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Looking back at Alien (before Prometheus lands)

Prometheus - Alien prequelPrometheus is one the most eagerly anticipated movie events of 2012, for two reasons:

  1. It features one of the most iconic horror/sci-fi creations in the history of cinema, the H. R. Giger-designed alien first seen in the original 1979 film Alien.
  2. It’s the return to the franchise of the director of that first film, Ridley Scott. So, in celebration of the event, yours truly is going to wax nostalgic about when he went to see the original at the local fleapit…cinema in my hometown, in Wales. (Bear in mind that I haven’t seen the film for a number of years, so please forgive any lapses in memory, and also the fact that the cut I saw was the original version of it – more of that later…).

Let me set the scene: for years I had been an avid reader of OMNI magazine (whose fiction editor was award-winning anthologist Ellen Datlow), which featured a mix of science articles interlaced with fiction (from both old and new authors) and art. OMNI magazine was the arena in which I first discovered the utterly bizarre and alien paintings of Swiss artist Hans Ruedi Giger, and those images were something of a revelation. They changed my whole perception of and approach to art, even going so far as to prompt me to pursue art as a profession and to take up the airbrush as a means of painting. Anyone casting a glance at my artwork will instantly recognise his influence upon my vision, for better or worse.

Anyway, you can imagine the sense of excitement and anticipation when I heard that a new science fiction/horror film was being released which featured, as one of its ‘attractions’, a creature designed by Giger himself. I remember it being featured in all the genre media magazines of the time, and I suppose I avidly and greedily bought and devoured them all. Occasionally there would be photographic hints published of what the alien would look like, whetting my appetite even further. This was one film I was more than looking forward to. The film was finally released on 1 November 1979 in the UK, and my friends and I were desperate to go and watch it.

And so we did – there was only one little problem, however: the film was certificated ‘X’ (today’s equivalent is ‘18’) and we were all underage (but not by much in my case). One of us was only sixteen, I think. So we all had to rehearse our birth-dates, the right dates but with a year consistent with being eighteen, just in case we were asked. And yes, we were interrogated on our ages, and I recollect that I nearly fluffed my rehearsed birth-date – typical of me, really.

Alien horror filmThere were two local cinemas in my hometown: the County Theatre (which was one of the finest examples of an art deco building in Wales and which was subsequently demolished in an unparalleled act of civic vandalism by the local council to make way for their new offices – an act which they later apologised for) and the Palace Cinema, which was a fine example of faded, decrepit glory. It was the latter which was showing Alien, naturally.

So, we settled into the red velvet fold-down seats which had definitely seen better days (in other words, there was very little velvet and very little red left on them). The place was packed to the rafters, too, which even then was something of a rarity.

Back in those days, way before the rise of the multiplexes with millions of films and screens to choose from, the whole cinema experience was very different: for a start, they always showed a short film before the main feature, but I can’t for the life of me recall what it was – although there’s a vague recollection of it being a Warner Brothers cartoon of some description (odd, I know).

Imagined terrors pre-film

Now, let me confess something here. When I was a child and even as a teen, I was very, very nervous of ‘horror’ films. Horror literature never bothered me, but on-screen depictions did. Of course, I loved all the black and white ghost and monster films, especially the ones produced by Universal. But anything beyond that I regarded with a certain amount of dread, for reasons that even today I am unable to satisfactorily explain. To make matters worse, at least in my imagination, was the fact that this was the first ‘X’ horror film I’d ever gone to watch in a cinema. There were a lot of my own horrors running around my head, even before the film begun.

Eventually, the famous Pearl & Dean advert break was over, and the certificate telling us “This film has been certified as an ‘X’” was splashed all over the screen. Then that credit sequence begins, with the word ALIEN starting to form out of gradually-appearing lines above the names, followed by the shot of the Nostromo. So far so good – nothing too scary about it at all. And then, of course, there was the scene of John Hurt approaching one of the egg sacs and peering over it. The tension was now beginning to mount, something nasty was about to happen and it was at that moment my companion chose to turn to me and say something along the lines of “You’re sweating, mate – you alright?”  It was then the Facehugger exploded out of the egg sac, to attach itself to Hurt’s face.

Chestburster AlienI must have jumped a mile. And yes, I was sweating quite profusely and my heart was fit to burst out of my ribcage. And that neatly leads me onto the next bit which conspired to give me a coronary – the chestburster scene, where the ‘baby’ alien eats its way out of John Hurt’s stomach amidst a welter of spraying blood, guts and much screaming. I was beginning to think at this point that I would end up like Mr. Hurt’s character, i.e. not making it home. Luckily, however, I made myself stay for the rest of the film, especially since, a) I’d paid good money to see it and b) I was determined to see what Giger’s creature looked like in the round.

“What Giger created was like nothing that had been shown on-screen previously”

I will say that the manner in which Scott carefully built up the tension leading up to the final reveal was masterful in the extreme. Those brief hints gave subtle clues as to what this organic killing machine was like but, even so, the final reveal was everything I’d hoped for. It also confirmed my opinion that Giger was the only artist capable of depicting the truly alien, since what he’d created was like nothing that had been shown on-screen previously. Like my other favourite film, Hellraiser, here was an instantly iconic creation, a creature which would resonate with and scare audiences for years to come. That lean, reptilian, skeletal monster with the strange canopied head and extendable second inner jaw just blew everything that had gone before out of the water. And let me tell you something else: the very creature itself epitomised the merciless brutality of nature, whether bred on this planet or elsewhere, and no other cinematic representation of such a quality had ever given me cause to be startled and frightened by the implications of what would ever happen should we come across a species like this. That was a truly startling thing in itself, a fictional creation digging through my head and planting thoughts of that nature in my brain.

Alien creature Giger 1979I shall emphasise that last point with a personal anecdote. Fast-forward to the late eighties, and a meeting in a wine bar with an old college friend. We’d lost touch and, through a mutual acquaintance we’d renewed our friendship. Anyway, he told that he was working for Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop and had worked on various well-known films (he was to work on Farscape, as well). I also learned that he had worked for Image Animation, creating creatures for Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. I was intensely jealous, I can tell you.

Anyway, he invited me down to his house one evening. When I got there, he told me to make myself comfortable in the lounge, but that I would have to turn the lights on. I was vaguely aware of something standing on the left as I walked in – but when I switched the light on I received the shock of my life. There, on my left, was a full-size Alien, with both arms and second jaw extended, looking like it was poised to pounce on me. Remember, these creatures are over 9 feet (2.74 metres), a totally imposing and intimidating height to be looked down from. Seeing one in ‘real-life’ only serves to underscore the idea that, should we ever encounter something similar, our doom may be at hand.

Alien – the cocoon scene

As promised, here’s a brief note on the version screened at that cinema, which had me perplexed for years. I’ve seen the film several times since that cinema experience, but I remembered a particular scene which never seemed to appear in any of them, what I called ‘the cocoon scene’. For a long time I thought I’d simply imagined it but, about ten years or so ago, a friend bought the boxed set of all four films in their director’s cut versions. And, indeed, there it was – the cocoon scene. That made my day. I discovered that for some reason that scene had been excised from all subsequent prints – never found out why, but there it was.

Alien then was, in some respects, the first modern sci-fi/horror film which destroyed any notion that beings from another planet were benign benefactors, arriving on Planet Earth in order to help us progress beyond our primitive, savage impulses and natures. Here was a creature whose sole purpose was killing and reproducing, a parasitical monster writ large, and that the universe was a far harsher and malign entity than we’d ever envisaged, despite the beauty that it’s capable of. The film could be seen as a warning – and it still is, even today.

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

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Alien (UK)
Alien (US)

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