life

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: the best science fiction horror movies you’ve never seen.)

This coming weekend’s going to be a busy one at the box-office, with three new wide releases aimed at completely different audiences (not to mention a strong hold at the top spot by this past weekend’s monstrous debut of Beauty and the Beast). Two TV shows that are totally still relevant in today’s popular culture are getting the big-screen treatment with the adult-oriented CHiPs and the kid-friendly Power Rangers, but it’s the third film I’m interested in here.

Life is an R-rated, space-set thriller about astronauts who cross paths with a previously undiscovered life form and find themselves in grave danger after one of the geniuses touches it. The science fiction and horror genres go together like chocolate and, I don’t know, something else you like to put in your mouth, and the onscreen pairing of the two has resulted in a seemingly endless supply of filmic entertainment. Some of the best are also among the best-known, including Alien, The Thing, and The Terminator (it’s a slasher movie!). Recent years have given us more niche but still popular fare like Pitch Black, Event Horizon, and Attack the Block.

Rather than talk about the films you already know and love though I’m hoping to introduce you to a few that are maybe a bit more obscure, but still well worth your attention. Below are some great (in their own way) sci-fi/horror titles that, like Life, take place off Earth and/or involve aliens. While some may be familiar, I’m hoping you’re inspired to seek out the others.

planet of the vampires

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

Two ships land on an unexplored planet after receiving a distress signal from the area, but after awakening from a rough touch-down, one ship’s crew begins attacking each other without cause. They recover from the scuffle and begin exploring their surroundings only to discover the second crew wasn’t so lucky. With no other option, they bury the bodies and continue their mission before realizing that what goes in the ground on this planet refuses to stay there.

Mario Bava’s film is often mentioned as an inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien, but while there are some striking visual similarities here the stories differ wildly. Bava’s tale is one of survivors facing off against those less fortunate, who’ve been newly appropriated by alien entities, and while there’s no single monstrous creature before them, there’s still plenty of opportunity for death. Forget the “vampires” of the title as it was solely a bid to build audiences, and instead think of it more along the lines of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with beings hoping to extend their own lives in human shells. The film is essentially on ongoing battle as the bloodied “dead” rise up against the living with the knowledge that only one side can escape the surface.

It’s a simple plot, but Bava’s eye for gorgeous and frequently nightmarish visuals paints the film with colorful lighting, foggy landscapes, and torn flesh. The film’s sets are sparse in variety but never feel less than rich in atmosphere and serve the mix of sci-fi setting and undead threats well. Bava’s best known for his more traditional horror films, but his work here made a strong case for blending genres and bringing creepy atmosphere to outer space.

the deadly spawn

The Deadly Spawn (1983)

A meteorite crashes into the woods, and its wormlike occupant wiggles its way for shelter before setting upon a suburban house in a small town where it proceeds to grow and multiply. Unfortunately for the people in the house, the creature needs to eat in order for that to happen. Fortunately for the creature, it has a houseful of buffet options as a gaggle of teens have gathered for a study session.

There’s something refreshing about a pretension-free genre film that simply wants to have a bloody good time with an alien monster, and that’s just what director Douglas McKeown delivers here. It’s a creature feature through and through that would feel well at home in the ‘50s if it weren’t for the legitimately cool alien design and abundance of gory wet stuff. The creatures are beautifully crafted take-offs on Alien’s chestburster with far more teeth, and the larger-sized variation is even more impressive, with its terrifying maw ripping off faces and swallowing chunks of characters before our eyes.

The action rests mostly in the house yet avoids any feeling of repetitiveness thanks to its use of every floor, from the basement to the attic and even out onto the roof. There’s an energy here to both the bloodletting and the desperate struggle for survival, and it all builds to an ending that manages to be as epic as it is charming in its simplicity. Some will see this as shlock, but it’s a label the film wears proudly without ever shortchanging viewers on the fun, thrills, and messy giblets.

the dark side of the moon

The Dark Side of the Moon (1990)

A maintenance craft responsible for fixing broken satellites loses power, unexpectedly forcing the crew into survival mode. Their situation worsens when an unidentified ship approaches and docks with their craft. It’s soon revealed to be the Space Shuttle Discovery, which is odd as it disappeared upon re-entry over the Bermuda Triangle three decades earlier. The crew boards the shuttle, where they discover a dead body and an evil presence who just may be the devil himself.

An early effort from screenwriter brothers Chad and Carey Hayes, who eventually hit it big with James Wan’s The Conjuring films, this low budget thriller survives on the strength of fresh ideas and a competent cast. I’m not joking about the budget either. It’s less “dimly lit” than “lit by broken light bulbs,” and the drab, grey ship interiors leave a lot to be desired. If you can get past the visuals though, the film delivers an intriguing mash-up of sci-fi thrills and devilish intent as the crew falls victim one by one to reanimated corpses, open-stomach wounds, and pure evil.

Paranoia sets in leading to infighting among the crew, but the occasionally gory focus is kept on the unholy power that raises that dead and talks trash through their mouths. Possibly inspired in part by John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness from three years prior, the film even applies a little mathematics to Satan’s presence suggesting that he’s as natural a part of the universe as the rest of us. It’s interesting stuff, and while the brainy bits could have been better explored, they work well enough alongside the galactic thrills and exploding abdomens.

save the green planet

Save the Green Planet (2003)

Believing an alien invasion is imminent, a young man named Lee abducts a chemical company CEO and accuses him of being an alien in charge of the upcoming assault. The CEO admits to being a selfish prick while claiming innocence on the charge of being inhuman, but what else would you expect from a dirty alien? Desperate for Mr. Kang to admit the truth, the increasingly disturbed Lee begins torturing him in cruel and brutal ways.

It’s a grueling experience at times without ever feeling indulgent, and Kang’s visible agony has us instantly questioning which of the men deserves our sympathy. Even as that constantly shifting reality serves to unsettle and disturb, the film treats viewers to exciting action sequences, big laughs, and the ultimate weight of a cautionary tale about humanity’s seemingly innate and unavoidable brutality.

Writer/director Jang Joon-hwan’s feature debut instantly marked him as the rare filmmaker capable of blending genres with ease, and it’s been a favorite of mine for years thanks to its mix of science fiction and horrific beats into a twisted, emotionally affecting tale of madness and revenge. One minute we’re laughing in disbelief, and the next we’re silenced with scenes of intense suffering, grief-filled anguish, and wide-eyed shock. If you only seek out one film on this list, make it this one.

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