The curse of outer space horror movies

Aside from Alien, why do so few outer space horror movies succeed artistically or financially? Ryan takes a closer look…

Mention the words, “deep space horror” and the first film that springs to mind is probably Alien and its sequels. If you wanted to earn extra film buff points, you might mention It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) or Planet Of The Vampires (1965), two films which inarguably provided the template for Alien’s monster-on-a-spaceship premise.

Beyond Alien, has there really been another outer space horror movie, released since 1979, that has matched it in terms of filmmaking quality or box-office success? The answer, as the following examples illustrate, is no. Alien’s sequels were, of course, a success, but they were buoyed by the reputation of Scott’s original, and it could be argued that Aliens was based more in the action genre than horror.

Most other deep space horror movies have either been low-budget, fun yet rather silly knock-offs of Alien, or box-office failures. Making a sci-fi horror film set on a space station, it seems, is fraught with pitfalls…

Inseminoid (1981)

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Hastily cobbled together with a budget of a million quid, Inseminoid, as the schlocky title suggests, played up the sexual undertones of Alien but mislaid its class. A dozen scientists arrive on a desolate planet, find evidence of a long-dead society, which somehow begins to exert a strange control over the visitors, who all start murdering each other and injuring themselves in cheaply imaginative ways.

Actress Judy Gleeson is then impregnated by an alien, and soon turns into a rampaging, apparently unstoppable mother to two rubbery extraterrestrial twins. If it sounds tawdry, that’s because it is. Critics were scornful, but Inseminoid gained a minor cult following on VHS – in part, perhaps, because it was quite amusing to see Alexis Sable Colby out of Dynasty (Stephanie Beacham) getting into brutally realistic fights like this:

Galaxy Of Terror (1981)

Another cheap post-Alien sci-fi horror with a strong cult following, Galaxy Of Terror features an early billing from a young James Cameron, who’d previously worked on another Roger Corman-produced flick, Battle Beyond The Stars. A film of quite surreal creativity, Galaxy Of Terror sees a particularly strange group of space voyagers crash on a planet that manifests its visitors’ worst nightmares.

Having sank without trace when initially released, Galaxy Of Terror’s batty charm has seen its fame grow over the years. It’s also worth watching for its cast, which includes Robert Englund and horror favourite Sid Haig. All kinds of gory and graphic deaths occur (including one infamous sequence with a giant worm, which was cut by the BBFC for many years), leading up to an extremely odd twist ending.

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Forbidden World (1982)

Roger Corman followed up Galaxy Of Terror with another sleazy outer space horror, which reused some of the sets from that earlier film. On a distant planet, scientists create an experimental organism that soon begins to kill its creators in bloody fashion. If anything, Forbidden World (also known as Mutant) is even more low-budget and grungy than its predecessor, though it does conclude with an extraordinarily icky, bad-taste monster death sequence which has to be seen to be believed.

Creature (1985)

Also known as Titan Find, Creature came courtesy of horror director William Malone, the chap behind Scared To Death (1981), FearDotCom (1992) and House On Haunted Hill (1999). Relatively classy by the standards of the films listed so far, Creature is nevertheless another Alien rip-off, with several almost identical shots, the usual crew-versus-monster scenario, and even a tagline which laughably references Ridley Scott’s masterpiece (“In space, man is just another butterfly!”).

Mind you, the concept of having an entity that controls corpses manages to predate the Dead Space videogame series (though probably just borrowed the concept from The Thing), and some of the special effects are quite good. Sharp-eared viewers, meanwhile, may spot some special effects borrowed from another influential sci-fi masterpiece in the trailer below…

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Star Crystal (1986)

Compared to Star Crystal, Creature was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some of the most somnambulant actors ever to stagger in front of a camera find a buried egg on Mars and, ignoring all the obvious dangers presented in earlier sci-fi movies, take the thing back to their ship.

A weird crystal and a monster emerge from the egg, and the latter begins offing the crew in great splurges of ketchup and prosthetic effects. The spaceship miniature effects are passable enough for a film of this calibre, but the acting and script is shockingly amateurish; there’s one character who seems to spend the entire film trying to find which fellow crewmember made something called a chicken pot pie, while another tries to identify the “slimy substance all over Sheri’s pants”.

For sheer absurdity, nothing can top Star Crystal’s delicious conclusion. It turns out the monster that’s killed all but two of the ship’s crew isn’t evil at all, merely a frightened alien called Gar who’s frightened of humans – an idea JJ Abrams may have borrowed for Super 8. With apologies exchanged, the sad-eyed alien repairs the survivors’ ship and helps them fly home.

Critters 4 (1992)

Space – where ageing horror franchises go to die. Admittedly, the furry little fiends at the heart of the Critters movies were from space in the first instance, so it sort of made sense to send them back there for this fourth and final entry. Any creative energy seemed to have finally ebbed away by 1992, however, and Critters 4 was cobbled together using bits of footage from earlier entries, and curiously, from the 1982 space oddity, Android.

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Released straight-to-video, the film appeared to represent the final nail in the coffin for the Critters franchise, even though it had one or two quite interesting ideas in it, including a ship computer which obstinately did the opposite of whatever it was commanded to do.

Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)

Pinhead blasted off into space for the fourth Hellraiser movie, which is probably where the outer space horror curse begins in earnest. Cutting between a space station in the year 2127 and events 400 years earlier, the film was beset with production difficulties – director Kevin Yagher walked away from the film after clashing with producers over the film’s final cut, and Joe Chappelle was brought in to complete the shoot.

The theatrical version weighed in at a skimpy 86 minutes, was the least financially successful entry in the Hellraiser series up to that point, and the franchise went into its own straight-to-video circle of Hades thereafter.

Event Horizon (1997)

A year after Bloodline, along came a movie that did the Hellraiser-in-space thing an awful lot better than Clive Barker’s franchise managed to. Like Bloodline, Event Horizon saw a gateway to hell open up in the depths of space, with grotesque results.

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On a quite substantial budget of $60 million, and a decent cast, including Laurence Fishburne and a very creepy Sam Neill, Paul W S Anderson created a classy and effective space-based horror film. Unfortunately, the film flopped, grossing less than $10 million on its opening weekend and only managed to claw back a total of $47 million. Audiences, it seems, had little appetite for cannibalism in space.

Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997)

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear.

Supernova (2000)

Of all the films on this list, Supernova is one of the great missed opportunities, and an example of a movie which changed beyond all recognition over the course of its production. A hell-in-space movie dreamed up long before Hellraiser: Bloodline or Event Horizon, Supernova initially began under the title Dead Star in 1988. A spec script written by William (Creature) Mallone, its protagonists unwittingly find a gateway to the plane of death, where they encounter a machine called a Thanatron and an antagonist in the shape of Satan himself.

Walter Hill came aboard to direct, HR Giger was signed up to create the exotic death machine and the devil, and everything appeared to be perfectly geared towards a big, scary and quite expensive ($90 million) space horror movie. But then the gears fell off. The script was rewritten and its violence toned down; Mallone and Giger walked away from the project, and the concept began to drift off course.

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By the time shooting began, Supernova had mutated into a quite odd psycho-thriller in space, in which a mysterious stranger picked up by an astro rescue team turns out to have supernatural powers and a very bad temper. Even the acting heft of James Spader couldn’t save what was, by the time Walter Hill had abandoned the film and various reshoots and re-edits had taken place, a complete mess.

Finally released two years after its originally scheduled release window, Supernova was a critical and financial failure; reviews were scathing, and audiences stayed away – its final gross was a meagre $14.8 million. 

Mind you, with a trailer like this, which appears to sell Supernova as a bawdy space comedy, it’s hardly surprising…

Jason X (2002)

With Jason X, another horror franchise headed off into the cosmos, and the results were no more successful than the other attempts listed so far. Set in the year 2455, a thawed out Jason Voorhees thaws out and begins hacking his way through the crew of a space station. In spite of the future setting, the slasher rules still apply to Jason X: the killer attacks when characters have sex, machetes are wielded, foolish people die, and there’s an ending that allows for a sequel.

A great cameo from David Cronenberg aside, Jason X is as unimaginative as they come. And although the film wasn’t a box-office disaster – unlike the two movies above, its low budget meant it made its money back – Jason X was the second lowest grossing film in the franchise.

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Dracula 3000 (2004)

There’s no particular reason why we’d want to see the classiest vampire of them all, Dracula, take up residence on a spaceship helmed by one Captain Van Helsing. Intrepid horror fans may want to persevere with Dracula 3000 because of its eclectic cast (Casper Van Dien, Coolio, Erika Eleniak and Udo Kier), but be warned: this movie is extremely bad. Hopefully, this brief sample will illustrate our point:

Pandorum (2009)

Paul W S Anderson returned to the deep-space sci-fi subgenre in 2009 with Pandorum. Produced by Anderson and directed by Christian Alvart, it was a mid-budget ($33 million) sci-fi horror that was significantly less gory than Event Horizon. Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid played two military types who wake up on an apparently deserted spaceship with no memory of how they got their or what happened to the other 59,998 crewmembers.

Playing out a little like the videogame Dead Space, Pandorum was by no means a terrible film – its second half lacks the rising tension of the first, but it’s a handsome looking film, and there are some decent monsters and arresting images lurking in its 108 minute duration.

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Unfortunately, critics didn’t take to it, and neither did audiences, with the film taking back around $20 million at the box office.

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Now that we’ve established how artistically or financially dodgy the space horror genre is, only one question remains: why? If Ridley Scott could make a decent sci-fi horror flick set on a space station that made lots of money, why can’t anyone else?

There are multiple answers to that question, I suspect. The numerous clones that sprang up after 1979 were never going to be huge hits, but they achieved what their makers needed them to achieve: they were cheaply made, gratifying (though not necessarily for the reasons their directors intended), and turned a respectable profit, either in grindhouse theatres, on VHS or late-night TV.

The various horror franchises that disappeared off into the stars (Hellraiser, Critters, the dreaded Leprechaun 4) were in their creative death throes in any case, so it’s hardly surprising that audiences didn’t flock to see them.

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As for the third category – the more expensive movies such as Supernova or Event Horizon – the reasons for their financial failure are less clear. Supernova was a production nightmare from start to finish, so it’s no shock that the finished product was difficult to market and even harder to watch. Event Horizon’s failure may have been due to its lack of an A-list star, its harsh reviews its summer release window, or maybe even its tone – even though it was edited for its gory content before its release, its grim subject matter may have alienated some.

There’s also another possibility: Alien was simply a one-off. It came along at the right time, in the wake of Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, when audiences were hungry, perhaps, for a more adult slice of sci-fi.

Originally imagined as a low-budget B-picture, Alien was elevated into the stratosphere by the right studio, proper investment, the best director, the perfect artist (HR Giger) as well as numerous other skilled writers, artists and filmmakers, who all turned up in the right and time to make what is still the ultimate example of the sci-fi/horror in space subgenre. Scott may buck the trend with Prometheus, but only time will tell if that could be classed as a true sci-fi horror film – at the moment, it appears to lean towards pure sci-fi.

The stars were in alignment when Alien came along in 1979, and it may be a long, long time before they line up so perfectly again.

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