Category Archives: Scary Movie Alien Countdown

My list of the top ten scariest aliens in cinema.

Scary Movie Alien Countdown: The #1 Scariest Movie Alien of All Time

By Tom Kapr

We finally made it to the end of the countdown. Here, after a quick recap of the other films discussed in this series, is my “Number 1 Scariest Movie Alien of All Time.” Watch and enjoy.

#10. Battle Los Angeles (2011)

#9. The Blob (1958, 1988)

#8. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

#7. Star Wars Episodes IV & VI (1977, 1983)

#6. Predator (1987)

#5. War of the Worlds (2005)

#4. The Thing (1982)

#3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978)

#2. The Alien series (1979, 1986, 1997)

#1…

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #2: “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”

By Tom Kapr

You’re investigating a shipwreck. You find a strange egg. As you’re examining the egg, it begins to hatch. Suddenly, a crablike creature jumps out and latches itself to your face. It sticks an ovipositor down your throat.

You’re in a coma. You wake up. The creature that had attached to your face has fallen off. It appears dead. Aside from a sore throat, you feel remarkably fine.

Until dinner, when you start to feel a strange feeling in your chest. It begins to hurt. It hurts a lot. The pain is unbearable. You feel like your being stabbed from the inside. Finally, your ribcage bursts and the young creature that has been lain inside you for gestation erupts.

You’re the first victim. The rest will meet their deaths at the jaws, claws, and deadly acidic blood of the full-grown beast.

It is no wonder that H.R. Giger’s xenomorph from Alien is the single most terrifying extraterrestrial being ever put on film. Nor is it a wonder that screenwriter Dan O’Bannen and director Ridley Scott’s 1979 outer-space horror flick is the single greatest haunted house movie ever, and is consistently at the top of the list when discussing alien horror.

One would be remiss not to include in the same discussion James Cameron’s action-packed 1986 sequel Aliens, which pitted sole human survivor of the first film Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and a platoon of Marines against an entire colony of the vicious xenomorphic parasites (meaning they take on certain morphological characteristics of the living creatures in which they are impregnated). It also introduced the aliens’ mommy, in one of the most effective third-act reveals ever. And of course, it ends with the iconic mano a mano battle between one very pissed-off Ripley and one very pissed-off alien queen.

Later incarnations of the Alien xenomorphs are equally terrifying, though the films they inhabit are less iconic and of lesser quality (though writer Joss Whedon and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection is underrated, for its style, its story, and the direction in which it takes the concept of the xenomorphs).

So what is the #1 scariest movie alien of all time?….

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #3: “They’re here already! You’re next!”

By Tom Kapr

The “they” referred to in Dr. Miles J. Bennell’s infamous rant are, of course, the emotionless pod people of the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, remade as another classic, to even greater effect, in the 1978 version. I wrote about these two films once before, for Day 17 of my 30 Days of Madness series this past October; the following is an amended version of my earlier article.

They really just want us to get our roughage.

Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, which started as a serial in Collier’s Weekly in 1954, has been adapted to film four times: first in 1956 by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (who also wrote the 1947 film noir classic Out of the Past) and director Don Siegel (the man behind the iconic 1971 Clint Eastwood crime-thriller Dirty Harry as well as John Wayne’s 1976 swan song The Shootist); second, in 1978 by screenwriter W.D. Richter (who also wrote one of my favorite camp comedies, Big Trouble in Little China) and director Philip Kaufman; third, in director Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers in 1993; and most recently, in The Invasion of 2007.

The 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a brilliant exercise in McCarthy-era paranoia (Joseph, not Kevin). The 1978 version is just as brilliant a horror film but with a less optimistic outlook on the future of the human race, replacing McCarthy-era paranoia with post-Watergate paranoia and adding a healthy dose of public health-focused parallelism. It is rare for both an original film and its remake to be so high and so close in quality (though this is the second time on this list that it’s happened).

The 1978 version is more committed to its concept, however–that concept being that a life form from outer space comes to Earth and spreads in the form of pods that grow another version of you that replace you while you sleep, another being that is identical to you in every way and even retains your memories. Much like in The Thing, it is an alien life form that assimilates your human form, but the difference is that this alien is not malicious. In fact, this alien has no feelings whatsoever. The alien in The Thing would kill you and then camouflage itself as you. The Body Snatchers invade under the pretense that they are making a better you. A you with no emotions and therefore no pain, no anger, no jealousy, no war, no maliciousness; no passion, no joy, no elation, no compassion, no love. I can think of no more frightening an invasion than one that would replace us all with unfeeling replicas, and in fact, Invasion of the Body Snatchers of 1978 may be the scariest alien invasion film of all time. (Yet there are two more spots left on this list….)

1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers also has the bonus of some absolutely astounding practical visual effects that, again much like The Thing, still hold up against anything released today. It contains some of the creepiest images ever created, and possibly the single most terrifying final scene in movie history. Watch it if you dare. But don’t fall asleep….

Next on the countdown: “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #4: “Nobody trusts anybody now… there’s nothing more I can do….”

By Tom Kapr

(Spoilers ahead….)

In the opening scenes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, two men in a helicopter are chasing a husky through the Antarctic wilderness, shooting at it with a rifle and lobbing grenades at it. When I first saw this film, my initial reaction to this introduction was one of disgust toward the men in the helicopter, and some hesitation about the film in general. I have a deep and abiding love for dogs, and something approaching a deep and abiding hatred toward anyone who would commit senseless acts of violence against dogs. In cinematic terms, I tend to hate movies that show dogs meeting gruesome or violent deaths. For example, I hate Tony Scott’s film Revenge, in part because it is a silly film, but mostly because of a graphic close-up of the “hero’s” yellow lab being blown away with a shotgun, a consequence of his affair with the wife of a mobster (the “hero’s” affair, not the dog’s). (On the other hand, I am a sucker for Independence Day and always get a thrill from that ridiculous slow-motion shot of Boomer the golden retriever jumping to safety just in the nick of time as a fireball roars past behind him.)

Doggone aliens, always trying to invade Earth and whatnot....

So, getting back to my inaugural viewing of The Thing, when the husky reached the American scientific research compound and Donald Moffat’s character blew the rifleman’s eye out with his pistol, in effect saving the life of the dog, I felt relief. The dog was safe. (A man was dead, but we can save a discussion of the moral implications of valuing the life of a dog over that of human being, however despicable, for another time.) It is not until twenty minutes later that we learn the truth, in the kennel, as the mysterious husky’s face suddenly splits open, revealing the true nature of the beast beneath, and an entire team of huskies has to suffer the consequences; the truth, that our heroes have quashed what was in fact a last-ditch, desperate attempt by the now-pitiable, eyeless-and-dead rifleman to stop a violent and cunning alien life form from further invasion of our planet.

Kurt Russell and company spend the remainder of the film wondering who is still human and who might be the alien in disguise. The Thing is unquestionably the masterpiece of John Carpenter’s science fiction filmography, a perfect blend of alien terror, body horror, and psychological suspense as the characters try not to turn on each other while knowing that no one can trust anyone, because anyone could be the monster. And this monster is one of the best in history, terrifying in both idea and execution. The creature effects, created and designed by Rob Bottin (with a crew that included the late great Stan Winston), still hold up after nearly three decades, putting to shame most current science fiction films and all their computer-generated imagery. Truly great practical, or in-camera, effects will almost always outlast CGI, which, even when done well, usually has an aura of un-reality about it.

I can sum up the horror of the monster in The Thing in one sentence: Nothing in cinema ever was or ever will be quite like a human head scurrying across the floor on spider legs.

My migraines, personified.

On a final note, the “husky” in the beginning of the film is one of the best performances by a dog in the history of movies. Played by Malamute-Wolf mix Jed (who also starred in The Journey of Natty Gann and White Fang), every movement seems deliberate, every facial expression full of thought and meaning. The human cast is fine, and Kurt Russell is one of the greatest, but performance-wise, Jed steals the show. Rest in peace, Jed (1977-1995).

Next on the countdown: “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, you’re next…!”

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #5: “No one would have believed that our world was being watched….”

By Tom Kapr

“No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they observed and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world. Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.”

These are the words of the opening voice-over narration of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, taken almost word for word from the opening paragraph of H.G. Wells’ classic 1898 novel. (The bit about the 21st century is, of course, the major difference.) Although it has been updated to take place more or less in the year of its release, 2005, and even though the protagonist has been changed from a nameless first-person narrator looking for his wife to a divorced man trying to hold on to his ever more distant children, Spielberg and company’s adaptation is surprisingly faithful to the book.

This version of War of the Worlds is nearly a perfect film for the first two acts. As with so many big-budget thrillers lately (and with so many Spielberg films lately), it derails in its third act: it becomes cliché, with Spielberg even stealing a bit from one of his own previous films (and not one of his good ones, either); characters start making decisions that make no sense except to set up the next mediocre scene; it ramps up the action aspect too much by having Tom Cruise’s character essentially go commando on an alien ship; and it wraps things up in the end too tidily, giving itself a happy ending it did not earn.

To be honest, the aliens themselves are not even that scary, though they are much more menacing than their description in the novel (in which they are essentially unable to move around in our gravity on their own power). But they have some amazing technology, and that technology is designed solely for the purposes of the worldwide genocide of humanity. As in Battle Los Angeles, the film that got this list going, the invasion and subsequent extermination is much more gritty and in-your-face than in most films in the alien-invasion genre. Whereas Battle Los Angeles spent most of its time at street level in L.A., the extermination process in War of the Worlds has a far more epic feel to it. It is the scenes of the unseen aliens in their tripods, obliterating every human in sight, that earns this film a spot on this list.

And as if monstrous alien machines casually exterminating human beings isn’t scary enough, leave it to Steven Spielberg to pepper his film with visual references to the Holocaust. The first scene in which the tripods attack is one of the most heart-pounding sequences ever filmed: Cruise’s character runs through the streets as people left and right are caught in the alien death ray and literally disintegrated into ash. When he makes it back home and sees himself in the mirror, sees what was recently his neighbors caked all over his face and body, we feel his revulsion as he freaks out. This and a later scene in which the clothes of disintegrated people rain from the sky, as well as a handful of other scenes including a burning train speeding by and a bunch of bodies floating down a river, are reminiscent of Spielberg’s work in Schindler’s List. The director is taking the subtle anti-war themes of Wells’ novel and expanding on them in a powerful way. These echoes of the consequences of Nazism, terrorism, and systematic violence in general, make the invasion of War of the Worlds one of the scariest in film.

They decide to settle it with a staring contest.

(Read Nate’s article on loose adaptations for a slightly less enthusiastic look at Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.)

Next on the countdown: “Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired… there’s nothing more I can do, just wait….”

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #6: “She says the jungle… it came alive and took him.”

By Tom Kapr

A long time ago, in a federated state far, far away, I began a countdown of the ten scariest movie aliens ever. Then my world turned a little bit sideways, and two months and two thousand miles later, I landed in Colorado. Now life has calmed some, so it’s time to turn back to the wonderful horrors of the silver screen with a film that caused one of the most heated debates ever on the Buried Cinema podcast. And though it still loses my Flickchart vote to Shaun of the Dead, here is number six on the countdown…. (You can read the list from the beginning here.)

Predator is a paradox. Written by brothers Jim and John Thomas (who went on to write a handful of other, poor-to-middling thrillers) and directed by John “Die Hard” McTiernan, Predator is one of those big, dumb, loud, vulgar, testosterone-fueled action flicks for which the late 80s are known. Machismo runs rampant and cheesy dialogue seeps from every seam, not least of which is that immortal line uttered by Jesse “The Body” Ventura, “I ain’t got time to bleed.” However, what makes Predator such a paradox is that it is also one of the coolest and most brilliant science fiction films ever. And it gave us one of cinema’s all-time great antagonists: the Predator himself (played by the seven-foot-two Kevin Peter Hall).

Other Predator aliens have gone on to battle everyone in film from Danny Glover to Adrien Brody to the xenomorphs from the Alien films–even Batman. But when it all began, it was one terrifying, unseen presence lurking in the Central American jungle, picking off platoon commandos one by one as easy as if it were swatting butterflies. As the line from the movie suggests, it was as if the jungle itself had become a sentient, hostile force. Eventually it came to one of the great climactic showdowns in cinema: Predator vs. Schwarzenegger. And when Schwarzenegger finally got the upper hand and saw the Predator up-close, personal, uncloaked, and unmasked, it turned out to be one of the most fearsome alien beings ever conceived–and one of the ugliest (though I’m sure he was very handsome to the ladies back on his home planet).

It’s true what they say, that a picture is worth a thousand words:

[Editor's note: I forgot to mention Stan Winston, who is responsible for the awesome design of the Predators and the special effects in the first two films, as well as many other memorable creatures in some of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Stan Winston, the world of the movies will never be the same without you.]

Next on the countdown: “Across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us….”

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #7: Pretty much anything that lives on Tatooine

By Tom Kapr

This month I’m looking at the best and worst that alien sci-fi cinema has to offer, beginning with my countdown of ten great scary movie aliens.

#7. Luke Skywalker: “I was born here, y’know.” Han Solo: “You’re gonna die here, y’know. Convenient.”

Yes, chances are, wander too far on the Skywalkers’ home desert-planet of Tatooine, and something will either try to kill you or, at the very least, capture you and sell you into slavery–to somebody that will likely end up trying to kill you.

Yes, that is an arm hanging out of the rancor's mouth.

Many of the horrible nasties to be found on Tatooine make appearances in the rousing opening scenes of Return of the Jedi, when Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Lando Calrissian make their multi-phased attempt to rescue a carbonite-frozen Han Solo from the clutches of the evil gang-lord Jabba the Hutt. Jabba dumps Luke into the den of the rancor, a huge mass of claws and teeth that we’ve already seen munch on two unfortunate alien folks. (The rancor surely was nightmare fuel for many a young Star Wars fan–I know it wasn’t just me. Right?)

Not long after Luke kills the rancor (in an oddly sympathetic death scene complete with a dog-like whimper), Jabba attempts to throw him and his friends to the sarlacc, in whose belly they shall, as C-3PO translates from Jabba, “find a new definition of pain and suffering as [they] are slowly digested over a thousand years.” One would assume it would take a far shorter time than a thousand years for that digestion to actually kill you, but the idea alone was enough to scare… um, many a young Star Wars fan. Then to actually see some of the bad guys falling into the sarlacc’s gullet during our heroes’ glorious escape scene is enough to solidify that horror.

Jabba the Hutt. (Possible meth addict.)

We can go back to the first Star Wars film as well, when Luke, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the droids had to contend with not only the profiteering Jawas and a cantina full of hard cases that would shoot you as soon as look at you, but also the terrifying Tusken Raiders–who are not an overly aggressive football team, as their name might suggest, but a race of savage “sand people” who look like something out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare. They are a warlike race who are known to raid farms and settlements.

(As if that were not enough, Darth Vader’s stormtroopers are on the prowl searching for the two droids, and resort to burning the Skywalker home while Luke is off contending with the sand people, reducing his unfortunate aunt and uncle to charred skeletons–another image for children to dwell on while lying awake at night.)

There are other vile creatures that live on Tatooine that are never seen in the films, like krayt dragons and womp rats, but let us not forget the horrors of Jabba himself. During the time period of the original trilogy, Jabba is the head of the Hutt gangster clan that rules Tatooine through violence, intimidation, and shady dealings with the Empire. He looks like a putrid slug, he sounds like a demon, and he uses that long disgusting tongue on Leia. Ick.

No wonder Luke was in such a hurry to join the rebellion.

Next on the countdown: “She says the jungle… it came alive and took him.”

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #8: “I am the beginning. The end. The one who is many….”

By Tom Kapr

This month I’m looking at the best and worst that alien sci-fi cinema has to offer, beginning with my countdown of ten great scary movie aliens.

#8. “I am the beginning. The end. The one who is many….”

… I am the Borg.”

A weirdly handsome couple: Brent Spiner as Data & Alice Krige as the Borg Queen

It may seem strange to have a Star Trek film on this list, but the Borg are possibly the scariest intelligent force the crew of the USS Enterprise ever had to deal with. Not because they will kill you. There are thousands of things that can kill you. The Borg, though, hold no ill will. They are not malicious. They are here to assimilate you and your entire culture, to remove anything that made you or it unique or beautiful and to retain for themselves only your cold unfeeling technology. They are here to fuse you with that technology, to pull your flesh apart and fit you with circuits and steel. They are here to take away your humanity. And resistance is futile.

Star Trek: First Contact–the eighth Star Trek film (second to feature Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard and rest of the Next Generation crew) and widely regarded as one of the best, even by some as second perhaps only to the iconic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan–is one of the most intellectually fascinating entries in the franchise yet still one of the most accessible to non-fans. Part of the reason for that (besides generally better writing and directing–props to regulars Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, Ronald D. Moore, and director/star Jonathan Frakes) may be because it is deals with that classic sci-fi/horror theme of having our identity and humanity stripped away from us by beings who see themselves as superior because of their lack of feeling, their lack of humanity, their lack of pain or sorrow or anger, but who also lack joy and passion and love. (See Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Matrix, even A Clockwork Orange, or any number of classic stories.) First Contact is even structured like a horror film.

Shouldn't have picked at it. (Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard)

This is not the first appearance by the Borg in the Star Trek universe. They had appeared several times on Star Trek: The Next Generation, perhaps most memorably in the third season cliffhanger finale ”The Best of Both Worlds” and the fifth season classic “I, Borg.” But, much like the way in which the film Aliens builds upon its predecessor, First Contact introduces the Borg Queen. Also similar to Aliens, this queen has a definite, intelligent, unique identity as opposed to her hundreds of drones. But unlike Aliens, this Borg Queen is less an instinct-driven monster and more a calculatingly logical and powerfully sensual humanoid, played wonderfully by Alice Krige. The viewer is drawn to her and repelled by her at the same time. Her individuality, her sensuality, and her relationship with the android and Next Generation regular Data (Brent Spiner) add a fascinating new layer to the Borg mythology that gives new meaning to the phrase “resistance is futile.”

(Special mention of the Oscar-nominated makeup team for their insanely good job on this film and on the Borg Queen in particular. Can you believe they lost to The Nutty Professor? That Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences sure loves a fat-suit.)

Next on the countdown: “There will be no bargain…. I shall enjoy watching you die.”

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #9: “Nobody in here but us monsters”

By Tom Kapr

This month I’m looking at the best and worst that alien sci-fi cinema has to offer, beginning with my countdown of ten great scary movie aliens.

#9. “Nobody in here but us monsters”

This is one of those rare cases (though not the last to appear on this list) when an original and its remake are so close in quality that they deserve to be mentioned together. There are two versions of The Blob, 30 years separated from each other. The 1958 version is one of the best sci-fi horror productions, alongside other classics such as Them! (1954) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), from a decade better known for cheap (and cheap-looking) drive-in fare. It was not Steve McQueen’s first film, but it was the one that propelled him to stardom; that same year he began starring in the well-regarded Western TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive, and only two years later he was starring alongside Yul Brynner in the big-screen classic The Magnificent Seven.

The story of The Blob is engaging enough, and the characters feel so refreshingly above cliche, that any ways in which the film feels dated are easily overcome. The Blob itself is gelatinous mass hatched out of a meteorite and has only one driving force: to consume flesh. And every time it does, it grows exponentially. Many may deride this as being about as scary as Silly Putty, but real horror is often in the idea of an alien entity as much as in witnessing its carnage. A lot of the special effects may look dated, but overall they are pretty cool, and a handful of times are impressive even by today’s standards. Note, for example, the first time the Blob strikes. It is but a small glob no bigger than a grapefruit when an old man picks it up with a stick, but it wastes no time darting up the stick to engulf the old man’s hand and start digesting it. It’s still one of the creepiest moments in sci-fi cinema.

But if the Blob in the 1958 original is scarier in theory, the Blob of Charles Russell’s 1988 remake is absolutely horrifying in action. At just over an hour and a half, and much like its predecessor, it wastes no time in getting things going, and when they do, there is nowhere to hide. And much like The Blob of 1958 is a showcase of some of the most brilliant visual effects of the 1950s, this Blob is a showcase of some of the best visual effects of the 80s. It takes the horror further by giving the Blob more speed (much like the zombies of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead) and by showing the actual digestion process of folks unfortunate enough to be overtaken. (This grotesque and torturous process was mostly implied in the original.)

The Blob of 1988 was written by Russell and Frank Darabont based on the 1958 screenplay. It stars Shawnee Smith (now best known for her part in the mercilessly endless Saw series), Kevin Dillon (now best known as Johnny Chase on Entourage), and the wonderful character actor and frequent Darabont collaborator Jeffrey DeMunn.

Next on the countdown: “I am the beginning. The end. The one who is many….”

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #10: Battle Los Angeles

By Tom Kapr

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on the best that alien sci-fi cinema has to offer. The Buried Cinema podcast kicked off our “Alien Sci-Fi Month” last Tuesday with the new invasion flick Battle Los Angeles . That seems as good a place as any to begin this countdown of ten great scary movie aliens.

If you think Battle Los Angeles does not fit the definition of alien horror, you may want to re-evaluate. An intelligent, hostile force about which we humans know nothing appears without warning and begins a campaign of wholesale slaughter for the purpose of exterminating human life on Earth. Of course this has been done before, countless times, but never has a film brought the idea down to street level as Battle Los Angeles does. Never has it been portrayed in such a gritty, visceral manner, complete with the horrors of warfare–and is there anything more truly horrific than the consequences of war?

After the initial airborne attacks on the cities of the coasts, a platoon of Marines is sent into a section of downtown Los Angeles, now a war zone, to rescue a group of survivors. Along the way we witness not only the decimated remains of urban America, but also the bodies of Americans lying everywhere. Just people out on their daily routine, in shorts and sandals, now lying dead in streets by the hundreds; and alien foot soldiers may be around every corner, waiting to take care of any living humans who remain. Science fiction is often used to make socio-political statements, and while Battle Los Angeles is generally more focused on action and the intensity of the battle scenes, there is a subtext of bringing the images of war in foreign places, from which we can easily disassociate our feelings, and setting it in our own streets, our backyards, our own homes.

As a news commentator in the film avers, this is the most likely scenario of an invasion by an intelligent alien force: when you invade a new place to appropriate its resources, you exterminate the indigenous population. It’s the pattern of human history, turned against humanity as a whole, only there is no rousing “today we celebrate our Independence Day” speech. Just soldiers and citizens doing what they can to survive. And should this scenario ever play out in reality, our chances of survival, both as a race and as individual people and families, would be nearly nonexistent.

Battle: Los Angeles is by no means a perfect film, but it shows in a more realistic light than most what would probably happen in an alien invasion, and how humanity would most likely respond. Get past some war clichés and some bad scripting, and Battle Los Angeles is one of the best entries in one of cinema’s oldest science fiction traditions.

Next on the countdown: “Nobody in here but us monsters”