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The 12 scariest sci-fi movies that aren't 'Alien'

There's more to scream at in space than a Xenomorph.

By Matthew Jackson
Annihilation (2018) YT

Here at SYFY WIRE, we tend to be pretty big fans of science fiction — it's in the name, after all. But, we also love horror, and with Halloween around the corner, we can't help but want to combine the streams. If you say the words "sci-fi horror," movie fans will almost certainly think of Alien, Ridley Scott's 1979 haunted-house-in-space masterpiece, and its subsequent sequels. At least one of those sequels, James Cameron's Aliens, ended up a masterpiece in its own right, and everything from the performances to H.R. Giger's unforgettable designs in the original film ensured it would go down in pop culture history as the archetypal form of its subgenre.

But Alien is not the only game in town when it comes to scary sci-fi movies. There are numerous other contenders, from films that serve as precursors to Alien's own storytelling style to films that followed in it footsteps. So, if you've seen Alien dozens of times, but you're still looking for more sci-fi horror films centered on frightening beings from beyond Earth, here are some places where you can find tricks and treats. 

1. Annihilation (2018)

Alex Garland's haunting adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's novel of the same name explores what happens when a group of scientists set out to explore a mutated stretch of land all tied to an alien object that crashed to Earth. What they find inside this strange, constantly evolving space is a combination of horror and transcendence, and the film walks that line incredibly well. There are moments in Annihilation that rank among the most terrifying in any sci-fi movie, but through it all the film sustains an otherworldly sense of beauty.

2. Event Horizon (1997)

Time has been very kind to Event Horizon, even if it is true that we'll never get to see director Paul W.S. Anderson's preferred cut of the film. The film — which follows a rescue team who visits a ship that was long-ago thought lost, only to discover the horrors of an extradimensional entity on board — contains a lot of Alien DNA. What it does with that DNA, and its own frenzied, gruesome plot, is sometimes a mixed bag, but the sheer ferocity and visual power of the film is hard to deny.

3. The Faculty (1998)

The brainchild of Scream writer Kevin Williamson and Desperado director Robert Rodriguez, The Faculty is a distinctly Earthbound take on alien horror, taking sci-fi elements that feel right at home in a 1950s B-movie and giving them a distinctly 1990s sensibility. Though some elements of the film might feel a bit dated now, the cast — led by Elijah Wood and Jordana Brewster — remains endearing, and the film's ability to balance a certain level of "My Teacher is An Alien" corniness with some genuine scares really holds up all these years later.

4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers ranks among the most-adapted sci-fi stories of all time (The Faculty also owes a debt to its story), but among all the various big-and-small-screen versions of the tale, Philip Kaufman's 1978 adaptation remains the creepy king. The Body Snatchers story follows a pair of scientists who discover an alien conspiracy to replace humans with duplicate bodies grown in pods, and Kaufman's telling reflects the paranoid anti-establishment tone of much of 1970s genre cinema — and then it goes even further. By the end of the film, our heroes are the ones who feel like aliens, trapped in an evolving landscape they no longer recognize, which makes for an absolutely terrifying final scene.

5. Life (2017)

There's a lot of Alien in the narrative bones of Life, a film that also follows a group of people on a spacecraft as a creature from another world slowly hunts them all down. Daniel Espinosa's film proudly wears that influence on its sleeve, particularly in sequence that are reminiscent of Alien's skittering Facehuggers, but there's more to this movie than a knockoff. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's script conjures up some devastating moments of fresh terror, giving us a survival thriller that feels distinctly tied to modern concerns about space exploration. It all makes for a film that deserves considerably more attention than it got upon release five years ago.

6. Lifeforce (1985)

In the wake of Alien, scary sci-fi movies began popping up with more frequency, which meant that the people at Cannon Films had to get in on the action. So we got Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper's wild adaptation of Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires, about a group of creatures who prey on humanity arriving on our planet after their ship was intercepted during an exploratory mission. There's a distinct '80s B-movie feel to much of it, but Hooper's manic horror energy shines through, giving us some truly terrifying creature sequences along the way. All these years later and it's still great midnight movie fare.

7. Monsters (2010)

The film that put director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Rogue One) on Hollywood's radar, Monsters is a masterclass in understated alien horror. The story of two people who must cross a dangerous swath of land where alien creatures have taken over in the years following a satellite crash, Monsters understands its budgetary limitations and uses them to its advantage. The result is a movie that, like Jaws, builds tension by keeping the monsters hidden until the best possible moment, with great results.

8. Planet of the Vampires (1965)

Planet of the Vampires (1965) GETTY

If you're looking for a film that feels like a clear influence on Alien's eventual rise, Mario Bava's sci-fi horror masterpiece is a great place to start. The story of a crew of spacefarers whose ships crash land on a creepy planet is full of pulpy sci-fi detail meshed with great moments of '60s space terror. Bava's legend as a master of Italian horror was further cemented by the film, but it also showcases his versatility as a filmmaker who could move beyond spooky villages and lakeside slashers.

9. Predator (1987)

The Xenomorph's eventual big-screen opponent first merged in John McTiernan's action-horror classic, a movie that merges several different genre sensibilities into one unforgettable story. There's a moment early on, when the crew of mercenaries at the center of the story realize they're being haunted, when Predator pivots into pure terror after an action movie buildup. The hot-shot, macho guys empty their massive guns into the jungle, only to realize they didn't hit anything. From that point on, they're prey, and McTiernan pushes things into pure sci-fi slasher territory, with great results.

10. They Live (1988)

John Carpenter's satirical look at Reagan's America is also, in retrospect, one of his more frightening films. The story of a man who realizes he can see the devastating subliminal effects of an alien society through a pair of special sunglasses, They Live benefits from both frightening alien designs and a surprisingly timeless thematic undercurrent. Even 30 years after its release, it's still easy to look up at a billboard and imagine it says "OBEY" beneath the vodka ads and movie posters.

11. The Thing (1982)

That's right, John Carpenter made the list twice, because while They Live is a great sci-fi horror-comedy, The Thing is pure alien terror done right. Like Alien, it's the story of a small group of people slowly killed off by a creature which stalks them in an environment they can't escape. This time, though, the story subs out the depths of space for the frozen desolation of the Antarctic, and adds a layer of paranoia by making the monster a being that can hide in any living body. The combination of delicious tension and jaw-dropping creature effects make it a masterpiece.

12. Under the Skin (2013)

Jonathan Glazer's adaptation of Michael Faber's novel is an intimate look at an alien being's attempt to survive on our planet, and the intimacy heightens both the terror and the sense of empathy in its narrative. We know this alien woman (Scarlett Johansson) is capable of some very dark things, and we see those things firsthand as she stalks her prey. By the end, though, her own fate feels just as terrifying, which is a testament to the power of the storytelling.