Forty years on, digging into the exhilarating horror of ‘Alien’

Let’s cut to the chest: Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien” is forever remembered for one indelible scene — a “very significant moment in film history,” genre director Gary Sherman says — the chest-burster sequence, when a gore-slimed, serpentine creature chews its way out of the torso of a hapless John Hurt while he’s having dinner, leaving him a quivering, blood-drenched corpse and unleashing the title monster to slither away and torment the rest of the spaceship’s unsettled crew for the next hour.

Great detail and respect are granted this monumental moment in Alexandre O. Philippe’s dizzyingly in-depth, intellectually exhaustive documentary “Memory: The Origins of Alien” — from wild talking-head theories (Hurt is literally giving birth!) to gruesome behind-the-scenes footage of this greatest of gross-outs.

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One of those talking heads, author Ian Nathan, deftly parses the visceral and dramatic importance of the scene: “The chest-burster changes the complexion of the film from a kind of epic to a kind of horrible, horrible intimacy that’s claustrophobic and inward. Suddenly everybody is trapped. Suddenly the spaceship is small and confined” and the film becomes a primal survival story. Which, I say, renders “Alien” such a splendid, fearsomely realistic haunted house tale during a grisly second half that vibrates with unendurable tension and dread.

“Memory” makes a strong point that the mythos and monster in “Alien,” which was written by sci-fi fanatic Dan O’Bannon, were hardly original. “‘Alien’ didn’t come out of a creative vacuum,” we’re told. “It drew from a whole heritage of American science fiction.”

O’Bannon cherrypicked sources over the years, including comic books, H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction, and B-movies like “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” (1958), Howard Hawks’ “The Thing from Another World” (1951), “Planet of the Vampires” (1965) and, most extensively (and strangely), Roger Corman’s lurid “Queen of Blood” (1966). 

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But it was O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott’s mutual exposure to the lithograph “Necronomicon,” a phantasmagoria of wondrous and hideous creatures by Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger, that cemented the look and language of “Alien.” Scott rhapsodizes about the titular creature, sometimes known as the Xenomorph: “This is beautiful, not just threatening, and it also has very sexual connotations. It’s like a rather beautiful, humanoid bio-mechanoid insect.”

Giger himself did some artistic cherrypicking, synthesizing Egyptian mythology, dream imagery, Boschian fright-scapes, medieval dragons, Hindu goddess Kali and, key to the chest-burster, the disturbing canvasses of British artist Francis Bacon. “Giger consolidates every monster from every mythology from around the world into a single creature. It embodies the mythic Other,” USC professor Henry Jenkins says.   

Why “Alien” works so well is its commitment to the kind of gritty realism of so much superior 1970s American cinema. An Altmanesque naturalism permeates the film, and it boasts gorgeous Kubrickian photography, a crack cast of virtual unknowns, deliberate pacing and adult restraint. 

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It is, simply, an art film. It spurned the space-western kicks of “Star Wars” and the Keane-eyed aliens of “Close Encounters” (both 1977). Suddenly we were served a new, naturalistic depiction of outer space in the sooty, clanky, eerily rain-soaked cargo ship Nostromo, a floating industrial city, a grungy “space truck,” that fatefully investigates a distress signal beamed from an alien planet. 

“Memory” is fascinating when talking about artistry and craft, but veers onto shaky ground when its commentators argue too hard that “Alien” is a product of its social and political times or, almost laughably, gaze at the film through a scrim of academic feminist theory. Says one: The movie is a “male fantasy of the kind of oppression that had been handed out to women over the century of guilt that was part of masculinity.” (Where’s the chest-burster when we need it?)

Fortunately the focus stays mostly on the allegory and mythology behind this iconic, massively influential movie, and the obsessive density of it all is both boggling and breathtaking. The film “can mean many, many, many things,” says writer William Linn, conceding, “I don’t think we can get to the bottom of ‘Alien.’”

“Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien’” hits theaters and VOD on October 4. Trailer HERE.

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A brief encounter with the late, mighty, forever-old Harry Dean Stanton

A slight, gaunt man, with a mummy’s sunken eyes, Harry Dean Stanton seemed eternally haggard and, in his later days, alarmingly cadaverous. He finally gave way to his looks: Stanton, a reticent, lived-in character actor with a gentle heart beating beneath a leather exterior, died yesterday. He was 91.

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Stanton’s best-known work includes “Paris, Texas,” “Wise Blood,” “Repo Man,” “The Rose,” “Pretty in Pink” and HBO’s “Big Love.” I don’t have much to say about his passing, except that it’s sad and that I have potent memories of his performances, especially his role as doomed Brett in 1979’s unshakable “Alien.” Even then he had a Keith Richards mien going on.

I met Stanton briefly in 2003 at a club concert in Austin, Texas, that Stanton, in town shooting a film, reluctantly attended. This is what I blogged then about the special, if tentative, encounter:

One night at Antone’s nightclub, actress Gina Gershon was rocking and Harry Dean Stanton was frowning. “It’s loud, strident and violent,” Stanton said of the three-chord crunch Gershon and her backup group Girls Against Boys were discharging like the solid bar band they were pretending to be. “It’s an assault on the senses.” (It’s rock ‘n’ roll, Harry.)

Hanging out alone at the end of the bar next to the candy machines, Stanton appeared slightly forlorn during the show, nursing what looked like a whisky sour but might have been ginger ale, skittishly glancing around, producing sweet but wavering smiles when approached by pretty women who would wrap an arm around the black blazer that hung on his slight frame with a vaudevillian droop.

Gershon was on a short club tour, living out her long-held musician’s fantasy, putting down the air-guitar for a Gibson SG. She drew about 400 people to Antone’s, about half appearing to be guest-list rubber-neckers. Including Stanton.

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Stanton, 77, has 100 films to his credit, some of the best being “Cool Hand Luke,” “Paris, Texas” and “Alien.” He was in Austin shooting the Luke Wilson-directed “Wendell Baker Story” and has been spotted at unlikely places like Club Deville, where friends tell me Luke and Owen Wilson enjoy tearing it up. Not sure why Stanton was here, but his “Baker” co-star Seymour Cassel dropped in late during the show, said something to Stanton and waded into the crowd of mostly thirtysomethings.

As the show wound down with a tight cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” my girlfriend offered Stanton some Reese’s Pieces bought for a quarter from one of the candy machines. He looked into her open palm and asked, “What are those — M&M’s?” He puzzled over the morsels as if studying Martian soil. Then a trio of pretty girls enfolded him in their attentions, and he was gone.