The Sound of Alien: Misplaced Expectations

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch Alien with a group of people for the first time. I was really getting into the pacing and style of Ridley Scott's approach when someone started started talking about the lack of music. It seemed like an odd complaint to me until I started to think about what they meant. Horror movies use scoring for a few different reasons. The most obvious is building tension. Jaws relies on the John Williams' score to establish the shark attacks. The Exorcist uses "Tubular Bells" to set the audience on edge. Odd sounding music is one of the calling cards of the horror genre. It just sets the audience up to be scared.

At the same time, those unnerving music cues let the audience know something is going to happen. Yes, you quickly learn to fear the leading tone of the tuba in Jaws. The music also lets you know a scare is coming. You work yourself up because you start thinking about the scare. At the same time, the music lets you adjust to the rules of the film. The scares become bearable because you realize, even on a subconscious level, that it's coming up.

Alien Face HuggerWhich brings us back to Alien. You don't get that courtesy in Alien because Alien only has two clear music cues. Jerry Goldsmith wrote lovely Classical-styled scoring that isn't even used in a traditional way until the last moments of the film. The first cue is a character listening to music in his quarters. Neither is connected to a scare.

So how does the audience learn to cope with the twists of Alien? They don't. Everything, from a cat popping out of a dark room to an alien bursting throw a chest, is an unpredictable and shocking moment. It's part of what makes Alien such a raw experience.

The cat in particular is used brilliantly. Two of the characters are obsessed with the well-being of an orange tabby that gets loose on the ship. The cat jump scare is a cliche that usually emits an eye roll the first time it pops up in a modern horror. For me, it's used best in Alien. You get hit with it again and again. When you think nothing is going to happen, the cat pops up. When you think it will be the cat, it's an alien. When you think it's an alien, it's the cat. These cycle over and over in the second half of the film and never fail to make me jump.

Ripley and the Flame ThrowerBut how come those scares work even on someone like me who has seen Alien many times? It's hard to say for certain. I would argue that the lack of music makes a big difference. There just isn't a big cue to let you know that something is coming. There is no instantly recognizable sound to remind you that the cat is coming up again. You're left as defenseless against these scares as the crew of Nostromo is against the alien attacks.

Alien does not coddle you with the traditional orchestral cues of the horror genre. It goes even farther, stripping a lot of expected sound effects from the soundtrack. Sure, you get footsteps, pipes banging, and doors closing, but only when it's convenient to the story. Ripley comes charging down a hallway with a flamethrower already lit. You just never get to hear the louder sound of it firing up to warn you its coming. The image is striking because it is so unexpected in context.

Is the lack of scoring in Alien a gimmick? I don't think so. The quality of the storytelling and the directorial approach justify the omnipresent threat of unexpected events. The original tagline even relies on the concept. If no one can hear you scream in space, why would you expect any use of sound to follow horror movie standards?

Alien CrewIf anything, the two uses of original scoring are more of a distraction in Alien than the silence before the scares. I can understand someone listening to music on a portable stereo. It just doesn't feel necessary in the grand scheme of the story. Everyone else is content to go about their business in silence. Why break that? You don't really learn anything that the casual Hawaiian shirt and ball cap didn't already let you know.

The intrusion of scoring in the final moments of the film comes across as more of a ploy than the lack of music before. That sudden injection of music is almost cheesy and doesn't provide the expected catharsis of a sweeping theme at the end of a horror. You get so used to the silence that the predictable lead in to the closing credits immediately cuts the tension in a bad way. There is no time to linger on the conclusion of the story. The music sends you right back to the reality without anytime to process what you saw.

Silence might have been the answer at the end of Alien. As much as I love horror film scoring, I do wonder how directors could work with composer to shake up genre standards. Ridley Scott proved the efficacy of silence in the same way, say, Carnival of Souls showed that any music can become menacing in context. I really would like to see what other scenarios lend themselves to such a sparse sound design. It might not satisfy everyone, but it could shake up how people experience the modern horror genre.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Link Rally: 26 April 2012

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