Most films fall easily enough into one genre or another. You have your standards: comedy, drama, action, romance, et cetera. Then there’s the “nerd niche:” Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Horror. While they aren’t always the biggest hits, these categories often produce some of the most compelling, chilling, mind-blowing movies out there.
But what happens when you cross the streams? The most prevalent mash-ups tend to involve the laugh factor: romantic comedies and action comedies. They’re a dime a dozen, especially during the summer popcorn season at the theater. They’re the entire reason Jennifer Lopez and Dwayne Johnson are richer than Scrooge McDuck.
But arguably the best genre combination is that of science fiction and horror. The two mesh together so effortlessly. What’s more unsettling than mutations, cyborgs, invisible killers, and aliens bent on eradicating humanity? What could be more deadly than forces from beyond reality?
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at five of the best films to ever marry science fiction with horror. We’ll discuss which genre was more prevalent in each, how they were inspired and made, and why they’re so compelling that we’re willing to scare ourselves silly in order to enjoy them.
#5 – The Fly (1986)
Sci-Fi / Horror Ratio: 50/50
Quite possibly the perfect balance of the two genres, The Fly delivers both in spades. Jeff Goldblum turns in an unforgettable performance as brilliant, eccentric scientist Seth Brundle. When Brundle meets fascinating journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), he decides to get her attention by offering her unprecedented access to his latest project.
It starts benignly enough. He’s developing a matter transporter; a comparatively primitive, but nonetheless essential, precursor to Star Trek-level technology. It would be the greatest invention by mankind since the wheel. However, blinded by both his own genius and his desire to amaze Veronica, Brundle offers himself up as a test subject.
He steps into a pod; an identical pod sits just across the room. He is counting on his atoms being disassembled in one, only to be reassembled instantaneously in the other. Being fully aware of this, he still has no idea just how dangerous his experiment will be. Unbeknownst to Brundle, a common housefly has flown its way into the first pod with him. The tiny insect is about to destroy his world.
As the scientist is being re-formed in the second pod, the DNA of the fly becomes a part of his every cell. Now inextricably linked to the little bug, Brundle begins to experience a chilling metamorphosis.
An update of the Vincent Price film from 1958, The Fly is one of the best remakes ever produced, improving upon the original at every opportunity. Its quality is most evident in the effects and makeup. (In the history of film, there are very few sights more deeply disturbing than Brundle’s rotting jaw falling off of his face as Veronica weeps helplessly. If you aren’t both disgusted and heartbroken, you’re not human.)
Not only do the effects stand the test of time more than 30 years later, but so does the chill factor. The film was directed by the master of body horror David Cronenberg, and each and every shot of Brundlefly does exactly what it’s intended to: crawl under your skin and live there. Once you’ve seen this movie, you’ll never be able to forget it, no matter how much you wish you could.
#4 – Predator (1987)
Sci-Fi / Horror Ratio: 70/30
On the surface, Predator appears to be an action film. With a cast including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and Jesse Ventura playing soldiers with massive firearms, it’s an understandable mistake. But it doesn’t take long to see that it’s actually a hidden gem of science fiction.
When a team of commandos are called in to find a missing government official, they’re dropped on his last known location, deep in the Central American jungle. It’s assumed that he was most likely taken prisoner by a group of rebels who have been trying to take over the area. After decimating the guerrilla camp and finding no trace of the bigwig in question, the men realize they were lied to. Their entire purpose was actually to eliminate the rebel threat.
Thoroughly and rightfully pissed off, Dutch (Schwarzenegger) wants to get his men and get the hell out of Dodge. There’s just one problem: the three skinned and spineless human bodies dangling high in the trees above. While they briefly consider if the guerrillas were responsible, they quickly realize that no man is capable of such horrific barbarism.
Now we get to the science fiction. The commandos are being watched, but not by human eyes. The mysterious creature sees by heat signatures, hears in strangely repeating echoes, and drips its bright green blood on the leafy jungle plants. Looks like we’ve found our killer. But just what is it?
When the alien is finally revealed in all its horrific glory, we see just how it was able to string up grown men like party lights, and make internal parts external with a quickness. The Predator is in excess of eight feet tall, incredibly muscular and agile, and has an array of weapons and technology that would be the envy of any hunter. And that’s exactly what he is. Human skulls and spines are his trophies, and he’s got a case to fill and time to kill. Oh, and did I mention he has a cloaking device? That’s right, as if he didn’t already own a massive advantage over his prey, this sucker can also turn invisible at will.
Trapped in the remote jungle with a ruthless killer, how could any human, even a trained soldier, possibly hope to survive? Outmuscled, outwitted, outclassed in every way, the hunted must learn to think like his hunter.
Predator is unique (even among the films on this list) in that it’s purely action and horror from the protagonist’s perspective, and sci-fi only from the alien’s. The humans never come in contact with any extraterrestrial technology, and the alien hunter never suffers any terror. It’s essentially two films, expertly woven together.
The unsung hero of the movie is the late actor Kevin Peter Hall, who wore the 200 pound Predator suit and performed as the terrifying creature. At 7’2 and strong as an ox, he was physically more than capable. But, despite the lack of dialogue on his part, he nevertheless had plenty of acting to do. He managed to convey power, menace, and cunning purely through movement, which any actor will tell you is incredibly difficult.
Without a doubt, the most terrifying aspect of the creature is its physical appearance. Besides its massive size, its skin is a bizarre combination of reptilian insectoid. The articulated, prehensile mouth parts are reminiscent of spiders and crabs. The tentacles hanging from its head are a nightmarish version of dreadlocks.
Effects master Stan Winston did his usual brilliant job creating the creature, and did so using only practical effects. This is the reason why the film isn’t even a little bit dated – there’s no reliance on now-inferior technology to pull you out of the illusion. If you’ve seen this movie, and have never had a nightmare about the Predator chasing you through the jungle, you’re lying.
#3 – The Thing (1982)
Sci-Fi / Horror Ratio: 30/70
I freely admit that this is one movie I’ll probably never watch again. Not because it’s not good – on the contrary, it’s brilliant – but because it’s so disturbing that I just can’t put myself through it.
Horror master John Carpenter teamed up with frequent muse Kurt Russell to remake 1951’s The Thing From Another World. It’s a bleak story in an equally bleak setting. At a remote Antarctic research outpost, a bare-bones team is riding out a harsh winter. Through the bizarre opening sequence, we find out that a nearby Norwegian encampment has been destroyed, burned to a crisp with no survivors. However, among the bodies, the American researchers find a twisted, mangled creature that could not possibly have been human. They take it back to their camp to study it.
Big mistake. Huge. As the crew eventually comes to realize, their desolate encampment has been infiltrated by an alien with an insidious agenda – to kill and impersonate new hosts. In fact, it replicates them so incredibly well that any one of them could be the Thing.
This is where the claustrophobia really sets in. The camp seems to be closing in on the men as they descend into paranoia and abject terror. Not knowing if anyone besides yourself is a human or a bloodthirsty extraterrestrial would tend put one rather on edge.
While the uncertainty is frightening enough on its own, the film’s visuals are what make it one of the most petrifying ever made. Trust me, there are few sights more nightmarishly disquieting than that of a disembodied human head sprouting spider legs and coming after you. (Effects maestro Stan Winston worked, uncredited, on this movie as well.) If your first thought is KILL IT WITH FIRE, congratulations. You might live to the next scene. But probably not.
As stark and isolating as it sounds, actually watching the film is exponentially worse. You’re literally stranded on an uninhabited continent of solid ice with a murder-bent alien. There is nowhere to hide. No one can help you. And even if they could, they’re probably not them anymore.
By the end of the film, the camp is destroyed, and almost everyone is dead. The final two survivors watch each other warily, waiting to either be consumed by the entity or freeze to death in the arctic winds. No happy ending to be found here. Only breathtaking, abject terror, and an inescapable demise.
#2 – Terminator (1984)
Sci-Fi / Horror Ratio: 70/30
Inspired by the works of visionary science fiction writers like Harlan Ellison and Phillip K. Dick, the TV show The Outer Limits, and the movie Westworld, The Terminator is a fantastic mashup of many genres and influences, brought to us by the brilliant James Cameron.
19 year old Sarah Conner is an ordinary girl. College student, diner waitress, lives in California with a roommate and pet iguana. But, unbeknownst to her, Sarah’s not ordinary at all. A battle is about to be fought across time for her life.
She’s working a shift at the diner when she hears the news on TV: Sarah Conner was murdered. Not her, obviously, but it’s an eerie coincidence. Later that same day, a second Sarah Conner is killed. It’s no longer a coincidence, it’s a pattern. One that is leading straight to her own death.
Police are looking for Sarah so they can keep her safe. (The killer is going by the order in the phone book, and she’s next.) Unaware that they’re searching for her, Sarah decides that staying visible in public is the best way to avoid danger. She ducks into a packed dance club, oblivious to the fact that she’s being followed. A man enters the club after her, carrying a sawed-off shotgun under his trenchcoat. She’s cornered.
Moments later, the man in the trenchcoat stands up and aims his gun in her direction. She realizes instantly, but far too late, that he’s the Sarah slayer. But before she can even process the terrifying thought, the man fires – but not at her. Behind her, a huge man in a leather motorcycle jacket falls down, having taken several shotgun blasts to the chest. So he was the killer, and the man in the trenchcoat was protecting her. But why? Who is he? And who is she, that anyone would want her dead?
There’s no time to think, because the man who just suffered multiple shotgun blasts to the torso is getting up. Getting. Up. And walking towards her as if he’s completely unharmed – and still wants her dead. Luckily her mysterious hero is able to incapacitate the killer long enough to whisk her out of the club.
Understandably in shock, Sarah demands to know what the hell is going on. But she isn’t prepared for the truth. The man, a soldier named Kyle Reese, is from the year 2029. And he has one mission: keep Sarah Conner alive at all costs. His counterpart, of course, was sent to eliminate her.
She’s more important than she could ever imagine. In fact, she’s the vessel for the savior of all mankind, a post-modern Mother Mary. Her future son is humanity’s only hope. Reese describes to Sarah an impossibly bleak future – one in which computers and machines, having been given too much information and power, become sentient. They inevitably see their creators as a threat that must be eliminated. Humanity is nearly extinct when one man is brave enough to stand and fight. His name is John Connor.
But the time travel isn’t even the most difficult aspect of his story for Sarah to grasp. The man who was trying to kill her isn’t a man at all, but a machine made to look like a man. Unfortunately, not being a living mortal being, he can’t be killed. It’s at this point that Reese delivers one of the most chilling warnings in cinema: “Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop – EVER, until you are dead!”
It’s a lot for a 19 year old diner waitress to take in. But something in Sarah trusts Reese, and together, they go into hiding to devise a plan to fight back. He’s been fighting the machines his whole life, and knows about their (dismally few) vulnerabilities. He’s a trained soldier, but Sarah isn’t. Nevertheless, she gamely steps up to the challenge for survival, showing the courage that would one day make her a legend.
I truly can’t say enough about how incredible this movie is. I’ve seen it dozens of times over the years, and I’m still riveted at every viewing. One of its most unique aspects is the fact that, in addition to the sci-fi and horror, it’s also a heartfelt love story. When Reese tells Sarah why he volunteered for this suicide mission, even the coldest heart hopes for a happy ending for these two.
Unfortunately, there’s still the matter of the unstoppable murder bot. Following their romantic night together, they set out to change their fate. The film’s final act is a master class in tension and terror, not to mention extraordinary special effects. The legendary Stan Winston brought the T-800 endoskeleton to chilling life, proving yet again that no one will ever touch his brilliant legacy.
The moment that the gleaming silver skeleton emerges from the flaming wreckage is one of the greatest gut-punches of abject horror in cinema history. (I will freely admit that at 36, I’ve not only had Terminator nightmares, but still do on occasion.) Terror doesn’t always require slashers or gallons of blood. In fact, I believe that the scariest scenes don’t have to be violent at all, but instead are able to get in our heads and tap into our deepest fears, as well as give us new ones.
#1 – Aliens (1986)
Sci-Fi / Horror Ratio: 40/60
Was there any doubt in your mind that Aliens would be number one? The sequel to 1975’s Alien, this flawless film reunited several of the principal players from 1984’s Terminator, including director James Cameron, actors Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen, and creature king Stan Winston.
57 years after Ellen Ripley was the sole survivor of the Nostromo crew, she is awakened from hypersleep. A team of marines is headed to the extraterrestrial colony on LV-426, having lost radio contact. She tries to warn them of what they will encounter, but the slimy bureaucratic weasel in charge refuses to listen.
It doesn’t take long for the shit to hit the fan. The colony has been wiped out, save for one little girl who calls herself Newt. The colony has been essentially converted into a giant hive. How did the child survive alone, when armed adults couldn’t?
As we quickly see, being armed makes no difference whatsoever against these lifeforms. Guns, bombs, flamethrowers, take your pick. The massive creatures, which resemble a perverted amalgamation of insects and skeletons, seem to be impervious to almost everything. Half the team is wiped out in seconds. When the survivors make it back to their ship, they realize with horror that two of their fallen soldiers are still transmitting life signs.
They want to go back for their comrades, but Ripley tells them what they already know: their fellow marines are beyond help. By now, they’re already being used as incubators for the “facehuggers,” a giant, fleshy spider that leaps directly at the face, so it can use its long tentacle to reach down the throat and implant an embryo that will later burst from your chest at birth.
If that doesn’t give you the heebie-jeebies, check your pulse. But fear not, the worst is yet to come. The giant extraterrestrials, known as xenomorphs, have one who is bigger and badder than all the rest – the queen of the hive. And the queen has laid hundreds of eggs. Between the chestbursters, facehuggers, eggs, and adult xenos, these nightmarish insectoids seem to have a stage of life able to kill in every possible scenario.
Ripley, Newt, and the few surviving marines decide to take off, and drop a nuclear bomb from orbit on the entire colony. It’s the only way to be sure. Before they can, though, the ship is infiltrated, Newt vanishes, and Ripley is all alone with her worst nightmare. Again.
But this isn’t the same Ellen Ripley, the one who just happened to escape the carnage before. This is a survivor, a fighter, a bona fide badass with a set of lady balls that even Sarah Conner would envy. She’s going to find Newt and keep her safe, no matter what.
In a film stuffed to the gills with great dialogue, excellent action, and abject horror, these elements all come together seamlessly for the final encounter between Ripley and the queen. One of the most beloved scenes in movie history happens here. Ripley has crawled into the cage of a forklift suit, a massive robitic form capable of lifting a great deal of weight. She walks toward the queen, mechanically, but with an unmistakable purpose. There, she delivers the immortal line: “Get away from her, you bitch!” It’s all in the delivery. The determination in her voice leaves no doubt about who’s going to win this grudge match.
It’s truly a perfect sci-fi horror film, from beginning to end. There is no scene, no shot, no line of dialogue that could be improved upon. The brilliance of Cameron, Winston, and the cast cannot be overstated.
Looking back over this list, I see some commonalities I wasn’t even consciously aware of when I started writing it. All five of these films come from the 1980s. Motion pictures have existed for more than a hundred years; do all the greats really come from a single decade? In this particular category, yes. The 80s were the heyday of horror, and science fiction films were reaching a creative zenith, before they would be overtaken by CGI in the 90s.
Incredibly talented directors like John Carpenter and James Cameron were at their peak, and makeup and effects had reached that brief but brilliant moment where it seemed like anything could be done by practical means. Spearheading this development was none other than Stan Winston, a truly gifted artist who could visualize *anything,* and bring it to terrifying, realistic life. In fact, Winston worked on four of the five films profiled here. His importance to bone-chillingly believable science fiction and horror cannot be emphasized enough.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Now I’d like to hear from you. What would you change about the order or content of this list, and why? What effect did these films have on your love for the two genres? Please discuss in the comments!