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‘Alien’ May Be the Ultimate Haunted House Movie



Save for the possibility that some poltergeist has taken possession of a horribly terrifying clown doll and is camped out beneath my bed while waiting for me to lean over for a peek, the idea that some unseen, phantasmic force could do me bodily harm generally doesn’t move me to fears. Because of this, a whole subgenre of horror holds little appeal, too full of magical encounters and dubious decisions to fully exploit its common themes of invasion, violation, and dread of the unknown. Take away the ethereal specter and replace it with a flesh-and-acid-for-blood monster with two mouths, however, and you get one of the best haunted house movies ever made: 1979’s Alien.

Sure, many liken Ridley Scott’s film to more of a sci-fi slasher flick, with its single-minded killer and death toll, but the lack of depicted violence places less emphasis on the slaughter (save for one nightmare-inducing scene, actual loss of life takes place off-screen), and the sterile, amoral nature of the characters doesn’t fit with the type of “punishment” the subgenre is known for. Instead, despite the body count, Alien plays more like an exorcism story, with a demon born from man’s folly that must be expunged before it eats the souls of everyone on board. That the xenomorph is not a proper apparition not only doesn’t destroy the metaphor, but instead benefits the suspension of disbelief greatly, and (other-worldliness notwithstanding) its tangibility makes the mortal consequences of crossing its path all the more real.


Alien‘s lack of ghosts also allows it to focus on what physical elements make the haunted house scenario such a scary one in the first place. First and foremost is the house itself, which has always worked best when it serves as the main characters’ home. Though the classic device of a group challenged to spend a night or two debunking frightful legend can still manage the occasional creep-out, real fear in the genre comes from invasion of places we feel most safe. While a commercial spaceship, the Nostromo is nevertheless home to a small crew that has been out to sea for a very long time. They eat there, sleep there, live there. It has protected them, sheltered them well from the cold vacuum of infinite space, become as depended upon and familiar as their own bodies.

The arrival of the titular guest is like an infection, betraying the trust of those familiar hallways and life-giving air ducts. What once could be navigated without a care instead now demands unrelenting awareness and caution, as the potential of attack and death lurks around every corner. No time to rest, always on the lookout, hunted on their own turf by a force that seemingly appears out of nowhere. Instead of this elusive being originating from some mystical plane that audiences can’t relate to, Alien gives them a simple predator, instinctively understood in mankind’s collective subconscious as shudderingly lethal, and sets it loose upon the unsuspecting prey. Now, upon invasion, both ship and one’s own skin have the potential to be horrifying traps from which they cannot escape.


This intrusion into personal space perfectly captures the violation at the heart of the best haunted house movies. Sanctuaries are often taken for granted in life, whether they be built of wood or flesh; pull the rug out from underneath that security and there is instant unease and possibly panic. Alien harnesses this instinct in dual ways, attacking audience comfort with both the dependability of home and their own selves.

When even the internal functioning of one’s body can’t be trusted, then utter vulnerability is all that’s left. The most terrifying aspect of possession is the loss of control, the idea that one’s destiny is no longer their own to determine, but some foreign entity’s. How ghosts do this is vague and unexplainable, but Alien handles this very supernatural concept in a non-literal and insidiously physical way, portraying a ravenous parasite that decides when the duties of its host will ultimately come to an end. Once the seed has been planted inside its victim, fate has been sealed. The realization after Kane’s interrupted dinner that this ticking time bomb is a death sentence only makes the situation more anxious, evoking a sense of squeamish helplessness both outside and in.


Haunted house movies often strive for this effect, but reason stands in the way. Traditionally these stories tend to invent excuses as to why the people would remain in this hell through the duration. Aware of the great big world outside that any rational person would immediately bolt to when things go south, writers often resort to contrived behavior (insane curiosity, mind-blowing nonchalance, bizarre revenge, etc.) or magical limitations to keep everyone indoors. The ghost made the door into a wall. How? No one knows; it’s a ghost. Buying into a setup requires a modicum of believability in the characters’ motivations behind their actions that many haunted house movies often can’t muster, but Alien handles the situation organically through its setting. With an outside environment more hostile than the one within, the choice to stay in Alien is clear, but more importantly, logical. If no one can hear you scream, what hope is there of rescue? The crew is truly alone, and that is truly frightening.

Director Ridley Scott composes the film handsomely, with vast shots of the speck the Nostromo is against the backdrop of the cosmos, and clean, claustrophobic interiors that add to the overall feeling of unease. The ship is a labyrinth to rival any spooky mansion, full of emptiness and echoes. There are seven characters aboard the Nostromo (Italian for “shipmate”): Captain Dallas, Warrant Officer Ripley, Executive Officer Kane, Navigator Lambert, Science Officer Ash, and two Engineers, Brett and Parker. This is all we get; we’re stuck with them just as they are with each other. This is one of my favorite storytelling setups: the small group isolated and forced to work together to survive, and Alien is one of the most satisfying.


By the time the alien erupts (literally) onto the scene we have gotten a good sense of who these people are, and how incapable they are of dealing with such a situation. And it is grim. Always a step behind, they struggle to maintain their souls against a wraith-like force they cannot comprehend, tormented by an alien intruder that has turned their own world against them, haunted by a phallic-headed monster with two mouths that is very, very real.

The haunted house movie is a cinematic horror staple, yet I’ve never seen it done better than a movie with no house and no ghosts. With a terrific setup, a spooky atmosphere and an H.R. Geiger-designed creature that will make your flesh crawl, those looking for some terror in their movie nights should consider the scariest film in the franchise, Alien.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.



  1. Ricky D Fernandes

    October 24, 2016 at 12:47 am

    I just watched Even Horizon again and it made me think of this article. That would be the utimate haunted house movie.

    • Patrick Murphy

      October 25, 2016 at 12:16 am

      Man, I didn’t care for that movie at all. Space demons! That’s what I like about ‘Alien’- it keeps the terror physical. I do know a lot of people who like that film though. I just can’t handle anything by W.S.

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past



Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.



Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.



Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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