It's hard enough to make either a good sci-fi flick or a horror movie, one that avoids the tired stereotypes yet embraces the aesthetic, with a smart script that provides something fresh and new and solid direction that establishes a proper atmosphere and allows for surprising developments. And performances that don't camp it up but are sincere and convincing. Combining the two genres is much trickier than blending peanut butter and chocolate. That was my thinking when compiling this list. Your comments are more than welcome. What are your personal favorites? Here are mine:
I don't know if Ridley Scott actually realized he was making a sci-fi horror movie, so much as he thought he was making a stylish thriller. Call it willful ignorance, but that may have contributed to the refreshing absence of overcooked ideas, which typically pop up like dandelions for directors new to either genre. Like the original, original Star Wars (before George shined it up), Alien resides in a future which feels lived in and used up, from the battered old Nostromo to the planet that harbors the seeds of the crew's destruction. By keeping the alien (mostly) out of the shot, and showing instead what the creature has done, the level of terror keeps rising. A distinct sense of dread permeates the picture, and it still makes me shiver.
2. The Thing
Dread on ice. John Carpenter depicts an alien world without ever leaving Planet Earth. "Who Goes There?," the original story by John W. Campbell Jr., posits the impact of "first contact" between humans and aliens that is anything but friendly; setting the tale in an isolated scientific camp in Antartica, thousands of miles from help, was a stroke of genius. Carpenter crisply establishes the action and then makes the dangers explicit by showing an even more disturbing "where did that come from" scene than Alien. The dangers become internal as the burly, edgy, angry men turn on one another, which may be the greater horror.
3. The Fly
Superbly modulated by David Cronenberg, his remake tackles teleportation with a fresh eye even as it covers a wide range of horror, from grossly disgusting to subtly disturbing. Jeff Goldblum makes for a convincingly brilliant, amusingly debonair scientist, which makes his slide into madness all the more poignant; Geena Davis makes something special out of her role as 'the girlfriend.'
Giant cockroaches in the subways! If you've ever lived in New York City, then you may share my revulsion at the little critters, who have a nasty habit of appearing in the most unlikely places. Guillermo del Toro creates a mood of creepy unease that builds throughout the movie, which is aided by the performances from Jeremy Northam, Mira Sorvino, and Charles S. Dutton, plus the less-heralded Josh Brolin.
You may laugh now, but giant ants scared me as a kid! And let's be honest: if you looked outside your window and saw an ant the size of Texas flying by, you'd freak out and hide under the bed, too. The science may not hold up, yet the cautionary warning about the dangers of atomic experimentation proved sadly true. Beyond all that, the picture has a terrific, driving energy.
What makes the picture so effective is not the exploding heads, though that certainly helps develop the creepy atmosphere, but the mind control and the idea that ordinary people who look like Stephen Lack could make you do some very bad things. (If I saw Michael Ironside on the street, I'd cross to the other side of said street.) The horror in the ordinary is captured with flair by David Cronenberg.
7. Altered States
The internal side of science fiction gets a tortured workout in Paddy Chayefsky's script, directed with magnificent, overwrought style by Ken Russell, and acted with extreme quietude by William Hurt and Blair Brown. They play a married couple whose love is put to the test as one of them keeps pushing to find the truth through drugs and an isolation chamber.
8. Event Horizon
By no means original, this nasty little flick earns its place on the list not by blood and gore -- which it has in abundance -- nor even by its fine cast (Sam Neill especially) but because it freaks me out. Stealing liberally from Alien and about a dozen other movies, Event Horizon proceeds to merrily get more and more outlandish. Seen in one light, it's frustrating and incredibly stupid; seen in another, it's unsettling and unnerving.
9. The Blob
Gotta show a little more love for 50s sci-fi, and The Blob has that in abundance. By "that," I mean, the fashions, the jive talk, and ... Steve McQueen! Yeah, McQueen gives the picture a little more juice for the modern viewer. Really, though, the idea that a globular alien will simply consume everything in its path is entirely creepy. Thus, I always check theaters to make sure I can make a quick exit.
10. War of the Worlds
Until he cheapens the picture with a syrupy ending, Steven Spielberg unleashes more horrors in a PG-13 mainstream movie than I've seen in a long, long time. The original is a longtime sci-fi favorite; Spielberg twisted it into a horror film. The imagery is rich and disturbing: from how people get zapped to the bridge to the aftermath of a plane crash to the speeding, flaming train to the clothes blowing in the wind.