Looking for a cool dark place to escape the heat of summer? Well, there’s nothing colder than deep space. On the other hand, “in space, no one can hear you scream”, making it a nice hunting ground for monsters, mutants and other purveyors of terror. Surprisingly, despite the numerous films that merge horror and science fiction, few actually take place in space itself; most take place somewhere on Earth, often in a post apocalyptic future. But there are some notable exceptions...
IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958)
A hideous monster stows away on board a spaceship returning to Earth, mutilating and killing the ship’s bickering crew members one by one. It moves undetected through the air vents, and every attempt by the crew to stop it’s rampage ends in futility and death as none of their Earth weapons seem to have any effect. Finally, the remaining survivors put on space suits and blast the blood-thirsty creature out of the airlock and into the void…sound familiar? Twenty one years before the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien, this modest B-movie crept up on unsuspecting audiences and scared the bejesus out of them.
WHY WATCH IT: It features one of the great rubber-suit monsters of the 1950’s (inhabited by Ray “Crash” Corrigan), and some truly scary set pieces: the scene where we see the silhouette of the creature clawing a screaming crew member to death still chills. Written by legendary Star Trek and Twilight Zone scribe Jerome Bixby, who also penned perhaps the creepiest Twilight Zone episode ever (It’s A Good Life).
PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965)
The spaceship Argos picks up a distress signal from a mysterious planet, and upon landing on the barren surface, the crew discovers a huge spaceship filled with alien skeletons, apparently the victims of some horrible attack…sound familiar? Italian horror maestro Mario Bava brought his particular brand of gothic horror to outer space with this intriguing, but definitely mistitled film (there are no vampires, just invisible aliens that possess the bodies of the dead to commit murder). Despite some obvious stage-bound sets and wooden dialogue, the film’s fog-shrouded landscapes, creepy visuals and colorful lighting are pure Bava.
WHY WATCH IT: It’s directed by Bava, the cast wears funky skin tight black leather space suits, and there’s that atmospheric Alien-inspiring scene inside the giant ship. Plus it has a twist ending right out of The Twilight Zone.
Okay, so from the above entries we now know that the basic premise of this Dan O’Bannon/Ronald Shusett script were not all that original. Who cares? Alien is probably the best example of the “haunted house in space” genre, a slam bang monster movie, directed with great style by Ridley Scott, and filled with truly terrifying sequences, including the famous (and still disturbing) chest-bursting scene that is one of the most iconic images in all horrordom. If you’ve rented the DVD, you know that Ridley Scott actually shot scenes revealing how the aliens were “cocooning” their victims to become unwilling hosts for their young, but the scene was cut for pacing (we’d have to wait for the next installment to see baby aliens pop out of cocooned victims).
WHY WATCH IT: It’s scary as hell, H.R. Giger’s alien design is legendary, and we get to watch a young Sigourney Weaver do battle with the creature in some very sexy space underwear.
GALAXY OF TERROR (1981)
This is a guilty pleasure film; not smart, not well made, but it has gusto and the courage of it’s B-movie convictions, plus it’s produced by none other than the great Roger Corman. Basic plot has the crew of a rescue ship crash landing on a mysterious planet, where they explore a giant pyramid that makes their worst fears come true. But the charm is watching iconic TV stars like Happy Days Erin Moran (little Joanie Cunningham) getting killed in gloriously gory ways.
WHY WATCH IT: Fun death sequences (including a crew woman getting raped by a giant space worm), production design by a young James Cameron, and an eclectic cast (to say the least) of the aforementioned Moran, Edward Albert, My Favorite Martian star Ray Walston, a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund and a young Sid Haig!
Coming off his triumphant and trend-setting thriller The Terminator, director James Cameron cemented his reputation as the ultimate sci-fi/action auteur with this exciting and unnerving sequel to the Ridley Scott claustrophobic masterpiece. Instead of a “haunted house in space”, Cameron presents his tale as a “war movie in space”, upping the ante with hordes of nasty beasties, the first official view of the cocoon nest, and the introduction of “the Queen”…the mother of all aliens.
WHY WATCH IT: Filled with memorable dialogue (“Game over, man!” “They mostly come out at night…mostly.” “Get away from her, you bitch!”) awesome alien violence, in your face explosions, plus the climactic battle between the Queen Mother and Sigourney Weaver.
Two time Robocop Peter Weller leads a rag-tag military squad against a new breed of self-evolving robots that impersonate human beings in order to kill them (by dicing them to pieces). Not a classic by any means, but still a cool idea (based on the Philip K. Dick story “Second Variety”) supported by nice robot design and effects, and the eerie, reoccurring image of something unseen burrowing under the sand before it strikes.
WHY WATCH IT: Some extremely tense sequences as Weller and company search for survivors, and a handful of great robot attacks.
EVENT HORIZON (1997)
The experimental spaceship Event Horizon, which disappeared on its maiden voyage, mysteriously reappears seven years later in orbit around Neptune. When the crew of a rescue ship board her to discover what happened, they are subjected to horrifying images of their worst fears, which suddenly start to come true. Disgusting, gory and pointless, this big budget “haunted house in space” film nevertheless has a large cult following, probably due to the graphic and detailed death scenes, which include eye gouging, live vivisection, and even cannibalism. But ultimately it’s nothing more than an expensive remake of Galaxy of Terror, without the heart (except for the ones pulled out of the crew).
WHY WATCH IT: It’s got a decent cast headed by Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill, and its $70 million budget offers up some nice special effects and big time visuals. If you like stylish and slick looking scenes of torture and mutilation inside a big spaceship, this film’s for you.
From Alex Garland and Danny Boyle, the writing/directing tandem that brought you 28 Days Later, comes this odd mix of sci-fi and horror about a team of astronauts on a spaceship called Icarus II who fly toward the center of our solar system to reignite our dying sun with a giant bomb. It turns out that they are actually the second ship to attempt this, and part of their mission is to find out what happened to the first ship, the Icarus I. When they do find and hook up with Icarus I, a lethal cat and mouse game begins between various crew members trying to complete the mission, and a mysterious “other” who appears to be stalking the rescuers one by one.
WHY WATCH IT: Anything from Boyle and Garland is interesting, there’s some pretty decent space effects, and the featured deaths (some burn, some freeze, some are ejected into the cold void of space) are well handled. But the shift in tone from hard science fiction to basically a “slasher in space” film is jarring.
Jason X (2001), Hellraiser 4: Bloodline (1996) Leprechaun IV: In Space (1997)
Speaking of slashers, what do you do with “long past their prime” boogeymen when you run out of places (or ideas) for them to ply their carnage? Why blast them into space! These flicks find three of our favorite fiends making more mayhem among the stars. Is there any joy to be had by viewing these tired rehashes? Well with Jason X (Friday the 13th Part 10), you basically get more of the same as a cryogenically frozen Jason (wearing a refurbished version his traditional trademark hockey mask) is defrosted by horny teenagers on a spaceship 400 years in the future and goes on his typical killing spree. And Hellraiser 4: Bloodline, which mostly takes place on space station in the future, at least gives us some storyline to fill in the gaps so fans can complete their Cenobite history tests, as we see how Pinhead and his leather-clad pals originally entered our world. But Leprechaun 4: In Space is cheap chowder with no plot, cheesy effects, and a script so undercooked that little guy doesn’t even take the time to speak in his trademark rhymes.
WHY WATCH THEM: If you’re a hardcore fan of any of these series, I guess you have to stay current. Otherwise, the only reason I can think of is to invite friends over for your own Mystery Science Theater 3000 party.