In regards to horror movies, “John Carpenter’s The Thing” ranks highest on the list of my all-time favorite movies in general. However, if you were to ask me what I consider to be the scariest movie ever, the first that quickly comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Now considered a classic haunted house kind of movie, it freaked me out far more than I had expected it to. These days, if I come across someone who hasn’t seen “Alien,” I would be desperate to take the time and watch it with them just to see the look on their face. What may seem like a harmless old science fiction movie still has the power to unnerve and creep up on its audience when they least expect it.
Now when I say that this movie freaked me out more than I expected it to, there are a number of reasons why: I ended up seeing James Cameron’s sequel “Aliens” beforehand, so I already knew Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) was the sole survivor from the original. When I watched “Alien” for the very first time, it was back in the days of VCR’s and VHS tapes, and the one I obtained from my favorite video store was a fairly old copy which showed a bit of wear and tear. When it came to watching it, I got consigned to my parents’ bedroom as they had already called dibs on the big television in the family room which was connected to a “super cool” stereo system. The TV set in their bedroom was tiny by today’s standards. As I remember, it was a 13-inch set which was already on its last legs after years of use. This one didn’t have any surround sound system to enhance the experience, so I just tried to be happy I had a TV to view it on at all.
Having said all this, “Alien” still had my hairs standing on end throughout. Even though I knew who would live and die, the suspense and tension were extreme throughout, and you never ever felt safe on board the spaceship Nostromo. I can still remember hiding my eyes and would be turning the volume down at certain points because my heart threatened to stop beating a few times. Imagine if I had watched it for the first time on a big screen TV with surround system, or better yet, in a movie theater when it originally came out! I wouldn’t have slept for days! Some movies play better on the silver screen than on your television, but “Alien” appears to work on either format with the same degree of success.
There are many different reasons why Scott’s film remains such an effective sci-fi horror classic to this day. For me, it starts with the characters and how down to earth they are. While other outer space movies have characters who revel in the wonder of what’s out there, all the workers on the Nostromo treat their dark habitat as just another office job they take to get by. When we meet up with them, they are on their way back to Earth and just want to be home already. The writers also gave the actors dialogue which was never too heavy on the technobabble and hearing the characters talk about how they deserve full shares for the work they did defines them as blue collar workers. These are not brilliant scientists looking to discover new planets; they’re just people working for the man. The time Scott takes in introducing all these individuals pays off by the time we are given a visceral introduction to the alien of the movie’s title.
Now let’s talk about this alien which was designed by H.R. Geiger, a Swiss surrealist artist. I can’t really compare it to other movie creatures I’ve seen in the slightest because it looks so frighteningly unique in its construction. Its mouth hides an additional set of jaws that lunges out at unsuspecting victims as if they are “faster than a speeding bullet.” Furthermore, there is something quite phallic about that jaw in how it juts out at you without warning or of any thought of the damage it is about to inflict. Its lethal penetration is highly unnerving in how it reminds the viewer of what we all agree constitutes a serious and unconscionable violation to the human body.
But one of Ridley’s most brilliant moves with “Alien” was in not showing the creature fully. We only got glimpses of it throughout the film until the end, and even then we weren’t entirely sure of all that we saw. It was all up to our imaginations to figure out what kind of a threat this creature is. This added immeasurably to the film’s infinite suspense and unending tension. Plus, with the spaceship Nostromo designed to look all dark and shabby with not much light to be found in certain sections, this made it easier for the creature to hide. When it leaped up at the cast member about to meet his maker, it was completely unexpected and defined the jump out of your seat moment for me.
As the movie goes on, we get to an even more frightening aspect; of how corporations can put profits above their workers so coldly. When Ripley discovers the Nostromo crew was made to pick up an alien organism to bring back for further study and that they were expendable, it only further demonstrates just how much alone everyone is on the ship. To realize the company which has employed you couldn’t care less about your existence makes you fully aware of your immediate surroundings, and the instinct to survive becomes stronger than ever. Of course, are cynicism today has us expecting this from any corporation we work with, so we’re more prepared for this than the Nostromo crew was.
A lot of credit also goes to the late Jerry Goldsmith for creating a music score which adds subtly to the action, or at least until the film’s last half hour when the realm of outer space feels even smaller than before. His music touches on the tension inherent in each character without becoming melodramatic, and at times it sounds like invisible ghosts hovering over the unprepared crew waiting to strike. Also, the use of silence in certain scenes makes it even more frightening as we are reminded of how unsettling things can be when our surroundings become far too quiet for comfort.
All of this leads to one of the most intense climaxes in cinema history as we are fully aware of time running out. Just when you think the movie’s over, there’s still another horrendous challenge to overcome. It’s in the movie’s last minute where you can finally breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even if you know how of this movie will end, it is still an intensely riveting experience that never lets up for a second. The look in Ripley’s eyes as she makes her way to the escape shuttle perfectly mirrors our own emotions as she is forced into a situation which leaves her with no other options to consider.
I still have very vivid memories of seeing this movie on that unspectacular little television set in my parents’ bedroom while they enjoyed something on Masterpiece Theater with more advanced technology. As the beginning credits began to roll, I was convinced that sitting through this would be a piece of cake. Coincidentally, I also felt the same way about the original version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when I rented it through Netflix. “Alien” remains one of the most truly terrifying experiences I have ever had watching a movie either on the big screen or the small one. To this day, it remains an effectively scary movie which has lost none of its power. Now if 20th Century Fox had fully realized how all these elements had added to make such a great movie, those hopelessly pathetic “Alien vs. Predator” films might have actually been worth watching.
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