So what does it take to make the greatest scary movie of all time? Is it one factor or a singular great mind? As Alien (1979) showed, to create the best fright film ever made you need a combination of incredible talent, fortuitous timing, and happenstance.
Like many scary movies, Alien is a film that has had an inordinate amount of literature written about it. Everything from the filming techniques used to the underlying psychological connotations have been chewed over. The more layers of academic discussion have been added over the years, the less the films real reason for being has been lost. But back in 1978 director Ridley Scott read the script of Alien and saw one thing, a heart-stopping scary movie. Scott had no intention of creating a science fiction piece; science fiction would merely be the backdrop for what was described to him as a ‘haunted house in space feature’. What he saw was the ultimate horror villain delivering frights in the ultimate venue-with-no-hope-of-help setting.
What eventually became Alien started as a script by screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett, clumsily titled Star Beast. Following a crew of space miners, the blue-collar astronauts land on a mystery planet, only for one of the number to bring an infection back on board. The infection eventually turns in to a creature that stalks the crew around their labyrinthine ship picking them off one by one. Whilst the script was going through rewriters, O’Bannon was recruited to work on the troubled script for Alejandro Jodorowsjy’s Dune. One of the designers for the Dune project was Swiss graphic artist Hans Ruedi Giger. When the Dune project stalled, O’Bannon rejoined Shusett on their wisely renamed screenplay, now carrying the more enigmatic title Alien, so called after it was noted how many times the word appeared in the script.
Shopping their feature to the usual studios, they pitched the concept as ‘Jaws in space’. Brandywine, a production company arm of Twentieth Century Fox, signed on the dotted line and Brandywine execs Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll started tinkering with the script. Fox were sceptical about financing the production, until the success of Star Wars (1977) showed that tales beyond the stars could earn millions at the box office. An initial budget of $4.2million was granted and Hill was asked to direct. Hill declined and the Brandywine trio, impressed by Ridley Scott’s debut movie The Duellists (1977), invited the British filmmaker to take the director’s chair instead. Scott jumped at the chance.
Despite the post Star Wars boom in sci-fi and Fox’s eagerness for more science-fiction profits, Scott was adamant about focusing on the horror aspects of the script. That side of the film would live or die by how frightening its titular beast was. O’Bannon assisted in solving the films biggest issue by introducing Scott to the work of H.R.Giger, the designer he had met on the Dune project. As soon as Scott saw Giger’s Necronom IV painting from 1976 he had the look for his alien creature. He immediately flew to Zurich to ask Giger to work on the production; Giger happily accepted. With this, the most important design element in place, production picked up pace and the greatest scary movie of all time quickly unfolded.
No element of the final film was left to chance. Even the opening title sequence was designed to unsettle. As the word Alien cryptically appears, we puzzle as to what these white blocks could be. By the time we realise it is in essence too late, the word ‘alien’ dramatically fills the screen; there was a white block for every member of the crew to be killed. Alien, at the time, remained an ambiguous word, and backed by little very soundtrack, the opening was foreboding and quietly unsettling. The film unravels in the same vein.
The seven crew members of the Nostromo are as much in the dark as the viewer as to what’s happening. There’s no narrator, a limited third person perspective, and no clear hero or heroine. There’s angst between the crew members from the off, Parker and Brett clearly at odds with the commanding officers above them ‘What the hell she coming down here for?’, hinted at relationship tension between Ripley and Dallas, and mistrust between the strangely detached Ash and everyone else. This heightened anxiety simmers even before the Nostromo discovers the mystery distress signal.
By the time Dallas, Lambert, and Kane venture down on to LV4-26, things are beyond stretched; but we only receive a half catharsis. Having been stunned by the staggering nature of the discovered spaceship, we’re desperate for a relief from the narrative pressure. When the ‘facehugger’ clamps on John Hurt’s head, rather than a release it’s just more build up to what we know will be the real terror. The film finally tips over the edge courtesy of that infamous dinner table scene, Kane’s first words when he appeared on screen fifty plus minutes earlier, 'I feel dead', taking on a comically dark significance.
Thirty-nine years on the ‘chestburster’ scene still shocks. As much due to John Hurt’s incredible acting, selling Kane excruciating agony like his life depended on it, Scott lets the moment play out almost documentary like. The free-flowing adlibbed dialogue, the unflashy camera angles employed, the natural reactions from the cast, it all heightens the horror of watching an alien parasite claw, eat, and rip its way free from a man’s chest cavity.
The myth is that none of the other actors knew what was going to happen when filming the scene; this was only partially true. Having read the script they knew what was going to happen to Kane. Weaver and Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) had also seen the ‘chestburster’ creature before, having filmed a later scene with it before the dining table episode. The large number of production team members on set, decked out in plastic raincoats, also gave away the surprise of what was about to happen. Despite this the ferocity of the scene, Hurt’s selling of it, and just how much blood Kane was going to spill came as something of a surprise and Scott captured a number of fantastic slack-jawed reactions. Cartwright came off worst, receiving a jet of fake blood straight in the face that knocked her backwards over a chair; this moment of unintentional slapstick can be seen in the extended cut of Kane’s death.
Still reeling from the ‘chestbursters’ appearance, there’s barely time to draw breath before more nerve bashing scenes arrive, such as the often imitated scene of Dallas taking to the Nostromo’s air ducts, or the revelation of who (or what) Ash is and his confrontation with Ripley. The pace grows ever more frantic as the crew are whittled down to just Ripley. Scott even jettisoned one of the more visually revelatory scenes towards the film’s climax just to keep the film moving at a terrifying pace; Ripley discovers a cocooned Dallas and Brett, the latter horrifically metamorphosing in to an alien ovule, the former begging to be killed before he is subject to a facehugger from the fresh Brett-egg. Keeping his foot firmly on the plot accelerator was more important and the scene became one of the most infamous deleted moments in Hollywood history.
A double climax finally provides respite, but even then there was some debate as to whether the initial downbeat ending was to be kept; the original finale had the creature decapitate Ripley before taking the pilot’s seat in the shuttle and speaking to Earth, in Ripley’s voice. As mind-blowing as that climax would have been, Scott wisely chose to have his ‘final girl’ survive her ordeal.
Scott had a singular vision as to what he wanted for the project, storyboarding the entire film himself, but he needed assistance with some of the story concepts in order to realise his vision. Step forward conceptual artists Ron Cobb and Chris Foss. To emphasize the film’s contrast, Cobb designed the interior sets, while Foss was handed the task of tackling the exteriors. It is a credit to them that the Nostromo looks totally real, lived in, and fully functioning. An incredibly large set was constructed so that Scott could shoot the vessel from any angle and ensure that there was nothing else in shot but rooms, ceilings, and corridors. Many of the actors would get lost looking for a way out of the set each day but the result was astounding. At no point is the film’s tension diminished by a wobbly background or shoddy component design.
For the more striking visual effects Scott was lucky enough to have H. R. Giger on hand. Fully aware that the film hinged on the believability and shocking nature of the alien, the director needed something the likes of which had never been seen before; Giger delivered that in spades. Humanoid in shape but unlike anything to be found on Earth, it fascinates and frightens in equal amounts. Despite its unique look Scott and his effects team managed to capture the alien via a combination of conventional animatronics and the standard ‘man-in-suit’ (played by seven foot Bolaji Badejo, who was spotted drinking in a nearby pub by one of the casting directors). Cleverly, Scott never revealed the alien creature to the actors, increasing the naturalism of their reactions upon viewing it for the first time on set. The other alien effects were also frighteningly convincing, despite their fantastical nature. Witness the alien ship and egg field upon first discovery. The mood in the alien vessel itself is astonishing, from the bizarre water droplets dripping against gravity, to the laser topped mist (a laser Scott borrowed from rock band The Who).
The violence unleashed by the alien delivered a psychologists dream of subtle and not-so-subtle subtext. The ‘male birth’ suffered by Kane was cinematic payback on every man who queried the pain of child birth. It was also a not so subtle allegory of every incurable illness out there, the crushing thought of an inner disease that can’t be cured and will eventually, at some undetermined point, kill you off. It wasn’t all about the kills though, and some fates are worse than instant death. Case in point, Dallas and Brett were stolen away rather than killed, though the reason for their kidnap was only revealed in the deleted cocoon scene. But this wasn’t some hidden female agenda; the female cast suffer just as much.
Of all the crew members it’s the timid Lambert that is subject to the worst attack by the titular xenomorph. Though it was revealed in 2003 on the special edition DVD notes that Lambert had had a ‘gender reassignment’ years before, the alien has something particularly nefarious planned for her. Though its only hinted at in the final cut of the film (the sounds of what’s happening to her heard by Ripley over the intercom, and Lambert’s body later glimpsed hanging, her bare legs dripping with blood) another deleted scene makes it much clearer what the alien’s intentions are.
The deleted ‘crab walk’ scene shows the alien crouching on all fours, its tail rising to stand suggestively erect once a terrified Lambert spots it. Scuttling towards her the creature rises to its feet, its tail moving between her legs. The scene was shortened by Scott for the final cut, but his response to the fate of Lambert when asked was suitably chilling, ‘Horrific things happen to Lambert off camera’. The implication that she is raped to death is clear, with Ripley finding her body now devoid of clothing. It also raises the question as to whether Brett suffered a similar end in order to kick start his metamorphosis in to an alien egg (a process that was ditched for the sequels when it was revealed that the alien eggs are actually laid by an alien ‘queen’).
When it came to the seven crew members, improvisation was the order of the day. Scott stated that he was much more concerned with the look of the film than giving copious amounts of direction to the cast. Each actor was given seven pages of background information on their parts, then left to work through their roles as they saw fit. Such free-reign led to some interesting character creating techniques. Yaphet Kotto would attempt to pick fights with Bolaji Badejo, the towering actor hired to fill the alien suit, in order to build up hatred for the beast. There was also tension between Weaver and some her cast mates, with concerns over her ability to carry the lead part of Ripley aired by an anonymous few; Alien was her first major film role, following a blink and miss it cameo in Annie Hall (1977) and a small role in the low budget Madman (1978). The 2003 director’s cut also featured an alternate version of the scene following the trio’s return to the Nostromo, complete with an incapacitated Kane. Lambert, angry at Ripley for refusing to let them back on the landing craft, lands a blow across Ripley’s face. After a number of takes Scott was unsatisfied with the footage, so instructed Cartwright to land a real blow on Weaver, which she did. While final scene looked superb on screen, it didn’t help the relationship between Weaver and Cartwright during filming.
Despite, or more likely because of the additional stress, the crew members are wonderfully realised by all seven actors. Dialogue is barren or impromptu and overly busy, a number of the characters talking over each other at the same time. The result is an almost documentary feel to many of the scenes. The cast were also older than the regular cast of a late seventies horror film, where the fondness for a cast of nubile young actors being stalked and killed was growing with each horror film release. All of the cast carry a weathered, mature, capable, seen-it-all-before attitude, which makes their decimation by the alien all the more shocking.
So brilliant is Giger’s alien it’s easy to forget that there was another threat on board the Nostromo, but with each viewing Ian Holm’s performance as Ash becomes more and more disturbing. Though many of his lines may be disregarded on first watch, they take on a whole new meaning once it becomes apparent that he is as much to blame as the creature itself, ‘Mother wants to talk to you’, ‘Inner hatch open’. Ash’s quiet, unflustered manner is deeply unsettling none more so than when he pops up behind Ripley’s chair when she is quizzing the ironically named ‘Mother’ as to the true nature of their stopping at LV4-26.
Soundtrack wise the high tension continued. Composer Jerry Goldsmith raised questions as to how much of his soundtrack was actually utilised in the final cut of the film, Scott deciding less was more and ditching much of it for more subtle sound cues, or just silence. The creature is one of stealth (see the final scene where the only sound that accompanies the alien’s unravelling is Ripley’s forced breathing) and the absence of noise, both aurally and in terms of onscreen sensation, makes its threatening presence even more tangible.
A director's cut of Alien was released in 2003, but rather than extend the running time this edit was shorter than the original theatrical release. Scott restored the much talked about scene where Ripley finds Dallas cocooned by the alien and kills him with her flame-thrower. Alternate versions of existing scenes were also added, but to quicken the pace of the movie Scott trimmed a number of the introductory scenes. Whilst the original cut remains definitive the 2003 version is not that much of a radical departure, and such tinkering begs the question, could this film have been captured any better than it was by Scott all those years ago?
Alien was a smash hit taking $106million off of a $1million budget, and Brandywine started discussing a sequel almost immediately. But a change of management at 20th Century Fox saw the idea shelved, with the new studio heads not interested in a follow-up. A lawsuit by Giler, Hill, and Carroll over the distribution of Alien’s profits delayed things further, but when another change in Fox management came in 1984 talks of a sequel started again. Young director James Cameron caught wind of a potential Alien II, and started work on a potential script. Impressed with what they read, Fox promised Cameron the Alien II job if his current project, The Terminator (1984), was a success. Cameron and Schwarzenegger delivered, and Alien II was his.
There aren’t many film sequels that can claim to be as good as their predecessor, and even fewer that can put forward a claim for besting their part one, but Aliens (1986) remains one of that rare breed. When it arrived in 1986 the film made such an impact it reached the cover of Time magazine, wowing every critic and audience member who saw it. It remains today the greatest film sequel of all time.
Cameron had to fight on Weaver’s behalf for her return, the actress having her own dispute with Fox over pay. Standing his ground on her involvement, Cameron eventually won and his Ripley centred script quickly came together. Co-written with Giler and Hill, Ripley is discovered drifting in space fifty-seven years after her Alien ordeal. No one believes her story until contact is lost with the now partially inhabited LV4-26. Ripley is coerced into returning to the planet, this time accompanied by a platoon of heavily armed space marines. There they discover that scepticism over Ripley’s story was gravelly misplaced.
Cameron gave Alien fans everything they could have wanted and more. He swapped a single alien for an army of xenomorphs, he cemented Ripley’s reputation is the ultimate female action movie icon, and he furthered the Alien mythos. Added to the alien backstory this time were scuttling, lightning fast facehuggers, ‘warrior’ aliens of different size, and a towering ‘queen’ alien. The result was a film that swapped some of Alien’s unnerving quiet tension for terrifying fast paced action. Even at 154 minute running time (for the full 1992 director’s cut) the film never once drags and every moment is essential and enthralling.
Despite the reluctance of the British crew to work with Cameron, who saw the American as a usurper of a position that should have been given to their own Ridley Scott, Cameron paid homage to Scott and his original film. Full realism, rather than future sci-fi, remained both in art direction and characterisation. Sets and props were based on recognisable twentieth century designs, and the sets replicated the worn, lived in look of the Nostromo. Aliens also featured by another remarkable ensemble cast including Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Lance Henrikson, Paul Reiser, Jeanette Goldstein, and eight year old debutante Carrie Henn, all of whom crafted characters that lingered long in the memory.
Now assured that they had a winning franchise on their hands, Fox were hoping for a hat-trick of film success when they greenlit a part three a year after Aliens release. Original ideas from cyberpunk writer William Gibson and director Renny Harlin looked to explore the alien homeworld and bring the creature to Earth for the first time. This idea mutated in to a full script where Hicks and Bishop (Ripley remains in a coma) find themselves on a large space station, part shopping mall, part secret military installation. Hicks discovers that Weyland Yutani are building an alien ‘army’ to sell as the ultimate weapon, but when the xenomorphs get out of control he must team up with Yutani workers to take out the aliens. A final scene was to set up a fourth and final film, with Bishop suggesting they travel to the creature’s home planet to destroy them once and for all.
The script was dismissed before screenwriters Eric Red and David Twohy put forward their own stories; Twohy suggested the location of a prison planet. Director Vincent Ward was hired but on the basis that Twohy’s script be jettisoned. Fox agreed and Ward started working on his own story where Ripley would crash land on a wooden monastery ‘satellite’. The script included all manner of religious imagery, as the vaguely backward monks see the alien creature as the devil and Ripley as their saviour arriving from the heavens. Whilst the idea was seen as visually striking, for Fox it was too much of a departure from what had gone before; Ward was fired after refusing to move on his script.
Now on a tight deadline before filming was due to commence, Fox brought Hill and Giler back on board to knock up a workable script, with assistance from ‘script doctor’ Larry Ferguson. They resurrected Twohy’s prison planet idea and eventually delivered a final screenplay to Fox. Keen to retain the idea of placing a young up-and-coming filmmaker in to the director’s chair, Fox placed part three in to the hands of music video director David Fincher. Adding yet more hands on the screenplay, Fincher made his own changes with the help of author Rex Pickett.
While the right combination of creative minds helped make Alien a masterpiece, the reverse was true for Alien 3 (1992). From the moment filming began in January 1991 things proved rocky. A tight filming schedule gave Fincher little time to put together the film he wanted, and constant Fox oversight of what he was doing and filming ultimately marred Fincher’s debut feature film experience. Fox it seemed were experiencing split personality over part three; they were willing to stand by their choice of director, but they weren’t trusting of the creative choices he wanted to make in the face of the money they were spending.
Retrospectively, Fincher acknowledges his lack of experience as part of the issue. Alien 3 was a big budget, marque name production, and it was the first film Fincher had directed. But even with this potential hurdle there were outside issues that had an even bigger impact on the film. They were summed up by Ridley Scott’s one visit to the set. Arriving with a Fox documentary film crew in toe, Scott seemed to ignore the fact that his chat with Fincher was on camera. He warned Fincher that he hadn’t received a dime from Fox for Alien, and that his best bet was to 'make a little film you have some control over while they’re beating you up'. The opposite happened.
The bottom line for Fox was just that, the bottom line; and they got their wish, the film eventually making $159million off a $50million budget. The movie was not a good one though, with both critics and fans vocal in their dissent. Fincher was equally vocal in his unhappiness, even during the long promotional campaign for Alien 3. Stories of Fox meddling trickled out. It seems they had forgotten the success of Aliens despite its nearly 140minute running time; Fox wanted the running time to Fincher’s final cut slashed, not for creative reasons but so the film could be shown more times in one day and thus pull in greater profit.
Alien 3 remains a disappointing film. Whilst Alien and Aliens were dark, they had moments of light, characters to cheer for and terrifying scares to offset the gloom. Part three was simply dark and depressing with no characters to root for apart from Ripley, and even she seemed to want putting out of her misery. Hicks, Bishop and Newt were killed off before they even appeared on screen, making the whole of Aliens and the cheering of their escape from LV4-26 an immediately pointless experience. Worst still, thanks to terrible CGI replacing the previously excellent practical effects used by Scott and Cameron, the titular creature actually looked worse than it did in its debut film, which at that point was over a decade old. In 2003 the ‘Assembly Cut’ of Alien 3 was released, with 37 minutes of new and alternate footage. But the problems with the film were too fundamental for even this to fix. Ultimately, it just wasn’t scary.
Despite Weaver killing off Ripley by diving in to a vat of molten metal with a chestburster ripping through her sternum, an unlikely return came five years later with Alien: Resurrection (1997). Hoping for a return to form, fans were disappointed again when director Jean Pierre Jeunet created what he later admitted to was a dark comedy. That anyone would try to combine Giger’s terrifying creation with chuckles is a travesty of an idea. Jeunet and scriptwriter Joss Whedon also jettisoned the reality of Scott and Cameron’s brilliant film by introducing story elements so ridiculous it didn’t even seem that Resurrection was from the same universe as the first two films. Much of this again stemmed from Fox who gave Whedon the impossible task of bringing back Ripley from the dead; cue a dull and unlikely subplot of cloning and cross human / alien pollination, resulting in the ludicrous and laughable hybrid creature Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley clone embraces in the face-palm of a finale.
Part four was bad enough to keep Giger’s creature off screen for a few years until the long awaited Alien vs Predator (2004) and Alien vs Predator: Requiem (2007) spin-off franchise. Despite having a wealth of good story ideas to draw from, be it the Dark Horse comic series or the novel series from father / daughter duo Steve and Stephani Perry, including their excellent debut Aliens v Predator: Prey, the AVP movies were awful. Bland but frantic CGI action that was so dark it was often hard to see what was going, coupled with little if any character investment, scares or plot logic, they were a further indication that the Giger alien was best left alone.
Scare fans were suitably puzzled and exasperated; how could a cinematic creature so brilliant in its design be so constantly mishandled. It was the ultimate movie vehicle for delivering solid scares yet creating a good movie with the alien as its protagonist seemed like a task beyond modern filmmakers. Hope arrived in 2010 when it was announced Ridley Scott was returning to the franchise to deliver a prequel film. Optimism was short lived though. Prometheus (2012) was a rehash of Alien’s story (crew respond to mystery distress signal and bring an alien infestation back on board their ship) only without Alien’s masterful ability so scare an audience witless. Gone was the worn interior of the Nostromo and the plausibility of its grizzled crew, replaced with the unlikely sheen of a modern Hollywood set, the plastic of immaculate modern CGI, and a crew of annoyingly easy-on-the-eye actors. The last straw was a series of obtuse scenes of philosophical noodling that offered up more questions than answers and killed any tension the few decent alien scenes of offer achieved.
Answering those that weren’t happy with an Alien prequel that had little to do with Alien, Scott announced that his prequel would now be a trilogy of films leading up to the Nostromo’s landing on LV4-26. The second prequel would also be closer in spirit to his original film, returning ‘Alien’ to the title with Alien: Covenant (2017) and bringing back the familiar looking creature we knew from the original films. Covenant still missed the mark though. Repeating one of the key mistakes of Alien 3, the film dispended with one of the few bright points from Prometheus, Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw. It also continued the heavy handed symbolism of the ‘Engineers’, the dull towering humanoids introduced in Prometheus (but hinted at in Alien by the space jockey weapon discovered inside the crashed ship on LV4-26), and the move towards Michael Fassbender becoming the trilogies ultimate villain. Sadly, the alien had become a supporting actor in its own movie franchise. That the best parts of Covenant were complete steals from earlier, better instalments was another indictment of Scott’s new trilogy.
Even more frustrating still, sci-fi director extraordinaire Neill Blomkamp outlined in 2015 a proposal he had for a new part three, which would remove Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection from the timeline and bring back, Ripley, Hicks and an adult Newt. Storyboards and visual ideas were released on social media, including an older, acid scarred Hicks, and Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn confirmed their interest in the project. It seemed like a dream come true for fans, but as Scott’s prequel trilogy started to monopolise Fox’s Alien resources and budget, the project faded until Scott himself announced in May 2017 that Blomkamp’s project had been officially cancelled. An online fan petition continues to hold a candle for the new part three.
One reason that the sequels to Alien and Aliens have been so derided is because of how high the bar was set by these two films. Not just one of the greatest science fiction and scary movies of all time, Alien had a landmark poster campaign, a new language for fans to embrace (chestburster, facehugger, dropship, pulse rifle, etc), and an ability to influence a whole range of media in the horror and sci-fi genres. Its impact on the fright film and the many off-shoots of the scary movie was enormous. It finally gave evidence to the case that if talented people are given the right budget and time, a b-movie concept can create classic cinema and a film that is uncompromising in its pursuit of a good scare. As Ash states, the alien is ‘a perfect organism, its structural perfection matched only by its hostility’; he could have just as easily been describing Alien the movie.
See also Aliens (1986), Alien 3(1993), Alien Resurrection (1997), AVP: Alien vs Predator (2004), Alien vs Predator: Requiem (2007), Prometheus (2012), and Alien: Covenant (2017)