So many horror movies are made up of moving parts and complex plotting; there is often a lengthy backstory revealed later on or some sort of paradox that enslaves our characters. These devices are designed to create horror in the most layered way possible, and they are often very successful in scaring us on many levels. These are the types of movies that are often enjoyed on Halloween. But sometimes, the best, scariest movies are the simplest ones. Ridley Scott’s (“The Last Duel”) “Alien” takes a single idea and lets it flourish.
“Alien” is more than simple or clear — it’s focused. Every aspect of how it’s made contributes to one goal: Make the audience feel scared and hopeless in their bones. Often in horror movies, there is solace or some sort of explanation for the killer or monster that can help the characters and viewers feel hope. There is still a window of opportunity for winning, or at least understanding the situation. But not in “Alien”: The creature is from another world, and its reasons for killing are out of reach. The crew is trapped aboard a rusty freighter, lightyears away from home. The Xenomorph kills without reason, and it is stronger and more durable than humans. If you are on the ship, it will find you and it will kill you.
As a member of the audience, you cannot place any of your hopes in a single character, because every person in the crew holds equal weight: They are all expendable. Each member of the crew gets more desperate as the number of people who remain alive diminishes. Early squabbles between crew members give way to a shared sense of dread where everyone is terrified that they could be next. The slow death of pride among the crew makes “Alien” one of the single most effective movies at dismantling human self-importance. The only power dynamic in this film is between the alien and the people unlucky enough to share a confined space with it.
Perhaps the most important aspects of this film are its atmosphere, its pacing and how they work together. The movie doesn’t jump right into the action. The titular alien doesn’t even appear until almost halfway through. But from the opening shot, you feel unsettled. The corridors of the spaceship are dimly lit and grimy. The crew explores a completely foreign and mysterious planet. Even without the alien, the film oozes hostility and inevitability. But as the danger increases, the film steadily escalates its momentum; nothing feels jarring, even as the movie moves from a slow-paced uneasiness to a race for survival.
I’ve spent a lot of time gushing about how this movie perfectly delivers on its premise. But why, other than the fact that it’s a horror movie, should it be watched on Halloween? It doesn’t deal with many of the traditional supernatural aspects of the holiday, such as ghosts and zombies, and instead derives its horror from science fiction. But this movie is an essential Halloween watch simply because it’s terrifying. For me, the most exciting part about Halloween is the rush I get from horror. And the horror from “Alien” is twofold. The movie itself is very suspenseful and tense, but the atmosphere and implicit nihilism make it philosophically scary for much longer than its two-hour runtime. The best ghost stories and campfire tales are scary because the storytellers make it seem like those events could happen to anyone. “Alien,” without any complicated gimmicks, does the same thing.
If you ever need a good fright, especially on Halloween, watch “Alien.” It’s simple, effective and puts you in the shoes of the characters. For me, it’s one of the closest, most immersive ways that I can experience a life-or-death situation and still know I’ll survive. But I guarantee you’ll feel the dread. It’s you versus something unstoppable, unreasonable and inescapable. Every second that you’re still alive is a gift.
Daily Arts Contributor Alvin Anand can be reached at email@example.com.