When we ponder the enormity of the universe, it’s natural to feel a sense of dread mixed with awe, as we realize our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. This potent mixture of terror and wonder has inspired filmmakers for decades, culminating in some truly spine-chilling narratives set beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Our fascination with what lurks in the unexplored expanses of the cosmos has given rise to an intriguing genre – space horror. Join us as we journey through the starry abyss, ranking the top 15 space horror movies that have had audiences clinging to the edges of their seats, from classic nightmares to modern-day thrillers. Prepare to traverse the uncanny, alien, and downright terrifying realms of cosmic horror.
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The Dark Side of the Moon (1990)
First off, let’s clear a common misconception. This 1990 movie, “The Dark Side of the Moon“, shares its name but not its fame with the epic 1973 Pink Floyd album, a musical masterpiece that sold an astonishing 30 million copies and boasted a record-breaking tenure on music charts. Our focus, however, is on the eerie, space-themed horror film set in the not-so-distant future of 2022.
The plot revolves around a repair crew cruising through the cosmos when, due to a sudden mechanical failure, their spaceship spirals uncontrollably towards the moon’s shadowy hemisphere. Here, they stumble upon a seemingly deserted spacecraft, ominously poised in the eerie void. There’s an uncanny connection suggested between the moon’s dark side, the enigmatic Bermuda Triangle, and even the Prince of Darkness, Satan himself.
The creators of the film seem to have found their inspiration in Ridley Scott’s iconic ‘Alien’ – from the sombre, menacing ambiance of the ship, the intimate crew relationships developed on-screen, the horrific alien bursting forth from a chest, to the sentient computer with its distinct personality and dedicated room. The movie is rife with homages including flashing warning lights, a critical airlock, and much more. However, where ‘Alien’ fans may expect the familiar extra-terrestrial terror, they encounter an unexpected antagonist – the Devil himself!
Jason X (2001)
Fast forward to 2001, “Jason X” introduced a chilling blend of the classic 1980s slasher genre with futuristic space horror. The infamous Jason Voorhees, a central character from the “Friday the 13th” series, finds himself captured by a government organization and whisked away from his previous hunting grounds at Camp Crystal Lake. In a twist of fate, he’s cryogenically preserved, then thrust into the cosmic void in 2455, a time when Earth’s habitability has deteriorated beyond repair.
As soon as Jason is revived aboard the transport spaceship, his murderous tendencies re-emerge. His new hunting grounds extend from the cold void of space to a burgeoning human colony on Earth II, leaving a trail of terror among the ship’s crew. The film unfolds as a violent narrative, amalgamating conventional slasher horror with the cold, desolate expanse of space.
Saturn 3 (1980)
Rewinding to 1980, we arrive at “Saturn 3”. This film features legendary actor Kirk Douglas as Major Adam. Stranded on an isolated space station amidst the asteroid-riddled rings of Saturn, Major Adam, and his scientist lover Alex (played by Farrah Fawcett) find their quiet existence shattered by an unwelcome visitor from Earth. Enter Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel), a character defined by sociopathic tendencies and disturbing sexual deviance. He brings with him Hector, an intimidating, eight-foot-tall robot.
Benson’s attention soon turns towards Alex, igniting a disturbing narrative. Despite its star-studded cast, “Saturn 3” did not impress the critics. In fact, it earned the dubious honor of three Golden Raspberry nominations, indicating its reception as one of the worst films of the year, with its lead actors garnering nominations for their performances.
“Sunshine” from 2007, could be best described as a thrilling space drama teetering on the edges of horror. Its eerie plot unfolds about 35 years in the future when the sun, the very heart of our solar system, is on the verge of dying. This is where a team of courageous astronauts step in, taking up the daunting mission of reigniting the fading star.
This, predictably, isn’t a walk in the park. The team battles against a torrent of obstacles, and the immense pressure pushes their mental stability to its limits. The horror in “Sunshine” is not just about grotesque monsters or frightful extraterrestrial beings, but it emanates from the psychological meltdown of the team and their introspective philosophical and spiritual musings.
“Sunshine” is a thinking person’s space horror movie with its blend of existential dread and sudden moments of terror. Even though the movie’s premise of a dying sun may seem less plausible, it cleverly channels an underlying message about the impending doom of climate change, veering towards more traditional slasher horror later on. Despite this shift, “Sunshine” continues to engage with its unique narrative, offering a fresh perspective on the space horror genre.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Breaking the mold of traditional space horror, “Starship Troopers” from 1997 is a heady mix of science fiction, horror, and political satire. This movie isn’t just another terrifying cosmic horror; it’s a boisterous, action-packed caricature that unabashedly tackles colonialism, xenophobia, and fascist regimes.
Under the direction of Paul Verhoeven, “Starship Troopers” presents a delightfully grim spectacle teeming with dismembered human parts and ghastly alien innards. Far from being just dark and scary, this film is one of the most ruthlessly candid big-budget productions ever made. It successfully blends a dark sense of humor, abundant nudity, and stunning practical and digital effects, all while satirizing its source material.
In fact, its entertaining and thought-provoking narrative has earned it a spot on our list of best sci-fi movies based on books. So, if you’re in for a rough and tumble ride through the cosmos, this unforgettable cinematic experience is worth a watch.
Europa Report (2013)
A unique cocktail of found-footage thriller and low-budget science fiction, “Europa Report” takes us along on a group of astronauts’ ambitious mission in a future where space travel is controlled by private entities rather than governmental organizations. Their objective? To unearth signs of life on Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon, Europa.
The storytelling approach of “Europa Report” is quite distinctive as the events are narrated in retrospect, much like a “black box record” interspersed with insights from an Earth-based reporter reminiscing about the ominous moment when the live video feed from Europa One abruptly went silent.
This cinematic journey isn’t about gruesome monsters or shocking jump scares, but the inherent dread of exploring the unknown and confronting the harsh reality of space. Its thoughtful narrative and chillingly realistic portrayal of space exploration set it apart from other entries in the space horror genre.
Pitch Black (2000)
“Pitch Black,” the film that catapulted Vin Diesel into the limelight and paved the way for a series of “Fast & Furious” sequels, might not be an award-winning spectacle, but it has garnered a cult following for several commendable reasons.
The narrative focuses on the character of Riddick, a formidable criminal being transported to prison on a spacecraft. An unfortunate encounter with comet debris causes significant damage to the ship, necessitating an emergency landing on what appears to be a deserted planet. However, the planet is far from vacant, and soon enough, the crash survivors find themselves besieged by hostile alien creatures.
The film’s title, “Pitch Black,” encapsulates a crucial element of the story. These deadly extraterrestrial predators only emerge under the cover of night. Riddick, with his surgically enhanced night vision, becomes the crew’s best hope for survival, explaining why it’s crucial to stick with him throughout this terrifying ordeal. It’s also the reason why Vin Diesel sports those cool-looking shades throughout the film – they protect him from the painful migraines caused by exposure to daylight.
Though not particularly highbrow, “Pitch Black” delivers a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping experience that is sure to make you jump out of your seat on more than one occasion.
“Pandorum” introduces a fictional condition exclusive to its narrative universe, a psychological ailment affecting ship captains faced with the impending failure of their mission, spiraling them into a terrifying abyss of psychosis and paranoia.
Set in the year 2174, Earth’s resources have been exhausted, prompting the launch of the spacecraft Elysium towards the planet Tanis, carrying the hopes of preserving the vestiges of humanity. As the voyage progresses, two crew members awaken confused and disoriented from hypersleep, only to realize their fellow crewmates are missing. Yet, their dread intensifies when they discover they’re not alone on the ship.
High Life (2018)
In the far reaches of space, beyond the confines of our solar system, a father and his daughter strive to survive in solitude aboard a spacecraft, years after the demise of the rest of their crew. Directed by Claire Denis, “High Life” sets itself apart as a film that explores sensuality over raw sex, and confronts taboos associated with our bodies, intimacy, and, notably, incest.
Denis asserts, “The film is about sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography….The film shows many taboos – about our own bodies, the taboos of intimacy, and the taboo around, of course, incest. It’s a taboo, but it exists.” This unconventional filmmaker’s approach to the final frontier is far from typical sci-fi themes. “High Life” operates in its unique realm of consciousness, providing a narrative experience that oscillates between enlightened awareness and the horror of acid-blooded killing machines.
Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated return to the “Alien” franchise with “Prometheus” wasn’t entirely what audiences anticipated, but it’s hard to deny its contribution to the realm of space horror. Aside from its spine-chilling plot, the film is also visually and sonically breathtaking.
Regardless of any narrative developments that seemed lackluster or mysteries left unexplained, Scott and his team compensated by delivering multiple haunting scenes and visuals that persist until the closing credits. Agree with its approach or not, “Prometheus” thrives as a horror-centric package, complemented by eccentric sci-fi elements and profound contemplation. It’s also worth mentioning that its 2017 successor, “Alien: Covenant,” while sparking mixed reactions, does rectify some of the earlier film’s evident flaws.
Is “Aliens” the best movie in the “Alien” series? This often-sparked debate suggests that both “Alien” and “Aliens” are equal champions, with the audience being the ultimate winner.
“Aliens” is a notably more fast-paced film than its precursor. Directed by James Cameron, fresh off the success of “The Terminator,” the story sees Ripley joining forces with a team of Colonial Marines to tackle an escalating alien threat and, ultimately, to eliminate it. A stellar supporting cast, including Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, and Bill Paxton, ensures that this is an ensemble-driven narrative, with a significant focus on developing Ripley’s maternal persona.
At its core, however, “Aliens” is a more explosive and action-packed space horror film than “Alien.” It’s laden with adrenaline-pumping moments, intense combats, and a fair share of jump scares, all set against a backdrop of lingering fear and horror. True to the spirit of the 1980s blockbusters, it might not always exhibit subtlety, but it undeniably offers a thrilling ride.
Event Horizon (1997)
“Event Horizon,” initially met with less-than-enthusiastic reviews, is a movie that’s since gained attention due to its intriguingly troubled production history. At its core, it’s an intensely gory and brutal space horror film that guarantees to unsettle viewers.
The narrative revolves around a team of astronauts dispatched on a rescue mission to salvage another spacecraft. As the situation progressively worsens, they realize that the ship in question, the Event Horizon, houses an experimental engine that has torn a hole in the fabric of space-time. This anomaly ushers in terrifying creatures into the familiar world, induces insanity in the crew members, and allows the ship to become possessed by malevolent spirits.
Despite its surreal elements, the film maintains a level of credibility thanks to its robust cast featuring Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Jason Isaacs, and Joely Richardson. The scenes involving eye-gouging, vivisection, and instances of sexual violence can be challenging to endure, but for those with a strong stomach, “Event Horizon” is an absorbing exploration of space horror, wherein a spaceship morphs into a nightmarish depiction of Hell.
Planet Of The Vampires (1965)
Directed by the acclaimed Italian filmmaker Mario Bava, best known for his work in the genre of giallo horror, “Planet Of The Vampires” is a riveting tale of two spaceships landing sequentially on an isolated planet named Aura. The explorers soon discover that the planet is home to a parasitic life form that incites violent behavior in its hosts, leading them to engage in lethal battles with each other.
Originally released in Italy under the title “Terrore nello spazio” or “Terror in Space,” the film underwent a series of fifteen potential titles before American International Pictures finally settled on “Planet of the Vampires”. Some of the alternate titles included “Demon Planet,” “The Haunted Planet,” “The Haunted World,” “The Outlawed Planet,” “Planet of Blood,” “The Planet of Terror,” and “Space Mutants.”
Despite operating on a tight budget, Bava’s proficiency in creating a visually captivating alternate universe was highly lauded. The film depicts Aura as a dark, desolate landscape engulfed in dense mist, sporadically illuminated by flashes of red, green, and blue lights. Its ominous atmosphere, complete with strange rock formations and bubbling pits, is a testament to Bava’s aptitude for using lighting and optical effects to amplify the grandeur of this low-budget production.
“Life,” released in 2017, may not be the most groundbreaking addition to the space horror genre, but its sleek execution, relentless pacing, and unexpected conclusion make it a film worth watching at least once.
Set in the near future, the story begins with an unmanned probe returning from Mars to the International Space Station. Upon retrieving and examining the samples onboard the probe, the crew uncovers the existence of life on Mars. However, this life form is suspected of having eradicated all other organisms on the planet centuries ago. While the narrative takes a predictable route from here, the unfolding events are more creative than one might initially expect.
The film’s visual appeal, coupled with a cast of well-known actors, elevates it to an attractive sci-fi horror spectacle that leaves a lasting impression. Despite not breaking new ground in terms of concept, “Life” proves that solid execution can make for an unforgettable cinematic experience.
“Alien,” the space horror film that revolutionized the genre, is undeniably a classic. Its gripping narrative transcends genre boundaries, appealing to a broad spectrum of viewers. The plot centers around a spaceship crew’s fateful encounter with a malevolent alien entity.
As the alien systematically decimates the seven-member crew, the film delivers a series of unforgettable moments, some of which may already be familiar to many viewers. It’s worth highlighting Sigourney Weaver’s exceptional portrayal of Ripley, a character who stands out as a truly memorable hero among a range of other noteworthy performances, including John Hurt’s unforgettable scene.
One of the defining characteristics of “Alien” is the use of suspense, employing the anticipation of unseen threats and the fear of what lurks around the next corner to create a genuinely tense atmosphere. Unlike many space horror films that rely heavily on gore and special effects that may lose their impact over time, “Alien” opts for a more subdued and understated approach, keeping viewers on edge as they anticipate the upcoming events.
While numerous sequels have followed, none have quite managed to outshine the original. When it comes to determining the best “Alien” film, it’s hard to top the impact and influence of the 1979 classic.