Thursday, October 20, 2011

Horror Scenes - Alien

(SPOILERS: Alien, Resident Evil: Apocalypse)

In honor of Halloween I thought I’d do a few posts analyzing scary scenes. First I’m going to take a look at a scene in one of my all time favorite scary movies, Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon). The scene in question is when Dallas goes into the airlock to flush out the alien. Someone’s posted it on You Tube here.

I hate in horror movies when characters do stupid things that they would never do in real life. For example, I thought the first Resident Evil (written by Paul W.S. Anderson) was pretty good because the characters try to avoid situations where they are in unnecessary danger, yet they still get in trouble. One of the things they do is try to stay together so they can watch each other’s backs.

On the other hand, the sequel, Resident Evil / Resident Evil: Apocalypse (also written by Paul W.S. Anderson), is awful. In one scene, the characters go to a school they know is infested with zombies. What do they do? They split up. Incredibly dangerous and there’s no good reason for it.

In this scene from Alien, the characters are also trying to avoid unnecessary danger. They know a deadly alien life form is in their airshafts. Someone has to go in and goad it to the airlock so they can blow it into space. Dallas, the captain, volunteers. But he goes in armed with a flamethrower. Moreover, the rest of the crew monitors his progress and the alien’s progress on a motion detector, relaying information and making sure the creature doesn’t escape the shafts. It’s dangerous, but it’s a smart plan.

One of the great things in this scene is the use of the setting. The tunnels are narrow and dark. Some go vertically as well as horizontally. Dallas has to crouch – his movement is restricted. And between the flashlight and the flamethrower and a radio headset that won’t stay in place, his hands are full. It makes sense that Dallas is in there alone given how cramped the tunnels are. And at one point Dallas orders all the hatches behind him closed – a smart idea so the alien can’t get behind him, but also a move that isolates him.

The writer has placed the character into an environment that is scary on its own. If you’re writing a scary movie, you should consider what areas of your setting will be the most creepy then come up with logical, intelligent reasons why your character(s) has to go there.

The scene makes great use of suspense. In order to create suspense, you need to take your time. The alien isn’t even detected on the motion sensor until almost halfway through the scene. And notice how much time is taken up with reaction shots of the other characters anxiously monitoring the situation. This slowing down of time, the opposite of what we usually try to do in film, gives time for the tension, dread and anxiety to build up.

You can create this effect on the page. Here is a piece of this scene from the shooting script. It doesn’t match the final scene shot for shot, but you can see how the reactions are put in to draw out the action.



Ripley waiting.


Dallas still crawling on hands and knees.
Ahead the shaft takes an abrupt downward turn.
He moves toward the corner.
Fires another blast from the flamethrower.
Then starts crawling down, head first.


Lambert sees something on the tracker.

     Beginning to get a reading on you.


The shaft makes yet another turn.
Puts Dallas into an almost immobilized position.


Ash staring at the ventilator opening.


Intercutting is a great way to extend time and build tension.

Another brilliant touch is the motion detector. It allows us to see the alien approaching, advertising impending danger. Then it stops working. We know the alien is near, but no longer know where. That’s scary!

Dallas does what most of us would do at this point – he decides he wants to get out. And that’s when suddenly things speed up. The alien reappears – Lambert panics – chaos. And then Dallas turns to discover he’s climbed right into the alien’s grasp. This shock is magnified because of the time the scene took building up tension and anticipation. I also like how the actual attack happens off screen. We’re put in the perspective of the surviving crew – we don’t know what happened.

And the unknown, of course, is frightening!

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