brutal.
Scanners makes this list for much more than its iconic head-explosion scene. Taken in the context of the rest of this film, which depicts a war between two factions of psychic human beings, it is just one of many reasons why Scanners remains one of Cronenberg’s best movies.
Much of this film’s appeal can be traced to its blending of noir with sinister government dealings and wild supernatural discoveries. The movie largely focuses on these forces going back and forth with one another, with Michael Ironside as a notable standout in a great cast, but can be enjoyed on a deeper level, as it comments on the nature of the body in-between phases of what is known and unknown.
If you also just want a cat-and-mouse psychological horror brawl with psychic battles and Canadian shopping malls, Scanners can do that, too.
Slither reminds us in its own delightfully scary, hilarious, and genuinely disgusting way that we don’t have to create a zombie or zombie-like virus in a boring laboratory. Why not simply wait for an alien parasite to randomly show up one night, get inside an abusive, rich jerk (an amazing performance by Michael Rooker), and run amok on the small-town populace?
Why not indeed.
Slither has the Troma-inspired humor of James Gunn, but also brings to the forefront Gunn’s own talents for finding very dark ways to depict the silliness of the human condition. His characters are simultaneously grounded, yet often exist as extreme examples of what you want in an alien invasion horror movie. They have to survive not only their own terrible decisions, but also the fact that the universe really does seem to have a grudge against us.
All of this is powered by a cast that includes Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, and the always underrated Gregg Henry. Their performances meet a script that celebrates and gently teases horror tropes with equal attention.
13. The Terminator (1984)
Director: James Cameron
Before the series went down a road of action and science fiction, we had 1984’s The Terminator. While there are some very exciting, action-filled scenes to be found here, make no mistake about it: You are watching an almost pure horror movie that just happens to also include strong science fiction elements like time travel and killer cyborgs.
With an uncharacteristically chilling Arnold Schwarzenegger performance as the killer cyborg mentioned in the title, The Terminator is very effective at establishing a relentless, flawless creation in pursuant of something that is very human and very not flawless as a result. Linda Hamilton would later turn Sarah Conner into the badass militant we all know and love, but her performance here has all the makings of one of the strongest final girls in horror history.
Fantastic special effects, potent despair and destruction slipping through the cracks of the vibrant 80s, and Michael Biehn as the crunchy pants warrior from the future all build a film quite unlike any of the others.
14. The Thing (1982)
Director: John Carpenter
We have in John Carpenter’s monstrous, desolate classic The Thing yet another example of a remake of a science fiction movie with a thin layer of horror in the middle (although both versions of this film are based on a novella)
Like the others discussed in this article, this remake also adds a few thousand gallons more horror, runs the science fiction into the darkest filter possible, and looks for as many opportunities to present staggering achievements in gore FX and creature design as one can fit into a 109-minute running time.
When you also regard The Thing — which features some all-time great horror movie performances by Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, and several others — as a masterwork on the subject of paranoia, you’re left with one of the most memorable horror films you’ve ever seen. Nothing in this movie is wasted. Nothing is lacking in its haunting conclusion.
The highly anticipated follow-up to Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out has one of the most ambitious what’s-the-worst-thing-that-can-happen-with-cloning stories ever put to film. Us displays the same inspired ability to filter sharp social and political commentary through well-executed horror tropes that are also visually stimulating.
At the same time, it tells a very different sort of story, one of reckoning and the wages of different types of traumas. Us begins with a young mother (Lupita Nyong’o, in what might be her best performance to date) visiting the beachfront community she lived in as a child with her family. From her memories, we already have that sense of dread that this vacation is going to go to hell very quickly.
When it does, the film becomes a whirlwind of an increasingly horrific mystery with the fundamentals of what could be described as zombie fiction. That isn’t quite accurate. Keeping this in mind is just one of the ways Us forces you to shift expectations and deal with uncomfortable revelations. There is sometimes a little too much going on here, but that pales in comparison to how much of Us works.
Time will tell, but it’s hard to imagine that Us isn’t going to be regarded as an exceptional horror and science fiction marriage for a long time to come.
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