We’re celebrating our new Horror Award with a series of articles about our favorite films and TV shows in horror. Find out what scares us the most… and what we’re looking for from a horror script! Next up: ALIEN…
This article contains spoilers.
Walking a fine line between two genres, ALIEN is the very definition of sci-fi/horror. Whatever you may think of its many (and varied) sequels, it’s hard to ignore the impact that it has had, not just on horror but on filmmaking entirely.
And yes, many of those sequels have been… well, dubious, at best. The first follow up – ALIENS – quickly cemented itself as one of the greatest action films of all time, but unfortunately it’s all been down hill from there, beginning with the turbulent production of ALIEN 3 and continuing with director Ridley Scott’s prequel series… which seems determined to undermine everything that ever made the series good.
Not to mention a certain crossover which will remain nameless because we’d prefer to pretend it never happened.
But what made the original ALIEN so great? To be honest, that’s a hard question to answer – because there are so many things that made it great.
In many ways, it uses traditional horror concepts: the crew of a spacecraft are forced to fight off a deadly alien creature that has made its way aboard and is intent on slaughtering everything it can gets its claws on. It’s actually a classic haunted house scenario, trapping the protagonists in a confined environment with a monster.
Except, you know, in space.
But right from the beginning, this is a film that sets itself apart. To us, the key word here is in the very title: ALIEN. The film stakes a claim to that word and builds on it, making us feel uneasy by confronting us with places and situations and creatures that feel inherently other.
When the crew of the Nostromo enter a derelict alien spaceship to investigate a distress call, there’s an immediate feeling of wrongness. The long deceased pilot, decaying in his seat; the sense of age and ruin; and, of course, the deadly cargo of eggs – one of which promptly hatches, giving birth to a creature that immediately latches on to someone’s face.
It’s striking that we’re told so little about this derelict. We never find out anything about the dead pilot, where the eggs came from, or why the ship crashed. We’re just left with the feeling that something is terribly wrong.
That’s a feeling that only continues. As the creature goes through its life stages, from Facehugger to Chestburster to fully grown acid-bleeding, rampaging killing machine, there has never been something which is so terrifying in such a primal way.
And that is because, in short, there has never been an alien that has ever felt so alien.
Helped along by the superb, twisted designs of H.R. Giger, the alien seems strange and unnatural, while also tapping into our most primal fears of a perfect predator that is impossible to fight. It’s this combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar that makes it scare us so much.
There are many other things to be lauded about ALIEN. The fact that the alien itself is rarely seen, heightening the suspense; the confined, claustrophobic design of the environments; a great female lead character who emerges as the lead mainly by out-surviving everyone else.
To us, however, it’s primarily the concepts and monster design that makes ALIEN work so well. This is a film that knows how to tap into our deepest, darkest fears, coming up with something utterly alien to us and then thrusting it in our faces (quite literally, in fact).
World-building and monster design can be a key part of creating a successful horror film, and this is where ALIEN is most successful. As a writer, you’re unlikely to be doing the kind of design work that H.R. Giger did yourself, but you can always look to such artists to inspire you – or even hope to inspire them…
Enjoyed reading our review of ALIEN? Take a look at our reviews of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and THE WITCH too – and don’t forget to submit your own horror script to the WriteMovies Horror Award 2019!