It’s a favorite movie-nerd anecdote from science-fiction history that before actually filming Alien’s famous dinner-table chest-burster scene, everyone in the cast but burstee John Hurt was unaware of exactly what awaited them. They’d gotten a vague note that something was going to emerge, but director Ridley Scott kept them in the dark so their reactions to the cow entrails and literal gallons of blood planned for each take would be as unstudied as possible. The actual event was so viscerally upsetting that Veronica Cartwright is said to have fainted after getting a faceful of blood. And the phallus dentata that shoves free of Hurt’s chest was the icing on that repellent cake: The horror on the actors’ faces is real.
When the movie hit theaters, the chest-burster instantly became an iconic instance of memorable first glimpses of a movie monster. But every monster has a parent, and the Dr. Frankenstein to the world-famous xenomorph was H.R. Giger. The Swiss science-fiction artist passed away last Monday, May 12, leaving behind an artistic testament that’s become a part of the collective memory. His aesthetic had been in development since childhood, an outlet for dark dreams he couldn’t shake, an exploration of darkly sexual biomechanics. His early professional work demonstrated both an elegant sense of line and a uniquely uninhibited sense of subject. He was at home among the uncanny.
It was an aesthetic that quickly established him as an artistic voice, and creators of dark science fiction seemed almost fated to seek out his point of view. When filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was planning the world of his never-filmed, spectacular Dune, he dubbed Giger best suited for the excessive, magnetic grimness of the Harkonnen planet. It was a creepily perfect fit, and Giger’s design for the Harkonnen castle was a morbid portrait sculpture in the round, its stomach expansively swollen, bisected by a sunken stair that looked more like an abscess than architecture. It also contained hidden knives that emerged from fleshy sheaths; for Giger, very little was free of sexual imagery, no matter its home planet.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is so legendary an also-ran, it’s been the subject of its own documentary, and though the vision wasn’t feasible, his eye for talent has since been borne out. For Giger, that proving ground came when Dan O’Bannon, who had been on Dune’s visual effects team, called on him to develop Alien. Inspired by “Necronom IV” from Giger’s art book Necronomicon, O’Bannon outlined the life cycle of the alien, and Giger went to work making every stage of life as creepy as possible. An ouroboros of vaginal and penile imagery followed, from facehugger to the xenomorph’s lubricated mouth sprouting one last phallus dentata. (Their unsubtle biology is often parodied, but were so well-executed in their original form as to retain their unsettling power.) To complete the sense of Otherness, the xenomorph was designed with both bones and car parts, a seemingly-impossible union of animal and machine that makes even harmless examples—like the mummified Space Jockey—seem like sexualized prisoners of an unimaginable future, another layer of body horror the power of which Giger understood well. So iconic was the alien that Giger’s ownership of it was never subsumed by the growing power of the franchise. It’s still considered one of Alien 3’s most egregious sins that it disregarded Giger’s designs for the more canine xenomorph they requested.
Any great artist has a signature, an enduring image they leave behind in the pop-culture consciousness. (Cinematographer Gordon Willis, who passed away Sunday, was a defining visual voice of the 1970s, where his work on movies like The Godfather and Klute created a precisely-composed chiaroscuro that highlighted the moral quandaries lurking in every frame.) For Giger, he leaves a legacy of mechanica psychosexualis: His world was a fundamentally twisted spectacle, an inevitable melding of the human and the technological that’s invasive and epic. It’s a cinematic vision instantly identifiable, a world both twisted and unforgettable.