More Than Just Film
In October, The Screen Cinema in Winchester put on a very special screening of Alien proceeded by a chat between Ian Nathan from Empire Magazine, promoting his book Alien Vault (‘The definitive story of the making of the film’) and the film’s executive producer, Ivor Powell. This was far too good an opportunity for SuperCool Cinema to pass up, so after avoiding eye contact with both the scary uber-fan replete with the chest-burst t-shirt and Nostromo cap, and the overly cheerful rep from the publisher, shepherding people towards copies of Alien Vault, we took our seats.
I must have seen Alien twenty or thirty times over the last thirty-plus years and yet the fascinating titbits of information from Ian and the first-hand accounts of the film’s development and production from Ivor help me see the film with fresh eyes. We hear about the King of the Goths, HR Geiger, who always dressed entirely in black, worked in strict isolation and possesses a bone-dry wit. His psycho-sexual designs for the visual effects are still gloriously disturbing and terrifically rude. The insides of the face-huggers are based on the genitals of his dead ex-girlfriend. The crashed alien spaceship, which the crew of the Nostromo are ordered to investigate, looks like nothing else, apart from, tellingly, fallopian tubes. With its structure made of vast bones, the interior of the ship is like the inside of a vast body. And the antagonist and titular character in the film, the nine-foot endoparasitoid extraterrestrial xenomorph, remains the definitive cinematic alien.
I also spot for the first time the genesis of Scott’s next film gestating away within Alien. Ivor points out the Egyptian influence on the design of the Nostromo (the logic being that when mankind does build such craft capable of deep-space travel it will be an achievement on a par with the building of the pyramids). When you factor in the ambiguity and intricate complexities of the replicant Ash, you can spot the formation of the aesthetic and philosophy of Blade Runner.
Inevitably, we hear all about the chest-burst scene, already infamous in Hollywood as soon as the original screenplay began doing the rounds of prospective directors in the mid-70s. Ivor recalls hearing Scott exclaim from an adjacent office ‘FUCKIN’ ELL!’ when reading this scene for the first time. Its effect on actors and audiences alike was equally extreme. It is part of movie folklore that the cast weren’t warned that they would be sprayed with blood when filming the scene and Veronica Cartwright’s shocked scream, one of the greatest in horror movie history, was absolutely genuine. The blood and bits flesh, which coated the walls and trickled down Veronica’s face, were also the real deal (sourced that morning from a local abattoir).
Almost unimaginably harrowing back in 1979, the chest-burst scene has since become absorbed by popular culture and made utterly familiar. As a result, its shock value has paled somewhat. This is no bad thing as it frees the spectator to appreciate how much else is going on, such as John Hurt’s incredible performance as Kane, the somewhat surprised new parent. The shock and gore is compounded by the fact that Kane is the closest thing the film has to a hero, being the only one onboard who relishes the prospect of a close encounter on an alien world. And yet his boundless curiosity and need for adventure gets the better of him and all but one of the ship’s doomed crew. Just as the ship’s captain, Dallas, discovers when he assigns himself the task of hunting the alien in the air-ducts but quickly finds himself out of his depth; acts of heroism in Alien will only get you killed faster.
This is in keeping with Alien’s decidedly bleak vision of the future. When the human race travels deep into space, it appears that they’ll be taking their flaws, prejudices and hang-ups with them. The entire cast excels at portraying a disparate collection of characters whose histories of unresolved petty arguments and simmering resentment emerge in the form of pointed passive aggression. People still moan about their pay, the food tastes bad and nothing works quite how it should. Watching Alien in a darkened room, surrounded by strangers, is the perfect way to experience its beautifully crafted sense of creeping claustrophobic horror. I remember around the time of its release, a commentator remarked that Alien’s phenomenal commercial and critical success was down to how it recreates the childhood fear of what is lurking under the bed. But surely its real success is how it taps into adult fears of what is lurking inside the bed – the blood and oomska inherent in the processes of birth, sex and death, those external body parts which appear alien, otherworldly and uncanny, and the unknown horror of what is inside our bodies. Alien will always fascinate and disturb audiences as it leads us to what we find so scary about being human.