VHS Revival becomes reacquainted with one of cinema’s most devastating creations.
The xenomorph is perhaps the most terrifying creation in all of cinema.
There were monsters before, and there would be monsters after, but does anything else really come close? Let us take a moment to consider.
First off, we have the iconic monsters of horror’s golden era. Frankenstein’s monster was at his most effective as a symbol of the misunderstood, and the scares were largely unwilling, owing to the unfortunate brute’s giant frame and all round clumsiness. Nosferatu looked creepy enough, and F.W. Murnau’s expressionist vision was startling to say the least, but there is a romanticism to the character and an air of necessity to Count Orlok’s misdeeds. Both he and Frankenstein’s monster were tragically poetic.
Beyond those two icons of the period…well, let me put it this way: if you were to put The Mummy and The Wolfman in a room with a xenomorph, there would be only one winner, while the H.G. Wells inspired The Island of Lost Souls would soon be put out to sea. Kong would probably stand a hell of a chance of defeating a xenomorph, but his capacity for empathy again shows weakness, and a whole colony of cinema’s most famous alien species would likely overwhelm him, particularly in the intelligence department
As for the Cold War science fiction of the 1950s, that was never very scary, was it? Well, maybe if you have a severe case of arachnophobia and happened upon 1958’s The Spider, but while that particular affliction only effects a small percentage of the human race, every person on the planet would develop a very rapid aversion towards xenomorphs were they to find one crawling along their ceiling, while the facehugger is without question the biggest, baddest arachnid in all of outer space. The Body Snatchers could snatch as many bodies as they desired – it would simply mean more targets for the xenomorph to impregnate, and the same goes for The Thing from Another Planet. Those other monsters of science fiction simply pale by comparison.
So who do we have left? Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers? Alien Food. Chucky? I suppose he’s plastic, but that leaves him one acid spray from annihilation, and I’ve always imagined that stripped of his dreamworld omnipotence, Fred Krueger would be little more than the word that so frequently rolls off his spiteful tongue: a bitch. I can easily envisage him running for his life as a colony of aliens bay for his blood. Now that would be one f*cked up pregnancy!
The original version of the xenomorph was a visual revelation back in 1979, and while other monsters from that period have dated badly, there was no such worry here. The creature’s enduring design plays a large part in helping Alien retain its potency almost four decades after its release. The visual brainchild of Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger, there is something perversely phallic about the xenomorph design. Not only does it lay vaginal-shaped eggs whose face-hugging inhabitants induce pregnancy, its main weapon is basically a penis with teeth, erecting itself for the kill and fatally impaling its victims. For women, this is a reminder of some of the most terrifying steps they ever had to take in life, while for men, the very thought that something could impregnate them is the creepiest, most intrusive occurrence imaginable, unless of course you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1995.
When we consider cinema’s most iconic scenes, our first glimpse of a freshly born xenomorph bursting through the walls of John Hurt’s stomach is up there with the very best of them. Ridley Scott’s space-bound horror was such a masterwork of slow-building tension that none of us saw that moment coming. Even the cast were famously kept in the dark for the sake of achieving maximum effect. Prior to his death, John Hurt’s Kane falls into a coma while a hugger clings to his face, its tail threatening to strangle him whenever the crew try to intercede. When they attempt to remove its tail, they quickly realise that the creature has acid for blood, which immediately threatens to eat through the hull of the ill-fated Nostromo and wipe out the entire crew.
Asides from the visual design of the xenomorph, it is its ability to survive which makes it so terrifying. This is a creature that proves almost indestructible when opposing the original movie’s cast. Not only is it huge and quick and tactically astute, it is equipped with a whole host of organic weapons, and only the vastness of outer space can immobilise it. A typical horror movie will present its audience with a seemingly indestructible monster. It will then provide us with a hero who will discover that monster’s weakness and ultimately defeat it. In Alien, you never get the sense that the xenomorph can be defeated, and we are saturated by that fear until the movie’s very last moments, which is why it is considered by many to be the most terrifying movie ever put to celluloid. Even after Ripley manages to somehow escape its lingering threat, the xenomorph emerges from the pipes of our heroine’s escape pod, patiently outwitting Ripley as it did the entire crew of the Nostromo.
Many believe that James Cameron’s Aliens, a candidate for the greatest sequel of all time, nevertheless cheapened the impact of the original movie by presenting us with a whole colony of easily bested xenomorphs. Those people have a point, but in spite of the fact that the creature seems far less indestructible when faced with the heavily armed soldiers of the USS Sulaco, it is unfairly disadvantaged by scientific weaponry, and if anything this disadvantage serves to further display the xenomorph’s resourcefulness and capacity for adaptation.
The entire movie is one giant learning curve for our slime-dripping parasite. When camouflage and all-out warfare doesn’t work, they attempt to isolate their enemy by approaching from all sides. When the carefully positioned plasma rifles force the aliens into a retreat, they return slicker and smarter than ever, pursuing their prey from above and below, and when they attempt to escape moon LV-426, guess who smuggles themselves aboard to spoil the party? In Aliens, there may be xenomorphs exploding left, right and centre, but in the end they find a way to defeat their opposition, and it is once again left to the vastness of space to disable the queen.
As well as being hideous and playing on our most innate fears, xenomorphs are ruthless, well-equipped and tactically resourceful. They are both hugely intelligent and relentlessly vicious, able to stealthily incapacitate their enemy, or go toe-to-toe in a kamikaze fashion that will either leave you dead or squirming in a deluge of burning acid. They are by their very nature a destructive organism, with the kind of killer instinct that has as little time for sadism as it does for mercy.
When it comes to ghouls or vampires, God may be on your side. You may be able to outrun Michael Myers, could probably outwit Jason Voorhees, and when it comes to Krueger there is always the possibility of escaping your dreams just in the nick of time. But however you look at it, and whatever plans you may concoct in your pursuit of survival, one thing remains the same.
In space, no one can hear you scream.