Why Alien is the most terrifying film ever made

Posted on 31 October 2014
By Jawa
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Halloween is here and you want a good scare?

Well you’re in luck. In cinemas this month celebrating its 25th anniversary with a re-release is the most terrifying film ever made.

With all cinematic genres you get more out if you put more in. The more you invest yourself in a story, the more you can restrain your disbelief, the more you are wrapped up in the world and events presented before you.

This seems even more relevant to horror films and for this reason I believe Alien to be one of the most unsettling, intense and terrifying films ever set to celluloid.

This is a haunted house story, in space. Ridley Scott has all the ingredients of a classic ‘Slasher Horror’ film but has freshened up the formula by setting it in deep space.

Don’t believe it’s a horror? Well check the tagline out – ‘In space no-one can hear you scream’.

Not only is this a haunted house tale but a combination of ‘Slasher Horror’ with its gruesome sudden deaths. It’s also a ‘Psychological Horror’ serial killer film with a group of innocents being picked off each in turn by a silent, stalking ‘creature’ in the same vain as Jason of Friday 13th fame or Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise. On top of those combined staples of horror is added the grotesque monster in all four of its forms.

Firstly a grotesquely pulsing egg sack with vaginal overtones. Then an arachnophobes nightmare in the form of a leaping, scuttling, multi-legged creature called the ‘facehugger’. Stage three is the shocking appearance of a completely new breed of snake-like creature that finally develops into the fully formed and brutally-murderous killer creature the Xenomorph complete.

If that’s still not scary enough for you then wait for the horrific underwear Sigourney Weaver playing the hero ‘Ripley’ sports at the film’s conclusion. Those are some ’70s style tighty whiteys.

What are the elements of ‘Horror’? According to some there are five key elements to the horror genre – Fear, Surprise, Suspense, Mystery, and Spoilers.

‘Fear’ is the obvious foundation of Horror stories. Playing on an audience’s personal fears or encouraging them to feel the fear of others and the unknown. Alien contains many moments playing on natural fears such as being in an unfamiliar environment, not being in control of one’s own destiny, being in the uncommon position of being hunted as we have been usurped at the top of the food chain. There are other natural historical fears of being isolated as Ripley increasingly becomes.

The second element ‘Surprise’ is of course crucial. You’ve created your story and it’s villain but you need to surprise the audience out of their assumptions and presumptions. This is an area where Alien succeeds at a masterful level. The audience is constantly unsure of what is going on. You are allowed to fill in gaps in expository dialogue with your own imagination and of course it is this that leads you down dark paths and permits the film to catch you out and surprise you with its twisting plot.

Alien is a film that with its shape-shifting creature doesn’t allow you many moments when you feel relaxed and calm in the knowledge that you know what is going on and what will happen next. Even when it does it then twists on its audience and surprises them with its latest revelation. In fact this film repeatedly shocks its audience and also contains perhaps the greatest ‘surprise’ moment in cinema history. A moment that has been spoiled somewhat by familiarity due to the film’s success, influence and subsequent imitation. If you don’t know what happens or are able to invest yourself so deeply in the story that anticipation of the moment is avoided then dinner with friends will never be quite the same again.

The third element ‘Suspense’ is where Alien really moves into a league of its own. From the opening shots and the gradual reveal of the film’s title, Alien is a film that never hurries, never rushing when it can take it’s time. It’s an effect emphasised by slow tracking shots, cameras panning around empty rooms, silence or Goldsmith providing a mournful, slow enigmatic soundtrack, stretches of time with little or no dialogue, and everything takes its time be it ships docking, people trekking through huge spaceships or characters crawling along miles of air ventilation ducts.

Scott allows the tension to build and build until you almost want to scream at the sense of foreboding being created and the elastic of your patience being stretched to breaking point before he allows you the relief of a gag or an attack. Essentially the film doesn’t rely on pop out shock/jump moments as much as its sequel. Rather we are introduced to the characters. We learn about them, their motivations and fears and then as the sense of foreboding builds we fear for them and in turn ourselves, having projected ourselves into their places. Thus the film is able to play on our hopes and fears ratcheting up the suspense with its foreshadowing of trouble.

One way this sense of foreboding is achieved is through the repeated presentation of these human beings as a powerless. They are overwhelmed by the scale and power of their environment. Be it storms on the strange planet, the scale of the Alien vessel that is clearly organic, or the crews’ demotion down the food chain as a predator replaces them as the alpha hunter and proceeds to pick them off one by one.

This in itself increases the tension and suspense as in a classic murder-mystery you know someone is going to killed in a moment but who and how you have no idea.

The fourth element is ‘Mystery’. Often overlooked these days and has been overtaken by ‘Suspense’ and ‘Surprise’. Leading an audience into mystery can lead to disengagement as an impatient modern viewer feels detached and unable to follow or predict the plot path. Alien embraces mystery though with huge amounts of story withheld from us until the final moments or even left unresolved to be picked up, developed or expanded upon in the sequels that followed. We learn little about the motivations or back stories of the characters initially. Over the following two hours we are enlightened as to the internal drives and fears of these characters but the mystery remains as to the purpose of the ship, why it’s so far out in deep space and who may be sabotaging attempts to control their new guest?

Finally the fifth element is the seemingly modern term of ‘Spoiler’.
The modern world of entertainment especially in film and television is peppered with warnings of ‘spoilers’. Although the concepts of surprise casting, plot twists and shock endings have been around as long as cinema itself the term ‘spoilers’ feels as contemporary as ‘twerking’ and ‘lol’.

We hear people saying look away now or hands over your ears if you don’t want any ‘spoilers’ as people try to avoid spoiling all the shocks, reveals and twists in the latest superhero blockbuster or similarly huge franchise instalment.

The truth is though that we all secretly love spoilers. A spoiler can be as small as one of the hero’s personal fears which when revealed is a spoiler for a later, shock, twist or revelation but this builds a sense of anticipation. Within ourselves we know that having revealed a fear of spiders, by the film’s end our hero will have had to face an arachnid of some kind.

Revealing some detail like this can make the viewer focus. It can lead to the viewer looking out for other revelations or connections to the initial reveal meaning that consciously or subconsciously the audience is reading the film in more depth and the spoiler has created greater anticipation and more susceptibility to suspense and surprise.

If those are the tools of ‘Horror’ and Alien uses those tools it is in conclusion a ‘Horror’ film. What type of ‘Horror’ film is it though?

Action Horror

Put simply this is an action film with all its hero vs villain, car chases, fights, weapons, explosions and generally frenetic action sequences but with the antagonist now a form of evil, be it serial killer or supernatural. Alien fits in to this category.

Body Horror

Typically the prevalence of masters like David Cronenberg and his films which focus on the deforming or invasion of the human body. Films such as Shivers, Videodrome, The Fly and Existenz are good examples but you could really pick any film from his ‘body of work’ and it will invariably contain some moment of stomach churning, skin itching uncomfortable body horror. Alien fits in to this category.

Comedy Horror

This one pretty much does what it says on the tin as it combines the elements of comedy and horror fiction. Although Alien is at times very amusing I don’t think we can put it into this category.

Gothic Horror

This is a type of story that contains elements of goth and horror. They are usually suspenseful. Some of the earliest horror movies were of this sub-genre. This isn’t really a natural fit with Alien although one could argue that many of Giger’s designs have strong gothic overtones and the Alien creature itself could be compared to both of gothic horrors leading antagonists Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster.

Natural Horror

This is a sub-genre of horror films featuring nature running amok in the form of mutated beasts, carnivorous insects, and normally harmless animals or plants turned into cold-blooded killers. This genre may sometimes overlap with the science fiction and action/adventure genre. Which is a definition that could be describing Alien. A before unseen form of nature runs amok demoting humanity on the food chain and what seemed a small ineffectual creature transforms into a ruthless killer.

Psychological Horror

Relies on characters’ fears, guilt, beliefs, eerie sound effects, relevant music, and emotional instability, to build tension and further the plot. Another definition that describes Alien almost perfectly.

Science Fiction Horror

Often revolves around subjects that include but are not limited to killer aliens, mad scientists, and/or experiments gone wrong. Need I say more?

Slasher Horror

Often revolves around a psychopathic killer stalking and killing a sequence of victims in a graphically violent manner, mainly with a cutting tool such as a knife or axe. Whilst the antihero or antagonist of Alien doesn’t use a knife or any tool other than its own claws and jaws, the manner in which the creature stalks and kills its victims one by one in a painfully suspenseful process is very much in keeping with the ‘Slasher’ film sub-genre.

Splatter Horror

These films deliberately focus on graphic portrayals of gore and graphic violence. Through the use of special effects and excessive blood and guts, they tend to display an overt interest in the vulnerability of the human body and the theatricality of its mutilation. Whilst I wouldn’t say Alien focuses on the gore, it’s groundbreaking and shocking portrayal of the effects of the ‘Aliens’ evolution on the human crew is stunning and means you can make a case for logging this film under ‘Splatter’.

Zombie Horror

Zombie films feature creatures who are usually portrayed as either reanimated corpses or mindless human beings. Distinct sub-genres have evolved, such as the “zombie comedy” or the “zombie apocalypse”. I think it would be slightly tenuous case if one tried to argue that Alien was a Zombie Horror but certainly in later instalments in the franchise you could argue that with the Aliens use of hives and its habit of cocooning victims some zombies are created. I did say it was a tenuous argument.

Alien in its final form is the result of multiple hands and minds all adding to the piece. A group coming together to create a superlative science fiction high point reached by few previously or since.

Strangely though it’s hard to call it a truly collaborative project as Ridley Scott is so clearly the dictator running the show and despite the continuing claims of important influence by Dan O’Bannon it is Scott that marshalled the many elements that came together to create a dark counter point to the great science fiction success released only two years prior that was Star Wars.

Anyone who doesn’t know the back story to Alien should pick up the new two-disc anniversary release which features exhaustive and fascinating behind the scenes footage of the sets, costumes, landscapes, models being created and the extensive special effects set pieces being shot.

It also gives insight into the committed acting from the battered and bruised cast and most amusingly into the squabbling that went on behind the scenes by those wanting to take control themselves. O’Brannon undeniably came up with the original story and concept of a darker science fiction film, more in the ‘Horror’ vein than his previous work on John Carpenter’s Dark Star. However once the film went into production he was reduced to a largely ignored consultant role.

Major influences on the final film include Ronald Shusset who co-wrote the story with O’Brannon and executive produced. David Giler and Walter Hill re wrote the script, Ron Cobb and Chris Foss designed all the human aspects of the film and H.R. Giger designed all aspects of the Alien’s presence.

Derek Vanlint deserves credit for his beautiful cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith equally for his haunting soundtrack. Terry Rawlings’ editing paces the drama to almost unbearable tension with its slow build and sudden flashes of motion and cutting.The sound scheme is equally powerful with silence used as powerfully as deafening storms on planet surfaces or ships launching into space.

In keeping with the biological heart of the film there seems to be a pulse beating throughout.Quietly and with a hypnotic, soothing tone at times but building to a driving, fear inducing drum beat at others.

Bringing all these elements together and marshalling all areas of what would become a legendary franchise was Ridley Scott directing only his second film and the work that would make him an international name.
His control of the project created a masterpiece.

Every element works in harmony to make this an utterly believable world that we are drawn and absorbed into until it’s ourselves cramped into a dark, greasy, humid ventilation shaft with something lurking somewhere in the shadows hunting us.

It’s the combination of many factors that make this film a masterpiece and terrifying. Even if all were listed here and you could bottle those elements to use on future projects there would still an intangible something missing that raises this film above most others including its hugely entertaining but ultimately more blunt and less subtle James Cameron sequel.

If you still don’t think this is ‘Horror’ enough for you, you might try the franchise spin-offs Alien vs Predator or Aliens vs Predator: Requiem. They are truly horrifying. Although sadly for all the wrong reasons or all the right reasons depending on your taste for ironic bad horror film watching.