Okay, before you start sharpening your knives over that headline, be sure to actually read the article first. You’ll see that this is more of a thought experiment in honor of LV-426, a.k.a. “ALIEN Day,” than a slasher-skewed review of a film which I’m betting you already love every bit as much as I do. Just be cool.
Just consider for a moment the tropes of the “Golden Era” slasher film — which, by the time of ALIEN’s release (May 25, 1979), had been established by John Carpenter with HALLOWEEN the previous year. Prior to that, some of those conventions were already set in motion thanks to proto-slashers like Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS, but HALLOWEEN laid out the genre hallmarks we’ve now come to expect.
Also, during ALIEN’s pre-production process, director Ridley Scott screened Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE for cast and crew; and while TCM is also not strictly considered a slasher film, it also helped establish some of the key ingredients in the slasher recipe.
So indulge me for a few minutes while I view ALIEN through a slasher-shaped lens…
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox
First, many traditional slasher films confine their story to an isolated location — for example, a remote campground during a thunderstorm (FRIDAY THE 13TH), a locked-down high school (PROM NIGHT), a passenger train through the mountains (TERROR TRAIN), or a seriously under-staffed hospital (HALLOWEEN II). ALIEN ups the ante by trapping its characters on the interstellar tug Nostromo, light years from human-occupied space, where there is quite literally no escape from the monstrous menace on board.
Second, the identity and appearance of a slasher villain is largely concealed from the audience for most of the film — often through the use of a mask or other disguise, but also by representing only their point-of-view when they stalk their prey, or simply by keeping them hidden in shadows, dark corridors or crawlspaces.
This not only serves “whodunit” plot elements (borrowed mainly from the Italian giallo genre), but also increases opportunity for suspense and sudden shocks when the killer emerges into the light. Scott employs this technique expertly in ALIEN, keeping the title creature off-camera for all but a few minutes of screen time. He even falls back on the old cliché of the “spring-loaded cat” scare scene, courtesy of Jones, the ship’s mascot.
Another notable slasher convention employed by ALIEN is the “body count” structure, in which it appears that any character can die at any time; in the case of most low-budget independent films, this is easily established due to the lack of “name” actors in the cast, as the presence of a familiar star would likely peg them as the survivor who will defeat the killer.
Being a high-dollar studio production, ALIEN does employ some faces familiar to ‘70s audiences, but this familiarity doesn’t assure their survival in any way. In fact, Sigourney Weaver, the film’s least experienced actor (her only previous film role was a bit part in Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL), is the last human alive by the film’s final frame.
Which leads me to the most significant slasher element in ALIEN: the concept of the “Final Girl” — the sole survivor who must confront the villain face-to-face in the film’s climax — is not only fulfilled by Ripley, but taken to the next level by giving her superb outer-space survival training and a strong dedication to her duties as an officer (often to the irritation of her shipmates).
It’s worth noting that in most drafts of the script, the characters’ genders were never specified, but casting Ripley as a woman has a distinct effect on the dynamics of the final chase and confrontation; just try to imagine one of the male characters hiding from the alien in barely-there underwear. Doesn’t really work, does it?
Also, as with most classic slashers, the supposed vulnerability of the female protagonist (Ripley’s training is essential to her survival, but she still panics and screams a lot) is debunked by showing courage and resourcefulness in the face of a seemingly unstoppable killer.
Ripley achieves this heroism by several orders of magnitude, not only by nuking the Nostromo, but by ultimately killing the alien with a distinctly phallic-looking instrument — much like HALLOWEEN’s Laurie Strode downing Michael Myers (temporarily) with his own knife, or FRIDAY THE 13TH’s Alice using Mrs. Voorhees’s dropped machete to behead her.
In conclusion, while I personally don’t consider ALIEN to be a slasher film per se — hence the question mark at the end of the headline — it definitely shares many of the elements which would soon become familiar to (and even expected by) fans of the slasher genre, and also reaffirms how the slasher film, itself, employs some of horror cinema’s most time-honored traditions, from the “Old Dark House” scenario to the classic whodunit or chase structures… just like ALIEN does.
Really, what I’m saying is: don’t get your panties in a bunch over whether ALIEN belongs in the same category with a cheesy flick like SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE; instead, just give it another watch and pretend it’s a slick, studio-produced slasher film set in outer space. You might be surprised how closely it fits the mold.