They Mostly Come At Night, Mostly

This post contains spoilers for ‘Prometheus‘ and ‘Alien: Covenant’.

Many marvelous and beautiful things are mysterious.  We do not need to know something’s source to know its value.   This is particularly true of stories; we love stories in which forces unexplained and irresistible wreak havoc in human affairs: magic, witches, vampires, demons, zombies, these creatures appear again and again in the tales we tell each other.

And, in our most beloved stories, we don’t provide the origin of these supernatural things.  We allow them simply to be, and we spend the energy of our story trying to cope with them.

But, sometimes, the tellers of stories are seized by the urge to demystify their monsters, to write their backstories.  This is usually a mistake (anyone else remember the midichlorians?).  And they are doing this now to that most magnificent of all monsters, the Alien.

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Necronom IV

The Alien, which first appeared in ‘Alien’ in 1979, was based on a 1976 print by the artist H.R. Giger, ‘Necronom IV’.  It is a predatory, eusocial creature with a parasitic stage in a complex life cycle, and, for my money, it is the finest contribution that film has made to science fiction.  It is terrifying, the perfect combination of familiar and bizarre, a scrabbling, insectoid nightmare which communicates menace with every move.

The Alien, according to the original conception, was an alien, which added to its horrifying effect.  Somewhere out in the endless black expanse of space, life had burst forth.  But the same process which made us, the same process o280px-Alien_movie.jpgf selection and evolution, had, in some twisted alien world, produced this thing, this ravening killing machine.  Imagining the world which would have produced the Alien was almost as frightening as the Alien itself.

But, lately, alas, Ridley Scott has turned his attention (and enormous funding) to the creation of an Alien prequel trilogy.  The first of these movies, ‘Prometheus’, was released in 2012 and the second, ‘Alien: Covenant’, released last week*.  These movies reveal (in a not super-coherent way) that the Alien was, in fact, the result of an infection of humans by a malignant extraterrestrial virus orchestrated by a pathologically grandiose droid.  Got that?

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A facehugger

Obviously, this is a stupid plot, but what really bothers me is that it is completely unnecessary.  No one was clamoring to see the specific evolution of the Alien, and, if we wanted to know more about it, it was because we were interested in the ways in which it was unlike us.  We did not want to know that the alien was a human xenomorph all along – that completely ruins the point of it being an alien!

Why must we always do this?  Why are we possessed of this mania for origin stories? I understand why we have it for characters, why we are driven to go back and witness the births of Darth Vader and James Bond and Wolverine.  We know that people have psychologies, that they are informed by their past, that they are products of their upbringing, of their loves and their traumas, and that we can’t understand them without knowing whence they came.

7786379422_la-premiere-affiche-d-alien-covenantBut the Alien isn’t a character; it doesn’t have a psychology (I don’t care what ‘Alien Resurrection’ implies).  The Alien is a force, and forces must be grappled with in the present, whenever and however they find you.

Learning that the Alien comes, in part, from us adds nothing to its narrative power.  It only diminishes the effect your encounter with it will have on you: things which are like us or of us are almost always less frightening than things which are completely, ahem, alien, and things seen clearly are less scary than shapes which move in the darkness.  The Alien was at its best when it came, screaming at us, out of the black, unexpected and incomprehensible.  We were all better off before it was dragged into the light.

*Baffling side note: According to Rottentomatoes, ‘Prometheus’ actually got slightly better reviews (and was better liked by audiences) than ‘Alien: Covenant’, which is confounding, since ‘Prometheus’ a) was terrible and b) has none of the franchise’s most valuable asset, namely, the Alien.

It Definitely Follows

Review of ‘It Follows

I finally, after many weeks of reading reviews and absorbing buzz, went to see ‘It Follows’.

Horror fans, of which I am one, tend to maintain a carefully calibrated set of expectations.  Horror movies can be characterized according to several sub-genres, all of which observe certain tropes and obey certain rules.  Movies rarely transcend their sub-genre, and part of enjoying horror movies is appreciating the limitations and traditions of these categories.

But it’s nice to see something a little different once and a while.  ‘It Follows’ is unusual in a couple of ways: the premise is unfamiliar and completely unexplained: the creepiness is simply allowed to exist – it is never demystified or justified.  There is no reveal: it’s an alien!  It’s a demon!  It’s a girl who was drowned!  It’s a cyborg!  It simply is, and must be contended with.

But perhaps the most novel thing about ‘It Follows’, the genre convention which is most surprising in its abandonment, is this: the teenage characters in it do relatively few stupid things.

Stupid actions done by teenagers are the sine qua non of horror plots.  Split up the group, go explore the weird noise alone, break into the boarded-up asylum, don’t check under the bed, in the closet, or behind the door: without this basic toolkit, pretty much no horror movie could advance its plot.

And that’s fine, but it gets a little old: you watch a blonde in a crop top walk into another obvious trap, and you think, “Haven’t these people ever seen a horror movie?  Can’t she hear the ominous music?”

But what’s cool about ‘It Follows’ is that, with one or two exceptions, most of the kids in the movie act exactly the way you would act if you or someone you knew had contracted a sexually-transmitted zombie.

The central problem, besides the zombie, obviously, is this: how, exactly, could you come to be sure that something was following you?  If it could take any form, and could only walk after you, that thing would kill you long before you even knew you were being chased.  And how would you ever convince anyone else, your friends and family, who couldn’t even see it?

It Follows’ deals with this efficiently and well, getting the first part, convincing the main character, Jay (played by Maika Monroe), of her danger, out of the way with plenty of time leftover to watch that creepy thing walk after her.

And it’s really creepy.  Because the creature walks everywhere, you must adjust your horror-movie expectations again: you are no longer looking into shadows waiting for something to spring out at you – rather, you spend the movie scanning crowds, like a secret service agent, looking for someone, anyone at all, walking in a straight line.  The thing follows Jay to public places, schools, beaches, and it comes day and night.  And because she’s not safe anywhere, you’re not safe anywhere.  You can’t relax and wait for the normal cues to alert you that trouble is coming – trouble is always coming, slowly, but inexorably, in any guise it chooses.

All of which makes ‘It Follows’ the best horror movie I’ve seen in a while, certainly the scariest.  I saw it days ago, and I won’t lie: I’m glad Spouse wasn’t away at all this week.  I’m not a kid anymore  – it’s an unusual horror movie that leaves me uneasy in my mind.  This was one.