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 one 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 watch 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 you when you 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 that Ellen Ripley was the sole survivor from the original. When I watched it for the very first time, it was back in the age of VCR’s and VHS tapes, and the one I obtained from my favorite video store was a fairly old copy that 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 TV 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″ or maybe a 17″ set which was already on its last legs after years of use. Didn’t have any surround system to enhance the experience, so I just tried to be happy that I had a set to view it on at all. At least I didn’t blow out the speaker in the TV!
Having said all that, “Alien” still had my hairs standing on end throughout. Even though I knew who would live and die, the suspense and tension was extreme throughout, and you never ever felt safe on board the spaceship Nostromo. I can still remember hiding my eyes and 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 “Alien” 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 to Earth and just want to be home already. The writers also gave the actors dialogue that was never too heavy on the techno babble, and hearing them 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 it is “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 leapt up at the cast member about to meet his maker, it was completely unexpected and defined the jump out of your seat moment.
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 finds out that the Nostromo crew was made to pick up an alien organism to bring back for study and that they were expendable, it only further demonstrates just how much alone everyone is on that ship. To find that 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 is stronger than ever. Of course, are cynicism today has us expecting this from any corporation we work with today, so we’re more prepared for that then the Nostromo crew was.
A lot of credit should also go to the late Jerry Goldsmith (may he rest in peace) for creating a music score that adds subtly to the action, or at least until the film’s last half hour when space feels even smaller than before. His music touches on the tension inherent in each character without becoming melodramatic, and it times 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 it reminds us of how unsettling it can be when our surroundings become far too quiet for comfort.
All of this leads to one of the most intense climaxes in movie 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 that you can finally breathe a much needed sigh of relief. Even if you have heard the plot of this movie and know how it 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 that 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 TV 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 been worth watching.