Many sci-fi films blur the line between science fiction and horror. Stories of aliens, experiments gone wrong or creatures from the abyss rising up to torment us are all common tropes within the genre. However, there are also a large number of sci-fi films that are, for all intents and purposes, classified as just sci-fi. We, as an audience, expect that these films are going to fascinate us, but that they are probably not going to scare us much. Except when they do. The five films on this list have no disillusions of being horror movies, but still contain at least one scene guaranteed to give you goosebumps. Read on for our top picks.
2001: A Space Odyssey – The Bedroom
What makes Stanley Kubrick’s classic so unnerving is the fear of the unknown. The characters often seem to be unsure of what is happening and therefore so is the audience. One scene from the film that exemplifies this more than anything is the final bedroom scene. After traveling through the Stargate astronaut David finds himself in a strange room, at once familiar and bizarre. Everything in this place feels off. The colors of the furniture seem too washed out, and the fact that a seemingly futuristic room is styled in a neoclassical way also seems wrong. The room is shot in a way designed to enhance the feeling of strangeness, with Kubrick using a fisheye lens and lots of slow pans (a horror-movie staple of tension building). The discordant score never really abates, rising to a crescendo of disembodied voices that make the hair on the back of your next stand up. The shot of the at-first-unidentified astronaut standing outside of David’s craft is terrifying because not only is David in this weird place, he’s not alone – until it turns out that the astronaut is actually David, just an older version of himself. There are several versions of him, all older than the last, and there is fear generated from the uncanniness of the doppelgängers. It’s a brilliantly effective horror scene in a sci-fi film that flirts with the genre throughout its entire run-time, and it’s no wonder Kubrick went on to do such an excellent job with proper horror fare when he directed The Shining in 1980.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes – The Telepathic Mutants
The sequel to the iconic Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, concerns the main characters Brent and Nova going, well, beneath the planet of the apes. What they find in the ruins of the NYC subway system is not apes, however. It’s humans. Strange, telepathic, mutant humans. They also find one of the most scary scenes in a non-horror film. The whole underground civilization is pretty creepy in itself, but what is outright scary is the scene involving Brent and Nova being taken to the telepath’s church, where they worship what is known to them as “The Divine Bomb” – an unexploded atomic warhead. The atmosphere of the church session is incredibly odd, as the telepaths sing hymns that are an approximation of our own but not quite right. They sing too high, they sing too fast and all of the hymns are about worshiping the “Almighty Bomb”. The fact that this civilization worships something that has destroyed the Earth and forced them underground is quite unsettling. Even worse is when the telepaths reveal their “True Selves” and it turns out that the entire civilization had been wearing rubber masks all along, and that underneath every person is horribly mutated because of all the exposure to radiation. Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ anti-nuke message can be a bit in-your-face at times, but it’s undeniable that the film does a great job of making us afraid of what life would be like if we did have to live through some sort of nuclear holocaust, and making us unsettled by the telepaths in the film.
See Also: Eleven Frightening Facts About Chernobyl
Jurassic Park – Velociraptors in the Kitchen
This one’s a staple on all lists of scary scenes in non-horror sci-fi films, but it’s always there for a reason: this is a tense-as-hell scene! Desperately trying to escape from two hungry velociraptors, Lex and Tim hide out in the commercial kitchen inside the visitor centre of Jurassic Park, a big, creepy, dimly-lit space prime for being chased around by angry carnivorous dinosaurs. The raptors, which we as the audience already know are skilled hunters, enter the kitchen through the door they have learned to open, accompanied by classic horror-movie swelling strings. Not only are the velociraptors scary because they’re velociraptors, they are scary because the kids have no real way to fight back against them – always something guaranteed to keep an audience on the edge of their seat. There is a particularly great shot where Timmy is hiding beyond the counter and in the background the velociraptor is searching for him. Timmy is desperately trying not to make any noise, but then that damned ladle has to fall onto the floor, immediately alerting the raptors to his presence. Thankfully, even though they are unarmed, the kids are not lacking in ingenuity, and they manage to escape the kitchen unscathed. However, it’s an absolutely nail-biting few minutes until they do find safety, and really just proof that a theme park based around live dinosaurs is absolutely not a good idea.
The Empire Strikes Back – Dark Side Cave
When you think of scary scenes in non-horror sci-fi films, you probably don’t think of Star Wars, but there is one scene in The Empire Strikes Back that can be classified as something from a horror film. As part of his Jedi training by Yoda on Dagobah, Luke Skywalker ventures into a mysterious cave strong with the Dark Side of the Force. From the outset it’s pretty clear that there is something not quite right. Luke says that he feels cold when he’s near the cave, and Yoda refuses to tell him exactly what is inside. Then there’s the inside of the cave itself – it’s dark, shadowy, mysterious. The rising orchestral score also helps to create tension as Luke comes face-to-face with Darth Vader. The fight between them has a nightmare quality to it because it’s in slow motion. It’s also frightening because Vader just relentlessly walks towards Luke, and we know that at this point he’s more powerful than the young Jedi. There’s nothing for Luke to do but fight, and that fight ends with Luke decapitating Vader and revealing the last creepy detail of this sequence: it’s not Vader’s head inside that helmet, it’s Luke’s, and there’s something about the concept of doppelgangers that is just inherently unnerving. The cave sequence is a symbolic part of Luke’s journey to master the Force, but it is also something much more akin to a horror movie than the generally light-hearted tone Star Wars is known for.
Akira – Tetsuo Mutates
One of the most well-known scenes from Akira is also its most disturbing. After his latent psychic powers are activated in a motorbike crash, Tetsuo descends into madness. The end of the film sees him confront his best friend Kaneda, who now has the unenviable job of trying to defeat his childhood buddy. Tetsuo’s arm is cut off by an orbital weapon, but that’s not the end of it – the arm regrows, a disgusting mess of flesh and wires, something which Tetsuo can barely control. This in itself would be shocking enough for any horror movie, but what happens to Tetsuo next is even worse. As Tetsuo loses control over his psychic powers he also loses control over his physical form, and his body explodes and becomes a writhing mass of multi-coloured flesh and organs. Tetsuo’s body absorbs his girlfriend, Kaori, killing her through suffocation, and it also absorbs Kaneda. It’s horrible. However, what makes this scene so scary is not just the visuals (which rival anything Cronenberg could create for sheer body-horror repulsiveness) but Tetsuo’s screams, which hauntingly convey the absolute agony he is experiencing. Akira is a beautifully-animated masterpiece, but within its beauty also lies true terror. This scene is absolute proof of that.