The 70’s have no shortage of memorable horror movies. But to me, it’s those movies you don’t expect to scare you, that end up staying with you the longest.
In Ridley Scott’s Alien, most of the fright comes from not knowing what is happening or what will happen. The crew is trapped on this ship. They can hide but there is nowhere to run.
Build The Anticipation:
The commercial salvage vessel, Nosromo and her crew has been dispatched to investigate a distress signal from an alien vessel in deep space. The crew; Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Kane (John Hurt), Ash (Ian Holm), Parker (Yaphet Kotto) awake from a cryo sleep and begins the investigation. The ever sharp Ripley warms the crew that the signal might not be a distress beacon but a warning, to stay away. This is the first seed of tension planted for the audience.
Now Scare the $h!t out of ‘em:
Another way to add to the tension is to introduce a problem, threat, or emergency then resolve it. Despite that fact that the problem has been resolved, there is a lingering trauma left over in the viewer. After the creature falls off of Kane, he appears to be fine. They can find no medical problem with him and things return to normal. When they sit down to have dinner, things couldn’t be more relaxed.
But the audience has seen the danger and their vulnerability is exposed. Now the audience feels safe, but fully aware that at any time they could be in danger again.
Lastly, give them something they don’t expect.
Instinctively you know some kind of danger is coming by the dinner scene, but the viewer doesn’t know when.
While filming Alien, even the actors didn’t know what exactly was going to happen. What does happen is shocking and attacks the viewer on an almost psychological level.
The creature smothering Kane’s face gives the sensation of being suffocated, the creature exploding from his chest, a heart attack. Everything that happens to Kane to this point is all the way around terrifying.
This scene is working on many levels. Despite the immense size of the ship, the work spaces are cramped and confined, giving the viewer a subtle sense of claustrophobia. They are working in the most hostile of working environments, space. This cramped and gritty vessel is the crew’s only source of life yet with the alien lose, it’s also a tomb. The first thing we want to do when we come across a threat is run. But in space, aboard a large but ultimately confined area, we are trapped. Outer space offers no respite, in fact it is death itself.
Alien puts the viewer in a state of normalcy yet surrounds them in an environment that keeps danger just beyond our reach. This relaxed yet ominous feeling is the best time to scare the living daylights out of an unsuspecting audience. And that’s exactly what they do.
To Kill A Mockingbird Author Andrew Smith wrote, “We fear what we don’t understand and hate what we cannot conquer.”
While this is an unfortunate truth of human life, it is an excellent tool for the story artist to exploit. As the creator of your own story world, you can fill it with infinite unknowns for your viewers. And all of these unknowns have great frightening potential.
How do you do this?
- Hide your enemy or conceal a clear view of them with lighting, camera angles and editing.
- Give the antagonist abilities and functions that are contrary to what we know and understand.
- Make the antagonist invulnerable to our weapons but not invincible.
- Have the threat stalk your main characters during their most intimate and vulnerable moments.
- Allow the pacing to give your audience a sense of normalcy and put them in an environment that they would be familiar or comfortable with. Then turn it upside down from something unexpected.
This is why Alien works so well. In space, one of our biggest mysteries, it’s filled with vast unknowns and one of the most frightening is that of alien life and its interaction with us.
Do you have a favorite horror moment? Let us know in the comments below. Maybe you have seen something we can all learn from.
Happy alien hunting!