How like cosmic horror to be one of the fastest-growing movie subgenres of the 21st century. Slasher, paranormal, zombie… They all have to make way as this epic and unfathomable force moves in to take its share of cinema. Cosmic horror’s rise in popular consciousness was confirmed by Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Although director Sam Raimi wrapped his MCU entry in many horror subgenres, it’s telling that the only one that ran from the opening to end credits is cosmic.
Cosmic horror is sometimes called Lovecraftian horror after its most famous pioneer, H.P. Lovecraft. The influential but controversial author passed easy-to-say words like Necronomicon into popular culture. You’ll increasingly find the spaghetti-mouthed, humanoid dragon beasts of his fiction there too. They cut to the incomprehensibly huge heart of cosmic horror.
The subgenre deals with the impossible weight of existence in an unknowable universe. In cosmic horror, knowledge can unleash terrible forces. Let’s just say that opening gateways to other dimensions is usually a bad idea. Ignorance is bliss for us mortals, especially when it comes to the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft’s fiction. If the sight of those ancient all-powerful beings like Cthulhu, the manifestation of the incomprehensible, doesn’t drive you mad, a sudden all-consuming sense of insignificance might.
Cosmic horror is distinctly and irresistibly vague, although some elements have become focal points. The Necronomicon was famously lifted from Lovecraft’s work for Raimi’s The Evil Dead, and variants of that book of the dead include Marvel’s Darkhold.
Despite its name, cosmic horror doesn’t demand we set forth into the great unknown of space. Often, the best horror arrives not when we head into the universe but when the universe comes calling for us. Filmmakers are increasingly using the technology at their fingertips to explore the enormous themes of this vast canvas. Here is our pick of the greatest cosmic horror movies you can catch today.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
At the hellbound heart of Hellraiser is a warning that too much knowledge is a dangerous thing. The fourth movie may have headed to space, but it was the second that showed the franchise’s dimensional clash.
Clive Barker’s brilliant concept, first unleashed in a novella, fused catholic dogma with Faustian pacts, sadomasochism, and Lovecraft. Hellbound introduced the Hell of Leviathan, the cenobites, and a new menace. The highly quotable Channard is pure cosmic horror, hugely powerful, suspended from an impossible umbilical, and working for purposes beyond comprehension.
In Alex Garland’s memorable sci-fi fable, cosmic horror came to Earth when a speck of the great unknown planted a seed on our planet. Annihilation is a mesmerizing adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, packed with Lovecraftian Color Out of Space. It’s notable for sending a team of women into the unknown — attracting a starry cast led by Natalie Portman.
The unknown permeates the movie, even when the female explorers enter the quarantined ‘Shimmer,’ a growing patch where an alien presence is mutating animals and plants. It’s bright, vivid, and a bold way to explore the cosmic from the all-too-relatable human emotion of grief.
The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
For all of the influence of Cthulhu, the Lovecraft short story that bore its name was considered unfilmable for a long time. Like many of the writer’s most famous works, the non-linear text and reliance on creeping suggestions were challenging to film.
This adaptation, the first to make it to celluloid, neatly solved the problem by blending modern and vintage techniques to adapt it as a 20s-style silent movie, the period of the original story’s publication. Its authenticity was confirmed when the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society became its distributor.
The Evil Dead II (1987)
It may be one of the legendary video nasty cabin-in-the-woods movies, but it’s also slapstick cosmic horror. Fans may be split on whether the dark humor makes it more faithful to the genre or not, but it certainly captures a distinct madness.
There’s no doubt The Evil Dead is steeped in cosmic horror, from the Necronomicon that unleashes hell to the mortals it pushes to extremes. The film’s Deadite possession is supernaturally enhanced, but the sense of an overriding force is unmistakable, even if Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams somehow weathers everything it throws at him.
The Color Out of Space (2019)
Richard Stanley chose H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Color Out of Space for his return to directing after a two-decade break. Nic Cage is, unsurprisingly, made for cosmic horror and here played the head of a family visited by cosmic horror in the form of a meteor crashing on their farm. The groundwater turning a striking color is just the start of the nightmare.
The Color Out of Space captures and modernizes the Lovecraftian sense of madness and features one of the hallmarks of great cosmic horror: Harrowing unpredictability. Stanley has expressed hopes that this is the start of a Lovecraft trilogy, eyeing The Dunwich Horror as the next entry. However, the future of those plans remains in doubt after production company SpectreVision parted ways with Stanley in 2021.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Cosmic horror has rapidly grown in popularity in the 21st century, but ignoring John Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy wouldn’t be right. The final part pulled together a what’s what of Lovecraftian elements, deriving its name from the writer’s novella At the Mountains of Madness.
Carpenter’s tribute to Lovecraft checks the boxes with interdimensional elder gods and alternate realities. Sam Neill plays the insurance investigator attempting to track down missing horror author Sutter Cane — a Lovecraft analog — only for fact and fiction to blur around him. The film’s links to Stephen King — notably its New Hampshire setting — were more apparent on release. Still, it remains an excellent study of the clash between mundanity and surreality in our more Lovecraft-aware times.
Event Horizon (1997)
An underrated movie from Paul W.S. Anderson, more famous for his distinctive brand of comic and video game franchises, like the Resident Evil saga. Event Horizon drew heavily on Lovecraft and Dante to conjure a memorable Hell in space. As Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill lock horns in orbit around Neptune, they’re ably supported by a charismatic supporting cast.
Event Horizon is surprisingly effective at summoning fear from the inexplicable forces at work — beyond the control of the titular ship’s crew and humanity itself. There are no easy answers, but that makes it all the more unsettling.
The Prince of Darkness (1987)
The middle part of Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy may be one of the director’s less subtle movies, which is saying something. The premise almost answers itself. What do you get when a group of quantum physics students helps a Catholic priest unlock the mystery of an ancient cylinder of liquid?
The film never kicks into the promised apocalyptic aftermath, but the glimpses of an inevitable future when Earth falls to the Prince of Darkness are chilling. This is Satan in liquid form, drained through a sieve of Lovecraft.
The Void (2016)
A lot is going on in Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie’s The Void. It takes a while to warm up as a rag-tag group is holed up in a hospital surrounded by ominous hooded figures. Still, once it kicks into gear, it lives up to the filmmakers’ intention to do something different with Lovecraftian horror. A sure sign of cosmic horror’s rising popularity was the $82,510 raised solely for creature effects. Talk about unstoppable forces.
The production company, formerly known as Astron-6, left its background in pastiche behind to commit to this cosmic horror. The glimmers that remain help reinforce one of the best recent Lovecraft-inspired films.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s work draws heavily on Lovecraft, cementing his position as one of the most important adapters of Earthbound cosmic horror. Legendarily, The Thing is a remake, but Carpenter’s modernization of the source novella Who Goes There? is sublime. The escalation in the isolation of Antarctica. The famously ambiguous ending. The timeless and utterly repulsive physical effects. It may enhance its odd brand of claustrophobia, but one thing The Thing fails at is representation. When no females appear during its run-time, the Bechdel Test flatlines.
For many years, The Thing was the ambassador for cosmic horror. For a shapeless form, the Thing is unequivocally alien, yet its origins are dismissed. It’s the archetype of the ‘enemy within’ trope and launched a thousand imitators as diverse as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. But as a lean slice of cosmic horror, it’s undoubtedly one of Carpenter’s most consummate films.