Obviously, like me, your two favourite horror movies are Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” I mean, how could it be otherwise?
Alien was released in 1979, just two years after the phenomenally successful Star Wars, as people were crying out for more space themed movies. With a creature designed by H. R. Giger, and a script from the highly creative Dan O’Bannon, it was a box office hit.
The Thing was released in 1982. It was based on the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. The 1951 Howard Hawks movie, “The Thing From Another World,” was also based on the same novella, but it deviated greatly from the original story. Carpenter wanted to go back to the roots and do the story more justice. He captured the paranoia and claustrophobia of the story perfectly.
They are both amazingly great movies, and there are many similarities that make them, in my view, pretty much the same:
- An isolated environment. It’s a classic haunted house/slasher scenario. A confined location, and a hidden enemy picking people off one by one. Classic! But the beauty of both movies is that the question of why the people don’t just escape and call the police is addressed by setting them in a place from which they literally cannot escape, and to which there can be no help, no cavalry riding in at the last moment. They are truly on their own.
- A very small cast. A small cast of characters means we can spend time with them, get to know them, explore the web of interactions between them.
- Memorable, believable characters. Each one is memorable, realistic and rounded. They have their strengths and weaknesses, to which we are privy. Their names and nicknames are easy to catch and differentiate.
- Time to get to know them. A slow build up allows us to grow fond of the characters, for all their foibles. Even unlikable characters can be sympathetic ones.
- A mysterious threat. The nature of the existential threat is withheld from the characters and the audience. So much so that for both movies, there are many questions left unanswered. But not in a cheating way. All relevent questions are answered. What’s left are the irrelevent but burning questions. Where did the aliens come from? What is their true nature? How likely are we to see them again? Those are questions that shouldn’t be answered. They stay with us long after the movie ends and keep us up at night.
- A hidden threat. The threat is out of view. We only get glimpses of the horror for the most part. What we do see, chills us to our very core, but it’s what we don’t see that drives us insane.
- Threat from within. The threat is not just an external one. It comes from within the ranks of the group. This is the most horrific part of both movies. If it were a group fighting an external threat, like in Jaws or Predator, the bonds between the characters grow proportionally with the threat. But the genuis of Alien and the Thing is to unravel those internal bonds at the most inconvenient time. In The Thing, this is overt; your friend may not be your friend. But the betrayal of Ash in Alien serves exactly the same puropose. It shatters the group, leaving them vunerable, paranoid husks. It tightens the tension and terror to unbearable limits.
- Cannot fail or flee. The characters are not just fighting for their lives, they are fighting for humanity. If they don’t kill the threat, it could get back to civilisation and there is a possibility it could wipe out humanity. This is part of the mystery of the creature. Who knows what it is capable of? They need to kill it.
- Somewhat plausible aliens. They are not your average half-arsed latex nose ridge or green paint, they are well-designed and gorgeously crafted. The special effects are second to none and stand up extremely well today.
- Unique life cycle that uses humans. Body horror. The aliens get inside you, litterally, in order to multiply. They use you as a substrate, to your nasty, painful, gruesome death. It’s the ultimate violation. *Shiver*
- A reluctant hero. Ripley and MacReady are both admirable, competent people, just trying to get on with their jobs. But they are thrust into heroism against their will. They rise to the challenge and keep a level head when all about are losing theirs. Through bravery and tenacity, they triumph. Well, kind of.
- Two survivors. Kind of. Maybe.
- Destruction of the environment. Ramping up the stakes. As a last resort they destroy of their habitat to kill the threat. It probably means they will die, but it had to be done. It is the ultimate sacrifice.
They are all the reasons I love those movies. What are the other similarities that I have missed? Are they important or superficial? Which is your favourite and why?