From classics that defined the sub-genre of cosmic horror movies to recent indie gems, here’s a compilation of galactic terrors, shape-shifting monsters, dumb space conquerors, and whatnots. In short, welcome to paradise!
I’ve recently read Stanisław Lem’s novel entitled Master’s Voice. The Polish author philosophized on the premise that finds humanity at a crossroads. People intercepted a signal from space. Soon hordes of researchers and scientists leave blood, sweat, and tears as they attempt to decipher the mysterious message. Lem explored many possible interpretations of the signal. Could it be a message?
Or is it a piece of a conversation that was accidentally caught by Earth-based equipment? Even if you’re not a bookworm, I wholeheartedly recommend Master’s Voice. Lem’s fascinating discourse looks for answers about alien life forms – who they are and what do they seek.
In the light of Perseverance’s landing, space became a tiny tidbit more tamed than it was before. Nevertheless, the vastness of the cosmos still terrifies us, and it will do so for the rest of our days.
While galaxy prompts numerous existential questions, it also fosters imagination in the most horrific ways too. Aliens of all sorts have haunted us, fascinated us, and inspired us – even though we’re not sure of their existence. If there’s one thing we often assume, it’s that their intentions are rarely other than ruthless colonization. That is often the case with cosmic horrors.
What are cosmic horror movies exactly?
There are several ways to think of this sub-genre.
One of them is to narrow it down to horror films that take place in space. While that limitation seems very natural, it does leave a few fantastic films out of the equation. Admittedly, there were more than one hardly forgettable flicks about space entities spreading chaos and destruction on our own planet.
Therefore, this list compiles films that:
- are set on Earth, any other planet, or inside a space ship,
- introduce a hostile space entity, monster, alien, or anything else that constitutes the extraterrestrial aspect of the story,
- deliver the good ol’ scares in a variety of ways and forms.
Credits: original movie poster
Color Out of Space (2019), dir. Richard Stanley
I regard Color Out of Space (2019) as one of the most despicably bad Lovecraftian movies I’ve seen. What seemed like Nicolas Cage’s no-holds-barred bloodfest quickly plummeted into a b-grade disappointment; an offensively boring pulp. Why would I feature it on this list then? Well, setting aside my personal view on Color Out of Space (2019), I’m sure that some viewers will find the film a must-see among cosmic horror movies.
Evil takes many forms, and in the case of Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space (2019), it’s a vivid purple glow. The life of an average family takes an extraterrestrial twist when a space object of unknown origin lands on their farm. Upon exposure to the cosmic radiance, people and animals go loco. By animals, I mean cute alpacas that turn into a space-born nightmare.
Perhaps that’s enough of a reason to give Color Out of Space (2019) a chance. Although the movie suffers from a lack of substance, and by the time the plot arrives at the purple-infused carnage, your attention will be glued to a much smaller screen, space horrors rarely see that kind of sumptuous palette to see. It’s nice to trade bleak spaceship corridors and dark planets for colorful glows for once. It also features Nicolas Cage so go figure.
Credits: Rory Kurtz
Annihilation (2018), dir. Alex Garland
No other Netflix movie dissected audiences into two groups. I’ve not seen a single person who was left indifferent to Annihilation (2018). And although it never grew on me, I decided to mention it for two reasons.
First of all, Annihilation (2018) devised an entirely new way of imagining terror from outer space. Instead of seeing things as they are, the alien shimmer penetrated skins, muscles, and tissues, all the way down to the DNA of all things living. Alex Garland unlocked this gateway to hell in the most curious way too. The horrors populating the shimmer-infused zone were all frightening, with the feral bear topping my list of most horrifying monsters in modern horrors. One cannot deny Annihilation (2018) the range of abominations that send chills down the spine.
Apart from that, I value the metaphorical layer of Annihilation (2018). Cosmic evil doesn’t necessarily need to devour and kill as predators do. The way the shimmer messed up all of the scientists – how it blindfolded their instincts too – frightens and fascinates at the same time. Unfortunately, Annihilation (2018) squandered its chances right from the start when it revealed the end of the story. As a result, I struggled to become invested in the story, as well as its slow pace.
Credits: Christopher Shyy
Event Horizon (1997), dir. Paul W.S. Anderson
Movies rarely age like fine wine, and that specifically applies to features that rely on the miracles of technology available at the time of their production. However, the 90s were particularly unique in that matter, for the decade gave rise to a bunch of ropey films that gained a cult following nonetheless.
Such is the case of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997), a joyfully over-the-top product that really wanted to surf the same wave that Alien saga did, however, it barely paddles on the surface in comparison. Checking in are a bunch of flat characters, who serve the regular cannon fodder dish. The crew’s as expendable as it gets, and most of the novelty comes from the quasi-occult theme that – at least slightly – brightens the derivative plot. With its numerous plot holes, and patterns nonchalantly copied from genre flagship titles, this flick was acutely criticized, and quite justly so too.
Yet despicable or not, Event Horizon (1997) cannot be denied a certain kind of guilty-pleasure appeal. From corny dialogues to Sam Neill’s role that goes from the king of calm to batshit crazy, it’s the kind of naive entertainment that I sometimes miss in modern filmmaking. And while the special effects won’t be anywhere near bedazzling considering today’s standards, Event Horizon (1997) deploys a few memorable moments that – with a bit more luck and less commotion around bigger titles – could have secured the film’s wider appreciation.
Credits: original movie poster
Life (2017), dir. Daniel Espinosa
Life (2017) by Daniel Espinosa is a sleek, well-crafted space horror, although the director dusts off a few genre tropes. There’s a group of people who like to play a little bit too close to the fire and an undeniably dangerous form of life they quite obviously take for granted. When you add the two together, it most certainly means something bad.
While you probably can figure out the rest on your own, Life (2017) still delivers on what it promises. Anchored by solid turns from Jake Gyllenhall and Ryan Reynolds, Espinosa’s ship secludes its plot in several rooms, making the drama all the way more confined. As far as space horrors go, Espinosa knows the drill too. Life (2017) includes a bunch of violent, bloody moments, and its spot-on execution guarantees your craving for extraterrestrial monsters will be satisfied.
Credits: Original movie poster
Sputnik (2020), dir. Egor Abramenko
A vast majority of cosmic horrors are tethered to the destructive nature of alien life forms. We like to view them as threats to mankind. Whether it’s a humanoid slaying machine like the Xenomorph or a slimy reptile-looking fella as in Life (2017), extraterrestrials wreak havoc without hinting at what drives them. That’s a sweet spot that the Russian director Egor Abramenko hits in Sputnik (2020) – we actually know what’s the ordeal for.
An astronaut is held in captivity within the walls of a secret Soviet airbase. Having sustained massive damage, and losing his fellow spaceman, the man stores a dark secret of a being that lives inside him. Little is known so far, and so the military brings in an unhoped-for specialist to solve the mystery.
Egor Abramenko, an ardent fan of sci-fi classics himself, balances genre tropes with nuances derived from both the original premise and the Cold War-era setting. Woven into the film’s texture is the clash of empires, however, Sputnik (2020) never aims for a Hollywood scale of filmmaking, but rather sticks to a slow-burn silhouette that piece by piece unravels the outer space capsuled in the astronaut. Abramenko openly condemns the at-all-costs philosophy, and one can read between the lines the links between the director’s imagination and a treaty on the modern-day issues of his country. As a whole, Sputnik (2020) manageably blends gory horror with character-driven drama, hence it should appeal to viewers who expect more than just a simple thrill-fest.
Credits: original movie poster
Alien: Covenant (2017), dir. Ridley Scott
Setting aside the indisputable genius of Alien (1979), I personally feel that the appeal of the Alien saga started to wear off rather quickly. David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992) went places, but those were not places most viewers wanted to explore, meanwhile the last one before a 15-year long hiatus – Alien: Resurrection (1997) – was a major bummer. Alien was brewed in the same sauce for decades, so it’s no wonder that Peter Jackson refused to direct the movie, claiming he could not get excited about any more entries in the saga. Eventually, Ridley Scott returned to the director’s seat in the new Millenium, helming both Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017).
While Prometheus (2012) set the grounds, the latter finally unlocked the franchise’s potential, stepping outside of the cramped corridors that started to feel a bit heavy. Scale benefitted Alien: Covenant (2017), and so did the intensified gore that Ridley Scott deployed. Alien: Covenant (2017) finally felt terrifying in the most palpable way possible, with Xenomorph leaving trails of blood, as well as one ruthless android going bonkers. Jed Kurzel fitted well as the new composer too. His work enriched the experience thanks to ominous, otherworldly rustling and whistling that echoed in creepy ambient.
Also, Scott didn’t forget to sprinkle a bit of cheesiness too. He created some of the dumbest cannon fodder in the saga. Sure, some plot contrivances did hurt at times, nevertheless, it still feels like the right direction for the Alien brand.
Credits: Ryve creative
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), dir. Dan Trachtenberg
Cosmic horror movies often use extraterrestrial forces as a weapon of definite destruction. However, Alien (1979) taught all future filmmakers that dread becomes more palpable the less we get to see its face.
Following up on this principle, Dan Trachtenberg directed 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), an unexpected entry in a franchise started by a found-footage indie sci-fi movie Cloverfield (2008). The script finds two random people trapped in a shelter with a maniac who claims there’s an alien invasion going on outside. He also has a dark secret going, which leaves the two strangers with a choice – stay with Howard the lunatic or face the cosmic invaders? Therein lies the nuance of 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). Trachtenberg plays with illusion; he challenges the audience with an unknown danger that might or might not be there, inside or outside.
Isolation often occurs in space horror as leverage to evoke fear. The vastness of space meets with confinement. In that sense, 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) also plays by the rules. As we’re left guessing what might be out there, ominous signs unravel and so the possible encounter becomes more probable – with either of the beasts.
Credits: unknown author 🙁
The Thing (1982), dir. John Carpenter
Although the 80s were mostly doomed by hordes of slasher-makers in the horror genre, John Carpenter stood out with his ambitious oeuvre even before directing The Thing (1982). Both Halloween (1978) and Mist (1980) became instant classics, albeit neither of the two reached the status of his cosmic gore-fest.
Stranded in a remote base in Antarctica, and tormented by extremely inclement weather conditions, a group of researchers deals with a shape-shifting monster. Don’t be mislead though. The Thing (1982) goes way beyond the ordinary scary movie about clueless people falling prey to predatory aliens. Contrary to other cosmic horror classics, this monster had no physical features that scared right away. John Carpenter addressed the matter of how easy friends turn into foes when the threat can’t be pinned to anything tangible. In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, when every other person can be infected, this creation feels even more timely than before. Because what if your friend is, in fact, a shape-shifting parasite?
Admittedly, The Thing (1982) is also one of the best body horrors ever too. Its proceedings range from Alien-like dark ambient to a less-bizarre-more-nightmare version of Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989). The monster consumes faces, limbs, and animals, leaving them all disfigured and mutilated in horrendous, although often grotesque ways. One can’t deny that this thing has also “inspired” several modern horrors – Annihilation (2018) being one of them.
Credits: Matthew Woodson
Under The Skin (2013), dir. Jonathan Glazer
Likely to be the oddest film on this list, Under The Skin (2013) remains a secret gem that only die-hard genre fans cherish. Scarlett Johansson stars as an unnamed woman who drives around Scotland, picking lonely men and luring them to her spider’s web.
Thank God – or Jonathan Glazer in this case – that Johansson’s physical allure isn’t the main focus of the director. Jonathan Glazer avoids the trap of a femme fatale and opts for a far more disturbing character that the actress boldly embraces. Essentially, Under The Skin (2013) explores the simplest desire of men – to be noticed by a beautiful woman. Glazer seizes the opportunity of making the audience feel uncomfortable and scared about the ghastly finale to each one of the encounters. Along the way, the director conjures up a few disturbing images to satisfy the hunger of genre fans.
At the same time, this unsettling tale of wrongdoing finds its nameless character on a journey of self-discovery. Johansson’s bizarre role glows thanks to Glazer’s realism. The authenticity of the story causes her sketchy pick-up lines to be even more out of the regular. Under The Skin (2013) is a game of chances, played by all the men lured into the trap, but also the viewers. Because we know so little, the danger feels much more tempting to taste.
Credits: Florian Bertmer
Alien (1979), dir. Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott’s ultimate classic has affected subsequent cosmic horror movies decades after its release. As it gained cult status, it also secured the establishment of a new saga. On a side note, it is worth mentioning that Scott had to push and shove in a rather crowded galaxy after George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope premiered in 1977.
By far the best one in the franchise, Alien (1979) didn’t fully reinvent the wheel. Galactic dangers tempted filmmakers with much lower budgets, a fact that resulted in movies such as The Angry Red Planet (1959), or Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962). However, the cheesiness of low-budget flicks was a no-match for Alien’s (1979) unceasingly intense creepiness. Scott sought for stark interiors and an unfogettable sound design, full of clanking, whooshing and monstrous hissing. A the core of the horror stood a relentless alien monster that rightfully gained its cult status – along with its face-hugging friend and the rest of the entourage.
In fact, Alien (1979) was the first cosmic horror venture which relied so heavily on its nasty, claustrophobic atmosphere. The setting constructed with unadorned, almost crude spaceship corridors and labs, as well as the disturbingly unwelcoming hatching grounds of the Xenomorph, topped anything that audiences have seen before.
What were your favorite space horrors? Let us know in the comments!
Looking for more scary stuff?