It was 1979, I was thirteen and my brother, Ray, and I wanted to see a taping of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. We drove into Los Angeles but couldn’t get into the show so we decided to go to a movie. We had seen previews for this new sci-fo film called Alien. They didn’t show you much, just an egg sitting on the surface of a planet and then there’s a crack in the egg and a golden light emanates from it. The tag line was “In space no one can hear you scream”.
It had just opened that week and was playing at the Egyptian in Hollywood. We were very early for the next screening so we sat in the lobby and looked at the large models on display that were used in the film. A model of the spaceship Nostromo and a huge model of the “space jockey” as it would become known, some kind of creature sitting in some kind of gun turret with a projectile pointed skyward. My brother and I tried to make sense of it but couldn’t. All we could hear coming from theater was a constant rumbling of sound. It was very unsettling.
We finally got in, got seats and the movie began. It was really slow at the start. The crew gets awakened by the computer, they awaken slowly and they sit down to eat and they were all talking at once, very disorienting. There was a lot of noise in the background and the sets were crowded and filled with pipes and corridors as if you were inside a machine. It took a while before they land on the planet, some kind of distress signal draws them there. At one point my brother and I looked at each other and wondered if we should leave but we decided to stick it out. Then they found the ship. The space jockey. Then Kane finds the eggs. This is when I started getting that quesy feeling in my gut. That egg opens and Kane stands right above it, looking straight down in it! It was filled with what looked like pulsating tripe and then something shoots out of it and right into Kane’s helmet!
It seemed like hours before the film came to that thrilling end. I wanted popcorn and a soda but no way was I going to walk through that dark theater. I had my legs up on my seat and I was absolutely horrified. The things is you never really see the Alien until the very end, just quick snippets, enough to scare you. It was much like Jaws a few years earlier, the fear of what you didn’t see but can only imagine is more horrifying. The film is filled with memorable moments; the look on the cat’s face as Brett is attacked, Dallas stuck in the air ducts, Ash malfunctioning and getting his head knocked off by Parker. Parker and Lambert being killed as their screams echoed through then ship and Ripley running frantically through the corridors, scrambling for her life. But the most memorable scene is of course, the chest bursting scene.
The face hugger mysteriously comes off of Kane’s face on it’s own and is seemingly lifeless, the crew have one last meal before they go back into the “freezerinos!”. Kane starts choking, then convulsing. The look on everyone’s face is total fear and that’s what everyone in the audience is feeling too. Then that baby penis burst through Kane’s chest, killing him and then screeching away. I had never ever seen anything like that before. My God! We just wanted to see Johnny Carson!
It all ends well of course, Ripley kills the beast by shooting it out of the space shuttle and into space and she and Jonesy survive and go into suspended animation to be found 50 years later. My brother and I were so shaken up we told ourselves we need to move on as if from some real life tragedy and try to forget the images we had just witnessed. Two weeks later we were going to see it again, this time with two young women and we were excited to see them get scared shitless while we giggled, immune from the fear. And so began my love of the film Alien and it’s sequels.
Ridley Scott had only directed one other film prior to Alien, the beautiful period film The Duelists (1977) with Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. Alien was the assured work of a master. The editing is excellent, deciding to cut out scenes of the Alien as much as possible to create suspense and build to the finale. There’s very little blood and gore save for the chest burster scene. The cast give performances that are al excellent and felt real, authentic.
The set design is incredible as are the special effects and Alien design by H.R. Ginger. Everything looks like a penis or a vagina, everything is highly sexualized and the sets are slick and wet. It disturbs at a subconscious level as well as visual. The soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith is excellent and eerie. It is simply one of the best horror films ever made and has inspired many attempts to recreate it’s tension and suspense.
Alien made a star out of Sigourney Weaver (her first film), Ripley Scott’s next film was the classic, cult or otherwise, Blade Runner (1982) and led to one of the best sequels ever made Aliens (1986) for which Weaver would receive a Best Actress nomination (the film received 7 total nominations). Alien is 40 years old this year and it holds up as a beautiful and horrifying masterpiece.