Horror can be a strange animal. Perhaps more than any other genre, the history of horror is defined by periods of complete dominance by certain styles of horror, often to the exclusion of nearly all others. In the 1930s and 40s, Universal’s cycle of monster movies dominated the horror landscape, producing such classics as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and The Wolf Man (1941). The 1950s and 60s were dominated by horror/sci-fi hybrids like The Thing from Another World (1951), Godzilla (1954), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In the 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, slasher movies and their seemingly endless sequels ruled the day, including the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and Scream (1996). In the 2000s, so-called “torture porn” came into vogue on the backs of films like Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and The Collector (2009). And in the last few years, “found-footage” horror has found its niche following the success of films like Paranormal Activity (2007) and Cloverfield (2008).
Going hand-in-hand with each of these sub-genres is a particular visual and narrative style. Dark themes aside, Universal’s horror cycle and the horror/sci-fi hybrid cycle remained firmly rooted in the style of classical Hollywood: continuity editing, three-point lighting (for the most part), and relatively restrained camerawork. Torture porn is far more likely to feature convoluted narratives (like in Saw), extreme camera angles, and a quicker-paced editorial style. Found-footage horror is, of course, intended to mimic real-life camcorder or security camera type footage, with shaky handheld camerawork and naturalistic lighting the norm. And the slasher sub-genre, of which Alien is a part, frequently features dark and almost noir-ish lighting schemes and a visual language designed to lure the audience into a false sense of security.
Over the course of this and the next two articles, I’m going to examine some of the key stylistic and technical features of Alien, including its camerawork, editing, sound, and lighting. If there’s one overarching thing to remember about the film’s style, though, it’s that while literally hundreds of slasher movies have been made over the last several decades, only a small handful of them have been made by directors that could accurately be described as masters of their art. Ridley Scott of one of those directors, and Alien is one of those films.
Today’s topic is the film’s camerawork and editorial style (which together encompass the visual language to which I earlier referred, and which I will attempt to cover in as few words as possible, because you could literally write a book on the subject.)
For my money, the basic building block upon which the visual language of slasher movies is built is the juxtaposition of stillness with sudden movement. This juxtaposition can be seen in both the camerawork and editing of Alien. (And it should be noted that Alien in fact helped to define these elements as tropes of the genre. Before Alien, there had only been a handful of successful slasher movies – Black Christmas, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween among them – and Alien’s fright-inducing techniques influenced later slasher filmmakers at least as much as any of them. Ridley Scott can be seen as a trend-setting and genre-defining filmmaker in this respect.)
In terms of the film’s editing, Scott’s most effective technique is to contrast extremely long takes with instances of short takes and rapid cuts. Two long takes in particular stand out: the first when the crew is searching through the science lab for the missing “facehugger,” and the second when Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) has split off from a search party to look for Jones the cat and stops for a moment to let falling water splash across his face. (The water seems to be either condensation stemming from a malfunction on the ship or a natural by-product of the ship’s ore refining processes.) In both of these situations, the long take creates a false impression of serenity before sudden movement startles both the characters and the audience; in the first scene, the “facehugger” falls onto Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), and in the second scene, the alien emerges from the shadows. The length of the take clearly heightens the tension in the scene.
If long takes are used in the film to indicate moments of false serenity, then rapid cuts are used to impart a sense of overwhelming panic. At several key point of the film, the pace of the editing markedly increases (meaning that the average shot length goes down), placing the viewer in a frantic mindset similar to that of the characters. This technique is most evident during the famous “chestburster” scene and when Ripley attempts to escape from both the alien and the Nostromo towards the end of the film. Whereas long takes set up an audience for unexpected, jump-out-of-your-seat moments (what Ridley Scott refers to as “cheap gags”), rapid cuts create a feeling of steady, unrelenting tension.
The camerawork of the film creates a dynamic similar to that of the editing, with slow, smooth dolly shots contrasting with frenzied handheld camerawork. Even from the very beginning of the film, when a series of lingering dolly shots shows us the quiet and empty ship, the camera’s limited movement imparts a sense of eerie calm aboard the Nostromo. This type of camerawork continues throughout much of the film, with it only occasionally being interrupted by jarring handheld shots: when the crew explores the crashed ship on the planet, during the “chestburster” scene, during the violent confrontation between Ripley and Ash (Ian Holm), and throughout Ripley’s attempt to escape the ship.
It should be clear by now that may of the scenes that are shot handheld are also the scenes that are edited at a more rapid pace. Indeed, by matching his editorial style to the film’s camerawork, Ridley Scott creates a consistent model which invites audiences to experience the same feelings of confusion and panic as the characters. This visual style has become a staple of horror movies, and Alien was on the leading edge of showing exactly what it could accomplish: scaring the bejeezus out of the viewer. Mission accomplished, Mr. Scott.
Apologies for falling behind in my Alien postings… it’s not easy to write 1000-1500 words every day! I’ll do my best to catch up and get back on schedule before the end of the month.
And to see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: