Why No Alien Sequel Will Ever Be As Scary As The Original

The Alien series has walked a crooked line in the sci-fi genre. What began as a sci-fi/horror franchise quickly gave way to  sci-fi-action leanings with the release of Aliens and ensuing sequels. Eventually the franchise crossed over into B-film territory (Alien V. Predator, anyone?) before director Ridley Scott attempted a return to seriousness with Prometheus. In terms of genre, it is truly a meandering franchise.

Of course, for my tastes, straight horror is the way to go. The new trailer for Alien: Covenant looks promising in that regard. What few glimpses it offers seem to make excellent use of shadow and dark atmosphere, contrasted with a blisteringly exposed chest-bursting scene, all of which signal a return to the techniques of tasteful horror film making.

But sequels to Alien are, by their nature, flawed. I’ll go so far as to say that no Alien sequel will ever be as unnerving as the original. What ruins further installments is the viewer’s foreknowledge of the Alien universe as he or she experiences each new film. Director Ridley Scott seems hell-bent on clearly delineating the Alien mythos with his continued installments, thus reducing the audience’s discomfort with each sequel.

I wasn’t yet born when the Alien was released in 1979, but I can imagine what it might have been like to be in that audience. For someone who’s never heard of the Xenomorph, the experience of watching one reproduce must have been, well, alienating. The discovery of the downed alien spacecraft and the room of eggs on LV426 conveys a sense of dread, mystery, and foreboding, accentuated by the copious darkness in the atmosphere. The original chest-bursting scene, with no previous knowledge of what would take place, would have induced an incredible helpless anxiety, like being on a roller coaster you aren’t sure is safe. The entire process, from face-hugger to chest-bursting to the acid blood, is a horrific exploration that the crew of the Nostromo desperately does not want, but thanks to the claustrophic confines of the ship, have to endure. It is a plot designed to make its viewer feel estranged from normalcy and hopeless. In order to achieve that effect, the viewer must also find it strange and new.

H.R. Giger’s original artwork would eventually become the Xenomorph.

In addition to the strangeness of the Xenomorph life cycle, one should also consider the appearance of the beast itself. Surrealist artist H.R. Giger designed the Xenomorph to be at once horrifying and alluring. Importantly, it lacks eyes, preventing audience empathy and projection, and adding a level of unpredictability to the creature’s actions. As whatculture.com notes, there is also a certain rapey sexuality in the construction of the Xenomorph, such as its phallic inner mouth, or the shape of its elongated dome. As some have pointed out, it is a creature which is meant to embody rape itself, in form and deed. An audience’s first view of the xenomorph is at once familiar and unusual in a most unsettling way that requires repeated viewings to get used to. And yet, with the years, sequels, and community formed around the film, a collective desensitization has been accomplished.

Of course, this phenomenon goes along with any monster that stars in multiple installments of a franchise. With Alien, however, the very purpose of the film is to immerse its audience in an uncomfortable strangeness. Without that strangeness, the film makes considerably less of an impact. James Cameron brilliantly circumvented this problem, either intentionally or unintentionally, by turning the franchise from horror to action. In doing so, he created a different kind of satisfying experience, but not a scary one. We horror addicts have been hard pressed to find a post-1979 Alien experience to be anywhere near as nightmare-inducing.

With this in mind, the only way Alien: Covenant can live up to its horror origins is by introducing aspects of the universe the fans haven’t seen yet. Doing that risks losing the original film’s concision, however, and could easily tip over into ridiculousness. I maintain a cautious optimism about the new film, but I expect it will seem more like an impersonation of the original rather than a unique installment worthy of consideration on its own.

Revisiting The Blair Witch Project

Let’s talk about found footage horror for a moment. It’s a subgenre that has enjoyed a considerable heyday over the past two decades or so. Launched somewhat by the cult favorite Cannibal Holocaust, and more so by the release of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, found footage went on to see thousands of releases throughout the 2000s and 2010s. It became the popcorn flick of the horror genre – the role previously filled by slashers in the 80s and 90s. Given a quick examination of finances, it’s no wonder why found footage horror became notable. The Blair Witch Project was made for $60,000 and returned a comparatively incredible $1.5 million in its opening weekend (Not to mention its $140 million lifetime gross, according to Box Office Mojo). In its opening weekend, The Blair Witch Project returned about 2,500% of its budget. It’s easy to understand why found footage horror gained the attention of the Hollywood money machine, and why for a good minute there, it had such a hell of a run. The Blair Witch Project remake was released recently, marking a milestone for the genre, and so I’d like to take a moment to return to this ever divisive film for a new critical look.

I first saw The Blair Witch Project when it came out on VHS. I was 11 years old. It inspired me, as it did many others, to grab my dad’s camera and make a parody film, beginning a hobby that I would pursue for the next decade. I found the movie laughable at that age. What could possibly be scary about a bunch of idiots screwing themselves over in the forest? I cringed at the entire middle act of the film, which was essentially a half hour long screaming match. The impression colored my idea of the found footage genre in the ensuing decade and beyond. Upon further review, I will admit that my critical faculties at age 11 might not have been as sharp as I thought. Actually, I feel prepared to say of the many found footage films I’ve seen, The Blair Witch Project is probably the most artfully done.

The film, by necessity, is probably the most conservative horror film I’ve ever seen in terms of actual screen time it dedicates to its monster. With virtually no budget, it’s easy to see why this is the case. The witch (or what-have-you) is left 100% to the viewer’s imagination, which is a stark contrast to many of the found footage films The Blair Witch Project inspired. Leaving the monster to the audience’s imagination is a hallmark of many beloved classic horror films, and allows the viewer to appreciate the film’s use of atmosphere, which requires much more subtlety of a film crew.

The Blair Witch Project is actually a very patient depiction of seeping panic, and how it can cause a group of perfectly decent people to behave monstrously. Although the woods are (maybe) stalked by some unseen evil, what ultimately undoes our protagonists is distrust and betrayal. Mike kicks the group’s only guidance into a creek because it is “useless,” an expression of frustration at Heather’s inability to navigate. As tensions set in, they all begin to subscribe to the idea of Heather’s – and then each other’s – incompetence. Sure, the arguing and bickering gets tiresome and the camera work becomes nauseating as they get more agitated, but it’s a pretty realistic, convincing depiction of a frightening idea: just below the surface of each and every one of us, there is a panicked half-wit waiting to emerge when enough goes wrong.

The film even deals relatively well with a fundamental problem all found footage movies must tackle, and it’s something that has always bothered me about the found footage premise: why, when faced with life threatening scenarios, do people continue to film, rather than devote the whole of their energy to survival? The Blair Witch Project is rife with conflict over the continued filming throughout. One of the film’s major conflicts is, paradoxically, the film’s very existence in the first place. The fact that Heather keeps the cameras rolling at times of stress is a major factor in the fallout and ultimate death of the our protagonists. Heather’s dedication to her craft serves to satisfy the question that often goes entirely unanswered in found footage, and even elevates the film to a level of postmodern irony. What, after all, is more horrific? The fact that these terrible things happened to a bunch of students, or the irony that in trying to share their experience with the world, these same students caused those terrible things to happen to them?

The Blair Witch Project, for all the mainstream attention it garnered, is a surprisingly deep work of fiction. Is it perfect? Of course not. But set against the backdrop of the entire found footage movement, it sets itself aside as an experience and work of art.

The Problem with “Jump Porn”

Horror fans tend to be obsessive. Given the disturbing and frequently brutal nature of the horror genre, it makes sense that it doesn’t exactly call to moderate or casual audiences. If you like horror, you probably love it for its unpleasant atmospheres, for that feeling of tension you get in the theaters just before a jump scare and the bleak subject matter. If you don’t love it, chances are you avoid it like the plague. Fear, like alcohol, is an acquired taste, which can be repelling at first. Soon, however, the bite grows on you. You learn to like it to the point where you’re disappointed if it isn’t there.

If horror is a stiff drink, then I am an alcoholic. I consume it at every possible moment. I have ravenously devoured horror novels since I was too young to read them. At any given point, I have seen most, if not all, of the horror films available to me through my streaming services, and I make a pretty solid effort to hit the theaters when films are there. In my experience, American horror cinema has fallen into two basic categories, which I’ve come to call “thematic horror” and “jump porn.” Since my adolescence, I have noticed those categories become more extreme and distinctive. The problem, however, is that one style dominates the mainstream, while the other is left largely neglected by the masses.

Thematic Horror is intellectual. It is the horror that glimpses into the ugliness of the human condition in order to glean meaning. In some ways, thematic horror is ironic. Horror, by definition, is art that seeks to disturb its viewer. Thematic horror repels its viewers with an end to make them embrace an idea worth entertaining, essentially improving their character by way of self reflection. By looking at our ugliest selves, we face down a lot of what we refuse to acknowledge in any other way. In that sense, thematic horror is the most direct and honest art form out there. The Witch, for example, deconstructs the hubris of man in the face of nature. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist posits that evil and human nature, particularly as it applies to sexual relations, are one and the same. These films disturb their viewers with their subject matter, but ultimately leave their audiences in a place to learn from the experience.

Jump porn, on the other hand, is about the visceral, surface level reaction to scary situations. Each year, I teach a horror unit to my seventh graders. When asked to compile a list of words they associate with horror, they inevitably come out with the phrase “jump-scare.” My students, many of whom haven’t actually seen a horror film in their lives, know the term because our society is saturated with it. The jump scare is the central experience in jump porn, and for some it is the end-all-be-all of the genre. To find examples, look no further than the marquee. Most mainstream, lowest common denominator horror is jump porn. Put people in a spooky house with a ghost that pops out at them (and the audience). Give someone a camcorder and have them run around a zombie-infested apartment complex. The appeal is understandable enough. If the purpose of horror is to scare and disturb its audience, what is wrong with horror that fixates on generating a viscerally fearful response?

Before proceeding, let me say that I have definitely enjoyed my fair share of jump porn. They can be fun films to watch. The problem is that the style is unreflective. Like actual porn, story is sacrificed to put characters in situations geared toward the desired response, in this case, that adrenaline jolt. Often, there just isn’t that much of a story in the first place. Take The Woman in Black, for instance. The entire middle act of the film is just Harry Potter wandering around a house getting scared by things. Most of the found footage subgenre is virtually plotless from start to finish. The jump porn film’s narrative arc becomes stagnant and its message remains simplistic and trite if it exists at all.

Lack of narrative nuance aside, jump porn, if relied upon too heavily, can cave in on itself, ultimately creating unintentional comedy. Have you ever seen a movie that jumps you too many times? I have. First, you feel exhausted by the experience. Then, you become numb. The jump scares have less of an effect on you. Finally, it becomes laughable. The film turns into a game of peek-a-boo. Overall, I’m a fan of The Grudge and its Japanese predecessor Ju-On, but those films in particular are guilty of over-use of the jump scare, particularly in their final acts. Don’t even get me started on the sequels. The final scare in The Grudge 2 involves the ghost of Kayako Saeki emerging inside the protagonist’s jacket as she is wearing it. The moment isn’t scary. It feels bizarre, like the end of a very long and fruitless brainstorm on different ways to say “boo.”

Over-reliance on the jump scare ultimately cheapens what the story teller is trying to do with his or her film. It reduces the entire spectrum of feelings associated with the horror genre to one quick jolt of adrenaline. Horror films, in some cases, become multi-million dollar disposable experiences for fight-or-flight junkies, people who forget that there are more artful ways to induce dread in an audience. Take for example The Ring, or its Japanese counterpart Ringu. You can count the jumps in The Ring on one hand. The rest of the film uses atmosphere and suspense without a jumpy payoff to draw the viewer into its nightmare.

Of course, no film falls strictly into one category or another. Movies can be more or less jump porny or thematic in the way they induce terror. This is not to say, either, that the ideal horror film contains no jump scares whatsoever. Like all tools in a storyteller’s shed, there is a time and a place. But we as a viewership need to be critical of the films we shell out for. To allow the subtle filmmakers to fall into obscurity in favor of the stimulus-response high of jump porn would be to allow our beloved genre to be relegated to the vapid PG-13 no man’s land of films like 2005’s Boogeyman or the Paranormal Activity series. Horror is art, and art should be challenging. When we as viewers demand more than a fix from our horror (myself included), we elevate the art form, inspire conversation and allow horror to function the way it was meant to: as a mirror.