'Alien:' Slasher Horror And The 'Final Girl' Ripley -- In Space
By | October 27, 2020
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.