Monday, October 31, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #1 - ALIEN


This month I've been using Halloween as an excuse to introduce my girlfriend to as many horror movies as possible. Jen has seen hardly any, and it's interesting because it's extremely unpredictable what will actually frighten her - we've watched The Shining, The Exorcist and The Thing without her becoming even mildly startled, but she was quite upset a few months back when I took her to the unrelenting scarefest Super 8. Last week we were watching Alien, which she'd never seen and which, I'm happy to report, worked like gangbusters on her. I mentioned to her that the alien would be my number one character on this list, and she asked me why. I thought for a while, and I feel I should be honest and give the same answer I gave her.

I could say it's because of the brilliant design of the creature by H.R. Giger, which serves as a grotesque mirror image of our repressed unease with our own sexuality. I could point to the alien's birth cycle, one of the most potent and unforgettable examples of bodily horror in film. Or I could praise Ridley Scott's handsome directorial style, the authentic performances he elicits from his cast, how he set out to make "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the world of 2001: A Space Odyssey" and, when you're watching the film, you realize that's exactly what it is and Scott succeeded beautifully. Or I could refer to Stephen King's observation that the alien is like one of Lovecraft's outer gods, a visceral representation of our most existential horror, the mystery of what is waiting for us at the farthest reaches of the universe, life and the afterlife. I could say any of those things, and there's some truth to all of them. But the bottom line is, of any monster, maniac or villain that I might meet someday in a dark alley, the alien would be the absolute worst.

Because while I find it fascinating to consider the underlying reasons behind what scares us, at its heart fear is a primal, non-intellectual experience. We can articulate our fears to give them form, to understand them and hopefully be stronger and braver as a result. But when we're confronted with something really terrifying, we can't save ourselves by deconstructing it and, in any case, we're too busy shitting our pants or crying. So there's a sense that the horror movie is a test run for our deepest fears - we push ourselves to confront our darkest thoughts, with the objective distance of make-believe, and to experience the worst before rewarding ourselves with that final fade to black and a return to safety. I'm not saying anything that hasn't said before, but if you had to answer the question of why we enjoy being frightened, that's the most basic and honest answer - we watch stories about characters going through horrible, unimaginable shit and thank the heavens that it isn't us.

So yeah, the alien is the scariest character because of the way the incubating facehugger spasms inside its egg before launching itself onto poor Kane's (John Hurt) face. It's for the way it tightens its tale around Kane's neck as Dallas and Ash try to remove it. It's for Kane's ungodly cries of pain as he gives involuntary birth to the chestburster, and for Lambert's (Veronica Cartwright) authentic repulsion as a jet of blood splashes her face. It's for the moment the once-small alien appears behind Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and we realize that it's made an amazing growth spurt. And that horrible moment when Dallas (Tom Skerritt) realizes he's not alone when searching the vents for the alien, and for Ripley, the lone survivor, sweaty and wide-eyed with terror, trying desperately to make her escape. And because just when she thinks she's safe, she not. And because of the way she chants "lucky, lucky, lucky" herself before confronting the alien one last time and blasting him into space, vanquishing this uncanny monster back into the dark recesses of space.

And it's for the way that the alien and Ripley keep coming back, how she has to defeat the creature over and over again, first as a kickass action hero, then as a Maria Falconetti-esque martyr, then as a campy superwoman with a mean hook shot. The alien, like so many of the characters I've written about this month, keeps coming back because we need to be reminded - to look, once again, at our worst nightmare so that we might laugh and keep them at bay. Some people don't need horror movies; they're better off for not needing to dwell on their fears. For the rest of us, small doses of fear are the vaccine that keep the sickness at bay. I had a VHS tape of Alien and Aliens that my dad had made when I was growing up. As a kid, I struggled not to close my eyes during the scariest moments, I had frequent nightmares involving the alien, and I watched that entire tape after first grade at least once a week; I eventually wore that tape out, and have bought Alien in various formats four times since then. The alien, and all the characters I've written about this month, will never stop creeping me out. And I hope they never do.

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