Let the following description unspool in your mind’s eye: A spacecraft from Earth is boarded by an unknown alien. Before you know it, the alien begins attacking and killing off the crew members one by one. The surviving crew does its best to fight the creature but discovers that the alien is seemingly super powered and near indestructible. As the crew dwindles in number, the situation becomes more desperate. When all seems lost, the remaining crew members devise a plan to send the alien into the vacuum of space.
While the above summary could describe any number of films, two in particular have been selected as a part of the Trylon’s August screening schedule: the B-grade It! The Terror from Beyond Space (Edward L. Cahn, 1958) and Ridley Scott’s classic Alien (1979). The films differ beyond measure in terms of acting, production design, story, and suspense, but both are great reference points for the “alien on the ship” subgenre of science fiction movies. Even though they’re separated by about 20 years their respective adherence to genre conventions is timeless and worth exploration.
The late film historian Robert Osbourne aptly summed up It! when introducing it for Turner Classic Movies: “It’s what fans of sci-fi of the 50s loved best about the genre. It has low-budget sets and effects, wild predictions of what our future will look like, and a menace that only a drive-in crowd could truly love.” But that lack of quality can be overlooked when examining how It! turns those budgetary disadvantages into powerful interpretations about our world. The first thing to note is that the main set is redressed to represent different levels of the ship. This can be explained away from a budgetary standpoint, but from a thematic angle the recycled set indicates that changes to our environment, however slight, do not eradicate the threats of the present. Colonel Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is accused of murdering his colleagues on the first mission to Mars and he returns to Earth for a court-martial. He denies the allegations, but without proof he doesn’t stand a chance. When “It” sneaks onto the ship, it’s as if the creature stands in for Carruthers’s terrible ordeal on Mars, one that follows him back home. He can’t escape the death and horror found on Mars, even as he and the crew move from one level of the ship to the next, and even as they race closer to Earth. In the film, Mars seems to represent the future, but like the film’s sets, this future only changes in appearance rather than content or purpose. As the final line of the film states, “Another name for Mars is Death,” which suggests that death cannot be escaped, even on a distant planet. The theme of death is emphasized by the film’s use of light and shadow. Cinematographer Kenneth Peach—who would later lens 25 episodes of The Outer Limits (1963-1965)—employs a pseudo-noir lighting scheme, especially whenever Carruthers talks about Mars. When this technique is paired with the shadowed shots of “It” lurking through the ship, the connection between Mars and death becomes clear to the viewer.
Thirty years later, Alien’s similar use of cinematic techniques—especially lighting and cinematography––brought this subgenre to a pinnacle of suspense through scares, designs, and effects. With a background in commercials, director Ridley Scott came to the film knowing how to manipulate and persuade an audience. He brings this skill to Alien in the scene when Kane is attacked by the facehugger. In almost complete silence, alternating between medium close-ups of Kane and shots from Kane’s point-of-view, the suspense builds to unbearable levels. This pattern of shots situates Kane as a point of identification for the viewer––we watch and experience the tension mounting in the character onscreen. Then, through a series of five point-of-view shots occurring in less than a second and an otherworldly squeal, the facehugger launches from the egg and latches on to Kane’s/our face. This shock is followed by a quiet and empty wide shot of the forsaken planet, giving us a moment to both grasp what has happened and realize how alone the Nostromo is.
Throughout the film, Scott keeps the camera around eye level and employs point-of-view shots, which makes the viewer feel like an eighth (or ninth, depending upon one’s thoughts about Jonesy the cat) member of the crew. This technique becomes more powerful as the crew splits up to find the chest-burster. The camera floats down the dark, dank corridors, and with it, so do we. Like the crew, we know to expect anything after everything that’s happened to Kane, and the first time one watches Alien, there’s no way anyone could expect the creature that the crew finally encounters.
Alien’s use of light is similar to It! in that the shadows and low-key lighting also seem to represent death, or the possibility of it. The planet the Nostromo lands on, LV-426, is lifeless and unforgiving. Despite Mother, the computer, stating that the sun is rising, a light-blocking wind storm whips across the landscape. The relic in the antechamber is large, grey, and foreboding, and the xenomorph is sleek and black. Moreover, at the end of the film, when Ripley blasts the alien from the ship, it disappears into the endless darkness of space. In contrast to the overwhelming darkness in the film, the lighting in the final moments of the Alien––a blast of bright, blinding white light as Ripley activates the shuttle’s thrusters and leaves the intruder behind––highlights the connection between light and life, because her will to live wins over the seemingly unstoppable force of death, personified by the xenomorph.
Looking at the two films together, we see the cinematic growth of the genre from the low-grade, no-budget quickies that rolled out at drive-ins to the big-budget special effects films made by visionary directors. Like all genres, the beginnings are humbler than the matured form; but like all things in life, we should never forget those that came before. While no one expected It! to be a box-office success or even a genre classic, it reminds us that films are historical products, inspired by the world from which they’re created.
Doherty, Thomas. “Genre, Gender, and Aliens Trilogy.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 181-199.
Luckhurst, Roger. Alien. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Edited by Michelle Baroody
Catch It! The Terror from Beyond Space from Friday, August 16 to Sunday, August 18 at the Trylon Cinema. Tickets and more information available here. Make it a space-horror double feature and stay for Event Horizon.