SHRIEK Women of Horror: Alien

by Evan J Peterson

We’ve had a great first half at SHRIEK: A Women of Horror Film and Discussion Class, located in the Scarecrow Video screening room. We’ve seen some chilling female villains, some kick-ass female heroes, and some characters who fell in between. This week, we’ll watch Alien, a working-class feminist haunted house thriller from outer space. But is it horror or science fiction? Why not both?

Stats on Alien (1979)

Body count: 5 humans, one desiccated alien “space jockey,” one facehugger, and the rest would be a spoiler

Nudity: Nope, just some male and female underwear shots

Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Yes? Debatable.

Major protagonists: male and female

Major actors: Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Bolaji Badejo as the xenomorph

Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Dan O’Bannon (screenplay), O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett

Alien is my favorite horror film. It used to be my favorite film, period, but The Wicker Man now has that accolade, and I do not consider The Wicker Man a true horror film (mystery/thriller is more like it). Alien, however, is absolutely a dyed-in-the-wool horror film, no matter what film critics may say about its tropes and conventions as a science fiction film. Like all who insist on either/or categories, they fail to see that a subject can be both/and.

Charles Mudede recently wrote in The Stranger that he doesn’t particularly care for the horror genre, but he loves Alien because it doesn’t feel like a horror film, rather it feels like a biological incident in space (my paraphrasing).

The cast to be slaughtered, in this case, comes across as a rather de-glamorized Star Trek bridge crew, complete with icy science officer. What Alien accomplishes is to take a centuries-old horror trope—the haunted house—and seal it shut so that the occupants cannot leave. In supernatural haunted house films, the plot requires the guests to stay for a reason—greed for reward, to save face over a bet, the promise of sex, or just plain vainglorious stupidity. In Alien, however, there’s nowhere to go. They’re in deep space with no hospitable environment to land upon. They get picked off one by one, not by an angry ghost or vampire but by a highly precise biological predator. This predator is colored and textured much like the machinery that lines their spaceship, which allows the creature to pop out, make a kill, and then disappear, much as a ghost would in a supernatural horror film.

In addition to being a haunted house film, Alien also works as a “stalker” film, an expansion of the slasher genre in which the killer needn’t be a human, living or undead. Similar to most slasher films, Alien doesn’t mow its way through the victims. They’re slowly taken down until there’s only one left. This brings us to one of the all-time best Final Girls, Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.

She’s not the first Final Girl (Black Christmas, Suspiria, and Halloween all precede Alien), but certainly an excellent early example. I wrote a bit about Final Girls in the previous SHRIEK blog about The Silence of the Lambs.

Ripley fits the trope: she’s not asexual, but she exhibits little interest in sex. She doesn’t merely survive, but rather takes down the killer. Unlike many of the suburban Final Girls such as Laurie Strode (Halloween) or Nancy Thompson (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Ripley appears to be working class. She’s a lieutenant, but she doesn’t work for a recognizable military; instead, she’s a high-ranking officer on a mining and shipping craft. She is a highly sophisticated pilot, navigator, or trucker more than a soldier.

In its time, the film flipped the expectations of both science fiction and horror. The film is another slow burn, which I’ve always enjoyed. I love a large dose of character development and eerie atmosphere before things explode. The first act is quite lengthy until the, ahem, “emergence” of the xenomorph, which sends us into shocks and suspense of the rest of the film.

It’s not a gore fest, either. After the initial splatter-heavy arrival of the creature, we see almost no gore, and what we do see are the briefest glimpses. One reason this film works so well in defying genre is doubtless Ridley Scott’s direction, part of the late-70s trend of giving “serious” directors and actors horror projects (see also Jaws and The Exorcist).

But we’re here to talk about the women. Ellen Ripley starts as just another member of the cast. She gets about the same screen time as the rest of the crew, and as that crew shrinks around her, she emerges as the powerful hero of the film and subsequent franchise. Few horror franchises in fact have kept the same actress, let alone the same Final Girl character, past the first or second film. Ripley is perhaps the patent Final Girl. As we’ve discussed at SHRIEK in previous weeks, Final Girls are often de-sexed, as though a woman cannot be strong and admirable and also be into sex. Deleted scenes clearly indicate that there is a sexual culture on the ship, but this doesn’t make the final cut. Nonetheless, Ripley doesn’t evade sexual advances in the way Clarice Starling or Laurie Strode does. Instead, she’s a serious yet vulnerable woman doing her job to the best of her ability.

That ability and her authority are bucked by the men on the ship. She tries to keep biological contaminants in quarantine, but the orders she gives are overridden, resulting in the deaths of her friends and coworkers. Ripley knew better; if the men around her allowed her to have authority and agency, the rest of the film would’ve gone quite differently.

The only other human woman on the ship is Lambert, played by Veronica Cartwright. Cartwright is a strong actress, particularly in the horror genre. In Alien, as in many of her best-known roles (as a kid in The Birds and The Children’s Hour, and as an adult in The Witches of Eastwick), she spends much of the film either complaining or sobbing. She doesn’t have a great role in Alien, but she plays an excellent foil to Weaver’s Ripley. Where Lambert sobs and sulks, Ripley gets shit done. Ripley isn’t a complete hardass, though—she is clearly vulnerable and terrified by the end. It’s the fact that, even terrified, she does what has to be done, and even goes back for her cat.

While the characters themselves have plenty of sexual tension, they never have sex in this film. Instead, everything else around them is sexualized, or at the very least gendered. The creatures and their habitat look variously phallic or anal, and occasionally vaginal. When a brawl develops between characters, a male character assaults a woman by shoving a rolled up magazine in her mouth in a way that suggests oral rape, all while the viewer can see images of topless women and fried eggs (!?) pasted to the wall behind them. The initial contamination of alien organisms also plays out like an oral rape, resulting in a twisted version of a male pregnancy. This is a film in which men’s bodies are subjected to penetration and domination more often than women’s, and that’s no accident.

Last, but Jesus not least, the unseen but clearly heard presence of the ship’s pseudo-AI personality is named Mother. The crew lives in a giant, now-haunted mommy complex. It would be shortsighted to suggest that Alien is simply a Freudian nightmare; many of Freud’s sexual theories were crude and didn’t work.

Alien, on the other hand, works incredibly well as a horror film, a science fiction masterpiece, and a survival drama. I consider it a perfect film. I do not believe there was a single aesthetic choice made by the actors, director, script writer, or designers that doesn’t serve the holistic effect of the film. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Join us this Tuesday for SHRIEK: Alien!

You can reserve your space in the class here.

Stay tuned for the November 10 session on Candyman!

The SHRIEK community film class is designed to offer everybody an affordable, accessible way to learn about film and women’s studies while enjoying kick-ass heroines in some of the best horror films ever made. We hope to inspire more women to get involved in film making, especially in the horror genre, where women are severely underrepresented behind the camera.

Check the Scarecrow calendars for the Tuesday night horror flicks during October and November.

Evan J Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.

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