In 1979 a surprising thing happened. A movie was released called Alien, which was about an alien, which unlike practically every other alien that’d appeared in a movie until then really looked alien.
Pre-1979 science fiction cinema had served up some memorable beasties, of course, including the scaly clawed man-fish in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and the bulging-brained mutant in This Island Earth (1955), but watching them even as a child, I could never quite escape the suspicion that if you inspected these creature’s spines you’d discover a zipper; and if you pulled down that zipper, their exterior – a monster suit – would drop away and reveal inside a Hollywood stuntman.
The thing in Alien didn’t give that impression because it was so nightmarishly bizarre. Its body was a ribbed and ridged structure that seemingly combined a dinosaur skeleton with a samurai warrior’s armour. Its tail tapered to a swishing lash and its veins pulsed with yellow acidic blood. Its head was a truly grotesque item, long, phallic and eyeless, and endowed with a succession of mantrap-like fangs on the ends of a succession of tongues that emerged, Russian doll-style, out of one another. And it drooled slime. Its design was created by Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger – who, unfortunately, died three days ago after falling down some stairs at his home in Zurich.
Dan O’Bannon, who’d penned the original script for Alien, was a fan of Giger’s artwork. With its disturbing organic / mechanical imagery, it seemed to fuse the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Francis Bacon with the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft, but in a science-fictional way that made it seem prescient of what was approaching as humanity became evermore reliant on, addicted to and integrated with technology. O’Bannon showed some of Giger’s work to the project’s director, Ridley Scott. A figure in one of Giger’s designs, Necronom IV, caught Scott’s eye and during the film’s production it evolved into the alien that we’re familiar with today.
In fact, we’re rather too familiar with that alien today. It’s become an enduring part of popular culture, featured in numerous spin-offs – not just in the film sequels, whose quality gradually decreased and eventually saw poor old Giger’s alien having pro-wrestling-like scraps with the creatures from the Predator movies, but also in graphic novels, computer games and other media in the wider Alien franchise. Its appearance has also been copied and mocked in countless rip-offs and parodies. And while the alien was cheapened by over-exposure, Giger himself was never able to make the same impact again. It must have been galling for him to find himself working on the design for the 1995 movie Species, which was clearly an an inferior cash-in on the film he’d contributed so much to a decade-and-a-half earlier. Mind you, it got even worse — a year later, he worked on something called Killer Condom.
As well as designing movies, he produced artwork for rock musicians. He was responsible for the Penis Landscape poster that was given out with the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist LP in 1986. The poster was an arresting one – literally so, because it resulted in the Dead Kennedys’ frontman, Jello Biafra, being brought to court accused of corrupting minors. Prior to that, in 1981, he’d also painted the cover of Koo Koo, a solo album by Debbie Harry, which showed Ms Harry’s face being pierced by four long horizontal skewers. Two years later, she starred in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a film that – with its images of human flesh mutating to incorporate video and military technology – is much informed by Giger’s aesthetics.
In the 1949 film classic The Third Man, Orson Welles famously observes: “in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Well, those 500 years of Swiss democracy and peace managed to produce H.R. Giger too. Alas, the next logical Swiss invention – a cuckoo clock that on the hour opened its doors and released, not a cuckoo, but a phallic skeletal creature snarling with a series of fanged mouths and and spurting slime and acidic blood – never materialised.