Part of what makes xenomorphs — the titular deadly monsters from the Alien franchise — so scary is just how, well, alien they look. H.R. Giger’s design is pure nightmare fuel, as when Alien first came out in 1979, nobody had ever seen such a beast. We were just as shocked and confused by this elongated, eyeless, biomechanical-looking parasite as Ripley was. Viewers were scared not just of the xenomorph, but by how little they and the doomed crew they watched onscreen knew about it. Subsequent movies, though, erased lots of this unknown fear by plugging in lots backstory.
The most recent entries in the series, Prometheus and the upcoming Covenant, are full of scary moments, but the focus is on world-building and lore. In that process they’ve been erasing that threat of the unknown — or at least complicating it to the point where it’s more of an intellectual puzzle box than a truly vast unknown.
When most of the buzz around a movie is wondering how it fits into the series continuity (is it a prequel or a sequel?) or how it will explain the parts of the previous film that didn’t make sense, as is the case with Covenant, you’re dealing with a different sort of horror movie.
It’s been said that Alien is a perfect horror film while the sequel, Aliens, is a perfect action film. There’s something to this. Aliens has plenty of scary moments and gripping suspense scenes, but the fear is more palpable in the original. One strange monster lurking in the dark is scarier than a legion of them charging at armed troopers, guns-a-blazin’. The next films, Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, complicated the plot and weirdly humanized the xenomorph, and the Alien vs. Predator series diminished the unfathomable terror even further.
None of this is inherently bad, and it’s a pretty natural evolution for a horror series. Freddy Krueger is scary in Nightmare on Elm Street, but by the time we get to the third movie, Dream Warriors, he’s a cliche with a weird mythology behind him. Godzilla is an atomic terror in his debut, but by the ‘60s he was a good natured kaiju who protected Earth from goofy alien threats.
With perhaps the exception of AvP, the Alien franchise has done a pretty good job of making sure its main monster remains a serious threat. However, there’s been decay in other areas. Knowing that David, Michael Fassbender’s evil android from Prometheus, created the xenomorph over the course of two convoluted prequels, doesn’t make the monster any scarier. Even though it’s a polar opposite genre, what’s happening it a bit of a parallel to comedy: Jokes are almost never funnier when you explain them.
Covenant’s exploration into the Alien universe’s past looks for all purposes like it’s going to be a good movie — and a scary one at that. Ridley Scott can shoot a terrifying, suspenseful scene, and xenomorphs are still scary even if we’re much more used to them by now. Alien is, for now at least, still much more than just jump scares.
Something is still being lost, though. The monster in Alien lurks in the dark, which is a big part of what made it so terrifying and mysterious. Not knowing something is scary. Darkness is scary. The newer movies are hung up on the psychological meaning and nitty-gritty origin of a scary thing in the dark, so they shine a light on it. And while this new information is unsettling, it isn’t as horrifying as not knowing what the fuck that scary thing is in the first place.