I’ve written about the film Alien a couple of times here, but I’ve yet to come out and say that it’s my favorite horror movie. I wrote about how the alien creature itself has given me more nightmares than anything else, and how much I think of the big, out-of-nowhere twist involving Ash. Within the former piece, I go into what I feel makes the monster more frightening than any other I’ve seen on a screen or read about on a page. In the second piece I go into not just the unexpected revelation that Ash is a robot, but also how the film is built around escalating and unexpected threats.
But the movie keeps first-time viewers off-balance in other ways, starting from the very beginning, when we see the crew of the Nostromo wake up. Much has been made over the years of how the film swerves away from Dallas–the ship’s captain–being the ostensible hero, to set up Ripley as the true protagonist. I’d say it gives us a surprise in that regard even earlier, as the film feels like it initially belongs to Kane.
He is the first person to wake from the pods, and when the crew reaches the moon where they will find the deadliest creatures in the solar system, Kane proves more intrepid than the rest, which, of course, results in him being face-hugged into a coma.
Still, even after the facehugger releases him and he awakens again, there’s a sense that Kane could still be a feature player in this story. The famous chestburster scene isn’t just memorable because of its violence (which isn’t really as graphic as its reputation makes it seem, even by contemporary standards1), but because up until that moment it still feels like Kane is going to be sticking around.
Many notable sci-fi horror stories that preceded Alien centered on human beings being possessed, mutated or replicated by some contaminant or invader, instead of immediately killed by it. For example, a year prior, the latest adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers had come out. And in the same year, Cronenberg’s The Brood featured a lead character who survived most of the movie as the host/mother to the monstrous threat. Other works in this vein (or at least something close to it) that preceded Alien include Demon Seed (1977), Embryo (1976), Rabid (1977), Shivers (1975)2 and God Told Me To (1976).
I imagine many first-time viewers back when the film was released thought Kane would pivot from potential protagonist to alien-possessed antagonist. Instead he dies abruptly and painfully. Kane goes from chuckling at his own joke about the food over dinner…
to exceptionally dead…
…in about 68 seconds. In a little over a minute, the man who could easily be mistaken for the lead is out of the picture. And that’s just another step in the escalation of the story’s horror.
I wrote about this before, in the previously referenced post, but one of the terrific things about Alien is that, unlike most other horror films–even the great ones–for first-time viewers its exact threat wouldn’t have been apparent until you were deep in the film. In Jaws, you know it’s a shark from the source material, the poster, the trailer, the TV ads, the reviews, and if you missed all of that, then from the persistent talk of a shark from very early on in the film. I love Jaws so much I rented out a theater to watch it with friends for my birthday a couple of years back. This isn’t a criticism, just a point of contrast. Jaws is similar to Halloween, The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, The Omen, and other contemporaries of Alien in this respect.
Even the egg on the poster for Alien doesn’t look like the one in the film. The original trailer is famously spoiler-free, dialogue-free, and even narration-free. And this isn’t merely the case of the marketing selling a mystery that the film isn’t interested in. The movie is structured with surprises in mind, right down to what the alien itself will ultimately look like. The film essentially introduces the xenomorph to you in three different ways before it reveals its ultimate form. The fleshy egg, the facehugger, the chestburster, and then finally the full-grown monster.
And after that the film still was not done presenting new threats, because as is well-known by now, Ash is a damn robot, and he’s not on the side of the rest of the crew.
Something else I think speaks to how incredible Alien is: among the many other films that regularly make lists of the best or scariest horror flicks ever, it is in rarified air among the farthest removed from anything resembling reality or spiritual beliefs. Halloween has a killer that is an embodiment of evil, but is still a human being (at least until he demonstrates superhuman resilience) killing people in a suburb. You may disbelieve in ghosts and demons, but you can’t disbelieve that other people believe in hauntings and demonic possession, and The Exorcist and Amityville made sure to bring their horrors to recognizable homes and family situations.
Even people who believe in aliens don’t think they resemble the xenomorph. There was nothing remotely relatable about the situation it presented. Jaws made people fear going to the beach. Psycho made people afraid to take a shower. The Shining made people fear big, old hotels and isolation. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made people fear getting lost on a road trip in the wrong part of the country. Even modern, beloved horror flicks like Hereditary are typically set in places any of us could conceivably visit, with characters we could actually meet, if we don’t already live in these places or know these people.
While the crew of the Nostromo are often described as “space truckers” (oil rig workers or a boat’s crew might be a more accurate comparison), nobody’s real world experience remotely resembles the lives of these characters in any meaningful way. No roughnecks working in the sea on an oil platform are going through cryo-sleep. No crew of a cargo ship is being forced by their company to investigate a weird signal on a remote island on their way home. Alien presented a story nobody on Earth could convince themselves would ever happen to them, and it still generated legendary (perhaps a bit embellished–but that’s part of the fun) audience reactions on release. It was working with a higher degree of difficulty from that standpoint, and still pulled off its scares flawlessly.
Best of all, for a movie that so heavily features constant surprises, and that was (massively) successful in part due to the shock-value of some of its violence–which generated “you’ve got to see this!” buzz–it holds up brilliantly. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t diminish it. The sequel, Aliens, is undoubtedly more fun, and it’s the movie I watched far more when I was younger, but Alien is more suspenseful, more intense, more inventive, and has ultimately become more gratifying for me as I’ve gotten older.
Once upon a time, up until my late twenties or so, if you asked me what my favorite horror movie was, I would have named about five different flicks and told you I can’t pick just one. There came a point, however–with all respect and continued love to the others I used to list–when it was undeniable that I cherished one above all the others.
Alien is my favorite horror film.
- I often look to Jaws as a point of reference for this sort of thing, as it was rated PG (at a time when PG-13 didn’t exist, and the standards were quite different) and also the biggest hit of all time upon release. You can’t get much more mainstream than that, and it has a couple of deaths that I’d argue are at least as bloody and gruesome as what happens to Kane.
- Cronenberg unsurprisingly makes multiple appearances here