- Vancouver, British Columbia - Horror movies have come a long way within the past hundred years. What started with silent German expressionist films with a central monster has now been subdivided into a few main categories: suspense, gore, and monster flicks. So if I wanted to create a definitive list as to what I felt are the scariest movies ever, I’d have a huge base to pull from. As such, I’ve decided to narrow down the criteria to horror movies with a strong science fiction context.
The reason behind this is that I love science fiction, and I find it can be a very freeing medium to express your ideas. That’s not to say that it doesn’t fall back on its own clichés from time to time, which will naturally be weighed against the film. I’m also very much against the notion that if the director splatters blood everywhere, that’s considered scary. Or worse, a sudden blare of music is considered the scariest point of the movie (I hate that). And for those who haven’t seen the following films, be forewarned, as there are many spoilers ahead.
On to the list:
#5. Event Horizon (1997)
The Event Horizon, an experimental ship designed to travel great distances by creating dimensional rifts / wormholes, reappears in Neptune’s orbit after having vanished seven years prior. A rescue ship, with the Event’s designer, boards the ship to investigate why the ship vanished and what had happened to the crew. What they discover is that the ship accidentally opened a rift directly into Hell and has now brought back demons to claim the rescue party.
Basically “The Shining” set in space, what this movie lacks in originality it makes up for in characterization (mostly) and setting. Firstly, to be in low orbit over Neptune (although isn’t logistically possible if the engines are dead) looks beautiful. Space is dark and boring, and we as an audience are used to seeing that. But the stormy atmosphere of Neptune is new and brings an alien feel to the ship. This is no graceful blue sky; no, this is a massive turbulent storm.
Most of the characters are interesting and well fleshed out, given the run time of the movie. I’ll say Cooper is really superfluous, as he not only has a useless position on the ship (Rescue Technician? Come on), but his character is the black comic relief. Captain Miller (Fishburne), Dr. Weir (Neill), and a few of the other characters are quite real people and you feel bad when bad things start happening.
There’s also something inherently chilling about the isolation of being in space. There’s no rescue, and a strange claustrophobia of being in the ships. Event Horizon succeeds in being frightening because of the build-up we get through the movie. There are sounds and visuals that aren’t necessarily scary on their own that contribute to the overall atmosphere. Many horror movies rely on a gross factor to elicit a response, whereas this movie focuses on atmosphere first. Unfortunately near the end, the imagery becomes pretty grotesque, but not to the point where you want to vomit. But I feel the most interesting aspect is, like The Shining, we have a central character we feel sympathetic with who becomes consumed with grief and haunted until he turns into a nightmarish figure. It’s a bold statement that basically says, “This guy was just like you until supernatural forces brought out the monster that was in him all along.”
#4. Donnie Darko (2001)
When the phantom apparition of Frank the Bunny saves Donnie from being crushed by a jet engine, Donnie is led to do seemingly violent acts by Frank around his town. Fighting possible schizophrenia, Donnie begins investigating an older woman who has discovered manipulation of living things through time travel and the creation of tangent universes.
Some may disagree with this movie being placed on this list, but it has a definite science fiction tone, and the general atmosphere is one of a horror film. After watching it a few times, it seems far more of a psychological thriller, but I had to think back to the first time I watched it and how delicately director Richard Kelly framed the appearances of Frank the Bunny. To talk of Frank to someone who hasn’t seen the movie seems ripe for parody, but seeing this figure interact with solely Donnie, one wonders if it’s a strange demonic possession. And then during the cinema scene where Frank finally takes off his mask, it reveals a man who has been shot through the eye, and the mystery thickens.
This movie has many humourous moments in it, but Gyllenhaal is amazing as Donnie. He is a teenager who is haunted by the spectre of his own death, and the knowledge that he owes his life to something that is compelling him to act in strange ways that have huge consequences. And through it all, even when he learns to manipulate time itself, he can not escape the inevitability of death.
I rank this movie a little higher than Event Horizon because it doesn’t devolve into any clichés or silliness. Although it has scarier moments, Donnie Darko maintains a constant atmosphere and winds up creating a more lasting impression.
#3. Pandorum (2009)
Corporal Bower (Foster) wakes up from a stasis unit onboard the Elysium, totally alone and with severe amnesia. He manages to wake up Lieutenant Payton from the unit next to his, as they try to discover what happened to the ship and what went wrong with its mission. As a technician, Bower explores the ship to make repairs, but notices most of the crew, who were also in stasis, is missing. After discovering a couple others who had been awakened earlier, Bower and his companions are hunted by alien savages for food. Meanwhile, Bower realizes he may be suffering from a condition known as Pandorum, which manifests in extreme delusional paranoia.
Pandorum was panned by the critics, and their reasons were valid. There was a lot of promise shown in the first two acts, and the movie was brought down by some terribly cheesy elements. Having an “Indian guide” character was laughable, and the crazy guy who wanted to use Bower as a sacrifice was ludicrous. But I cannot ignore the genuinely frightening aspects of this film.
The film opens with Bower being alone, in the dark, with amnesia. We as an audience follow him through claustrophobic circumstances, with no music, as if to punctuate the lack of any sound except his own breathing. Foster is amazing in this role, and watching him in these opening scenes will have you on the edge of your seat. While there are moments where the music catches you, this film smartly explores many scary themes: being hunted, isolation, amnesia, claustrophobia, and losing your sanity.
There’s a great scene at the end where, unlike Event Horizon, instead of falling into the cliché of hero vs. monster, it suddenly seems like maybe Bower is the one who is losing his mind after all. The stress actually catches up to our hero, and he starts flailing. If not for the discovery that they aren’t in deep space, but have crash-landed in the ocean, Bower would have turned into a madman, like Gallo, and to be honest that would probably have been the better ending.
The movie was ambitious, but I can’t help but feel that it missed an opportunity to really push for something spectacular by falling back on a few easy ways out and cheap answers. For clarity, there is nothing wrong with unanswered questions. We didn’t have to learn what those creatures were. We didn’t need to have characters that were stereotypes. We didn’t need to have a romantic angle. But that being said, turn down the lights and give this a spin.
#2. (John Carpenter’s) The Thing (1982)
On a research station in Antarctica, a strange dog turns up hunted by a Norwegian research group. Due to an accident, the hunters die and the dog is adopted by the confused American team. The dog turns out to be an alien shapeshifter, able to acquire host organisms. Soon the team gets wise to the creature, but as it replaces other members, no one is sure who to trust or how to kill the alien.
Like Pandorum, The Thing doesn’t just play on the story of people being picked off one by one, but of fears intrinsic to humanity. The crew is isolated in the Antarctic, they have an enemy amongst them who can take their biology and absorb it, and the creature itself is totally alien. There is no set form it takes, only splitting into rudimentary sets of organs when discovered.
The atmosphere is seriously tense through out this whole picture, but there is one thing that keeps it from becoming the scariest movie on this list: the scene where the team has tied up three of the other members, knowing one is the Thing, but not knowing which one. After testing a heating element on all their blood, the Thing reveals itself and splits open. But instead of being scary, it just gets silly. The two other guys are screaming, but still tied to it, Macready can’t seem to light the flame thrower, the Thing is squirming…and all I could imagine was “Yakety Sax” from Benny Hill.
Besides that one misstep, the movie is seriously intense, and holds up after thirty years, and it has a phenomenally great ending: two lone survivors in the burning ruins of their base, not knowing if the Thing is dead, and unable to trust each other.
#1. Alien (1979)
The mining ship Nostromo stumbles across a strange beacon on a planet in deep space. Investigating the world, an alien embryo hatches from an egg and infects one of the crew. At first, the crew member seems to recover, but then the alien bursts from his chest after incubating and escapes. Over the course of a couple days, the alien grows and begins hunting the crew one by one.
This film is downright terrifying. Even if you’re like me, and you knew what was coming, it was still scary as hell. We can only imagine what audiences experienced and thought back when this was first released. This was so unlike other science fiction films, the closest film you could compare it to is maybe Jaws. The suspense is downright numbing, and you barely see the alien. Yet the attention to detail they gave the costume is clearly evident, and to this day remains a milestone in cinematic special effects.
There’s a strong emotional attachment you feel to the cast, and they are given plenty of time to be fleshed out. And that’s something many horror movies (or any movie) should always take note of: if you don’t let the audience get to know the characters, the audience won’t care when they start to die.
And finally, there’s a chilling twist when Ripley (Weaver) discovers Ash (Holm) is an android programmed by the company, Weyland-Yutani, to bring the alien back to Earth even at the expense of the crews’ lives. This becomes a running subplot through most of the franchise, for better and worse.
Alien took the very best elements of horror and science fiction, and married them into a wonderfully frightening but entrancing feature.
I hope you became interested in the movies I’ve listed here. I realize you may not agree with all my choices, so feel free to leave comments about which movies you’d include or strike off the list, and why. Bear in mind, that even though I’ve ranked these as the top five, they aren’t without flaws and sometimes do fall back on tired clichés. But until I see something better, these are the ones most likely to keep me up at night.