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Thanks To H.R. Giger, For All The Sleepless Nights

The "chestburster" is one of the many deeply unsettling images of 1979's <em>Alien,</em> probably the best-known work of designer H.R. Giger. Giger's original chestburster design changed substantially as he inched toward this final version with director Ridley Scott and others.
20th Century Fox/PictureDesk
The "chestburster" is one of the many deeply unsettling images of 1979's Alien, probably the best-known work of designer H.R. Giger. Giger's original chestburster design changed substantially as he inched toward this final version with director Ridley Scott and others.

H.R. Giger was the guy who made me sleep with the lights on for years.

The iconic Swiss painter and sculptor, who died Monday at the age of 74, reportedly suffered from night terrors for much of his life, so perhaps his inimitable art was his revenge upon the world. He is usually called a "surrealist," but millions of people who couldn't name another one of those knew him as the guy who created the titular beast for Ridley Scott's classic 1979 horror film Alien — a dripping, phallic insect with a long, serrated tail and a spring-loaded second jaw that shoots out of its glistening mouth. A thing with teeth inside of a thing with teeth.

You wouldn't expect this particular creation to become a consensus candidate, but it did. Decades after Alien hit theaters (the picture will turn 35 Memorial Day weekend), the creature's status as the cinema's most nightmarish beast is untouched. Even subsequent movie monsters designed by Giger, who became a hot commodity after Alien, can't come close.

Giger was in his late 30s when Scott hired him to not just create a monster (based on the one seen in Giger's painting Necronomicon IV) but to design much of the film surrounding it. Giger created the first half of his creature's two-stage life cycle — the crablike "facehugger" that affixes itself to its victim's face and then implants a fast-maturing embryo inside the host's abdomen that will later explode from the chest.

He also designed the horseshoe-shaped alien craft where the unlucky crew of the Earth-based freighter Nostromo encounters a patch of sweaty, translucent eggs. Those were his designs, too. Like many of the creatures in Giger's paintings, these elements all seemed to posit a technology wherein ribcages and sex organs of both genders were the primary building materials. (Alien won an Oscar for its visual effects; it was nominated for art direction but lost to All That Jazz.)

Scott's disappointing 2012 film Prometheus was an attempt to answer Alien fans' decades-old questions about the race of creatures to whom this ship belonged. As is so often the case, the solution felt matter-of-fact where the mystery had felt vast and unknowable. Almost inevitably, the film was a letdown.

The cliche about the makers of violent, horrific or sexually extreme creative work is that they're the sweetest, most approachable people you could ever meet. Giger was emphatically not that. The reason his interview segments on the Alien Anthology DVD/Blu-ray box sets remain a touchstone in geek circles is that Giger comes off as an even more frightening weirdo savant than his work would indicate. Pasty and pale and prematurely gray, dressed all in black, his Swiss-accented English dropping inflections in all the wrong places, and seated, naturally, in a high-backed chair that looks like it was assembled from the spinal columns of gorillas, he delivers the goods.

He pronounces dinosaur like "dine-oh-sour."

He says stuff like this: "The light, it hurts me. If you have too much sun, then you will be in the shadow. And I like always to be in the shadow, in the dark."

That's a rough transcription. He has a tendency to let his sentences trail off.

Naturally, he fondles a pussycat, like the one whose hiss and slow retreat signals the mature, full-size alien's entrance — a majestic, slow descent into frame from the ceiling, about 60 percent of the way through the movie.

Matt Gourley, one of the creators of the brilliant comedy podcast Superego, has a recurring bit where he uses his uncanny Giger impression to put this kinky vampire in mundane domestic situations, like when his son needs him to sign a school permission slip and Giger won't stop saying things like, "I made an acoustic sex fetus!" My favorite one is where he reads The Night Before Christmas as Giger. "Let's skip ahead to where they die," he says.

Alien largely follows the Jaws rule, withholding a full, clear view of the creature until late in the film. But the fright-embryo is implanted in your belly long before that, churning in your intestines, long before we see it, because of the terrifying visit to that Giger-designed Alien ship in the first act of the picture.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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