Film

The Macabre Painter Behind the Alien Movies

With Ridley Scott’s prequel Alien: Covenant being released this week, it’s worth revisiting the documentary on the painter H.R. Giger, who inspired the series’ aesthetic.

Still from Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World by Belinda Sallin (image via darkstar-movie.com)

On May 18, director Ridley Scott will officially return to the Alien franchise with the prequel Alien: Covenant, almost 40 years after helming the original sci-fi movie. While Scott’s 2012 prequel Prometheus was slightly more coy about its connections to the series, Alien: Covenant marks the first time since 1979 that one of his film’s primary antagonist is the Xenomorph, the titular beast originally portrayed by an actor in a suit with increasing degrees of CGI added in the follow-up films.

This iconic terror crawled from the imagination of Swiss surrealist painter Hans Ruedi “H.R.” Giger. The visuals for Alien were specifically inspired by Giger’s 1976 painting “Necronom IV,” which portrays a figure with a lithe form, elongated skull, sharp teeth, and serpentine coiling. Any Alien fan or newbie interested in exploring Alien: Covenant’s creative roots in the lead-up to its release should look no further than director Belinda Sallin’s 2014 documentary Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World.

Still from Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World by Belinda Sallin (image via darkstar-movie.com)

Though some viewers might only know Giger from Alien, the Xenomorph creature design is fairly typical of the macabre, humanoid figures he created from his earliest work in the late 1960s to his death in 2014. In Dark Star, curator Andreas J. Hirsch observes how the painter entwines birth, sex, and death on canvas; the description is apt for the Xenomorph, born as a larva bursting through a human chest. The director selects the perfect pieces for illustrating this point, showcasing Giger’s paintings of deformed babies, vaginal penetration, and the memento mori of exposed skeletal structures in lingering takes. In a particularly eye-opening montage earlier in the film, the anxieties referenced in Giger’s nightmare characters come to the forefront. Stock footage of an atomic bomb exploding abruptly cuts to a stylized female face with a head shaped like a mushroom cloud, her long neck mirroring the stem of the blast. A vintage photograph of a soldier demonstrating rifle use to a squadron of children yields to a painting of several small, identical humanoids trapped in the clip and chamber of a handgun. Sallin skillfully shows this horrific fantasy as disturbingly close to reality, lending Giger’s work a relevance that its gruesome nature might otherwise overshadow.

Still from Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World by Belinda Sallin (image via darkstar-movie.com)

Sallin gives a more wholesome picture when she focuses on Giger’s extended community. A network of family, assistants, and collaborators are a constant presence, calling him by the more intimate moniker “Hans Ruedi.” The documentary is at its best when it draws from the commentary of those who filled multiple roles in the artist’s life. Metal musician Thomas Gabriel Fischer was a devout fan of Giger’s art book Necronomicon and eventually became his assistant. Giger’s mother-in-law processes royalty payments from 20th Century Fox for Alien. Lovers past and present take an active part in scheduling and press duties; they also have some of the best stories, with former partner Sandra Beretta recounting a time that a door in their home was blocked by the remains of a lion whose spine was meant for a piece. As each of these individuals appears onscreen for the first time, Sallin waits several beats longer than most documentaries would wait to share their names, suggesting the difficulty of summarizing the many roles each person played in his life. Just as Giger’s work sits at a crossroads of biological themes, his relationships also occupy several spheres at once.

Cinematographer Eric Stitzel’s photography revels in the gloom of Giger’s art. The film features the typical artist documentary shot of a camera following an artist from behind as he or she traverses a studio. In this instance, the shot becomes a thing of horror as terrors that Giger produced linger in the margins of the frame. The Giger estate is also filmed in a similarly disturbing manner. In the opening, Steadicam shots around the grounds mimic the point of view of a slasher like Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger stalking prey. Low tracking shots creep along the train tracks running through an installation outside the home. Crane shots soar like phantasms through and over the skeletal trees surrounding the building. Borrowing the visual syntax of a horror movie allows Dark Star to mirror Giger’s style.

Still from Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World by Belinda Sallin (image via darkstar-movie.com)

While no footage from Alien is featured, Sallin shares behind-the-scenes takes. In one clip, mostly silent crew members observe every detail as the artist pours a brown goop over an alien’s white egg. Their hushed admiration of a master realizing his vision — no matter how minute the detail — is a sign of the degree to which he is the driving force behind the project. Director Ridley Scott may have had the opportunity to once again shape the series with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but Giger, who died shortly after the end of filming the documentary, never stopped influencing it. In a franchise spanning films, comics, video games, and more, Giger’s design sensibility is the one uniting factor, and Dark Star is a fitting tribute to his gift for crafting terrors that cut to the core of common fears.

Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant premieres Thursday, May 18. 

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