I’m happy to have my good college friend Mark Burridge back on the site for another Halloween Fifteen submission. Mark’s one of those people with a wacky “real writing job,” one that he literally gets paid to do (unlike yours truly; I do most of this stuff for free). Mark was kind enough to take on Alien during his downtime from the Pembroke Mariner and Express, discussing the reasons why the film can be considered a classic and how it has lasted so long in the good graces of horror fans. Read his thoughts below, and be sure to check out his work at the Pembroke Mariner and Express, especially if you live in that area.
What makes Alien a classic horror movie is what sets it apart from the typical. There isn’t a necessity to shock at every turn, and certainly no slew of gory dismemberments.
Are those things in the movie? Sure. But, the way it is done is masterful in that the viewer feels more like they’ve watched a thrilling drama than anything decidedly scary. No one is getting nightmares after watching Alien, although they might have covered their eyes during the midst of the tension.
The movie begins as the passengers of a futuristic freighter-style spaceship called the Nostromo are awoken months early in their long journey back to Earth. They are being signaled to a planet, and it is revealed that a side trip is required if humans believe intelligent beings exist on a passing location. During the expedition to the planet one of the crew members is attacked by a small skeletal, almost hand-like creature, and when they bring him back on the ship, the crew inadvertently sets the horror in motion, trapping themselves on the craft with a killing machine with highly acidic blood and excellent hiding skills.
The film has a similar tone to space epic 2001 A Space Odyssey, which came out in 1968, 11 years before Alien first premiered. In both films the vastness of space is highlighted and the isolation and quiet that the people are subjected to is emphasized. Both films also live and die by the creation of tension.
There isn’t any form of scare in Alien until the creature pounces onto Kane’s face at the 34-minute mark. The next scare doesn’t happen until 55 minutes when the now famous belly burst scene happens.
Before and in between there are light moments, and the music highlights the film’s duality by dancing between tense creepy sounds and other music that is borderline whimsical.
Some horror films establish tension just to blow it back in the viewer’s face by beginning an endless loop of screams, attacks, jumps, and gore. Alien isn’t one of these, instead, the film finds creative different ways to recreate the anxiety the viewer felt before those first scares. The camera operates from a variety of odd angles, the music fades in and out reminiscent of a heartbeat, and one attack is even depicted by showing the face of the cat, which would be taking in the death of one of the ship’s crew.
The film has several interesting characters, including the ship’s fearless leader, Dallas, played by Tom Skerritt and Parker, played by Yaphet Kotto, the chief engineer on the ship who questions most every decision made by anyone.
However there are really only two important characters, Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, and Ash played by Ian Holm.
Ash is the ship’s science officer and Ripley is the warrant officer. The two are at odds throughout the first half of the film, highlighted when Ash lets the crew back on the ship with the alien, against Ripley’s wishes.
Holm is steady and menacing as Ash, who is not at all what he seems. Weaver meanwhile captures the strength in Ripley’s character, keeping an abrasive and borderline arrogant tone throughout while crossing back and forth between horrified and brave.
Although some of the film’s special effects have fallen out of date, for the most part, the reality is still palpable. It doesn’t take a lot of suspended belief for the viewer to see the creature in front of them as real, or sense the size of the ship – somehow massive and claustrophobic at the same time.
Overall, it is easy to understand how the film turned Ridley Scott into an acclaimed director and Sigourney Weaver into an icon. The originality of the scares, the quality of the filmmaking and effects, the believability of the acting and most of all, the unique vision that Scott brought to the film makes Alien one of the most worthwhile horror films ever made.