For me, the Alien quadrology has all the great elements needed to produce a good scare:
- A sci-fi angle. Movies in which technology or other science themed influences are the center of the plot line give me the chills. Personally, slasher films such as Friday the 13th, Saw, and Nightmare on Elm Street are scary but easier to dismiss. The concept of an unstoppable human (or formerly human) character gets old after a while. With science fiction, I believe that while seemingly far-fetched, there's the possibility in the back of your mind that same of these things may come to fruition. Cloning, for example, is science fact now.
- A seemingly unstoppable enemy. The Alien creatures (aka "xenomorphs") are some of the most terrifying characters I've seen on-screen. The don't have eyes. They don't speak. And the extra mouth that shoots out at you... gross. This excerpt from Wikipedia captures my dread perfectly: "Unlike many other recurring enemy extraterrestrial races in science fiction, the Aliens are not an intelligent civilization, but predatory creatures with no higher goals than the propagation of their species and the destruction of life that could pose a threat. Like wasps or termites, Aliens are eusocial, with a single fertile queen breeding a caste of warriors. The Aliens' biological life cycle involves traumatic implantation of parasitic larvae inside living hosts, which mature before erupting from the host's chest (repulsed emphasis mine)."
- A hero! The Alien series has provided me with one of my favorite film heroes, Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver). Aside from the cultural significance of being a female protagonist in a male dominated genre, Ripley's character gets to grow and develop over time. She works hard not only to save herself but those around her. And yes, she kicks ass.
- Dramatic tension. When I saw Alien for the 1st time I couldn't tell who would die or how. Unlike Star Trek, no one wore red shirts, so it wasn't so easy to figure out. Would they be able to kill it before it killed them? How would they defeat it? How would the survivors work together against this creature? Which leads to my next bullet point, which is...
- Betrayal. In most scary movies involving groups of survivors there's someone who will sell out some or all of the group's members. Sometimes they're doing it out fear--"Better you than me, man!"--or perhaps for money. Whatever the reason, someone's going to do wrong by their fellows.
In the case of the 1st Alien movie, the eventual betrayal is caused ultimately by greed, yet its immediate catalyst was due to something more sinister. One of the crew members, Science Officer Ash, is revealed to be an android. Further, Ripley discovers that it's been instructed to return the alien back to Earth, regardless of whether or not the crew survives. Fortunately for Ripley, she survives against both Ash and the alien, a fate the rest of the crew ultimately didn't share in.
As a kid growing up with these movies I sympathized with many of the characters. I enjoyed immensely Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, scared yet not afraid to stand up against a real life nightmare. I had a visceral reaction to each time someone had a monster burst out of his or her chest. I have also felt like Ash; someone who in a very literal sense was just following orders. Perhaps that's why I enjoy (and am frightened by) this series. It holds forth the idea that, while alien, these characters seem all too (brutally) human.
Happy Halloween, my friends.