'Alien:' Slasher Horror And The 'Final Girl' Ripley -- In Space
There's a moment during the climax of Alien (1979) that cements its status in the hierarchy of horror. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the final member of the crew of the Nostromo, believes she's escaped from a nightmare scenario. She walks through the ship in her underwear completely unaware that there's a seven foot tall, acid-bleeding monster waiting to strike out at her from the interior hull of her escape pod. In a final last ditch effort Ripley pushes the titular alien -- also known as the Xenomorph -- out of an airlock before settling into an uneasy sleep.
Ridley Scott's 1979 film has the look of a William Gibson novel but once the blood starts to flow it's more Halloween than Neuromancer. After stopping on an alien planet a group of co-workers is knocked off one by one by a mysterious presence until only a final girl is left. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, and plenty of genre lifers, Alien is gruesome yet artful, and it looks like hard sci-fi if you squint. Despite its mad androids and blinking lights, it used jump-scares galore and the "final girl" slasher-movie structure that had been around for at least five years (dating to 1974's Black Christmas and Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and remains a plot device in horror to this day.
Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space
Frankenstein has a castle, Halloween has an autumnal neighborhood in Haddonfield, Illinois, and Alien has the Nostromo, a grungy space ship that looks more like something you'd find in a landfill than the sleek, futuristic designs of the 1950s and '60s. Everything about the Nostromo and its destination, a wasteland planet that beckons with an emergency signal, feels haunted.
Alien isn't the first horror film set where no one can hear you scream, but it's the first horror film set in space that uses the vast emptiness of the unknown to set a mood. The brief amount of time that the Nostromo crew spends off the ship is on an inhospitable and unwelcoming moon. Fog rises up from the ground to conceal not a castle, but an alien ship unlike anything the crew has ever seen. It's the same kind of imagery used in gothic storytelling, but it's also the same warning that can be found in horror movies of any sub-genre: don't go there. Director Ridley Scott told The Hollywood Reporter that he wanted the future to feel inhospitable, the complete opposite of Star Wars:
[Scott wanted] dirty spaceships in space, used craft that were no longer spanking new and no longer futuristic, but felt like, as we ended up calling them, the ‘freighter in space.’ I wanted to go in that direction. So in a funny kind of way, I was already reacting more subliminally, I think, than design-wise against the way that Star Wars had been done.
The Nostromo itself is built like a haunted house. Its dark depths contain corridors to nowhere, air ducts in which even the ship's captain can get lost, and a room with nothing but chains hanging from the ceiling. It's ugly and dirty, it's both surreal and organic at the same time. In Alien, the dream of retro-futurism is over.
A slasher possessed by science fiction
The fist half of Alien feels like a game. Ridley Scott cycles through a series of tropes: the grim, nihilistic science fiction of Dark Star, the gothic underpinnings of Frankenstein, and there's even some vampire lore once Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by the face hugger. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) wants to bring Kane back to the ship, he's in trouble. But Ripley knows that when you invite something into your home you can never make it leave. Scott says that one of his biggest storytelling influences for Alien was William Friedkin's The Exorcist:
The big idea in The Exorcist was the possession of the body by the devil. That's a first. And since then, there's been 19,000 versions of that thing. And so I read Alien as a bit of a first. It was so outrageous in its idea and story — possession of a body by a massive insect that will lay eggs in you and create other insects. It was remarkable.
Each of these tropes fit neatly inside the slasher genre. While Scott cycles through different sub-genres he's doing something that every slasher has to do to make the audience care once the blood starts flowing, he's introducing the audience to the characters. The first half of the film serves to introduce the audience to the setting and to show how the characters relate to one another, without all of the conversations about pay and the horrible food these characters are just bodies.
It's not until the 55 minute mark that Alien drops its allusions to classic horror tropes and becomes a pure slasher film. The crew is sitting around the dinner table for a final meal before going into a ten month hibernation when Kane convulses across the table before a baby Xenomorph rips through his chest. One down, six to go.
H.R. Giger and a human skull walk into a production studio
Like the hollow, distorted Halloween mask worn by Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees' hockey mask, H.R. Giger's biomechanical design for the Xenomorph has a beautiful simplicity that allows the audience to become lost in its twisted reflection of man. Giger's aesthetic makes for deeply unsettling landscapes (he designed the entirety of LV-426), but it's his Xenomorph design that's the most iconic.
As foreign as the Xenomorph is, Giger's design began with a human skull. To make the creature's head look as alien as possible Giger sawed the jawbone away from the skull and extended it six inches, making an unholy mouth. From there he attached strange fixtures and elongated the head to give it the banana shape of a new born child. The final product is a sleek killing machine that's both familiar and foreign, but it's telling that the source material for the creature is a human skull. It's as if Giger is saying that the one thing humans should really be afraid of is ourselves.
The perfect organism, the Xenomorph as a horror icon
Like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and countless other masked slasher villains, the Xenomorph is built to be a killing machine. It's described in the film as:
The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
Compare that to Doctor Loomis' description of Michael Myers in 1978's Halloween:
I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this... six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and... the blackest eyes - the Devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil.
Admittedly that's a little OTT, but Loomis' description of Michael Myers could just as well be applied to the Xenomorph. It seems that the creature not only has acid pumping through its veins, but loose pages of an early John Carpenter script as well.
Men, Women, and Flamethrowers
The slasher core of Alien becomes acutely visible as the crew of the Nostromo begin to meet their doom one by one as they separate and investigate the mysterious creature stalking the ship. They may be professionals in their 30s but that doesn't make them immune to walking into dark rooms filled with nothing but steam or walking upstairs to find a lost cat. Most importantly, the final girl is a necessity in slasher films.
Ripley's status as the final girl, Carol J. Clover's name for the trope which finds a young woman surviving a horror, usually a slasher from the '70s or '80s, after taking on the characteristics and mannerisms of her male counterparts (picking up a machete, a kitchen knife, etc). Final girls aren't just walking around wearing plot armor, the best illustrations of the trope are characters like Nancy Thompson from A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Laurie Strode from Halloween. They see a problem and they find a way to solve it, be it a dream demon or an escaped mental patient in a Captain Kirk mask.
With a longterm technical job under her belt (taking her into space no less), Ripley is far from a girl, but as the bodies fall she becomes more engrossed in the trappings of a slasher until she's the only organism (aside from Jones the cat) left standing. She defeats the Xenomorph with nothing but her wits and flamethrower, even though she has to strip to her underwear to survive.
Final report, maybe
For all intents and purposes Alien ends with good triumphing over evil, or at the very least someone who was just trying to do their job triumphing over a task that's well above their pay grade. It doesn't have the whiz-bang ending of so many of the slashers that followed in its footsteps: no one is ripped through a front door window before a smash cut to credits, and a frog boy doesn't emerge from the depths of a lake to pull Ripley beneath its placid waters, she's simply left floating in space unaware of what the future holds.
This moody, unmooring ending finds its only parallel in Halloween, John Carpenter's slasher masterpiece that was released one year earlier. Its final moments see Doctor Loomis fire enough shots into Michael Myers to knock him out of a second floor window and onto the lawn below, but when he checks after assuring Laurie Strode that the boogeyman is finished, Myers is gone.
Ripley may blow the Xenomorph out of an airlock before finding some kind of solace in sleep aided by technology, but like Laurie Strode in Halloween she's not safe. Not because she was born to be in danger or because there are three more Alien movies to follow, but because, really, nowhere is safe.