Alien abductions aren’t in the zeitgeist they were in the ‘90s, when The X-Files propelled little green (or grey) men into the pop culture mainstream. The age of the cell phone has highlighted the dubiousness of the idea that flying saucers are constantly buzzing the earth on the hunt for human rectums to probe: with everyone filming everything all the time, it’s harder to imagine that we’re missing so many extraterrestrial close encounters.
Aliens in movies, circa the 2020s, are far more likely to be superheroes (and villains) than outright monsters, which might seem like progress if we hadn’t decided that our fellow humans make equally good targets for our existential fears. Who needs invaders from the stars when humans seem poised to destroy the planet without help? We’ll probe our own rectums, thank you very much.
Bucking the trend, as ever, is Jordan Peele, whose new movie Nope opens this week. With the confession that I haven’t yet seen it and am avoiding spoilers, it certainly seems to be playing off the tropes of alien invasion films. He wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to futz around with our (oddly specific) ideas of what abductors from the stars might be into: The fear of outsiders coming to meddle in our settled lives, or to rip us away entirely from what’s known, is potent, and exciting. Here, in spoiler-light terms, are 15 more films about the unsettling horror of the aliens’ unknown designs for humanity.
Fire in the Sky (1993)
Only a handful of films post-Fire in the Sky bothered to take the idea of alien abduction seriously; perhaps that’s a fairly inevitable side effect of the rise of a culture in which everything is on tape and newer conspiracy theories have made the UFO cults of yore seem positively quaint. This film, starring D.B. Sweeney, deals with the true-life (just go with it) story of Travis Walton, an Arizona logger who went missing for five days in 1975 following an encounter with a mysterious object and a beam of light — all of which was witnessed by the frightened co-workers who smartly fled the scene. The film’s non-fiction lens isn’t going to work for every viewer, but it treats Walton’s described experiences as fact (before embellishing them to make a more interesting movie); though much of the movie deals with the aftereffects of the abduction, the climactic trip inside the space ship is creepily effective.
The Vast of Night (2019)
Director Andrew Patterson’s wildly confident debut takes us back to the 1950s, to a small town in New Mexico on the night of the big basketball game. A young local disc jockey, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and his best friend, local switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) are caught up in a series of bizarre events that begin when Everett’s show is interrupted by a strange signal. The premise involves any number of UFO-movie cliches, but makes the typical alien invasion stakes deeply personal for the leads and their small town.
Director Delmar Washington’s debut is a smart thriller about a Black teenager, Jaylen (Skylan Brooks), trying to adapt to life in a small, southern, and overwhelmingly white town; if that’s not enough, he witnesses the strange disappearance of his friend Amira (Clark Backo) in a blast of white light. The local sheriff isn’t interested in looking beyond Jaylen in investigating the abduction, forcing the teen to help his friend all on his own. The film works better, perhaps, as an exploration of small-town racism than it does as an alien abduction horror movie, which likely makes it an excellent chaser for Nope.
The McPherson Tape (1989)
This proto-found footage horror movie might push the limits of tolerance for even the most ardent fans of the subgenre, but its technological limitations and extremely low budget lend it a sense of verisimilitude that’s frequently lacking in more polished productions — filmmaker Dean Alioto has even occasionally found himself debunking rumours the film is real after it got a fair amount of play at UFO conventions. It’s not hard to see why, as the (largely) improvised dynamic among the family at the movie’s centre is (mostly) convincing, even if the alien intruders are less so. At the very reasonable length of just over an hour, it’s an impressive bit of horror history and an entertaining film in its own right. You might find this one titled, simply, UFO Abduction. An enjoyable 1998 made-for-TV remake, Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, isn’t currently streaming.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the works of Whitley Strieber among young weirdos of the late 1980s; the author’s horror novels had already been adapted into films Wolfen and The Hunger, and his subsequent run of non-fiction(?) books based on his descriptions of his own alien abductions would go on to become wildly influential in media depictions of little grey men (if anyone needs to review the Strieber oeuvre, I have an embarrassingly large sampling in a box somewhere). The film version of the author’s “true” encounters isn’t entirely successful, but it boasts a solid Christopher Walken performance (as Strieber himself) and an ambiguous take on aliens, toying with the idea that this might all be more mental illness and less a close encounter.
The Block Island Sound (2020)
Strange doings are afoot on Block Island, the most obvious of which are the vast numbers of dead fish that keep washing up on shore. More alarming though is the behaviour of one of the local fishermen, Tom, who keeps waking up in strange places and generally losing time. His daughter Audry (Michaela McManus) works for the Environmental Protection Agency and is sent to investigate the mass fish deaths; she brings along her daughter and reunites with brother Tom (Chris Sheffield) along the way. Together, they discover no ordinary environmental catastrophe is to blame for all the dead fish, as the film blends family drama and the eerie local events as it builds to a chilling climax.
It’s hardly the most beloved entry in a franchise that’s usually better in theory than in practice, but Nimród Antal’s Predator spinoff offers a clever spin on alien abduction tropes. A varied group of individuals find themselves in an unfamiliar jungle, with no memory of how they got there. Big spoiler warning here, but, partway into Predators, we discover (at about the same time as the movie’s characters) that the jungle isn’t on Earth at all; they’ve been abducted and dropped onto an alien world in order to serve as the most dangerous game for warring tribes of hunters. Most UFO abduction movies leave the aliens’ endgame somewhat ambiguous; not so here. The goal-oriented Predators aren’t particularly interested in rectal probes, but they’ll all about honing their hunting skills with the help of intelligent prey.
An alien abduction movie that fits in perfectly with our current Squid Game obsession, this one also picks up in the aftermath of a mass snatching. Circle opens on 50 people waking up in a dark room. They’re on platforms from which they can’t move on pain of laser-inflicted death, and they quickly realise they’re trapped in a game with simple, specific rules: Via hand gestures, they’re meant to vote on the next person to die (if not, someone is chose at random every two minutes). It’s a sick scheme enacted by would-be invaders, but it’s also a study of our species, and reaches some not-entirely-flattering conclusions about how quickly we’ll throw each other under the bus and/or laser beam.
Another directorial debut, this time from Leigh Janiak (who recently directed the Fear Street trilogy for Netflix), Honeymoon combines science fiction with body horror in a story about a young couple (Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway) whose relationship dynamic changes rather dramatically after Bea encounters strange lights in the woods. She’s no longer the same, and doesn’t seem to quite know how to human anymore. The Body Snatchers-esque premise isn’t groundbreaking, but the direction is stylish, and the narrative leans into compelling subtextual horror: What if someone you’ve committed your life to suddenly starts acting like a completely different person?
The Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sánchez didn’t have a ton of financial success as a film director following that 1999 smash, and Altered was no exception (Sánchez has since moved into television directing). But it is a clever, and mostly effective, bit of direct-to-DVD-era science fiction horror turning the tables on the typical alien abduction narrative. Four friends get together to seek revenge on one of the aliens who kidnapped and killed their friend 15 years before, hopefully without alerting its siblings. Probably best saved for a late-night watch, it’s still a fun throwback with a distinctive premise.
The other half of Blair Witch’s directing duo, Daniel Myrick, also made a low-budget alien abduction horror film with a unique spin, and it’s also better (and more interesting) than it has any right to be. Carl Merryweather (Michael Selle) experienced (or believes he experienced) an encounter with aliens at age 10. Now nearing 40, he’s convinced they’re coming back. While there are horror elements here, particularly toward the climax, the real emphasis is on the ways Carl’s lifetime obsession has twisted the course of his life.
Under the Skin (2013)
Jonathan Glazer’s meditative film is a bit more surreal science fiction than horror, though it largely dodges any particular genre conventions. Scarlett Johansson (apparently no alien actors were available) plays an unnamed woman who drives around Glasgow harvesting men (by seducing them and bringing them back to her place, where she submerges them in some sort of freaky abyss of black liquid). There are big themes at play here — immigration and gender, chiefly — but the film is perhaps most compelling as an exploration of the growing sense of empathy Johansson’s alien harvester begins to develop as she spends more time among human beings.
I’m always happy to see Canadian character actor Julian Richings (who you’ll recognise on sight if not by name), but it’s rare he gets to play a lead role. Ejecta makes a good case that it should happen more often. The plot is fairly straightforward: Richings’ William Cassidy is an alien abduction survivor who finds himself hunted by government agents who want the information locked away in his brain. It’s got an offbeat style and a willingness to surprise, and is loaded with impressive performances.
Phoenix Forgotten (2017)
A handful of films have played around with the legend of the “Phoenix Lightss” — back in 1997, thousands of people in parts of Arizona, Nevada, and Sonora witnessed a number of unidentified flying objects over the state; some were later attributed to flares dropped by a military aircraft as part of a training exercise, but some remain unexplained — but none particularly memorably. Phoenix Forgotten, a found-footage style take on the story, isn’t terribly effective as a horror movie, but does manage to create a sense of creeping dread around one character’s obsession with the v-shaped lights in the sky. It’s under 90 minutes, so doesn’t overstay its welcome, while the involvement of producer Ridley Scott lends the whole thing a bit of legitimacy.
Horse Girl (2020)
Horse Girl begins, disconcertingly, like a rom-com, with a quirky and awkward lead, Sarah (played brilliantly by Alison Brie) who’s perhaps a bit too obsessed with her old horse. As the movie progresses, things get weird for Sarah, but also around Sarah: nosebleeds, strange dreams, missing time…the usual alien abduction stuff. Horse Girl isn’t shy about confronting the idea these might all be signs of severe and untreated mental illness — which, in the real world, would be a far more likely, and more frightening, possibility than alien invaders.