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Why is Alien Still Scary?
By Ryan Brunt
Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic Alien turned 40 in May. This prompted me to re-watch it for the first time in quite a few years, mostly to see if it still holds up today. It always seems like horror movies from Alien’s era that we see once or twice as kids are never quite as scary when we watch them later on, and I was curious if Alien would go that route for me. Would the once-horrifying Xenomorph now seem a little hokey, like an extraterrestrial Chucky?
The short answer is no. Alien is still terrifying in a way that few films, before or since, really are. That got me thinking; why is it still so effective as a piece of horror? And full disclosure: I am by no means a horror fan; it was all I could do to make it through this movie without covering my eyes, so there’s plenty of qualities I’m sure I missed. Maybe a more accurate question would be “Why is Alien so scary to me, a known coward?” Two things stuck out to me.
The first thing that was on my mind when I sat down to re-watch Alien was the special effects. Science fiction and horror movies really live or die by the effectiveness of their visuals, and I had a feeling that Alien would be no exception, given the fact that the antagonist of the film is a 9-foot-tall alien monstrosity- if the bad guy looks, well, bad, the movie won’t really work. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that even the most groundbreaking special effects tend to age like milk, so I was a little worried how the movie’s effects would hold up. And I’ll be upfront about it: Alien very much looks like a movie made in 1979. But interestingly enough, the less-advanced special effects actually made the movie scarier. Something about the physicality of the aliens was really unsettling; everything in the movie actually occupies a physical space, and for me that makes it harder to write them off as fake or unrealistic (see: the extremely disgusting face-hugger). And this could just be my deep-seated fear of mascots and the Sesame Street characters at theme parks coming home to roost, but watching the Xenomorph stalk around the spaceship and knowing that it was something I could theoretically reach out and touch made the movie even more unsettling.
That uncomfortable feeling of pseudo-reality also extends to the setting of the movie itself. The cramped, dirty halls of the starship Nostromo are probably one of the most uncompromising backdrops for a movie in recent memory. And that starkness was certainly on purpose. The simplicity of the setting, in addition to the mostly interchangeable characters that populate the ship, makes the dread that comes with watching Alien even more palpable. There’s no other feeling for the viewer to latch on to. I noticed while I was watching the movie that there were zero distractions from the horror; there are no lush sets to seek refuge in, the characters, apart from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and her cat Jones, are essentially flat- they don’t have much of an interior life to take focus away from the movie’s premise. This leaves the filmmakers free to level all their attention on scaring me. Alien, much like its titular antagonist, is a pure creature; its only job is to be very, very scary.
So, what did I learn while re-watching Alien? The first, and probably most important thing, I found out is that I should probably keep the number of horror movies I watch as close to zero as possible. It’s just not a lifestyle I’m built for. But I also came to a key realization on why the movie works so well: sometimes less is more. Alien continues to work so well because of its simple premise and, to modern eyes, simpler effects. Will it be as scary after another forty years? I’ll still be terrified, that’s for sure.
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