Alfred Hitchcock was a genius in his day. His work still terrifies audiences and has made it onto the shelves of horror film classics. One of the many reasons Hitchcock was such a successful director was his classic film noir technique. He didn’t simply push a horrific scene at an audience. Anyone could do that. There was much left to the imagination….a creative genius in itself that has been forgotten by his countless contemporaries. Consider his all-time masterpiece, Psycho. We see Norman Bates dressed up in drag as Mommy Dearest slashing a butcher knife in the air at the presumably nude and terrified Janet Leigh. We don’t see it hitting it’s mark and carving chunks out of her flawless skin. But her terrible screams and lifeless expression after she sprawls out on the bloodied linoleum tile certainly help us to fill in the blanks. Hitchcock even served as his own metaphor: that famous, bloated silhouette often appeared in his feature films and occasionally television episodes. He liked his rotund silhouette to be flashed momentarily on the screen. Audiences watched for it but like many of his best effects, he was there and then gone in a blink. His voice, another unmistakable omniscience, narrated documentaries and films. This one, about the Holocaust and its eventual death camp liberation, made for a particularly intense film.
There is at least one contemporary Hollywood director who recognized and emulated Hitchcock’s genius. Ridley Scott borrowed a touch of Hitchcock’s angle on leaving just a little to the imagination while still scaring the bejesus out of his audience in the 1979 release of Alien, that awesomely creepy sci-fi starring Sigourney Weaver (this was the film that catapulted her into stardom). We see the large alien maggot burst through poor Cain’s chest but it’s hidden for several seconds inside Cain’s t-shirt. Ouch. Weaver was the last to get cast and was hired after her first and only audition. When the casting director opened the door to Weaver wearing “high, hooker boots,” that made her look “about seven feet tall,” he was already quite certain he’d found his Ellen Ripley. Strong, immense and powerful.
That the most significant role in the film was given to a woman at a time when women simply didn’t get many masculine or gender-neutral movie roles, (they still don’t), and usually received top billing only in chick flicks or silly comedies, spoke volumes about both Weaver’s charisma and Scott ‘s perspective on where the movie was supposed to take us. Hitchcock too had that gift. He didn’t use women in his movies. He knew how best to make use of their potency. They weren’t mere props to make the screen look pretty. Their roles, no matter how short or long, were complex and crucial. Hitchcock was a pioneer on so many levels.
The plot sounds simple enough: a crew of a commercial space mining ship investigate a suspected S.O.S., and in so doing, lands on a distant planet where strange eggs are discovered. The manner in which the movie unfolds is as intellectual as it is innovative. That’s probably the main reason we’re hooked from the get-go. The cinematography, sterile and bleak, the ship itself reminiscent of a flying hospital laboratory, provides a quiet atmosphere for the spectacular events that will soon unfold. It is this contrast that builds suspense and makes the horrors of death, anguish and blood even more mind-boggling.
We’re allowed to get a good look at the alien maggot as it bursts through poor Cain’s chest. But it’s fast. Blink and it’s over. It’s as though knew that a long scene wasn’t in the film’s best interests, lest he lose viewers. It is rumoured The Exorcist made people vomit and faint in their seats. I believe it. I dare say with the exception of Cain’s t-shirt birth, (ick) Scott wasn’t quite going for that effect. He set it up that way at first, then his style became more Hitchcockian. He wanted a classier scare, one that left the viewer thinking, “what’s next?” rather than “I’m about to hurl my popcorn.” I don’t think I could have taken two hours of Cain’s t-shirt.
It’s obvious to me that the inside of the mining deep space ship is a rip-off of the Starship Enterprise. Sliding doors and oddly shaped door openings, all things geometrical. Perhaps it was a little too much to ask that any other concept be considered for the movie. The design and creation for the exterior of the alien spaceship was a miracle of plaster, steel and millions and millions of dollars. As usual, the producers fought with 20th Century Fox every step of the way about budget. When haven’t I heard about that battle every time Fox finances and releases a movie? Set after set was designed for the film. The Fox executive who inspected the sets on occasion ordered the demolition of a few before they were completed. As soon as he left, building continued.
Hitchcock simply didn’t have that option. He didn’t have millions of dollars to invest in a movie set. He relied upon the plain, vacant motel and the exterior of the old mansion on the hilltop nearby to set the stage (pun) for the horrors that would follow. And it worked. In this case less was more. In the sci-fi film, more somehow looked as though it was less, with the exception of the introduction. The alien ship was one of the most stunning, stupefying visuals in the entire movie. Yet, it too was shrouded in fog and darkness, forcing the viewer to ponder what might be lurking inside. We never did get inside.
Aliens, the 1986 blockbuster that picked up where Cain’s wriggly legacy left off, was a whole new kettle of (jelly?)fish. The sets made Alien seem positively claustrophobic. There were supposedly (although not really) hoardes of aliens in this one. There was the suggestion of an entire colony of people who had been sealed inside of the aliens’ nest (we saw one of them captured and one of the colonists scooting around on all fours). Complicated or not, there was so much we didn’t see that Hitchcock’s approach still permeated this film.
Let’s review what we actually see in the film aside from big, ugly aliens, screaming military soldiers firing machine guns that haven’t yet been invented, a cute kid, a humble “artificial person” and Ripley. There’s lots of gunfire, flames, explosions and noise, noise, noise. Very war-like but most of it not especially gory or bloody. We get to see another alien birth of course, because after all, that’s what drew most of us back to the theatre in the first place. In contrast, the quiet in the movie is staggering. After the team initially encounters and attempts to battle the aliens, there is several minutes of quiet and calm, where sanity reigns again. The remnants of Gorman’s shell-shocked military team have now laid the plans of mice and men. Ripley and Newt are so relaxed they can even nap in the medical lab, a foolish move that, considering Ripley knows perfectly well that the lab is filled with those “jellyfish“-like things (xenomorph?) that harbour hungry embryos, but that’s how the story went. It’s moments like these that make our skin crawl: Ripley awakening from her sleep, seeing the open jars that used to imprison the “jellyfish”, the scuttering sound in the lab of a rapid exoskeleton foreshadowing imminent danger.
The “jellyfish” however never quiet make it around Newt or Ripley’s respective necks. It is now director James Cameron who continues the Hitchcockian atmosphere, keeping his audience on the edge of their seats with more suspense than action. How it was that two movies, filmed years apart with completely new actors, (except Weaver), and most importantly, utilizing two different directors somehow returned audiences to the exact same, creepy, spellbinding planet is a testament to Hollywood magic. Be that as it may, Weaver was none too happy about many aspects of the second script. She felt it was gun-happy. Weaver was and is anti-gun in her political stance.
Surprisingly a tough-acting soldier named Vasquez, in reality a pretty, soft-voiced woman, admitted to being afraid of her military prop. “It’s very heavy. It’s two feet taller than me and 70 pounds heavier,” she gave a shy smile. Weaver deplored the fact that she had to “shoot” stunt men as if she, “was shooting at aliens. I know they were blanks but what if I flamed the wrong person? Once you start shooting you get to like – the target practice alone was very, like ...After you’ve fired a few rounds you feel immortal and that’s garbage,” Weaver claims. Yep. Words are difficult. We get it.
Garbage and ethics notwithstanding, the film was gold. In Aliens the violence was there but with the exception of two scenes, the gore and guts were not. We got the idea of it, but rest assured, no humans were harmed in the making of this film. No matter how modern, how supposedly, although not truly gory, the two films prove themselves to be, Alien and Aliens remain tributes to the earlier suspenseful thrills of a bygone Hitchcockian era, one that, alas, isn’t about to be seen again any time soon at a theatre near you.