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Home > Movies > Scary Stuff, Part 1: Alien

Scary Stuff, Part 1: Alien

October 24th, 2005

I’m taking a little vacation time in order to turn Halloween into a four-day weekend, with the express purpose of celebrating the ghoulish by indulging in as many horror DVDs as I can manage. Top of my list will be Night of the Lepus, the 1972 drive-in flick about a horde of gigantic, mutated rabbits. That’s right, bunny rabbits. No, bunnies aren’t scary, not even when they’re photographically enlarged and attacking DeForest Kelley. That’s not the point. The point is to bring on the monsters in all their variety, loathsome or cuddlesome.

As an appetizer, I decided to kick off the festivities a few days early by spinning the original Alien. I wanted to do so when my wife Vicky wasn’t around, because she’s one of the few people who believes it’s a comedy. (Apparently, when the “chestburster” zoomed across the dining table, she was reminded of a then-current commercial for “souped-up Minute Rice,” and it was all over for her.)

It may be blasphemous in some circles to say so, but I’ve come to believe that the original film is actually better than its highly-regarded successor, James Cameron’s Aliens. Don’t get me wrong, Aliens is an engaging film with better characterization and plenty of pulse-pounding action. It’s just that Alien is a marvel of mood and a supreme achievement in creature design. Cameron’s film builds on–but doesn’t surpass–its innovation.

Much credit should be given to the production art, including Ron Cobb’s spaceships, Moebius’ costumes and especially H.R. Giger’s groundbreaking monsters. While sex and death have long been intertwined in the horror genre, Giger’s beasts–ambulatory, biomechanical genitalia–were perfectly suited to the film’s focus on body horror and the reproductive cycle.

If the Alien had first appeared as a fully-formed, hulking menace, I don’t think that it would’ve been nearly as effective as the gradual introduction we’re given via the various stages of its life cycle. A lot of thought was put into the nature of the Alien’s biolgy, and it’s entirely credible as the “perfect organism” so praised by Science Officer Ash. Ridley Scott should also be praised for his restaint in showing off his central horror. Appearing a piece at a time, for a few seconds here and there, it’s hard to tell what it is aside from teeth, claws and drool. (Perhaps that’s also why it’s slightly disappointing when the full man-in-suit is revealed in the film’s final minutes.)

The movie’s oft-parroted tagline, “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream” befits the film’s evocative depiction of the terrible desolation and aloneness of deep space. Has any planet ever been as eerie as this wind-swept, twisted landscape, harboring a weirdly-organic, derelict starship? A lot of Alien is build-up, but this is one film in which the build-up is as gripping as the payoff.

One other aspect of this film that I find unusual is that the characters (with one significant exception) aren’t stalwart space explorers or scientific geniuses, but working-class stiffs who argue over union rules and bitch about the food. They’re in space for the paycheck, and their jobs are both highly technical and utterly mundane. The crew of the Nostromo are all competent, yet completely out of their league in dealing with the ravening horror that gets loose aboard their enormous mining vessel.

To be sure, Alien has some flaws. Once the Alien escapes, there’s too much reliance on monster movie cliches such as “let’s separate and get killed off one by one.” Plus, of course, a spring-loaded cat. And I’m not sure what practical purpose Sigourney Weaver’s absurdly-tiny underwear would serve. I’d think it would be very annoying to have one’s panties riding up while wearing a spacesuit.

Feline false alarms and souped-up chestbursters aside, Alien remains one of the signature achievements in both the horror and science-fiction genres.

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