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  • Writer's pictureJeff South

THE 28: #7, ALIEN

Tom Skerritt: Dallas

Sigourney Weaver: Ripley

Veronica Cartwright: Lambert

Harry Dean Stanton: Brett

John Hurt: Kane

Ian Holm: Ash

Yapphet Kotto: Parker

Screenplay by Dan O'Bannon

Directed by Ridley Scott

ALIEN is a good old fashioned monster movie clothed in a world of hard science fiction. This is not a space opera with futuristic cowboys running around shooting lasers and rescuing princesses. Ridley Scott's film is about real people working real jobs. The male characters are all in their late 30s to mid 40s. Only the two female characters are younger. They discuss the creature they stumble across after answering an S.O.S. beacon from a moon. They analyze and ask questions. Of course, eventually, Sigourney Weaver's iconic Ripley asks the most important question of all. "How do we kill it?" ALIEN is an example of a horror story unfolding deliberately. ALIENS, the sequel from 1986, is a masterful blend of action and horror, but the original remains a case study in a steady build of suspense. As much as I love ALIENS, I skew more toward the dread of the first film.

Two reasons for this. First, as I mentioned, these are regular people. They work for a corporation that own the space tug they're flying. It's captained by a man named Dallas, play by Tom Skerritt. He's a rugged everyman. Weaver's Ripley was a young, smart warrant officer. Yaphet Kotto was Parker, the chief engineer. Harry Dean Stanton played Brett, another engineer. Ian Holm's Ash was the science officer revealed to be an android. John Hurt played Kane, an executive officer, who becomes the first host for the creature and suffers one of the grand deaths of cinema. Finally, the youngest member of the crew is the navigator, Lambert, played by Veronica Cartwright. Her reaction to Kane's brutal demise serves as a perfect reflection for our own fears. These characters are not Han Solo or Star Lord or Buck Rogers. They're working types, each with their own voice and manner of speaking. Dan O'Bannon's script allows them to talk and discuss and debate without losing any of the tension or deflating the action.

The second reason I prefer is the way it builds its suspense slowly and with layers. Many of today's horror films (many of which were inspired by ALIEN), are frenetic and loaded with quick edits and short average shot length. Ridley Scott allows scenes to unfold. If scene today by some audiences for the first time, they might bemoan that nothing is happening. This simply isn't true. Each scene builds on the one previous and once the crew learns the creature is in the ship's duct system, the suspense becomes unbearable. Added to this is the way Scott creates such a strong sense of isolated coldness. Few movies have filled me with as much dread as this one.

Hitchcock famously discussed the difference between surprise and suspense. Much of today's horror relies on surprise, the jump scare. True terror lies in the waiting. ALIEN not only knows this, but perfects it.

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