John Hurt in Alien

Film Advent Calendar: Alien is the perfect example of how to create suspense in horror

  • Claustrophobia of Alien's setting heightens the tension throughout
  • Hiding the creature makes it scarier than showing it
  • December 9th on NQ editor Matt Hartless's advent calendar of films you should watch this Christmas

When I was a child, pretty much all films scared me and I certainly could not deal with horror. Now, as an adult, I’m a horror fan and very few films scare me any more. One of the few exceptions is Ridley Scott’s Alien.

It’s a common horror trope that the only thing scarier than seeing something you don’t want to see, is not seeing it, but knowing it’s there. Alien was not the first film to do this, but it was one of the best at running with the idea.

Scene from Alien
Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Credit: Paramount

Alien is a 1979 sci-fi horror film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm and John Hurt.

The film is a tight suspense-horror that starts when the crew of a commercial spaceship, the Nostromo, pick up a distress call from a nearby planet. They discover a load of eggs on board, one of which hatches an alien that attacks Kane (Hurt) and artificially inseminates him. Later, in one of the most iconic scenes in horror, an alien bursts out of his chest and escapes to wreak havoc on the ship.

Alien is great at ratcheting up tension, just watch the trailer to get an idea. From the get-go, the fear of the unknown is palpable within the crew of the Nostromo as they try to deal with something they have never seen before with no idea of its capabilities. Later on, when they realise how much of a threat the creature is, they struggle to track its movements around the ship as it stalks them.

To make a horror truly scary, you need to make sure nobody is safe and nobody is to be trusted. Alien does this in spades. The ship’s captain (Tom Skerritt) gets killed fairly early on and several characters’ motives, especially those of Ash (Holm) are made deliberately questionable throughout.

Scene from Alien
Veronica Cartwright in Alien. Credit: Paramount

The setting is perfect too. The claustrophobia of being on board a spaceship with very little space is contrasted expertly with the vastness of space outside and how far the crew are from any viable rescue. Sigourney Weaver does a great job of portraying the helplessness as Ripley, the ship’s second in command, thrust into leadership with no clear idea of how to deal with the alien yet taking on the mantle of stoicity to save herself and the remaining crew as best she can. It’s no mistake that her character became a female sci-fi icon.

There is little more to say about this film, it doesn’t need its unplumbed depths to be analysed because it works perfectly well as a tight genre piece. People have made much of the symbolism throughout the runtime, the overt references to rape and sexuality embodied by the creature and its MO and how this film connects to the rest of the franchise, but ultimately its just a load of shouting into the void. In space no one can hear you scream.

If you’re not quite done with Hallowe’en and want to forgo the wholesome period of festive films, perhaps you’ll be entertained instead by the sheer terror encapsulated in this film, which is definitely something you should watch this Christmas.

This article is part of the Film Advent Calendar series, where NQ editor Matt Hartless shares some of his favourite films in 24 different genres that you should watch if you need something to fill your time over the Christmas break.

Scene from Alien
The infamous chestburster scene. Sigourney Weaver, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt and Ian Holm in the foreground. Credit: Paramount
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