It's hard enough to make a good science fiction film or a good horror film; but you can probably count the number of truly compelling films that hybridize the genres on two hands. Consider that this Halloween weekend, as cable channels advertise their unrelenting slasher flick marathons and Netflix suggested an endless scroll of haunted house and monster movies: the sci-fi horror genre is woefully underserved.
Sci-fi horror is relatively rarely-trod; in part because it's a risky business proposal—sci-fi usually requires a big budget and horror inherently limits its audience with its niche genre and inevitable hard R rating—and in part because the fusion is so difficult to blend into an effective, non-cheesy narrative.
Disasters like Jason X (Friday the 13th—in space!) and Leprechaun 4 (Leprechaun—in space!) have helped give the genre a bad name. Bigger-budget mediocrities like Resident Evil didn't move the needle, either. But there are enough sterling offerings in the sci-fi horror canon, which had its heyday in the 80s, to prove that the subgenre deserves a revival.
Typically, good sci-fi horror confronts the limits, frailties, and anxieties of the human body in a modernizing world. Serial killers can hack a person apart, sure, but science can contort, experiment, and confound the flesh in ways that we're only beginning to imagine. Sci-fi horror offers us a graphic visual language to process our most vivid and fantastical nightmares about what science might do to us.
Whereas most sci-fi epics take place on colorful interstellar quests or far-off dystopias, in sci-fi horror, humans are always front-and-center, uncomfortably cloistered in confined spaces, even as the aliens or our lab-grown hubris tear us apart. Sci-fi horror shoves our faces in the weakness and vulnerability of the human body, forcing us, as viscerally as possible, to consider the price of progress on these bags of meat we walk around in. Should we try so desperately to extend our lifespans, travel into uncharted terrains, prod that alien-looking life form when we find it?
The genre usually works through the prism of three of our greatest physiological phobias: Fear of what may be growing inside our own bodies, and what may eventually burst forth from them (Alien, The Fly); fear of what's growing in our neighbors' bodies, and what may eventually burst forth from them (The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers); and fear of becoming dead bodies, and the price we may pay for trying to keep them undead (every decent zombie movie ever).
Alien is the undisputed queen of the genre. Read by many as a visceral, placental parable of our collective dread of birth, it's shocking, gory, and genuinely suspenseful. With a masterfully psychosexual set and creature design from H R Giger, one of the most convincing androids ever put to cinema, and an ominous, malfeasant corporation pushing its hapless protagonists into the aliens' maw for profit, the trappings are all in place—but it's ultimately the body horror that steals the show.
No sci-fi horror scene is more iconic than the birth of the xenomorph, which ravishes and expires the body that was once its host, then lays waste to everything else.
If Alien is the genre's queen, David Cronenberg is its king. His golden run of body horror in the late 70s and and 80s, from Shiver (engineered parasitic STDs) to Videodrome (mind-controlling pirate TV stations) to Scanners (head-exploding telepaths) and culminating in the classic The Fly, still serves as the genre's high-water mark. (In recent years, Cronenberg has turned to regular old hyperviolent drama, and the throne is currently and sadly vacant.)
Little rivals The Fly in terms of its horrific efficacy in rendering devastating bodily violence empathetic to the audience. Released in the 80s, it was viewed as an AIDS allegory—the protagonist's body degrades, becomes unrecognizable, and ultimately dies off, all because of an invisible, irreversible force.
We cringe as Goldblum's body decays and transforms, and feel our own skin crawl as it does. Maybe because we're wondering just how long our skin will look the way it does, before some unseen process, whether it natural or spurred by some alien ingredient in our ambient environment, drives it to decay.
Our terror that other bodies might not be what they seem was largely inspired by midcentury McCarthyism—Invasion of the Body Snatchers posits an invading alien that could turn your neighbor into a drone right under your nose; and you could be next. John Carpenter's The Thing is the same notion on steroids, in Antarctica. The first is notable for its powerful who-can-you-trust through-current, the latter for its still-unparalleled means of dispatching and disfiguring human flesh.
When was the last time you saw anything like this, the sheer creativity exhibited in imagining how our bodies could be warped and disfigured by alien forces:
We know so little about the agents effecting our own bodies, after all, our neighbors' may as well be total enigmas; plant drones from beyond or coiled springs of fleshy venom, waiting to lash out when irked or cornered.
To this end, the more zeitgeist-pointed zombie films often take a starkly sci-fi horror tack—certainly modernized takes that peg the zombification to a supervirus, like 28 Days Later—that taps into the fear that a disease could evolve that could pack our worlds full of contagious, unthinking, pus-stuffed, and angry bodies. More than usual, even.
Also worthy of a mention (if anything, as a rare example of a film that tries to innovate within the genre) is the not-quite-good but infamously disturbing Event Horizon. I haven't been able to shake it from the nightmare shade of my brain since I saw it as a teenager. If it had been more cohesive, it could have been a worthy successor to Alien in wondering if our drive to make it to outer space might just lead us to an excruciating inner hell.
It also contains one of the most unsettling horror set pieces ever put to cinema— which is saying something—that takes place after a ship takes an ill-advised jaunt through a the fabric of space/time.
Any of the aforementioned films are worth a watch, if you're looking to spend some time thinking a lot about your internal organs, and being grateful they're still in tact. They offer a chilling and valuable perspective on the perils of navigating this industrial, gadget and disease-filled world of ours as a pink, soft-skinned, eminently vulnerable bipedal.
There's ample room for more, of course; the genre's due a resurgence. Sure, we're swarming with zombies, but Walking Dead doesn't mess much with science. And franchised vampires and serial killers don't have nearly as much to say about the anxieties we have about what threatens our bodies as they stumble towards the future. It's time to bring back horror sci-fi.
Here's my (admittedly Cronenberg-heavy) list of the best the tiny genre has to offer, as evidence that it could use some renewed attention from film execs:
10. Altered States (1980)
9. Event Horizon (1997)
8. 28 Days Later (2002)
7. Scanners (1981)
6. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
5. Videodrome (1983)
4. The Thing (1982)
3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978/1956)
2. The Fly (1986)
1. Alien (1979)
More like this, please.