As we look out into the great black emptiness of space, we are reminded of the question posed by the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi- “Where is everybody?” Is life as we understand it a freak chemical fluke, never to be repeated in all of the great cold infinity above us? Or is it in fact an inevitable outcome of a relatively common set of circumstances, resulting in a universe teeming with life and civilisations, and if so, will we ever get to meet them?
And if and when we do encounter life that evolved under another sun, with intelligence different, yet equal to our own, how do we kill it?
Yes, some films tell us that when we encounter new life and civilizations they’ll heal our wounds with magic glowing fingers, teach us that nuclear war is bad, and misunderstand our local customs in a delightful and heartwarming way. But the movie aliens that have the ring of truth about them only want to eat you, lay eggs in you, or shift your entire perception of reality in a way that forces you to appreciate the true horror of existence.
So, here are the very alien horror movies. A quick note about methodology:
We’re talking about alien horror movies. So no Sunshine, where the threat is a guy with sunburn, no Pandorum, and no Event Horizon (whatever your theological understanding, I think we can all agree that if he is not actually indigenous to Earth, Satan has at least resided here long enough to gain citizenship).
This film got mixed reviews on release. A lot of people said it was basically a rip-off of another, better-known horror film about extraterrestrials (one which may or may not appear in this list). What those people missed is that that was the point. This film takes the well-worn “there’s a monster on our spaceship” premise and sets it on board our own, very real International Space Station.
The change is immediate. First, no gravity. Second, no lengthy corridors and mysteriously roomy ventilation shafts. This is a film about a team of unarmed scientists in a floating tin can, fighting a monster in their pyjamas. In an environment like that, the humans wouldn’t stand much of a chance against a reasonably angry chimpanzee, but the monster itself is a fantastic design that aims to create something truly alien and whose kills are far more terrifying than merely “eating” its victims would have been.
9. Apollo 18
Found footage is not a genre that we have seen much of from space, which if you think about it is odd given it is the only way most of us will ever experience outer space. Apollo 18 fixes that, with its story of a secret moon mission that took place after Apollo 17.
The grainy footage compensates for any shortcomings in the CGI, and the moon spiders, while raising a lot of questions about how they would evolve, let alone stay alive, are an excellent monster that evokes the fear actual astronauts must have had of allowing moon dust into their capsule (moon dust being famously nasty, sharp and hard to remove stuff).
It also features a great rendition of the planned-but-never-launched Soviet moon lander, which will be a lot of fun for space nerds.
It is a sad fact of the modern pop cultural experience that superhero movies dominate every facet of our lives. So no, we could not keep them out of the list. Brightburn is a familiar story. A couple finds a crashed spaceship with a baby inside. They adopt the baby. As the baby grows up, they start to exhibit strange powers.
We’ve all heard it before.
Only rather than becoming a hero and a symbol of hope for all mankind, this time the superpowered child goes on a murder rampage. The script is written by Brian and Mark Gunn, the brother and cousin of the film’s producer, James Gunn, who has plenty of chops across both the horror and superhero genres. So the film knows exactly what it’s doing, dissecting each element of the Superman myth to show how, in reality, it would be a horror story.
The opening credits of Vivarium feature lots of footage of cuckoos, which clues you in from the outset that this film shares some thematic links with Brightburn. The premise is simple and chilling. A young couple goes to a house viewing on a newbuild housing estate. They have a look around, but when they try to leave, they can’t find their way out of the estate, and there are no people on the estate.
We won’t spoil what happens next, except to say that what sounds like a comical set-up quickly becomes a real nightmare. It also confirmed some of our long-held theories about the housing market.
6. A Quiet Place
We did not set out to make this a list of films about why parenting is a nightmare, but here we are. A Quiet Place asks, “What would happen if the Earth was overrun by alien monsters that would viciously attack you if you made so much as a sound?” and quickly answers the question “Your kids would get you killed”.
The premise feels like something out of a Steven Moffat Doctor Who script, but the way it is executed is tense, claustrophobic, and never quite lets you relax. The quiet of the title becomes oppressive, so that you become desperate to hear a noise while at the same time dreading it. It’s the kind of perfect match-up of premise and execution that secures an instant classic.
Voskhod 2 was the Soviet space mission that marked the very first spacewalk. The astronaut who carried out the spacewalk, Alexei Leonov, found it hard to move outside the ship because contained gas in a vacuum will expand, and his suit ballooned beyond the point where he could perform fine movements. Indeed, when he tried to get back into the ship his suit would not fit through the airlock, and he had to bleed air from his suit to fit. Then the airlock wouldn’t close because of heat distortion.
Leonov had to return to Earth basically lying across his co-pilot’s lap, they went over 240 miles off course and spent the night stranded in the forest, with bears and wolves, in mating season.
What we’re saying is- why are there not more horror movies set in the Soviet space programme?
Sputnik is a film about a psychiatrist tasked with interviewing the one surviving cosmonaut of a mission gone wrong. There is an alien, and plenty of monster horror, but the horror of this film also comes with trying to operate inside a regime entirely fuelled by secrecy and paranoia, and an awareness that you are entirely disposable to it.
4. Color Out of Space
H.P. Lovecraft was a racist. It’s important to mention that when going into any discussion of his work, because it is something that underpins not only all of his writing but the entire segment of the cosmic horror genre he inspired. From The Shadow Over Innsmouth to The Mountains of Madness to good old Cthulhu himself, Lovecraft’s stories are fuelled by the idea that difference, on its own, is something to be terrified of, and that the prospect that humans (meaning white men) are not the God-ordained centre of the universe is too frightening for the mind to bear.
But while his racism is not universal, that fear of the different, and that vertigo that comes with seeing what a small place your perspective holds against the vastness of the universe, does tap into something common.
The “monster” in the Color Out of Space is no such thing. This alien is not an animal that wants to eat you or use your meat for reproduction. Nor is it an invading intelligence. It is truly alien, more so than any other creature on this list, and its existence and perspective are not something the human mind can grasp. It is not, as far as we can know for certain, even hostile, it’s just that its very existence in a human space is dangerous to us, its ways of interacting with us as destructive as a child hugging a snowman.
This film does an excellent job of taking the ideas from a story full of purple prose and some really quite painful dialogue and turning it into a gripping, disturbing story with some of the queasiest body horror you’ve seen.
Nope meanwhile, is a film that can remind you just how horrifying “something wants to eat you” can be. Cut down to its bare bones, this film is Jaws with a UFO instead of a Shark, and protagonists who just want to photograph the monster rather than kill it.
It takes tropes about UFOs that are old and well-worn that we don’t actually bother thinking about how scary they are. What if there was a flying saucer trying to suck you up? Like the Pixar short Lifted? Where would you hide? How would you escape?
But more than that, this is a film about being alien. Like Color Out of Space, it is a film about how simply being in a habitat that is not your own can make you dangerous.
2. The Thing
This is the only film on this list to also make it into our list of Best Alien Invasion Movies. The creature, or what we see of the creature between its perfect imitations of Earth life, remains as frightening now as it was when it appeared in cinemas. The final scene is still one of the greatest in horror cinema.
And once again, we never really know what the alien wants. Is this an invasion plan? An attempt at communication? A non-sentient contagion blindly mimicking whatever it comes into contact with? The humans, in their typical way, stop being curious about all these questions once they figure out they can kill it with flamethrowers.
Do you think this means that, after all, it could be us who are the real monsters?
Nah, it’s definitely the shapeshifting alien that can turn its chest into teeth and bite your hands off.
Now, are you ready for the best alien horror movie ever made? Which one do you think it will be?
Surprise! Yes, this result is going to be an absolute shocker for everyone who was rooting for Critters 4 or Killer Klowns from Outer Space.
But while we love a twist ending as much as the next guy, the truth is that in 43 years not a single alien horror movie has been able to touch the original, and yes, the best.
Forget, for a moment, the three sequels, two prequels, ill-advised crossover franchise and surprisingly good videogame spin-off. Forget the fan theories about Blade Runner. Forget that this is the jumping-off point for a billion-dollar media franchise, whether it should be or not.
Take this story as it was intended, a single, isolated tale of a team of space truck drivers who deviate from the road to respond to a distress signal, and inadvertently let a monster on board their ship.
Forget the “expanded universe”, and look at the size of the universe this single story gives you, with ancient dead alien civilisations and galaxy-spanning human dystopias which we will see only through the interior of two spaceships.
The Alien itself is utterly strange, but with its phallic head and invasive reproductive methods pointedly directs audiences to the question “What if cis men could get raped and become pregnant?”
And yet the real danger, the real horror, in many ways the creature that is most alien to Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo, remains “the Company”.
It remains the best entry in its franchise, but in isolation, it is elevated above it as a single, perfect encapsulation of a very simple story. It will probably never be beaten.