(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: This claustrophobic scene in Alien relies heavily on the intensity of the actors’ performances to sell the fear.)
Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi horror film Alien birthed an iconic movie monster as well as an enduring franchise. It also birthed one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history with the infamous chest-bursting scene. That scene delivered one of the most shocking, blood-drenched moments in horror, coming in at the tail end of a lighthearted family-style gathering around the dinner table. It marks the turning point of the film; going forward, the crew becomes prey to one deadly extraterrestrial. Nothing sold the intensity and horror of it like the air duct scene, which sees the Nostromo’s captain volunteer to enter into the vents to track and kill the stowaway. The simplicity of the scene, the claustrophobic setting, and the powerful performances of the actors collide in one of horror’s most palpable moments of dread and terror.
The seven-person crew of the commercial towing spacecraft Nostromo is awakened from stasis by the ship’s computer, Mother, after receiving a transmission from nearby moon LV-426. Though they’re headed back to Earth, company policy dictates they investigate potential distress calls. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Henry Dean Stanton) detour to investigate. On LV-426, one of the crew gets attacked by a new lifeform, and it’s only at the beginning of its very lethal life cycle.
The Story So Far
After waking and preparing for a mission onto the surface of LV-426, Dallas and Lambert bring Kane back to the Nostromo for medical aid when an alien lifeform attaches itself to his face. Against Ripley’s orders for medical quarantine, the unconscious Kane is brought into the medical bay. The alien’s acidic blood prevents Ash and Dallas from safely removing it from Kane, though it eventually falls off and dies on its own. At a celebratory crew dinner where Kane seems back up to health, he convulses and chokes while a small creature painfully erupts from his chest, killing him. It escapes while the remaining crew is still reeling from shock.
The six surviving members split off into teams to search for and remove the creature. Once the ship’s cat Jonesy gives Parker, Brett, and Ripley a small fright, Brett wanders into the landing leg compartment to retrieve him. Instead, he’s killed by the now fully grown alien, which causes the rest of the crew to deduce it’s retreated into the air ducts. Ash creates a locating device, and Dallas volunteers to go into the ducts alone to destroy the creature.
Armed with a flashlight and a flamethrower, Dallas enter the vents. Ash’s homing device provides a steady beep. Lambert and Ripley communicate with Dallas over a headset; Ripley to close off junctions and vents, and Lambert relays the speculated location of the creature he’s seeking to destroy. Then the beeping stops, as Lambert loses signal. Dallas’s fingers graze a slimy substance on the duct’s floors. Panic sets in among the group. Stopped at a junction, the beeping starts in again at a quicker pace, and Lambert screams, “Oh God, it’s moving right towards you!”
Dallas decides to give up his hunt and flee. He descends a ladder, and waiting at the bottom for him is the alien, its arms outstretched. The signal and Dallas go silent. This intense, claustrophobic scene cuts off at Dallas’s offscreen death.
The set goes far in creating atmosphere for this scene. The confined, darkened corridors of the air ducts are so small that Skerritt must crawl his way through, taking care with how he wields the flamethrower with limited room and mobility. The flame provides most of the ambient lighting in the near pitch-black ducts, but more importantly, it reduces the available oxygen. Skerritt’s heavy breathing is a result of this, but it works in his character’s favor as his fear heightens.
The sound mix in this scene, primarily the beeping of the location device, mirrors the pulse of a beating heart that escalates in correlation to the level of danger. It starts at a slow, steady pace as Dallas calmly treks his way through the ducts. The sound stops for a moment, like a heart skipping a beat as alarm bells ring, right as the signal drops, and Dallas finds tangible evidence – the saliva – that the beast is near. The moment the beacon resumes, it’s at a rapid clip that reflects not just the alien’s proximity, but the adrenaline pumping through the characters’ systems.
It’s the characters that sell the fear of this scene the most, though. The focus of the scene remains mainly on Dallas in the air ducts, but Scott occasionally cuts to the worried faces of the crew as they try to gauge the status of their superior on his treacherous mission. Weaver plays this scene as though she knows Dallas isn’t going to come back. There’s a knowing grimness as Ripley obeys Dallas’s orders to close off junctions around him to corral the creature. Lambert proved almost immediately to be the most easily frightened of the crew, and it’s critical to triggering the panic here. Through Cartwright’s manic, anxious performance, Lambert begins this scene with nervous trepidation that turns to full-blown shrieking terror as she screams for Dallas to get to safety.
The pinnacle of this scene comes from Skerritt’s performance. Though effective, Lambert’s jumpiness is standard for her character. The captain of the Nostromo, however, has been unflappable up until this point. The calm leader offered stability to his team, even when his decisions came from an emotional place.
The preceding scene shows Dallas seeking advice from the computer on how to terminate the alien and it sets the tone that he’s volunteered for a job knowing it comes with a low success rate. It establishes a foreboding mood before Dallas even enters the air ducts. Once his fingertips touch the alien’s slimy secretions and signs point to an imminent confrontation with the thing that killed Brett, Dallas loses his cool. It’s the first time we see him so unnerved, and that’s already after having lost two members of his crew in viscerally violent ways.
Scott takes a simple approach to this suspense-filled scene. The claustrophobic setting that keeps Dallas without much room to fight while vulnerable to a foe that could come from any direction is inherently terrifying on its own. Throw in a repetitive beeping sound that emulates the increasingly frantic heartbeat and a trio of talented performances that sell the hell out of the fear, and you have the perfect storm in creating one of horror’s most intense and memorable scares.
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