Few things inspire more terror in people than the idea that not only are we not alone, but that the bug-eyed monsters from the outer galaxies are buzzing cornfields in Kansas and picking up random chuckleheads and performing medical experiments on them. Who knows where that comes from, but ever since the Roswell incident, this has been a Going Concern for movies and television, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds notwithstanding.
These movies usually fall into two categories: The misunderstood monster, such as Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still, or the confused being that doesn’t mean to hurt us (the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth comes to mind). I like those movies, but that’s not what this list is about. This list is all about the scary stuff out there—the things that want to eat our faces, literally. There’s something deliciously thrilling when you combine the monstrous with the idea that it came from Out There, where we can’t go and can’t imagine what else might be waiting for us.
5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
There’s a reason why this remake of the 1956 movie is on this list and not the original film itself: the original film, based on the Jack Finney book, was a quintessential 1950’s paranoia/Red Menace thought experiment. The remake jettisoned some of the Fear of Communists rhetoric and instead brought an absence of emotion to the alien duplicates that was a cultural critique of large urban populations in the 1970s—the onlooker who doesn’t help when someone is getting mugged or murdered. This was a common critique of large cities in both popular culture and clinical psychology at the time. The famous news story that started this decade-long conversation was the murder of Kitty Genovese in the early 1960s. This film suffers from some of the cinema verité clunkiness of the 1970s, but it’s got a great cast and some really creepy moments that pay off at the end of the film.
4. The Blob (1958)
This under-appreciated gem is more known now for the theme song that launched the career of Burt Bacharach rather than its own merits, and that’s a shame, because this is such a classic mash up of the “Teen-Agers Run Amok” genre and Whack-Job 50’s Science Fiction. Steve McQueen is the star of the movie, his first role with top billing, and he was pretty embarrassed about it years later. Personally, I'd have been more upset about being cast as a 28-year old juvenile delinquent.
What’s so interesting about the eponymous Blob is that it’s unstoppable in a kind of Lovecraftian boogum sort of way. And while it’s easy to ascribe characteristics of mass consumerism in the 1950s to the amorphous, insatiable goo from space, you can’t help but laugh at the irony of the ending and consider the fact that if the blob were real, global warming (excuse me, climate change) would have killed us all by now.
3. Night of the Creeps (1986)
One of the best things (some would say “only good thing”) about the 1980s was the explosion of horror films and novels, the likes of which we’ve not seen before or since. Night of the Creeps is a film that wears its “80’s-ness” like a bad prom tuxedo, but what it lacks in timelessness, it makes up for in effective and creepy critters that want to take us over.
The creeps in question are space slugs that, once they get inside you, zombify you and make you a walking incubator for them. Oh, and it’s homecoming at Corman University (get it? Roger Corman? Okay, just checking...). That’s the set-up in a nutshell, and it's pretty slim, but there’s some really great creep out moments when these fast-moving little boogers slither up pants legs and enter people through the mouth. Blargh! The special effects are great (for the 1980’s), but now the fun of the movie comes from seeing 1980’s teen movie stereotype clichés get taken over and turned into zombified uglieness.
2. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott made his reputation on this old school suspense thriller filmed in the confines of a space ship. This was a return to some of the more traditional methods of monster movies, in that audiences didn’t see the alien until the very end of the film. As such, the glimpses we do get are more than enough to freak out and terrify, while the ship’s asshole cat, Jones, provides most of the jump scares for the film. The rest is all tension and great acting from a really good cast, and would have been just fine as a movie except for one thing: The Face Hugger.
From the second that egg splits open to John Hurt’s wonderful surprise death, it’s those scenes that lift Alien up into the modern classic category. That scene at the dinner table was a shocker for everyone, including the cast, who were not in on the joke. It’s not a surprise that the movie won an Oscar for best visual effects. While the franchise that followed is charitably considered uneven at best, the first film is a modern classic by any definition.
1. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s remake of the Howard Hawkes classic is closer in theme to the original John W. Campbell story, “Who Goes There?” than its 1950s predecessor, but you won’t care about any of that as you watch this thing morph into dogs, people, and other unnamable stuff. Rob Bottin spearheaded the special effects, and John Carpenter ratcheted up the horror as the research scientists investigate a nearby weather station that apparently found something in the ice and dug it up. Of course, everyone is dead, and when our group of guys start trying to figure out what’s what, the Thing starts taking them over, one by one.
This monster movie has it all: excellent suspense, coupled with a few jump scares that will make you pee your pants, and lots of paranoia as people try to figure out who’s real and who’s a monster. The film is also very quotable, for those of you who like to sprinkle your personal Patois with phrases from recently watched films. In addition to great character work by Kurt Russell, Kieth David, Donald Moffat and the rest of the crew, The Thing also features Wilford Brimley at his all-time most most unsettling and frightening. The sequel, called also The Thing, (2011), is actually a prequel about what happens to the original research station, and it dovetails nicely into the 1982 film. All in all, not a bad double feature, if you can handle it. You will end on the scarier movie, without a doubt.