- Review by Leon Mason
REVIEWED: Alien (1979)
T-minus 10 minutes...
There is a lot to be said for superior cinema, and let’s go back to the late '70s when horror was in a transitional phase. The Exorcist had changed the roadmap, Hammer and all the others got left behind. The future was intense, realistic, and damn scary. Where could the frights be found next? Throughout that decade some films ploughed into territory previously unthought of, entered places the audience feared to go. The next stage: space. There had been thrilling films set off this planet, there had been quality films with that as a playground. 2001 being the highest contributor.
What came in 1979 people were not ready for, however. Levels of density and detail, the dark disturbing sexual imagery, and sublimation of an audience’s expectations of what horror can be. Heady stuff indeed. Much has been said of the metaphors; H.R. Giger’s imagination ran riot in the interiors of an unknown planet, and ran deep into the damp soil of where you do not want to tread. Impregnation, penetration, and all of it against your will. A power struggle, all set in an industrial hinterland which is made up of the character’s temporary home, and their own deathbeds. With a political underlay, union struggles, and poverty line blue collar mentality, the ship was filled with human beings. Space truckers, as they became known. Characters who were deeply missing in the later prequels, where the protagonists were merely fodder for a beast that already had its setup, and the director’s main concerns were ideas of existential questioning; like where do we come from, why are we here, and who made us. The best horror films have no context, they deal in the now. Kept pure and simple. The primeval quality of this original cannot be denied. It sticks its teeth deep into your skin, and never lets go.
With a sci-fi backdrop, this picture never forgets it is a horror film first. You can put horror into any situation, because it is us. We are the ones who carry it. There had never been a film shot like Alien before, nor one that sounded like it. Usually there is a precedent, yet here it set a new standard. You were surrounded, a barrage of sights and audio attacks. In an age where the jump scare is dead, due to overuse, it is near impossible to imagine how the average person who went to experience this managed to deal with this new kind of shock. It was revolutionary. Most people recall the scene where John Hurt’s character has a bad mealtime, and it cannot be said those events do not hit you like a train at full speed. The fact that it feels so real is no accident, as the actors had not a clue the impact would be so dramatic, and reacted suitably. However, the real slap to the face is Ash being revealed as an android. His subtle turning, and horrific aggression that builds as he takes control of his duties are unsurpassed. He goes ballistic, and you can’t help think what the hell is going on as he throws Ripley around like a toy given to a pitbull. His instinct is intact, as his head comes apart from his body. The milky blood shoots all over the screen.
The final moments are as intense as anything seen in horror, possibly only matched by the ending of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The countdown is on, and just when you think it’s safe to breathe there is one more twist. That "perfect organism" whose "structural perfection is matched only by its hostility" is a plucky antagonist and will stop at nothing to survive, as the ultimate killing machine.
Alien is the best example of the 4K format and should be seen as such, with at least a 5.1 cinema sound system. That way the full benefits of one of the greatest shock films can be had. The effort put in to scare you will be felt, and nobody will hear you scream in space.