Generally speaking there are three types of alien-related horror stories: ones where aliens visit Earth and do all sorts of terrible things (War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the ones where we visit outer space and bring back something terrible (Lifeforce, The Astronaut's Wife), and my personal favorite, the ones where a bunch of humans head into outer space only to come across something unknown, horrifying, and ridiculously dangerous.
There are titans of the "outer space horror" sub-genre, there are movies carving out a new section of the galaxy (see this month's Alien: Covenant, an unpretentious, handsomely shot monster movie), but there are some that are just plain old terrible. Here's the good stuff.
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It may not have been the first movie to take a stab at Outer Space Horror but very few people could argue that Ridley Scott's classic isn't the apex of the entire sub-genre. Why? Because it's smart, it's scary, and it's got a great hook: There's a monster on the loose on our spaceship, and there's no way out. An ominous atmosphere, an eerie score, a forbidding location, and a brilliant cast are what elevate this one from a basic monster movie to a bona-fide classic. Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes, Amazon.
It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)
While this drive-in mini-classic is, of course, extremely dated by this point, it would be foolish to not include the great-granddaddy of Outer Space Horror in this list. Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon made no secret of his affection for this tale of a tenacious alien creature who slaughters a whole bunch of astronauts and scientists. One can see the little bits of Alien throughout this amusing black-and-white, 68-minute matinee. It's old and stuffy and occasionally silly, but if you admire Alien it's only fair to check out its key inspiration. Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes, Google Play
Event Horizon (1997)
Movie geeks like to poke fun at Paul W.S. Anderson, the director of Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, and Soldier, but the man struck genre gold with Event Horizon, a deep-space horror flick that didn't make much of a dent in the box office, but has gone on to earn a very loyal following among genre freaks like me. This one's about a fairly colorful crew who head off into space and discover a derelict spacecraft that's been through Hell. While Event Horizon is fairly obvious and very gruesome, it probably has so many fans because it manages to evoke the legend of the Mary Celeste... only in outer space, of course. Where to watch it: Stream on Starz Play; rent on iTunes, Amazon, VUDU, and YouTube.
Planet of the Vampires (1965)
This eye-popping Mario Bava movie was released on a double bill with Die, Monster, Die! but has gone on to enjoy a slightly better shelf life than its matinee compatriot. It has the "mysterious beacon" plot point that also proved to be so fatally important for the crew in Alien, but beyond that it has all sorts of wacky treats. The flick is sort of circuitous and plot-heavy for this sort of story, but it's rare to find a sci-fi/horror combo that involves aliens, possession, the walking dead, and some of the most creative production design of the decade. Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU.
Another highly eclectic crew of noble heroes heads off into outer space -- this time with the intent of "kick-starting the sun," if you can believe that -- only to come across (you guessed it) some sort of otherworldly threat that manages to kill off mostly everyone. This visually impressive Danny Boyle effort was one of his few box-office misfires in recent years, but despite the controversial third act that seems to favor straight horror over the film's loftier sci-fi concepts, the movie has more than its fair share of vocal supporters. Personally I kinda dig the freaky third act, even if it does sort of come out of left field and leaves the viewer with something of a tonal disconnect. It is pretty creepy, and that's obviously what Boyle and company were going for. Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes, Amazon, VUDU, and YouTube.
Pitch Black (2000), Riddick (2013)
In Vin Diesel's pet project, Pitch Black, a transport shuttle crash-lands on a very dark planet, and the only one who can help the survivors defeat the local wildlife is a convict with a mean streak. Thirteen years later, with the truly ridiculous space opera The Chronicles of Riddick in his rear-view mirror, Diesel decided to resume his role and give the franchise another shake, and with the formula that works: Riddick, a few tough guys and gals, an unforgiving planet, and some very violent alien creatures. It's all very pulpy and R-rated and comic booky, and it works. Diesel is at his best when he speaks the least, the film has a nifty visual palette, and director David Twohy continues to find new ways to have aliens kill people, and vice versa. Where to watch it: Stream on Cinemax Go; rent on iTunes, Amazon, VUDU, and YouTube.
The Angry Red Planet (1959)
Two astronauts return from Mars with wild tales of monstrous aliens and deadly plants. Hardly the most original premise, but hey, this was 1959. This wasn't even an actual sub-genre yet. Plus this one does boast some nifty old-school production design and special effects. Pair this movie up with It! The Terror from Beyond Space and that's a fun afternoon. Where to watch it: Stream on Amazon and Epix.
Slightly smarter than your average "monsters invade a spaceship" tale, Pandorum earns a lot of points for concocting a sense of mystery. Here we have a captain and an engineer as the only "awakened" people on a ship full of thousands, but they have no idea why they're awake. Plus they can't access the ship's bridge. Oh, and also there are packs of monstrous flesh-eating lunatics roaming the hallways. You may predict a few of the twists, but you probably won't see them all coming. Plus we get some nice scares, a touch of actual science fiction, and some solid work from Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid. Surely that's worth a Saturday afternoon. Where to watch it: Starz Play, Google Play
Get this! A bunch of astronauts mount a rescue mission to Mars, only to realize that malevolent aliens are up to no good! OK, so maybe this premise was old-hat even before Alien got to it, but this 1966 space thriller does boast some great visuals, a few creepy moments, and a wonderfully weird cast that includes John Saxon, Basil Rathbone, and Dennis Hopper! Also keep your eyes peeled for some recycled effects shots that were originally produced for Russian space movies! So much to see in this obscure but amusing mid-'60s genre mashup.
Where to watch it: Amazon Prime
Alien 3 (1992)
The theatrical cut of David Fincher's directorial debut was sort of a mess... but a very interesting mess all the same. The 2003 "Assembly Cut," however, is actually a bit of an improvement. This time Ripley finds herself stranded on a prison planet, and of course there's a freaky new alien hiding around every corner. The plot's a bit skimpy but there's atmosphere to spare, plus Sigourney Weaver is backed by some solid support from a gruff bunch of British character actors. And be sure to check out some of those supplemental features on the blu-ray, because you simply will not believe how resoundingly troubled this production was. The fact that it yielded even a passable film is sort of a miracle. Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, VUDU, and YouTube (but track down the Assembly Cut disc)
Jason X (2001)
Damn right, Jason X! It's only logical to inject a bit of wise-ass humor into your horror franchise's ninth sequel -- especially if that sequel also blasts your killer into outer space -- and it's the sardonic tone that elevates "Jason in Space" well beyond what you'll find in stuff like "Leprechaun 4: In Space" or "Hellraiser in Space."Jason X offers creative kills, a colorful cast, and a fan-friendly sense of humor that pops up at just the right moments. Taken as a cinematic comic book, there's actually a lot to like here. Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes, Amazon, VUDU, and YouTube.
Galaxy of Terror (1981)
Alien inspired a ton of low-budget knock-offs throughout the 1980s, including Forbidden World (aka Mutant), Horror Planet (aka Inseminoid), and Creature (aka Titan Find). But this junky, sleazy horror flick, from B-movie king Roger Corman, stands out thanks to some insane carnage, a wild cast, and more than a few unintentionally hilarious moments. It's about a crew of space dummies who investigate an alien pyramid and then have to contend with the manifestation of their deepest, darkest (latex) fears. Where to watch it: Available for rent via Shout Factory (but you can stream an hour-long documentary on Galaxy of Terror at the company's site)
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Scott Weinberg is a film writer and critic who has written for outlets such as Playboy, FEARnet, and Nerdist. He tweets @scotteweinberg but ignores mean people.