I saw it on TV, alone at night. My mom worked as a bartender, so naturally I had stayed up late to watch stuff that would give me nightmares. Although I had seen other scary movies–sneaking downstairs when I was younger to watch snippets of Halloween III, Children of the Corn, Poltergeist–I had never seen anything like the oil slick creature sneaking through the air ducts of the spaceship to dismember and impregnate its crew. There are three things that give Alien a place of honor in my personal scary movie listing: the design of the monster and ship, the deadly games in the dark, and Ripley, the badass lead character who would go on to star in the rest of the franchise.
H.R. Giger, the artist who did the concept design of the alien and the ship they find on LV-426, was seriously weird and brilliant. His work is disturbingly sexual, and the piece they based the concept of the titular alien on is full of exposed underworkings and features a phallic head and tail. This shiny-yet-organic art formed the basis of the mysterious ship where the alien eggs are first found, and it fascinated me with its grossness. Later I would look up his work and be entranced (and a little repelled) by the combination of skulls and pistons, sex and death. Those concepts were captured in the design for the alien, and made it truly haunting. I wasn’t really into the concept of aliens, and although I’m sure I’d seen E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I hadn’t given much thought to whether they’d be friendly or not, but Alien convinced me that unfriendly aliens were indeed terrifying. The fact that the facehuggers should have smothered its victim but didn’t, the reveal that it was laying eggs inside its human host, squicked me out beyond belief. I was a little too young to see the rape aspect of it, but the horror the actors portrayed told me there was something terrifying that I didn’t grasp, and that made the alien’s actions even scarier.
It was the deadly cat-and-mouse chase that really scared me when I watched the movie. The chestburster scene was shocking and gross, but the characters fumbling around in the dark, disappearing one by one, is where the tension of this movie lies. It made all of the human characters prey, and I had a too easy time putting myself in their place, in the dripping dark where something with razor-sharp teeth waited right behind me. The fact that it could hide in plain sight made it so much worse. The clattering chains, dripping vents, and oddly organic feel to the ship made it impossible for the human characters to hide, but the alien seemed at home, and I wracked my brain trying to figure out what kind of place this alien must be native to, in order to blend so easily into the shadows and pipes of a spaceship. The ship they find it in hinted at weirdness beyond comprehension, although we now know it’s not the aliens ship.
And last but certainly not least, there was Ripley. Originally Ridley Scott had written all of the roles as unisex, but at some point thought the main character would be a man. Then he cast Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, and that took this movie to a new level for me.
I won’t lie. I honestly believe if Ripley had be a man, Alien wouldn’t have had the impact on me that it did with a lead I could identify with. She’s different from the typical Final Girl you find in horror movies–a virginal boyish figure that survives in order to kill the bad guy in the movie. While Ripley is the last survivor of the Nostromo, the sexual horror in the movie comes from the rape-like impregnation of the alien, not the human character’s behavior. And while Ripley does adhere to the rules, the slaughter of the crew doesn’t have the punishment aspect of most horror movies, and she kills the creature not through a phallic weapon, but by blowing it out of an airlock and launching it into space. There wasn’t the cartoonishly ham-handed lesson I had seen in the bits of other horror movies; there wasn’t a way to appease this monster, or some behavior that could keep you safe. These weren’t drunken teenagers stumbling through the woods. They were well-trained and intelligent adults, and this creature played with them before killing them in savage ways that were shown in shadows and by screams suddenly cut short. Alien wasn’t abiding by the rules of horror movies, so anything could happen.
Throughout the film, Ripley keeps her head, and uses her authority to try to save the rest of the crew. She’s practical yet compassionate, and I so badly wanted her to live. The last scene in the shuttle, where she discovers the alien snuck aboard, was totally engrossing, from Weaver’s tiny panties to her brilliant plan to get the alien out. She was so very vulnerable in her underwear, that I could hardly breathe the first time I watched this scene, but she saved herself with her wits. If the alien symbolized all that is debased and primal in man, Ripley showed how our intelligence and ingenuity could win out over those drives.
Much to my embarrassment, Alien was a little too much for me to handle, and I asked to sleep in my mom’s bed for the first time in years. She seemed a little bemused but agreed, and I finally fell asleep after twitching at every noise. Right then my mom woke up, and told me she had had a terrible nightmare, almost like the fear I felt had been contagious. Now I’ve seen Alien and its sequels so many times I can recite lines from heart, and the visceral horror is lost. I still love watching it, though, and it will always be one of my favorite movies.