Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Monster Serial: ALIEN, 1979

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


When I dream, it's often about ALIEN.

The movie has haunted me since I caught that first fleeting television spot back in the summer of 1979. Nestled among the otherwise harmless ads during an afternoon re-run of THE MONKEES, the footage showed nothing more than a terrified Sigourney Weaver running down the strobe-lit corridors of a spaceship. I don't know why the commercial troubled me. Perhaps it was the insistent panic of the moment, the combination of Weaver's fear and frenetic photography. Regardless, I was spooked.

A few weeks later I caught an episode of MORK AND MINDY in which the U.S. Immigration Department had set its sights on Robin Williams. "Oh," I thought to myself. "That Alien movie must be about illegal immigrants. That's certainly not scary." And then moved on with my life. For a few months.

Later that year, my family made a big move overseas. During the matter of a few weeks, I traveled from Norfolk, Va., to Selma, Ala., and then to England. During the layover in Selma I found a magazine about ALIEN on magazine rack at gas station down the street from my grandparents' home. As it turns out, the magazine is pretty rare. If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have cut up the cover to make my own ALIEN puzzle.

The magazine was pretty standard fare for a Warren publication, which is to say it was awesome. There were enough photos inside to give me an idea of the film's story and characters, minus most of the gore (though the interior of the magazine featured an image of the chestburster scene so graphic that I was unsure of what it was supposed to be.) There were even a few photos of a deleted scene from the film. They'd be the only images from the scene anyone would get to see until the "special edition" laserdisc was released a decade later. But more on that in a moment.

Tucked into my kid-sized travel bag, the magazine stayed with me throughout the trip overseas. I'd decided I had to see the movie. England, though, had other ideas.

The British Board of Film Classification takes a rather narrow view of violence. While Americans are happy to watch "procedural porn" like C.S.I. over dinner, the Brits are a great deal less sociopathic in their relationship to entertainment. They'd rather see a nice pair of tits on the telly than witness someone get their brains blown out.

I mention this because ALIEN was slapped with an X rating in the U.K. If you're an American, this probably comes as a surprise. It will further shock you to know that a British "X" does not mean the same thing as an American "X". (At least, it didn't back in 1979. Things might have changed.) Like our R rating, an X was just something meant to keep kids out of grown-up movies, and not an indicator that the film's cast will be screwing for your entertainment. As far as my parents were concerned, though, an X-rated movie was just something you didn't take the kids to see.

My quest to see ALIEN was arduous. I eventually convinced my father to take me to see the film when it was scheduled to play at a U.S. military base, but a different movie arrived in its place. I don't remember the name of the movie, but it can go fuck itself, whatever it was.

My next attempt happened during a visit to a friend's house for a sleepover. I like to think his parents were smart, reasonable people, but they let an 8-year-old kid talk them into watching their VHS tape of ALIEN. I can be persuasive when called upon, but my skills fall far short of "Jedi." In the end, it didn't matter ... the other children freaked out during the opening credits and ALIEN was quickly ejected from the VCR.

Long story short, I eventually caught the film on television in 1982 in the U.K. and was quite happy with it. When people ask me to name my favorite film, I'll usually answer with ALIEN.

But, there's another version of ALIEN you haven't seen. In fact, the movie could have gone in any of a hundred different directions thanks to one of the most fertile pre-production processes any movie has ever experienced. Lead by writer Dan O'Bannon and director Ridley Scott, a staggering array of talent was assembled to shape the film. Springing from the ashes of the failed Jodorowsky adaption of Frank Herbert's novel DUNE, the creative team included guys like Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Chris Foss and H.R. Giger, all working to transform a B-movie into a work of art.

I know this thanks to trade paperback titled THE BOOK OF ALIEN, a "making-of" book published in conjunction with the film's release. It's an amazing book that gives a detailed look at the many, many ideas that were thrown at O'Bannon's familiar story. I was obsessed with this book as a child. Why were these images so different from those seen in the movie? Why did they use this idea instead of that one? How did they know what would work?

For better or worse, ALIEN could have been a very different film from the one that was released to theaters back in 1979. Many of the rejected pre-production designs will look very familiar to fans of the franchise, because the entire series has been living in their shadow since James Cameron first put pen to paper to write its first sequel. That deleted scene I mentioned earlier? It involved Weaver's character finding Tom Skeritt trapped in an ant-like cocoon and slowly transforming into an alien "egg." Cameron paid homage to the scene in ALIENS by having Weaver finding a cocooned Paul Reiser ... and then took the concept of homage to the next level by also deleting the scene from his film. Talk about verisimilitude.

The movie's most famous edit involved the discovery of an ancient alien temple that was somehow involved in ceremonial rituals involving the the film's monsters. It was cut for both financial and pacing issues, with the scene's most important plot beats combined with those set in the "derelict" spacecraft. The temple was decorated with hieroglyphics depicting the life cycle of the alien, from egg to "facehugger" to fully grown slimebeast. It's part of the movie's strategy of suggested mystery, which shows us a great deal while telling us almost nothing. ALIEN offers no pat explanation for its monster's origins; everything we need to know about it is conveyed through imagery. Scott was smart enough to trust us with that privilege.

This segment was later repurposed for ALIENS VS PREDATOR in 2004, as well as Scott's own follow-up, 2012's PROMETHEUS. It's a rare movie that has a pre-production process that has this kind of influence over its successors. Historically, deleted scenes and early screenplay drafts would go into a vaults for a few years, usually emerging when a studio needs to promote a later release of the film. With ALIEN, these ideas proved to be too compelling to remain in the vault. PROMETHEUS is little more than an expanded treatise on ALIEN's deleted temple sequence, maybe even making a convincing case for the original decision to cut the segment. PROMETHEUS is not a good movie (it's actually pretty terrible, from a story perspective) but I enjoyed the chance to see these dreamlike moments from THE BOOK OF ALIEN brought to life.

But the conceptual art didn't stop at a single deleted scene. There are dozens of variations on the film's many characters, monsters, ships, planets and gadgets. The film's pre-production was an embarrassment of riches, and the otherworldly aspects of what ALIEN might have been are probably the reason the movie still follows me into my dreams. It's not the monsters that haunt me, though they are mentioned in  my dreams from time to time.

I'm haunted by the many worlds suggested by ALIEN. The worlds, and the possibility of imagination.

(WALLACE McBRIDE is the editor of The Collinsport Historical Society.)

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