When I was a kid there was a video store around the corner from my dad’s pharmacy. I could spend hours there just looking at the video covers – imagining what sort of movie the artwork promised. Books were sold in the video store as well. Not many books, just enough to fit on the fold-out table near the counter.
The books were all movie related – novelisations, making-ofs, movie star biographies. One day, I was looking through the stack and I came across a book called The A-Z of Movie Monsters. The cover showed some radiation-mutated creature mauling a bikini-clad babe. I was five or six and more interested in the monster than the girl.
I began to flick through the pages, taking note of the black-and-white monster photographs and the reams of accompanying statistics. The approximate height of Godzilla and just how to kill a zombie seemed like the sort of important information I should know. I begged my dad to buy it and he did, unaware of the impact that book would have on me.
Before The A-Z of Movie Monsters I had what amounted to a healthy six-year-olds interest in monsters. They were cool but just as cool as spaceships, dinosaurs and He-Man. The The A-Z of Movie Monsters awoke something far deeper than a mere interest. Quite simply, I fell in love with monsters. I fell in love with their fangs and claws, their fascinatingly varied anatomy. Their legends and mystery. Their tragedy. Their horror.
Obsessed with The A-Z of Movie Monsters, I read and re-read the book for days on end until I’d committed whole pages to memory. One particular entry caught my eye. A for Alien.
The photo in the top right-hand corner showed a sleek reptilian creature bent into an awkward position. It appeared to be a fascinating fusion of machinery and flesh. Biomechanical. There was something primal about the image, something perverse and utterly terrifying. Much more so than the vampires, mummies, werewolves and saucermen found in the other entries. I became fascinated with the creature and the movie it featured in, Ridley Scott’s Alien. I wanted to see this glorious beast in motion.
My parents said, no. Quite rightly, I was far too young. Having watched Alien, they remembered how frightening it was. I would not be dissuaded and pestered them on a monthly basis. They held fast. Years passed and eventually they relented. On the night of my ninth birthday they allowed me to watch Alien under the proviso that they watch it with me and had the right to switch it off if they felt I was getting too scared. Thrilled, I invited my best friend Tom over to watch the movie with us. His parents were more permissive than mine and had no issue with him watching Alien. Tom wasn’t that excited. He was more interested in kicking footballs than staring at monster pictures. He didn’t understand what a momentous occasion this was for me. He couldn’t understand.
We popped the tape in and from the moment Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score began and the sparse typographic title animation appeared over a starfield, I was gripped. Transported. Our TV was small but that night it seemed big enough for me to step through onto the bridge of the Nostromo.
I was there with Kane when he experienced the nightmare of LV–426, screamed when the facehugger attached itself to his face, screamed again when the chestburster made its unforgettable appearance. Then I stopped screaming. I was too petrified to scream.
My parents could not see my face, my pale cheeks and saucer-wide eyes. Concerned my expression would give myself away, I’d positioned myself as close to the TV as possible, facing away from them. Periodically, they asked if I was okay and I always answered in the affirmative. I knew I was hurting myself but could not look away.
When the movie finished I quietly took myself to bed. I did not speak to my parents or to Tom. I was not capable of speech. I was traumatised. Legitimately, traumatised. I developed an anxiety disorder that kept me from sleeping for months on end, convinced by the ridiculous certainty that if I fell asleep a facehugger would attach itself to my face. This caused my parents no small shortage of guilt. It was a long time before they let me watch a scary movie again.
I knew the movie wasn’t real, but its effect on me was very much real. The alien didn’t exist yet I feared it.
A couple of years later I was in a video game arcade and I came across an Aliens game. Just seeing the cabinet artwork gave me a slight tremor of fear, the alien looming out of the darkness all teeth and unhinged and jaws. I began to play.
Blasting away at xenomorphs and facehuggers was an almost cathartic experience. Still, something bothered me about the game. There was something untruthful about the pixelated aliens that had nothing to do with the limitations of 1980s video game technology. It was the same untruthfulness that dogged James Cameron’s admittedly awesome movie of the same name.
The alien could not be killed. I knew this. And certainly not with a plasma rifle or flamethrower. Not the alien I’d first glimpsed in the pages of The A-Z Movie Monster. Not Ridley Scott’s alien. The real alien was an unstoppable force of nature. Ripley couldn’t kill it – only eject it into space. No matter how tough a space marine was they wouldn’t stand a chance against one alien let alone a whole planet full of them.
I didn’t bother with other Alien video games after that. I didn’t see the point. They were basically side-scrolling or first person variations of space invaders. The aliens came at you in hordes and you blasted them. They were not a true threat.
I bought a Playstation 4 a couple of months ago. I don’t know, why? I haven’t been a gamer for many years. I have a two-year-old, a wife, a busy career, and books to write. Objectively, I don’t have any time for video games but I bought one anyway. I was curious about where the gaming world was at these days. Curious about what I perceived to be an increasingly popular storytelling medium. Games were competing with Hollywood now. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Doing some cursory research on the latest games available, I came across Alien Isolation. A quick google search revealed that, unlike most of the licensed games which aped James Cameron’s Aliens, this game was intended to capture the suspense and horror of Ridley Scott’s film. It was not a first-person shooter. It was survival horror.
I was delighted when I booted the game up and was greeted with a grainy version of the 20th Century Fox logo, just like the VHS of Alien had begun all those years ago. And then the music started, and dammit if they hadn’t licensed Jerry Goldsmith’s score.
The game began. You play as Ripley’s daughter on a mission to find out what happened to her mother. Ripley’s search takes her to a derelict space station which appears abandoned. It’s not. There’s something onboard the space station. Something that moves through the ventilation system and leaves blood and destruction in its wake.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the art direction. The game designers have replicated Ridley Scott’s sci-fi aesthetic with near photo-realism. Corridors, computer monitors, space suits, lounges, ventilation shafts – all have been lifted from the Alien and, when needed, respectfully expanded on.
The sound effects are extraordinarily immersive. Steam hisses from ventilation shafts, water drips from ruptured cooling systems, doors open with a pneumatic hiss that sounds like an animal drawing in its breath, ready to strike.
And then there’s the alien itself.
No longer reduced to an impressionistic collection of pixels, the game designers have exploited the full potential of the latest-gen hardware and created a monster that would have done H.R. Giger proud. All bruised gun-metal hues, teeth and claws, the creature uncoils itself with serpentine grace from overhead air vents and stalks through the corridors like a living nightmare. Technology has finally caught up to my childhood fears, realising them in perfect pixel resolution.
If the alien sees you, you die. There is no running away, no shooting it. All you can do is hide and move as quietly as possible. Make too much noise and you’ll hear the heart-stopping sound of it barrelling towards you, footsteps echoing through the space station. You probably won’t see the alien until you’re impaled on its tail, or fed into its salivating jaws.
Though it tells a very different story, the game captures the tone of Ridley Scott’s movie perfectly – the suspense, the dread, the terrifying isolation of being trapped in space where no-one can hear you scream. It is a visceral experience. I have not yet beat the game, but I will keep playing until I do. I owe my nine-year-old self some closure.
I can imagine another youngster might sneak a glimpse of their dad or older brother playing Alien Isolation and become intrigued with the alien just like I did all those years ago. It might terrify them, but it might also inspire in them a love of the monstrous, of the unknown, of fantasy. The A-Z of Movie Monsters is sadly no longer in print but the alien endures, haunting other mediums and inspiring new nightmares.