In space, no-one can hear you scream...
Well, true enough, but then again in space no-one can hear Steps: Gold, either, so it's not exactly all bad news, is it? Yes, folks, this week I take the boot to the first in the well-regarded Alien franchise, and waffle on in my (hopefully) inimitable style about the small-screen British horror revival...
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A long time ago (well, the late 1970s), in a galaxy not that far away, the film studio 20th Century Fox had had a big hit with a movie called Star Wars (you may have heard of it). The Fox suits decided they could use a bit more of this spaceship stuff, seeing as it was so popular, and rang round the junior suits who did all the work. 'Any scripts with spaceships in them knocking about?' And they were brought the script for Battlestar Galactica, which they promptly sent away again, because even suits have standards 1 Finally a script called Star Beast appeared, which even sounded a bit like Star Wars, and they decided to make it as a sort of low-budget exploitation film. Unfortunately they forgot to tell this to Mr Ridley Scott, the director, with peculiar results...
Surely everyone reading this knows the plot of Alien, the movie Star Beast turned into? All right, just in brief... Most of the movie occurs on the Nostromo, an interstellar tug with a crew of seven (plus one pet cat - all great horror movies should have animals in them). The crew spend most of the time asleep in fridges, which makes you wonder why they're there at all, especially as the plot establishes that a sophisticated android workforce is available. However they're rudely awakened by an alien signal emanating from a blasted rockball, and their contracts insist they go and investigate. Down on the planet three of the crew find a huge alien vessel and luckless First Officer Kane (a fairly pre-stardom John Hurt) has a close encounter of an intimate and rather icky kind with the occupant of an alien egg. Despite the concerns of Third Officer Ripley (a definitely pre-stardom Sigourney Weaver, here in her signature role), the landing party are let back on board by twitchy Science Officer Ash (a pre-Baggins Ian Holm). The alien parasite seems to die and Kane recovers. However the ship's supply of indigestion tablets is insufficient to stop him rudely bursting open in the middle of the crew's supper, and a metallic-dentured alien emerges and does a runner (or the equivalent) for the bowels of the ship. The rest of the crew are forced to engage in a battle to survive, or else the franchise will never get going and The Terminator will never have any competition for the title of James Cameron's best film...
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Fox may have wanted another Star Wars, but this ain't it. It's a weird clash of several different styles of film-making, and arguably the wrong style wins. I've never been able to force myself to believe all the hype about Alien, and here's why...
Style number one is indeed Star Wars influenced: there are frequent loving flybys of bloomin' big spaceships, and the technology of the Nostromo has a dirty, used look to it, rather like the Millenium Falcon et al. It looks sort of convincing as a working starship. This flows rather neatly into style number two - a naturalistic, almost docudrama approach to the crew mooching about, all talking at the same time over their meals, and complaining about their pay. It's an effect that reminds me most strongly of a Howard Hawks movie. Hawks was a director and producer of many genres, active from the 1930s to the 50s, and amongst his films was the original Thing From Another World. The Thing was one of the best 50s SF scare movies, and clearly an ancestor of Alien, right down to the traitor in the human camp. Alien was conceived of and pitched as an updated scare movie, a suspense-thriller-horror movie - the haunted house in space.
But the most important name for the Alien saga at this point in time was not Ripley but Ridley - Scott, that is, the director. Here I go into a minority of one, but I've never been hugely impressed by a Ridley Scott film. His visual sense is undeniably superb, and his movies are nearly all stunningly beautiful to look at. But it always seems to me that he's much more interested in filling the screen with pretty pictures than with engaging the audience with the characters or even telling the story.
The next time you see Alien just look at how much of the time is filled with languid sequences where the camera roams around actionless, silent sets, simply showing off how beautiful the production designs are. This drains the film of a lot of the nervous energy it should have, particularly as a suspense horror. Sure, there are 'jump' moments, such as when the facehugger falls on Ripley's shoulder or the Alien appears with Dallas in the air duct - but anyone can contrive that sort of thing. Creating and sustaining true tension is much more difficult and, for me, Alien rarely manages it for long - I just don't feel drawn into the story.
This isn't a bad film - of course it isn't. HR Giger's creations are incredible and iconic, the rest of the sets equally good. There's a good ensemble performance by the cast, and it's interesting that it isn't until very late on that Ripley emerges as the survivor/heroine figure. Also noteworthy is Ian Holm's peculiar, nervy performance as Ash - a performance that seems even more peculiar on repeated viewings of the movie.
But for me, Alien is fatally flawed: written and designed as a nerve-jangling horror movie in space, it's actually directed like an arthouse film, with beautiful compositions and visual effects taking precedence over effective storytelling. The very beauty which makes it so exceptional also deprives it of truly working as it was intended to.
With my credibility thus in tatters, let's talk about an older style of horror. I honestly believe that no-one's ever really made horror movies better than the British (okay, often British people in the States, but in this globalised world let's not split hairs). Dead of Night, Horror of Dracula, Quatermass and the Pit, Theatre of Blood (I hope you'll appreciate my not going on about The Wicker Man this week) - the list goes on and on. Well, on and on until the mid-70s, since when we've by and large been stuck with aberrations like Darklands and Beyond Bedlam2
There's been a bit of a screen horror renaissance in the last two or three years, but it's been on the small screen rather than in the cinema. Most famously there's the brilliant League of Gentlemen (who like The Wicker Man even more than I do), whose Christmas show last year was a particularly inspired pastiche of the old Amicus anthology horror movies. They're planning a movie, apparently, so fingers crossed on that one. Rather less celebrated has been Channel 5's anthology series Urban Gothic, currently running its' second series. The team have clearly learned many valuable lessons from the first run (not least of which, that they should try and keep series co-creator Tom de Ville away from his word processor as much as possible) and come up with some stonking episodes - the Just 17-style teen romance between a zombie and a necrophile was an astonishingly assured piece of television, and the 'Eater' episode was, if nothing else, notable for the severed-head-on-coathook scene.
And, lastly, there's Steve Coogan in Dr Terrible's House of Horrible, currently on BBC2, which simultaneously tries to spoof and pastiche the glory days of the British horror movie. It's a noble endeavour, but of the two episodes I've seen so far, the Fu Manchu episode was strong on laughs (kudos to Mark Gatiss for his perfect delivery of the deathless line 'Someone has grabbed my Woo Woo') but weaker on atmosphere, while the Lesbian Vampires episode wasn't particularly hilarious but was astonishingly successful in evoking the heady flesh-n-blood flavour of Hammer's early 70s output (one assumes Honor Blackman only appeared because Ingrid Pitt was busy).
All three shows deserve your attention if you like home-grown horror, but it's still the case that two of them were pitched as comedies, and the best of Urban Gothic is rarely far from self-conscious irony. I'd love to see someone just get the chance to make a straightforward, serious, classic-style horror in this country - whether for the big screen or the small.
Just a brief reminder that the Harry Potter contest is still running (entries to the thread at the bottom of last week's column, please). Next week I hope to look at the fifth in Kevin Smith's series, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and also indulge in some justified rubbishing of the latest 100 Greatest Films poll. Don't fail to miss it.