I talk so much about awful horror movies, I figured it was time to discuss one that is a masterpiece. Alien is a monster/slasher movie, and one of the best examples of the subgenre. It is not the traditional slasher movie, but it follows the formula of a killer picking off characters.
Whereas when I discussed The Thing, I praised it for its use of paranoia, Alien is great because of the way it uses darkness and claustrophobia. Both the dark, and tight spaces, are fears that go back to our childhood, and the fear we feel of these two things as a species, goes much deeper than the cheap fears most horror movies try to exploit. Alien doesn’t need to rely on mindless jump scares to scare people.
Alien can be scary just by being slow. Like in the scene where we first see the Xenomorph in its full form. The character has his back turned in a dark and damp room. A tail slowly descends from the ceiling. It is tough to tell what the tail is because it is dark, and it kind of blends in with the chains hanging from the ceiling. Then the full alien drops down. But still, it is tough to see. And that is the magic. We see its form, but it is still an unknown. And an unknown is way scarier than something plainly present on screen in front of us.
When the movie crams into tight spaces, the audience feels that claustrophobia as well. Watching the characters crawl around in vents while there is a killer Alien on the loose is way scarier than watching anything that happens in Friday the 13th or Halloween.
The movie ramps up the tension by giving us characters that we care about. So many horror movies have characters who are easy to throw away and are tough to distinguish from each other. So when they die, we do not care. But in Alien, each character has a personality. They all are unique, and we are made to care about all of them.
The twist of the one character being an android is actually surprising and serves a purpose. it adds a second layer of tension and explains the characters actions. It is also a trope that other movies would try to replicate in the future, and fail. In fact, this movie created many horror tropes that other movies would try to copy. The fake cat scare is a tired cliche today, but Alien used it masterfully. The slow build up, as they use the motion detector to track the alien. We are led to believe the alien is in this locker, and then a cat pops out. It is so effective and contributes to the atmosphere the movie is building.
The movie also uses silence beautifully. There is not much of a score throughout the movie, and it works. Many movies feel the need to throw a creepy score over the top of the movie, but Alien lets the stuff on screen speak for itself.
And of course, it has one of the best scenes in horror history, with the chest burster. Another scene where the silence helps. It has become iconic and is scary without a jump cue. We are led to believe everything is okay for now. They are at a location we usually assume to be safe, the kitchen table. And then the horror strikes and rips through Jon Hurt’s character’s chest. It works so well.
The acting is good, especially from Sigourney Weaver. The direction is great, the camera work is great. It truly is a masterpiece of horror cinema. It is my second favorite horror movie after The Thing. I am glad Aliens went in a different direction and made it more of an action movie because a straight horror film could have never lived up to this movie.
Let it be a lesson to people who try to make a horror movie. Do not set out trying to scare us with jumps. Consider the things we fear as a species and use those concepts.