Long before the 24-screen multiplexes killed them off like the dinosaurs, there were single screen movie theaters (yep, I’m going way back in to the Dark Ages, kids) and the best one in Columbus was the Cinema East. This is where Jaws scared the crap out of me in 1975 and four years later Alien would do the same with a jump scare that became a classic.
Alien was pitched to studios as “Jaws in space” and that’s a pretty accurate description, as the alien is every bit as relentless a predator as a great white shark. While Ridley Scott isn’t quite as good a director as Steven Spielberg he has a great visual eye and like Spielberg, he realized the monster would be more terrifying if the audience never really got a good long look at it. The shark is talked about throughout Jaws but there are only brief glimpses of it until the last act.
It’s hard to frighten audiences today. There are few directors and screenwriters who can properly build the tension necessary to really deliver the jolt a good scare provides. Alien was one of the few movies since Alfred Hitchcock ‘s prime to pull it off with such panache.
The premise of Alien is devilishly simple. It’s a haunted house in outer space. Take a group of generic actors with no big stars, put them on the darkest, grimiest spaceship ever, turn loose on them an E.T. with razor-sharp teeth, armor for skin, acid for blood and a bad disposition, give them no hi-tech weapons and watch them get picked off one by one. It’’s scary and works upon some basic human frailties (fear of the dark, painful childbirth, parasites, isolation) but the most fundamental one is, what you would do if something was growing inside you and its birth means your painful death?
None of which is an accident according to screenwriter Dan O’ Bannon who said about his most acclaimed work, “One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.’
Charming, but O’Bannon was a superb when it came to pushing buttons. Alien was scarier than hell and on the wide-screen of the Cinema East when the theater when the “chestburster” scene happened everybody lost their shit as much as actress Veronica Cartwright does when she gets unwittingly sprayed with blood from poor doomed John Hurt’s onvulsing body.
There have been jokes made how if men could get pregnant the species would become extinct. If giving birth were anything like this we could count down the remaining years of the human race. It’s a cautionary tale as well: don’t go looking into giant space eggs unless you want to get face-fucked and impregnated by an crab-like parasite. Watch both the theaterical version of the scene and then the extended version from the Director’s Cut.
Yaphet Kotto (Parker): We were all wondering what the hell was going on. Why is the crew looking at us the way they’re looking at us right now? Why are they wearing plastic shields?
Cartwright: They have four cameras going. You see this thing start to come out, so we all get sucked in, we lean forward to check it out. They shout, “Cut!” They cut John’s T-shirt a little more because it wasn’t going to burst through. Then they said, “Let’s start again.” We all start leaning forward again and all of a sudden it comes out. I tell you, none of us expected it. It came out and twisted round.
Weaver: All I could think of was John, frankly. I wasn’t even thinking that we were making a movie.
Ivor Powell (associate producer): I hadn’t expected it to be quite that intense.
Weaver: Look, I worked with Roman Polanski on Death and the Maiden – he would shoot a gun off. You can act, sure, but when you’re surprised, that’s gold.
Shusett: Veronica Cartwright – when the blood hit her, she passed out. I heard from Yaphet Kotto’s wife that after that scene he went to his room and wouldn’t talk to anybody.
Kotto: Oh man! It was real, man. We didn’t see that coming. We were freaked. The actors were all frightened. And Veronica nutted out.
O’Bannon: This jet of blood, about 3ft long, caught her smack in the kisser.
The scene doesn’t scare me anymore since I’ve seen it enough to know it’s coming and when the newborn alien screeches and runs off the table is unintentionally goofy, but now I watch the reaction shots of the actors because when Cartwright ends ass up in the extended scene it gets even funnier.
Alien was blessed with the greatest tagline in the history of movies. In space no one can hear you scream. Those seven words are brilliant in both its brevity and accuracy. For my money though the second scariest moment remains Sigourney Weaver’s impromptu strip-tease featuring a pancake non-ass clad in the most unflattering bikini panties ever. Now that’s some scary stuff!
In space nobody can hear you heave either. Is Alien a horror movie or a sci-fi movie? Probably either answer is right depending upon what you take away from it. One scene does not a movie make, but the legacy of the “chestburster” endures as one of the scariest scenes in a movie because it’s gory, horrendous and creepy all at once.