Soft slithering tentacles, snarling slimy creatures and otherworldly planets of unfathomable terror; such define the dark cosmic horrors of science-fiction that are imagined without the limitations of the earth-bound logic. Without the need to stick to the laws of physics, science-fiction horror movies can toy with truly dark concepts, exploring daunting existential questions that we can’t help but ponder.
Such concepts thrived throughout the 1980s and early 1970s, when commercial Hollywood cinema began focusing on vibrant characters and blockbuster set pieces, including James Cameron’s wondrous dystopian thriller The Terminator and Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming extra-terrestrial tale, E.T. In this time, such filmmakers mentioned above grew to become some of the most celebrated in the industry, joining the likes of Ridley Scott, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg.
As these directors discovered, the greatest sci-fi movies of all time explore wondrous concepts with an analytical eye, never keeping their eye off the intention to terrify and deceive. From such classics as Frankenstein, which helped to establish modern-day body horror, to the gooey, visceral delights of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, let’s look at the best sci-fi horror movies of all time.
The ten greatest sci-fi horrors of all time
10. Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
One of the earliest and most iconic gothic tales of all time, James Whale’s Frankenstein, based on Mary Shelley’s novel of the same name, introduced the genre to the terrors of body horror, telling the story of a scientist who toys with life and death by creating a hideous creature made up of other body parts. Featuring Colin Clive and Mae Clarke in lead roles, it was the remarkably physical performance of Boris Karloff that would go down in cinema history.
Making a significant impact on popular culture, Shelley’s story introduced such concepts as the ‘mad’ scientist and his subservient assistant to the wider world of cinema, changing its makeup forever.
9. Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)
Seizing the attention of modern movie fans upon its release in 2018, Alex Garland’s 2018 film Annihilation follows a group of scientists who venture into ‘The Shimmer’, a strange cosmic zone that refracts the DNA of anything living within it. Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer of the same name, Garland’s film explores wild, vibrant vistas and horrific creatures created by the time-bending event, seeing the scientists fall victim to the endless flow of time among other ethereal threats.
Examining several aspects of H.P. Lovecraft’s greatness, Annihilation attempts to convey the visual terror of such a cosmic threat and offer an introspective look at how such an event could affect the human psyche.
8. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)
Speaking of Lovecraft, Stuart Gordon brought the cosmic creativity of the American writer to popular American cinema with the release of Re-Animator in 1985. Itself based on the serial novelette by Lovecraft named Herbert West–Reanimator; this classic gooey horror from Gordon is one of the best adaptations of the author’s books. Embracing the horror subgenre of body horror, committing to its eccentric, gory and playful nature, Re-Animator tells the story of a medical student who becomes obsessed with bringing dead flesh back to life.
Inspired by the aforementioned work of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Gordon’s film plays with the concept of a scientist playing God, with Stuart Gordon efficiently bringing the film to life with humour and mucky gore.
7. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
David Cronenberg is well known for his icky sci-fi horrors, with Videodrome being a cult favourite of fans across the world, typifying the extravagant nature of 1980’s filmmaking as a visual rollercoaster that utilises the very best special effects of its time. Following the story of a T.V. programmer who becomes obsessed with a mysterious broadcast and a new reality named ‘Videodrome’, Cronenberg’s tale is a truly wild trip.
Taking science fiction to brand new heights, Videodrome is a thrillingly sleazy judgement on new media and an entertaining conversation into what the technological future may have in store.
6. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
The concept of a virus bringing a nation to its knees is unfortunately no longer such a fantasy, albeit the crippling coronavirus was nowhere near as violent as the bloodthirsty horror show of Danny Boyle’s riveting 28 Days Later. Changing the very perception of the zombie sub-genre, Boyle’s film, written by Alex Garland, turned the idiotic meat parcels of old into the most frightening contemporary foe.
A visionary masterpiece, 28 Days Later, establishes an apocalyptic London with genius imagination whilst containing an excellent, isolated story of human desperation, fragility and violence, having as much of an impact on the genre as its distant relative, Night of the Living Dead.
5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
Often, the very best of sci-fi horror takes an outlandish, unfathomable cosmic horror and contextualises the tale within a deeply humanistic story. Playing on fears of paranoia and of the ‘other’, Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a perfect example of this, embedding fear within the intentions of an unknown evil.
Based on the book from author Jack Finney, Kaufman’s film stars cult favourites Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nemoy as a solitary group fighting against the invasion of strange cosmic seeds, turning the population into emotionless automatons. Equally enjoyably camp and eerily disturbing, Kaufman’s film is a sci-fi horror thriller that hints toward some nightmarish cosmic concepts.
4. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
A dark, curiously explorative piece of cinema, Under the Skin, is an experience like no other that shines as an audiovisual investigation of alien life on earth. Underlined by Mica Levi’s score, which is a sheer horrifying assault on the senses, Jonathan Glazer’s film is a transportive story that follows a mysterious woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, who picks up hitchhikers to use for her surreal intentions.
Whilst it may seem like a simple role to play for Johansson, the nuance of her character is careful and considered, with the actor perfectly embodying the strange alien lifeform with dominating power and ethereal grace. The film has established director Jonathan Glazer as a serious contemporary artist.
3. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
Body horror and the Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg undoubtedly go hand in hand, with the filmmaker having honed his craft with several releases before 1986’s The Fly, including Shivers in 1973 and the aforementioned Videodrome in 1983. His remake of The Fly is his most definitive of the history of the sub-genre, well exploring the emotional and physical torment that is inherent within the identity of the film movement.
Starring Jeff Goldblum, the film follows the experiments of a scientist trying to push the limits of human discovery only to become the victim of his own endeavours. Once again exploring the nature of science and human exploration, Cronenberg adopts a serious take on the subject matter that positions the protagonist as a self-destructive figure with a god complex.
2. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
The true form of the cosmic beast of John Carpenter’s classic horror film is unknown, taking on the appearance of the friends and colleagues of those working on an American research station in Antarctica. A terrifying concept that breeds paranoia, as the alien could be anyone and anywhere, the group begin to go mad as the creature picks them off one by one, occasionally baring its fleshy innards as it transforms, showing off a horrifying fleshy mutant.
Carpenter toys with cosmic sci-fi horror while imbuing his film with an eerie realisation from his human characters that they are vulnerable to the powers of the outer universe; it’s an existential crisis, physically performed.
1. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
By far, the most definitive extra-terrestrial film of the late 20th century was Ridley Scott’s Alien, a movie that introduced a terrifying new force in sci-fi in the form of the Xenomorph. Horrifying beasts that radiated a fear of sexual violation, Scott’s film suggested a darker force at play that wished to toy with its victims before using their bodies for its own benefit of reproduction, a terrifying concept that inspired the slasher craze of the 1980s.
Not only a terrifying horror film but also a terrifically realised science-fiction concept, Scott’s film is brought to life by the artistry of H.R. Giger, a concept designer who helped to create a phenomenal piece of cinema whose authenticity is almost baffling.