Few tropes hit our fear triggers quite like alien abduction.
It’s that nasty combination of fear of the unknown, loss of control, a little dash of cosmic horror, learning that not only are humans not alone in the universe but that we’re used as lab animals for creatures beyond comprehension, and the sense of something truly foreign from everything we know that’s taken an interest in us. It’s no wonder that alien abductions remain a part of our cultural consciousness and have for decades, if not centuries. They also serve as a good stand-in to explore everything from abandonment trauma to shifts in small communities to fear of a loss of agency. On the visual front, aliens allow filmmakers to get creative in ways they normally couldn’t, with creepy creature designs, ominous alien spaceships, and squicky devices used for “experimentation.” We decided to look at some standouts from this genre, both old and new. Here are some highly strange stories to get you started.
Fire in the Sky (1993, dir. Robert Lieberman)
Without realizing it, you’ve probably seen parts of Fire in the Sky, the innovative 1993 science fiction/horror film based on an actual mysterious disappearance–if not in your nightmares because you saw the abduction and “experimentation” scenes on TV when you were way too young and they’ve scarred you ever since, then probably in later science fiction films that took visual inspiration from it, like The Matrix. Beyond the terrifying special effects of the science fiction scenes, Fire‘s lighting and cinematography perfectly capture a darker and more ominous mood even in the drama scenes. The film presents a fascinating look at what happens when a personal disaster befalls a close friend in a small community, and a realistic look at how trauma can affect a person well after they survive the initial event. It might be a slow-burner with a middle that’s more small-town drama than horror-mystery, but it’s seeing the effect of Travis Walton’s abduction that makes the rather imaginative and terrifying scenes that bookend it all the sharper.
XTRO (1982, dir. Harry Bromley Davenport)
An entry in the “so bad it’s good” classical canon, XTRO is at least a somewhat well-made piece of British sci-fi horror. That doesn’t excuse or dismiss the fact that it doesn’t even pretend to be tasteful, instead gleefully reveling in body horror, alien pregnancy, whacked-out telekinesis scenes, and, of course, women getting cocooned. This “throw everything at the wall and hope it all sticks” approach to sci-fi horror has made it both a trip to watch and absolutely unforgettable in terms of overall effect. The film opens with loving father and family man Sam Phillips getting abducted by aliens and vanishing off into space. Three years later, his traumatized family has mostly put the pieces back together (apart from his son Tony’s traumatic nightmares), only for Sam to return as something… not quite human. Much of the movie unfolds as a quiet drama detailing what happens when someone vanishes and then comes back into someone else’s life after that person’s moved on. When the movie gets weird and horrific, though, a thing it does with great glee, suddenly it’s a movie about alien ovipositors, killer toys, psychic kids, and a man with severely messed-up ideas of family. The quiet tone definitely helps underline the gore, with the mood whiplash creating a shocking and bizarre B-movie with some excellent performances.
Stream it: Not currently available for streaming
Fried Barry (2020, dir. Ryan Kruger)
Dubbed “A Ryan Kruger Thing,” Fried Barry follows the abusive and repulsive alcoholic drug addict Barry (played with harsh reptilian fury by longtime character actor Gary Green) as he shakes people down for money, hangs around his loathsome friends, and then promptly gets abducted by aliens. After this, Barry is replaced in his body by an alien visitor, who begins a bewildered and deranged joyride through the scuzziest parts of Cape Town, South Africa. The somewhat episodic plot sees alien Barry move from encounter to encounter, bumping into shadowy criminals, sadistic serial killers, psychiatric patients, drug addicts, and prostitutes as he fumbles and hallucinates his way through the underworld. Serving as a throwback to both ’80s “punk” films with its aimless and gritty plot set among the less savory element, and “alien on Earth” movies around the same era with a good dose of retro psychedelia thrown in for good measure, the result is a bizarre, hallucinatory, and occasionally violent experience that the viewer isn’t likely to forget any time soon.
Under the Skin (2013, dir. Jonathan Glazer)
For those who enjoy their psychedelia a little less punk-rock and a little more polished, this 2013 minimalist science fiction adaptation might be for you. Acting as either an interpretation of or a sequel to Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, the movie follows Scarlett Johansson as an unnamed alien who drives around Glasgow, picking up men and seducing them so she can bring them home, where she submerges them in a strange black liquid and harvests them, aided and observed by a mysterious motorcyclist. On this relatively minimalist premise, an entire psychological drama is formed, as Johansson’s alien slowly begins to experience more and more of humanity as she becomes more and more involved with the species she’s supposed to harvest. It’s a very deliberate movie, with long takes, long stretches of scenes with no real dialogue, and occasional bizarre visuals, just enough to remind the viewer of the alien motives lying just beneath the surface of the movie. It’s a stark, bizarre, and somewhat sardonic look at human behavior, sexuality, and our own bizarre empathy and prejudices, all shot through an alien lens. While not as kinetic or gory as the others on this list, the surrealism and ominous tone should be more than enough for fans of slow-burns.
Circle (2015, dir. Aaron Hann, Mario Miscione)
An entry not just in alien abductions but also in the genre my friend has called “game horror,” Circle sets a small cross-section of society inside a dark space and makes them deliver their best arguments on why everyone else deserves to die. Trapped within two dark red concentric circles around a black dome, the protagonists must vote on someone to kill every two minutes, or risk being randomly vaporized by the dome. As factions begin to form and tensions rise, the unwilling “contestants” are forced into tenser and tenser confrontations as they lie, cheat, and manipulate each other into social deductions so they can be the last person standing. As far as tone goes, Circle is incredibly dark and pessimistic, but also has a twisted sense of humor about itself: after some initial discussion, no one really asks why they’re stuck in a dark room with a killer dome, a variety of people manage to survive using the cheap tactics that usually win social-deduction party games, an unborn child getting a vote causes a tense deadlock, and the ending shot is one hell of a punchline. But there’s something ultimately compelling about watching a societal microcosm play a game of Mafia with their lives on the line.
Stream it: Netflix
Undead (2003, dir. The Speirig Brothers)
When you want to watch a horror movie, you have pretty much endless options. But when you want to watch every horror movie at once, you watch Undead. As Rene attempts to leave her small Australian town, strange meteorites slam down around the area, infecting anyone near them and turning them into zombies. At first, Rene and a group of other survivors hole up with an alien abductee and survivalist named Marion, but as they’re forced to go on the move, the movie turns into a wild mix of everything you could possibly love about horror-comedies: zombies dispatched in a variety of bizarre ways (including a triple-barreled shotgun), mysterious aliens, arbitrary barriers that keep everyone stuck in the town, acid rain from UFOs–and that’s just the things I’m able to give away without spoiling you. Sure, it’s not incredibly original, but as far as the cinematic equivalent of junk food goes, if you just want to watch a bunch of people mow down zombies with improvised weapons while also running from aliens and getting yanked up into the sky, it’s not a bad way to spend a couple hours.
The Vast of Night (2019, dir. Andrew Patterson)
A small independent movie with some absolutely beautiful camera and sound work, The Vast of Night follows two young radio nerds as they deal with eccentric townspeople, an unusual signal being sent out over the radio, and weird lights in the sky on the night of the town’s big basketball game. While much of The Vast of Night tends to focus on the weird sounds, lights, and bizarre conspiracy theories swirling around the aliens, this serves to build the eerie atmosphere and sense of mystery projected by its otherworldly visitors and the government conspiracy working alongside them. But the real star of the movie is the camera, whether it’s the sweeping shots through Cayuga, NM at night or the long, continuous takes as its teenage protagonists walk-and-talk their way from one location to the next, imparting a sense of beauty and a liminal sense of place to its slow-burn suspense plot.
Stream it: Amazon