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From David Cronenberg to Ridley Scott: 10 of the greatest sci-fi horror films

I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation.” – David Cronenberg

With everything that has been going on in 2020, it already feels like we are living in a science-fiction horror film that will never end. When reality has become unbelievable, do horror films retain their magic? The ten classics of the genre listed here certainly do.

John Carpenter once said, “Horror has been a genre since the beginning of cinema, all the way back to the days of silent films. I don’t think it will ever go away because it’s so universal. Humour doesn’t always travel to other countries, but horror does.”

He added, “Horror is a universal language; we’re all afraid. We’re born afraid, we’re all afraid of things: death, disfigurement, loss of a loved one. Everything that I’m afraid of, you’re afraid of and vice versa. So everybody feels fear and suspense. We were little kids once and so it’s taking that basic human condition and emotion and just fucking with it and playing with it. You can invent new horrors.”

As a feature for our ‘Far Out Fear Club’, we have noted down a few sci-fi horror masterpieces for you to revisit.

10 classic sci-fi horror films:

10. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon – 1985)

Loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tale, Stuart Gordon’s 1985 film follows the story of a young medical student Herbert West (played by Jeffrey Combs). Herbert has invented a reagent which can re-animate deceased bodies. Re-Animator won First Prize at the Paris Festival of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, a Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Gordon said, “When we were doing the research on it, we were spending a lot of time talking to pathologists in various morgues, and they had the blackest sense of humour I’ve ever encountered! I think you have to if you’re going to do a job like that. I think that, somehow, managed to make its way into the movie.”

He added, “Well, I’m very happy that people are still watching it, let alone that it’s getting released on Blu-Ray. It’s fantastic.”

9. Scanners (David Cronenberg – 1981)

A classic by the master of the body horror genre, Scanners masterfully blends the two genres together in a tale about an evil corporation that targets mind-readers. It is still remembered for its iconic scene where a man’s head is blown up just by mental concentration.

The special effects team revealed how they pulled off the iconic head exploding scene. “Latex scraps, some wax, and just bits and bobs and a lot of stringy stuff that we figured would fly through the air a little bit better,” they noted. According to makeup artist Stephan Dupuis, they also used “leftover burgers.”

8. Altered States (Ken Russell – 1980)

Ken Russell’s cult-classic follows Eddie Jessup (played by William Hurt), a Harvard scientist who conducts experiments on himself with a hallucinatory drug and sensory deprivation chamber. He tries to access altered states of consciousness but ends up changing his genetic makeup. Altered States is a delightfully psychedelic interpretation of the genre.

Throughout the production, Russell was at odds with the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. ”He resembled an overweight Trotsky dressed as Chairman Mao, talked democracy and practised fascism,” Russell wrote. ”He also had two false names, Paddy and Chayefsky…And if at last he was beginning to accept my input on the hallucinations, it was only because he was bereft of any visions of his own.”

7. Cube (Vincenzo Natali – 1997)

Cube features six strangers to one another who wake up to find themselves trapped in a bizarre, dangerous, high-tech labyrinth. In order to make it out, they are forced to rely on their unique talents and avoid any kind of internal conflict (which is easier than it sounds).

“I try not to be too self-conscious about these things, but I’m a big fan of Kafka,” Natali revealed. “I always feel like the most frightening thing in the world is something that you can’t define…[A] force that is greater than yourself, that you can’t fully comprehend. I think we’re living in a time that’s very hard to simulate.

“There’s just so much going on, so fast, and no one knows where it’s going, and it all feels out of control–and I think for most people, that’s precisely what we feel like. We’re trapped in some giant videogame and someone else is at the controls.”

6. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle – 2002)

One of the defining works of the genre, Danny Boyle’s 2002 work is famous for making the “infected” sub-genre a common practice in zombie films. In a society that is ravaged by a virus (yes, it is especially relevant now), 28 Days Later conducts a fascinating investigation of loneliness amidst societal collapse.

Boyle said, “With all of the films that we’ve done, we try and take a genre and fuck with it a bit. We love doing that. It helps market the films, and the studios or whoever is distributing the film love that and it contacts a mainstream audience, which is part of the deal for us. We want the mainstream audience.”

He added, “And then we want to blow the genre apart so you don’t get it. So the zombie fans who show up for this aren’t just go­ing to see a gore-fest zombie film. They will get something in addition, and I think that’s a great dynamic really.”

5. Videodrome (David Cronenberg – 1983)

A brilliant metaphorical exploration of the nature of horror films and the reality/fantasy binary of cinematic violence, Videodrome is right up there among the best of the genre. Cronenberg merges the directness of body horror with the distance of philosophical speculation.

“You know, they talk about me as the inventor of body horror,” Cronenberg said. “But I’ve never thought of it as being horrific. Of course, you’re being a showman, and if you’re making a low-budget horror film—there were a lot of those around at the time—how do you get yourself noticed? Certainly I was in the world, and not an abstractionist.

“I was trying to make movies and continue to make movies. But there’s the philosophical underpinning for all of it. If neurology is reality, that’s an incredible theme—how to structure a narrative that will discuss that? Immediately you’re into changing the body to change the reality, and that’s what led me to all of those things like Videodrome.”

4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman – 1978)

Kaufman’s remake of the 1956 original transforms the communist witch-hunt allegory of the ’50s to the divorce boom of the ’70s in order to launch relevant social commentary through the surreal sci-fi narrative. The plot involves a San Francisco health inspector and his colleague who discover that humans are being replaced by alien duplicates who are identical in almost every way except the fact that they lack human emotions.

“It’s as valid now as it was then, maybe more so,” Kaufman said“[Donald Sutherland’s pod shriek] at the end of the film could be a very Trumpian scream. The way Trump points to the press in the back of the auditorium and everybody turns, you get that scary ‘poddy’ feeling. There’s a kind of contagion that’s going on here.”

3. The Fly (David Cronenberg – 1986)

David Cronenberg’s magnum opus is often regarded as the best body horror film of all time. It chronicles the story of scientist Seth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum) who undergoes a mutation which makes him half-insect, half-man. Cronenberg translates a Kafkaesque nightmare to the cinematic medium, making the disturbing vision completely his own.

Cronenberg said, “There are a lot of things that I put together in The Fly that I hadn’t put into one film before. It’s very romantic, first of all. It’s really a love story, and it’s very obsessive, and it’s very sexual, and it’s also very funny. I have done all those things before in some movies, but I’ve never had them all work in one thing. Still, that doesn’t guarantee success. It’s maybe banal to say this, but it’s true: One of the reasons is that 20th Century Fox have done a very good job distributing it.”

2. The Thing (John Carpenter – 1982)

Set in the hostile landscape of Antarctica, The Thing is a sci-fi/horror thriller about an alien entity that has the capacity to assimilate living beings. A remake of The Thing from Another World (1951), John Carpenter weaves a sense of claustrophobia into his masterpiece.

Despite being regarded as a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release, time has been kind to John Carpenter’s brilliant work. In a 2001 interview, Carpenter reflected, “Had it worked, my career would have been very different. Very different.” 

1. Alien (Ridley Scott – 1979)

Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien has established itself as one of the most recognisable works of the genre, if not the most. It explores the relationships between the crew of a spacecraft, Nostromo only to subject everything to intense destabilisation as an alien invades the ship. The all-encompassing influence of Alien is undeniable and Sigourney Weaver’s character helped popularise the female action protagonist as a common archetype.

“I still think there’s a lot of mileage in Alien, but I think you’ll have to now re-evolve,” Scott said. “What I always thought when I was making it, the first one, why would a creature like this be made and why was it traveling in what I always thought was a kind of war-craft, which was carrying a cargo of these eggs.

“What was the purpose of the vehicle and what was the purpose of the eggs? That’s the thing to question — who, why, and for what purpose is the next idea, I think.”

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