Aliens: The Gateway Drug

Posted: September 13, 2010 by crowbait in Editorial

While we were at the Monster-Mania convention in Cherry Hill New Jersey, waiting for John Carpenter to step up to the podium and be awesome, the movie buff friend next to me asked how I came to enjoy horror films. I had to think about it, and then blurted out something about liking goth films like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, so it seemed logical for me to progress into darker and spookier stuff as I got old enough to enter an R-rated theater. Later, after the terrific Mr. Carpenter had left the stage, I gave the question some more thought and realized that it wasn’t Tim Burton who lead me to genre films. It was James Cameron, by way of George Lucas.

We’re all big fans of Aliens around here. It’s one of those films that seemed to hit every mark it aimed for and despite numerous pretenders, most of which were made for the SyFy channel, it has never been unseated from the throne of best military sci-fi action flick. And this film was the bridge for me between sci-fi and horror.

Star Wars is the first film I remember seeing in the theater. I was floored by Darth Vader and all the robots and psychic powers and so on. I bought the toys, I insisted my friends shoot each other with fake laser guns, after Return I draped a blanket over my shoulders and pretended it was my Jedi robe, all that proto-fanboy stuff. Lucas broke my heart and we had a falling out later, but my childhood belonged to those films.

Once there were no new Star Wars films to see I began trawling through other sci-fi options. One day my friend John said that we should watch Aliens. This totally awesome space movie. We had a VHS cassette of the film, taped off the television so all the truly gruesome stuff was edited down. (What I later learned was that the TV version had included the automated gun turrets, cut from the theatrical release, so it was cool in its own way.) I think we wore out a VCR on that tape alone.  Now, instead of shooting lasers at each other, we were firing pulse rifles and flamers and making whoever was the alien say “ping” when the guy holding the cardboard box “motion tracker” stood near him.

I’ll leave off praising that film for another day, but what came of it was that after seeing the rip-roaring action film of blasting aliens, it seemed to make sense that we track down and watch the prequel: Alien.

Now this movie. Whoa. This was a whole ‘nother kettle ‘o fish here. After seeing the now archetypal space marines take on an army of the xenomorphs, it was shocking to see how just one single creature could inflict so much damage and inspired such fear. For some people it would have been disappointing to move from the action film to the slower-paced creeping horror of a ship’s crew trying and failing to find a way to cope with a superior predatory monster. I however was completely drawn in.

Soon after seeing the film I went to the library and began reading about it.  I found books and magazine articles that I poured over, trying to understand why this film was so good.  It’s funny; I could tell you who directed Alien years before I could have told you who directed Aliens. What happened behind the scenes of Ridley Scott’s film was much more important to me than what went in to making its sequel. (And yes, I am totally stoked for the new prequel films by Scott, as we all should be.)

After that, I began looking for more films like Alien. The space-based horror film. I also looked for the horror films that were cited as references to and from Alien in what I had read about the film. It was a combination of my first love of sci-fi with my growing interest in the power of fear in film. I was kind of a sheltered kid, so I couldn’t see most of these films on video or in the theaters but I read novelizations and other horror authors and my imagination filled in the gaps in what I couldn’t see in the pared down edited-for-television versions.

And there you have it. Though I’ll watch just about anything for some scares, if there’s a spaceship or robot or bug-monster on the cover, I’ll probably move that one to the front of the pack.

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