So this is the scariest movie I have ever seen.
That really means nothing since I’ve always been quite weak when it comes to watching horror films and very prone to dreams so terrifying my parents wouldn’t let me tell them my nightmares in the middle of the night. But I’ve gotten a good education in horror films as an adult, because my husband thinks it’s hilarious when I flail.
Point is, in my opinion, aliens are the scariest monster because they are totally out there and they want to rape your face.
I feel like I should be done with this review, but it’s homework. I forced myself to watch the entire film even though I wanted to die from fear. Then to watch the documentary The Beast Within: The Making of Alien so I could sleep at night, so I guess I’ll find more to say about it.
That didn’t take long. I want to talk about the monster itself and one of the reasons it’s so terrifying.
The creature goes through several different forms, each more… alien than the last. It starts out as an egg (fiberglass, cow’s stomach, tripe, and the director’s hand in a rubber glove swishing around for movement) and it evolves from there. The different growth stages involve puppets (famously in the chest burst scene which was a surprise for the actors, btw. Only John Hurt knew about the squibs) and a super skinny, six foot ten inch design student who got drafted to learn mime and tai chi to be inside a rubber suit. The fact that the audience never knew what part of the monster we would see next or where made my heart pound the entire time.
Part of the genius is the design by H.R. Giger who was obsessed with monsters, sex, and robotics (his art is seriously weird, go look). The other part is Ridley Scott’s vision that the alien look realistic and his decision to keep it as much in the shadows as possible and just hint at it’s full form.
As fiction writers, it’s tempting to think we never have to worry about the zipper-down-the-monster’s-back problem. But focusing on the realism of the monster will help make it more frightening. Seeing the saliva as the monster stalks it’s next victim, watching the twitch of it’s fingers, or the tightening of it’s tail around a man’s neck shows the audience what the monster is hungering for. This thing was a character, with its own motivations and goals, not just an antagonist.
There’s a ton of atmosphere at work in this film and a great score (which translates as style and word choice to me as a writer). It especially did a great job with the claustrophobia of horror, the sense that the characters had no where to go and no way to get there. The story used space in an interesting way. At the beginning, they are safely sleeping in tiny coffins. Then they are more of less cheerfully confined in their small space ship. On the alien planet, they have poor visibility making the outdoors feel only slightly less constricting than their ship. Then they enter the largest space in the film, which is absolutely clear, uncluttered by equipment, and enormous. This is where Kane is attacked by the monster that will kill them all.
The other thing I wanted to point out was the characters.
According to my favorite subtitle of The Beast Within: The Making of Alien, “Truckers in Space: Casting,” the original script was written for an all male cast and kind of as a throw-away for a studio pressured by feminists and civil rights activists, the writers included the line all crew members can be unisex. They expected women and minorities to be added, but they never expected Ripley (the main character) would end up a woman. The director wanted the strongest actors he could find so he didn’t have to worry about getting a good performance and could focus on the visuals, so that’s why all of the cast (with the exception of the Alien) are over 30 (almost, Weaver is 29). And for those of you following my interest in theater, Scott used a fun mash-up of method (they all had detailed backstories written for them), improvisation (one again no own but John Hurt knew what was about to go down in the chest burst scene), and traditional hyper-realism techniques (sticky tape on the chairs, bags under eyes, very realistic relaxed delivery of lines).
The age of the actors, the wear and tear on the set, the “just folks” dialogue and over-talking gave the film a really mundane, day-to-day quality. Because it was not shiny, attractive young people, in a shiny new spaceship going boldly about parts unknown, but jaded, annoyed workers routinely landing and repairing a dirty old clunker, the audience could really relate to these people. The audience got the sense that these weren’t so much astronauts and… well, truckers in space, competent people who got over their heads while following company policy.
One of the things that defines horror, is that the monsters live in our world. If we do not feel the threat of their presence we are reading fantasy or sci-fi. And while I certainly will not deny that Alien is a science fiction movie, I would argue that this is our world. These people are from our world.
There are no “chosen ones” in Alien. They are just unlucky schmucks doing their jobs who drew a shit detail and then tried desperately to survive. I think we can all relate to that. Even if we’re not in a space ship.
Just the same, and I’m not proud of this, I would have left the damned cat.