Space horror gets a bit of a bad rap. Even when it comes down to the iconic classic of Alien, people tend to stand adamantly on one side of the fence or the other as to whether they even consider it—or anything else set in space—to actually be a horror movie. For me, though, horror should be set anywhere and at any time. The genre always addressed cultural and deeply rooted human fears.
Outside Alien, though, there are still many great horror efforts set in deep space. Some only take that route for awhile before bringing the horror back to Earth, others stay fully entrenched in the cosmos for their entire running time. But both can be equally endearing.
It’s important to remember that while Alien remains visually stunning, it was not the first horror movie of its type. The bulk of horror features in the 1950s dealt with extraterrestrial threats. Alien was directly influenced by cosmic horrors from the ‘50s into the early ‘70s.
But there have been some great space horror efforts in the decades since Alien as well. Many of them are not as popular as they should be, some were financial and even critical failures at the time. Many of these features have gained an audience over time, but they’re still worth shining a light on.
Danny Boyle’s follow-up to 28 Days Later gained some mixed reviews, though people definitely praised its score and performances. I don’t think audiences were necessarily prepared for what a psychological horror film it actually turned out to be. The third act loses a lot of viewers in how blunt and horrific it gets, but I think it takes an interesting visceral direction that I did not expect for a movie of this type.
Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires is one of the primary influences for Alien. This film is pure pulp in the most celebratory way possible. It completely embraces the schlocky themes and tropes of the ‘50s and attempts to keep them alive in a bold, Technicolor fashion. While it was a Drive-In favorite of the day, Planet of the Vampires has had a huge influence on not only Ridley Scott, but filmmakers like Brian De Palma as well.
Pandorum didn’t open to generally favorable reviews, but there are definitely interesting things about it. It stars Ben Foster, who is always great in just about everything that he does, as well as Dennis Quaid. It was also produced by Paul W.S. Anderson who, despite what you can probably say about him, actually does space horror fairly well.
Once upon a time, the Riddick franchise kicked off with a tried-and-true monster movie in which Vin Diesel’s Riddick was actually a supporting character. Clearly things went in a very different direction. But that doesn’t negate that this original flick, which stands totally on its own, was a pretty interesting monster movie in its own right.
I think Lifeforce is one of Tobe Hooper’s best, most visually interesting movies. Based on the novel Space Vampires it is about just that, Mathilda May is an ethereal, beautiful but not quite human creature draining the life force from the men that come into contact with her. There are some great creature effects and the influence on Species is clear. Definitely an underrated one, even after Scream Factory’s impressive collector’s edition.
Galaxy of Terror
Following almost right on the heels of Alien, the Roger Corman produced Galaxy of Terror stars Robert Englund and Sid Haig in the same movie, before either of them took off as genre stars. It’s a low budget Alien rip-off that still manages to stand its ground against Ridley Scott’s imaginative masterpiece. Bonus: Aliens director James Cameron served as production designer and second unit director on this feature.
Event Horizon has gained a huge following in recent years. It took the Alien approach of a haunted house movie set in space and applied that to literally being a haunted house movie set in space. It’s claustrophobic, visually stunning and genuinely scary as well. The crew are plaged with ghostly visions and nightmarish imagery approaching Jacob’s Ladder in its intensity. And as many have pointed out, there are heavy echoes of Hellraiser as well. All of these specific influences blend together fairly well, though, and the result is a substantially more beloved feature than it was twenty years ago.