The horror genre is teeming with an abundance of slasher films, paranormal/ghost stories, zombie flicks, alien invasion fares, creature features, and satanic/demon-worshiping movies. However, there is one sub-genre that has not been fully explored. How many good or even well known horror movies are there that take place in space? For that matter, how many good horror movies take place on other planets? The most recent film that comes to mind is Prometheus, but it still begs the question: why are there not more of these films? Consider, for a moment, space; it’s a scary place. Imagine yourself floating in an endless void of darkness, billions of miles away from home, alone or with your crew, and subject to constant threat of deadly microbes, planetary debris, and cosmic radiation. The number of horrific possibilities that can occur in space is so copious; it’s shocking that we haven’t exploited it as often as we do other sub-genres. Perhaps one contributing factor to this problem lies with exposure. In the small handful of space-related horror, only a few are even mentioned, and most are either mainstream or a sequel to another franchise.
A list must be devised for those who seek space-related horror flicks, and to bring forth the hidden gems into the public eye. Anyone can Google “terrifying movies about space” or “horror movies set in space,” but these lists always contain the same films. For the casual moviegoer, Alien or Event Horizon could provide a haunting, visceral experience, while Solaris or Sunshine is subtler, and more thought provoking. While these are all phenomenal films, there are much more. Some are known, and some are unknown since they can only be found on VHS. There is no Jason X, Hellraiser: Bloodline or Leprechaun 4: In Space on this list. Films like Moon and 2001 are not horror, so they will not appear here either.
Alien (1979) and its franchise
There should be no surprise, here. It is perhaps the most well known science-fiction/horror film, and no list would be complete without it. Its prequel, Prometheus, is not too bad either. If you can move around its horribly cluttered plot, it's pretty fun.
Event Horizon (1997)
Many fans are well aware of this film, but it’s criminally underrated. Originally pitched as “The Shining in space,” it is more of a visceral ‘haunted house’ story than Alien. It contains elements of Lovecraftian horror, gory body mutilation, and themes that challenge our understanding of what Heaven and Hell are. In fact, that may be the film’s biggest asset: what if Hell existed as another dimension?
Much like Event Horizon, this film is also underrated, especially for having an original story. When a crew wakes up with no memories of who they are, on an vessel drifting through space, they soon discover that they are not alone; a horde of bloodthirsty, ravenous creatures patrol the ship. It’s a fight for survival amidst chaos, and a conspiracy that may seal their fates. It’s a smart action-horror flick that is less scary, and more haunting. The moment when the surviving crew discovers where the ship is may be the most lasting scene I’ve ever witnessed.
From director Danny Boyle comes this slow, existential film about a team of astronauts sent to reignite the sun with a nuclear bomb, only to realize that, upon discovering the ship of a previous mission, something or someone is killing them off. It is a psychological odyssey into depths of space; beautifully designed, superbly performed, thrilling, and hypnotic. It’s inspirations stem from Solaris and 2001. It is truly a defining experience.
Dead Space: Downfall (2008)
We are all aware of the ‘Dead Space’ franchise. It broke new ground; it was critically received, and is considered to be one of the best horror-themed video games of its time. It is a terrifying, compelling experience that takes inspiration from films like Alien, The Thing, and Dawn of the Dead. Too bad none of these components are present in this animated prequel. However, it is still one of the few films that meet the ‘horror set in space’ criteria. If you’re looking for the cinematic equivalent to Ambien, you found it. Regardless, if anything, it does suggest that a ‘Dead Space’ film adaptation might be more warranted.
The Dark Side of the Moon (1990)
This bizarre film is only available on VHS, so that may account for its obscurity. During a routine expedition, a team of astronauts find themselves stranded after a mysterious ship malfunction. They find a drifting shuttle, and decided to climb aboard, releasing a demonic entity that slowly possesses them one by one. There are striking similarities between it and The Thing, and about midway into the story, it quickly transforms from an Alien clone into an exorcist movie. Minimalist practical effects, impressive miniature work, hammy acting, and Joe Turkel all drive this otherwise benign story.
It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)
You can argue that this was the original Alien. In fact, many consider Alien to be a remake of It! as opposed to an inspiration. The story is essentially the same: an alien stows away on the first manned expedition to Mars, and causes a ruckus for the crew. It’s typical 50’s schlock, but its strengths come from its tone and production. I have a feeling that the budget wasn’t substantial, resulting in the Effects Department’s decision to conceal their alien in the shadows resulting in a much scarier experience. Stylistically, it works with the film’s somber, eerie tone. It is haunting, surreal, and unnerving. A fine example of how a limited budget can, in fact, make a film better.
Critters 4 (1992)
We all know about Critters (or Crites). Well, this time they’re IN SPACE!! Having been cryogenically frozen for years, they wake up, and cause a commotion on board a space station. If you want to kill your horror franchise, the only way to do it is by taking it to space.
Not mentioned: I can only review and recommend films that I've seen. I have not seen the following: Stranded, Dead Space (1991), Forbidden World (aka Mutant), Star Crystal, and Saturn 3, but they are all horror flicks set in space. Whether they are entertaining or inept, I cannot say.
Otherworldly horror isn’t new either, and there are quite a lot of titles that are set on distant worlds. However, some lists fail to mention some of the more lesser-known films. You will not find Doom, Ghosts of Mars or Dracula 3000 on this list for obvious reasons.
The Last Days on Mars (2013)
While collecting specimens on Mars, a group of explorers unknowingly release a terrifying force that reanimates the dead. This incredibly slow moving film put me to sleep, which is why I recommend it for insomniacs. If you make it through till the last 15 minutes, it goes off the wall, but not enough to atone for the rest of the story. Zombies on Mars sounds fun, and it proves that the Martian planet holds horrors beyond alien invaders.
Apollo 18 (2011)
A fairly recent, underrated horror flick set on the moon. It’s a found footage story about the supposed Apollo 18 mission that was covered up after the astronauts discovered a hostile alien entity that inhabits our moon. Surprisingly, it’s quite creepy. While I admit that the CGI is bad, and the ending is an unnerving cop-out, the film attempts to bring something new to the ‘found footage’ sub-genre. The characters are fun, the tone is unsettling, and it is an overall eerie experience, especially for a major release title.
Europa Report (2013)
Here is another fatigue-inducing film that had the potential of being something truly memorable and horrific. A team of astronauts are sent to Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon, to uncover the origin of a mysterious energy that may prove that life exists elsewhere in our solar system. What they find is shocking and appalling. Unfortunately, we never get to see it. Ultimately, the film fails to connect the audience with its characters, resulting in a dry, uneventful story. I do not mind slow-burn movies, but something needs to happen.
Pitch Black (2000)
This is the first in a line of movies concerning its title antihero, Riddick. After their transport ship is marooned on a bizarre planet, Riddick and the crew must fight against a swarm of carnivorous creatures that only come out at night. They must find a way to get off the planet before a month-long eclipse occurs or they will surely perish. Conceptually, the film is thrilling, and there are instances where the creature attacks are quite grisly. Still, the overall execution is bland, and Riddick is neither charismatic nor strange enough for me to care about. A noble yet flawed attempt.
How I was able to loathe this movie three months ago only to end up loving it the second time around is beyond explanation. Much like Alien (again), a space crew is sent to explore Titan (one of Saturn’s moons), where they unknowingly bring aboard an alien entity. However, here is where the story gets strays away from Alien; the entity has the ability to raise the dead to use as soldiers for capturing its prey. That's awesome! There is also a inexplicable back-story about two warring space organizations that leads nowhere, and is inconsequential to the overall plot. Creature can get slow at times, but when it picks up, it’s glorious. Zombies, aliens, and an awkward Klaus Kinski all in space? Count me in!
Galaxy of Terror (1981)
One more from Roger Corman. A rescue ship is sent to a mysterious alien world where the crew’s fears and nightmares are physically manifested into real entities. The concept and execution is so off-the-wall, that it moves away from schlock and into the realms of absurdity. The most memorable elements are the gory, slimy practical effects, an early role for Sid Haig, and the infamous “worm scene.” Interestingly enough, James Cameron acted as the film's Production Designer and Second Unit Director.
Planet of the Vampires (1965)
It's this Mario Bava film that is considered to be the major influence for Alien. The story follows the astronauts of two space shuttles that crash land on a mysterious, uncharted alien world. The unseen inhabitants of the planet begin possessing the bodies of the other crew members, reanimated them from the dead, and using them to stalk and kill the survivors. I've seen this a long time ago, but my recollections are foggy.
Not mentioned: Missing from this list, since I have not seen them, is Savage Planet, Inseminoid, and the Japanese production of The Green Slime.
This all boils down to one simple request: make more space-horror films! The plots of 50% of these movies are noticeably ripping off Alien, while other possibilities could be explored instead. Even if you were to take all the films that are listed above, and compare them to the number of slasher films from the 80’s, or the number of haunted house movies from the past ten years, you’ll see a striking difference. This is the one sub-genre that hardly has any weight or substantial material to offer the genre. I can't help but bring up the infamous introductory line from the Star Trek series: "Space: the final frontier." Perhaps we should take a lesson from this.