Of all the holidays celebrated worldwide, no single day is loved by the Substream staff more than Halloween. With October’s arrival, the time has finally come to begin rolling out a slew of special features we have prepared in celebration of our favorite day.
31 Days Of Halloween is a recurring column that will run throughout the month of October. The goal of this series is to supply every Substream reader with a daily horror (or Halloween-themed) movie recommendation that is guaranteed to amplify your All Hallows’ Eve festivities. We’ll be watching every film the day it’s featured, and we hope you will follow along at home. Reader, beware, you’re in for a… spooky good time!
Day 27: Alien (1979)
If anyone tries to tell you that 1979’s Alien is not a horror movie, there’s likely one of two reasons: They either think that a film can only exist in one genre and the science fiction setting overrides the film’s horror aesthetic, or they are conflating the original film with its action oriented sequel, 1985’s Aliens. Each entry in the Alien franchise has had its own unique thematic and aesthetic identity, but the first film is most definitely a horror exercise, quite possibly one of the best ever put to film. This isn’t in spite of its science fiction trappings; it’s entirely because of them.
Everything about the film is alien, not just the titular creature. The gunmetal grey interior of the U.S.S. Nostromo is one of the first things we see, with only a vague title card giving us any sort of grounding to our time and place. We watch as the crew awakens from stasis to surroundings that they are familiar with, but the mechanical halls of the ship are as foreign to us as their discovery of an alien ship is to them. The designs of famed artist H.R. Giger blend the mechanical and the sexual in disquietingly subtle yet graphic ways, lending the ship less an aura of wide-eyed discovery and more an omnipresent dread that this isn’t a place where humans are meant to tread.
There’s an inherent terror of the unknown that director Ridley Scott purposely exploits by feeding into the deliberately slow pacing of science fiction of the 1970s. Science fiction prior to the ’80s was usually expressed through scientists and explorers working about their spaceship or research space, often alluding to the high concepts through dialogue until the special effects gimmick showed up in the third act to give the audience their money’s worth. Scott expertly uses that pacing to take control out of his characters’ hands; they aren’t scientists, but instead are a commercial crew carrying cargo for a corporation, plunged out of their depth by an edict that they are contractually obligated to comply with.
That’s actually perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of Alien: The known eventually becomes just as terrifying as the unknown. After it becomes clear that Weyland-Yutani, the corporate sponsor of this expedition, had actually sent out this crew to retrieve the alien lifeform, Ash the cyborg becomes just as much of a threat as the recent stowaway. He attempts to murder Ripley for knowing too much, a betrayal that speaks to the idea that even the institutions that we place our faith in may be out to get us. In the reaches of space, aboard the Nostromo, no one is safe from anyone.
It’s easy to forget this in an era where female-led action films are rising in prominence and Ellen Ripley is now a pop culture icon, but the fact that Sigourney Weaver turned out to be the last survivor and ultimate protagonist of the film is more than a little revolutionary for its time. Any audience member would expect the bearded, handsome Captain Dallas, played by noted actor Tom Skerritt, to be the hero of the story, so his unceremonious death three quarters of the way through the film is a faith-rattling twist. After all, if the rugged, masculine center of authority cannot survive, who can? Ellen Ripley is thereby one of the most iconic feminist protagonists in film history, a character whose rise to prominence is only exemplified by the audience’s underestimation of her capabilities within the narrative.
And it really speaks to the horrific powers of that narrative that I am only now coming to the titular creature, one of the most recognizable creatures in popular culture and easily one of the most intrinsically terrifying. Looking as unearthly as an actor in a monster costume can possibly look, the Alien (they weren’t officially called Xenomorphs until Aliens, and the namelessness of the creature only adds to its mystique) is a mobile, versatile, intelligent chameleon. Its pseudo-mechanical design allows it to blend in with the piping and machinery of the ship, offering opportunities for a surprising number of shots where it isn’t readily apparent that the monster is in frame. It lurks in the shadows, picking off the unsuspecting crew one by one in ways that don’t speak to the unintelligence of its victims, but instead to its superior hunting skills. When the fully grown thing drops down for that memory-burning first reveal, you just know that this is a beast to be reckoned with, and it is a downright miracle that even one person managed to survive.
Alien is a masterwork of the horror genre, plain and simple. It is a deft manipulator of audience expectations in a way that few films of its time were able to manage, particularly in a genre piece just on the heels of Star Wars. It’s a visually distinct and unsettling film, with characters that are tough to see die and a nail-biting climax that never ceases to impress. It is possible to occupy two genres at once, and it’s the near-perfect melding of science fiction and horror that makes Alien the unassailable classic it is rightly recognized as.