Welcome to another installment of Horrorhead, a column where we talk about the intersection of horror and scifi. Anyone who saw Alien as a kid knows that the smashed-up alien ship where Ripley's crew first finds the alien is one of the scariest places ever. It's basically a haunted house set in space, with its bulging, intestine shape, cobwebby alien skeletons (their ribs burst open), luminescent mists, and the hushed creepiness of that cargo bay full of dormant eggs. Setting is a crucial ingredient in scifi horror, and for your spine-tingling pleasure, here are some of the scariest settings ever created for scifi film.
I already mentioned Alien, but the prison planet on Alien 3 was actually even creepier than the smashed alien ship. That bleak, abandoned planet with its industrial freakshow prison was so depressing and hopeless that audiences stayed away from this film in droves — even though it was directed by David "Se7en" Fincher, a guy who certainly knows how to give good setting. William Gibson worked on an early version of the script. If you haven't seen this one in a while, give it a second viewing. You might be surprised.
One of the all-time most horrifying scifi settings is the hallucinatory, hellish veterans hospital in Jacob's Ladder. This film about a guy given weird "super soldier" drugs during Vietnam has strange religious overtones, but mostly is about someone driven crazy by government-conspiracy pharmaceuticals and high-tech warfare. Played with wide-eyed hysteria by a very young Tim Robbins, the guy begins seeing himself in a hospital hell, which is full of these twitchy-headed, masked demons who make the scariest dry-shuffling noises I've ever heard. Watch if you dare.
A cult movie from the mists of time (ie, 1975) called A Boy and His Dog wins for best scary, underground city long before City of Ember locked us into its spell. Featuring Don Johnson and a talking, mutant dog who is smarter than he is (yes, I know that's believable), the post-apocalyptic flick chronicles Don's foray into an underground city called "Topeka" where everybody wears weird clown makeup and lives a horrifying nightmare of suburban life, complete with enforced church-going and scary, ultra-trimmed lawns. Unfortunately for poor Don, radiation has made all the men sterile and they want to keep him prisoner and milk him for sperm (but not in a fun way). Jason Robards does an amazing job as the underground city's demented mayor. Actually, this trailer may scare you for reasons other than the underground city.
Laboratories — especially where They are experimenting on humans — are always frightening. That's what made so many scenes from The X-Files compelling.
And it's also what makes us love to fear the lab featured in Resident Evil: Extinction, where Milla Jovovich's clones kept getting tested and killed over and over again.
But for sheer horror in set design, nothing can beat THX 1138, George Lucas' film about a completely sanitized, emotion-free society where everyone wears white (except the cops), every room is white, and everything is lit with insanely bright floodlamps. Filmed partly in one of San Francisco's ultra-white subway stations (the Powell St. BART station, to be exact), the whole film is saturated with a freaky fascist feeling created by Lucas' minimalist but frightening setting.