Terror By Design: 6 Subtle Things That Make “Alien” So Frightening

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien is a masterpiece of suspense that, fundamentally, has been designed to terrorise the senses. These 6 things underline exactly why.

Ripley - Alien

Alien is a simple story. A space freighter’s crew discovers a stricken ship crash-landed on a distant moon and unwittingly takes onboard its malevolent alien cargo which kills each member one by one. It’s the stuff throwaway b-movies are made from (indeed, there have been plenty of poor Alien imitators over the years presenting such trashy traits) but director Ridley Scott’s film is anything but.

The stars aligned for this brilliant 1979 masterpiece; O’Bannon’s script, Giger’s concept art, Scott’s finely-tuned vision of a grimy, industrialised future more concerned with familiar bugbears (corporate greed, wages, bad food) than futuristic hang-ups like whether or not it’s possible to do the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.

What makes it so compelling is its staging. Of course, the alien creature is an incredible feat of dark imagination meeting special effects, Sigourney Weaver’s performance is a powerful and groundbreaking exhibition of bravery and female heroism, and some of its set-pieces have never been matched for their ferocious terror (the chest-bursting sequence is undoubtedly one of horror cinema’s most unforgettable moments), but it works because of the stuff you might not notice is happening around you.

Let’s take a look…

Ambient Noise

Alien, Dinner Table Scene, Kane (John Hurt) - Top 10 Films

Scott is constantly filling the soundstage with ambient noise. It works in a couple of interesting ways; firstly, it gives the stage a recognisable familiarity that doesn’t seem like a manufactured reality of the future, instead it’s a realistic setting for the monstrous “unreal” to be unveiled. Secondly, the director cleverly uses ambient sounds to flood our senses; he disorientates us with a soundstage filled with noise in a similar way to evoking feelings of isolation through panoramic visions of the ship’s imposing scale and glimpses of outer space’s endlessness.

Kane’s Curiosity

Kane - Alien

When you re-watch Alien knowing of Kane’s (John Hurt) demise, his tragic journey becomes one increasingly fated by the character’s curiosity. He’s clearly a man who loves to work in the deepest recesses of space, outside what the film terms as the “frontier”, and this chance to investigate a fallen alien spaceship is one which excites him. “Kane’s curiosity” is therefore a series of images Scott presents us with. One has become iconic (when the executive officer’s space-suited head first appears in the alien pilot’s chamber) while others are subtly unnerving (the beating heart of the alien in its egg when Kane inspects it – accomplished with a pair of rubber gloves on the director’s quivering hands – and, finally, the inquisitive man peering over the opened egg for a closer look only to get attacked).

Slow Track In On The Alien Pilot’s Distorted Face

Space jockey / pilot - Alien

One of Ridley Scott’s perfect shots in Alien appears when Dallas, Kane and Lambert are inspecting the dead alien pilot. The scene is a technical marvel with its brilliant set design depicting an over-sized humanoid fossilised to a seat with its chest burst open, the director spotlighting something unsettling from the visionary mind of H.R. Giger through the torches of the Nostromo’s three crew members. It is this lighting scheme that makes one part of this scene so frightening. Dallas begins to move away from the alien creature after inspecting it and as he does the humanoid falls into a dark shadow. The ship’s captain, in some respects a comfort blanket thanks to his seeming calmness, maturity and hierarchical position suddenly leaves us alone and we are exposed. Scott brilliantly compounds this but slow-tracking in on the creature’s distorted face – pushing us closer and closer – as it is cast into shadow.

Contrasts (And The Belly Of The Ship)

Nostromo interior/corridor - Alien

Alien contrasts the white, clean living quarters of the Nostromo with the exposed mechanics of its corridors. The ship feels entirely different to what audiences had seen in 2001 and Star Wars or on TV through Star Trek. It has a foreboding quality, exhibited from the very beginning when Scott’s camera wanders around the quiet, empty corridors. This is a spaceship that is well-worn, like an old pair of trousers. The film combines light and shadow with the unevenness of the ship’s inner surfaces (think of a car engine turned inside-out) to give the alien an unsettling omnipresence.

We begin to wonder if that metallic shape at the frame’s periphery is the creature or an air duct. Scott uses this to create tension (culminating in one of the film’s great jump-out-of-your-seat moments when Ripley mistakenly believes she’s safe having blown up the mother ship) and to create a sense of the unexpected. This is particularly effective in the way the brightly lit, straight-edged surfaces of the living quarters (the ship’s hospitable and safe space for its human inhabitants) become the stage for the film’s most gruesome violence (Kane’s death at the dinner table and Ash’s attempt to kill Ripley).

Dallas’s Question (“What Are My Chances”)

What are my chances - Dallas in Alien

This is a powerful scene because it sees the ship’s captain show, for the first and only time, fragility and indecision. At this point in the film, he is the story’s default “hero”. He will steer us through and out of this mess. Yet, away from the others on the ship, he asks the Nostromo’s computer a question he knows he won’t get an answer to. “What are my chances?” he types into the ship’s computer. “Does not compute” is the answer.

Lambert’s Death Cry

Lambert - Alien

An extension to Ridley Scott’s use of sound in the film, here Lambert’s death cry appears almost childlike in the way her scream filters out to a sort of whimper as if the life is being squeezed out of her. It is truly horrifying. It’s complemented by the visuals: Ripley desperately rushing through corridors in an attempt to help her colleague as her voice, amplified via the ship’s communication system, becomes muffled and drowned out by an indistinct, animalistic grunt that consumes Lambert’s humanity and extinguishes her existence.

Words by Dan Stephens

Dan Stephens
About the Author
Dan Stephens is the founder and editor of Top 10 Films. He's usually pondering his next list, often inspired by his adoration for 1980s Hollywood, a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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