Back in the mists of time, before I discovered Interzone or the then quite active small presses, I subscribed to Omni magazine. It provided some superb SF short stories, plenty of informative articles and the frankly gobsmacking art of H. R. Giger. When I first saw some of his Necronomicon creations, being at once beautiful and horrible, they caused a visceral reaction. Here was something created with skill and imagination, which was not part of the typical con-game usually found in galleries of modern art.
‘In space, no one can hear you scream’ caught my attention because, bloody hell, someone in Hollywood seemed aware of what space actually is. The film Alien, out in 1979, I found wonderful in its design – that ship of bones, the massive pilot in its seat, the rapidly growing alien itself – but sadly the shock value was undermined because I went to see it with those who had seen it before. When they weren’t saying to me, “Hey, you’ll like this bit!” and giving away what came next, the sphincters tightening in the surrounding audience, who also seemed there for a second viewing, was almost audible.
Only later whilst reading an article about this film, did I make the Giger connection and, when Aliens was on the cards in 1986 without Giger being so much involved, I expected the typical disappointing sequel. Having also learned that gung-ho troops had been transplanted into it directly from the set of Platoon, my hopes further waned. But I did go to see it, and sat mesmerized, luckily without anyone beside me to shout, “Hey, that’s not a xenomorph, that’s a little girl!” I revelled in award-winning scenes like the lander crash, sat boggle-eyed during the battle scenes, and even enjoyed those Platoon transplants. Cameron had done the franchise proud and ‘disappointing sequel’ was being saved up in spades for what came next.
Anyone who reads my stuff will know I like my monsters, but I also like them to be part of an ecology – I like justifiable monsters. Before seeing the first film I was dubious about it simply because predators need prey, a food supply; you can’t just have a flesh-eating monsters on a barren world. However, this creature came from a cargo of eggs aboard a crashed ship so raised as yet to be answered question of why; could they be a weapon? It also fascinated me to learn that the xenomorph was based on a parasitic wasp and, having read much about the various stages of parasitic life, there seemed nothing odd about the egg, face-hugger and chest burster life cycle. But I wondered where Aliens would now take this. Certainly the introduction of bug hunters and the upscaling from the crew of a ship as prey to a whole colony looked promising, but what about the creatures themselves? I wanted to learn something new, and I needed a bigger monster fix.
When Ripley stumbled into the birth chamber of the mother alien, I got precisely what I was after. Though the alien in the first film seemed scary enough, the scare factor was more about what you didn’t see (rather like the scratching at the door in the original version of The Haunting). For me, the mother alien was a pivotal moment in film. Here, at last, we were shown in lurid detail something terrifying, and it did not disappoint. In fact, the damned thing got better when it detached itself from its egg-laying abdomen and went careering after Ripley like some skeletal by-blow of the goddess Kali (dark mother, of course) and an entomophobe’s ultimate nightmare.
Aliens started with slow creepy tension, heated up steadily to the flash point of the nuclear detonation of the terraforming plant, then wound down a little before hitting the satisfying ‘oh shit’ moments that have become almost a cliché in many horror films (and already used in Alien) when the monster leaps out of a cupboard and must be disposed of in a final desperate battle. The last scenes, with the android Bishop being torn in half, and the duel between Ripley and the alien mother, ticked every damned box for me. It’s a section of the film which, with nerdish admiration, I’ve clicked through frame by frame. But, in the end, as later additions to this franchise have demonstrated, special effects don’t make a film, story does, and only when the two work well together go you get a result like this: a classic.