Tag Archives: chestburster

David Cronenberg and David Lynch on Alien

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In David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) a deranged scientist creates a parasite that enters the bodies of his apartment block neighbours thanks to the promiscuity of his young mistress. Spread by sex, the parasites begin to infect the entire building, causing their hosts to react violently against the remaining human occupants until, at the film’s closing, the city of nearby Montreal is at risk of infection and so too, presumably, is the world.

The film contains many Cronenbergian hallmarks: the ugly amalgamations and distortions of flesh, infection via sexual contact, and the uneasiness of eroticism, but it’s also familiar as another riff on invasionary paranoia à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or a precursor of sorts to the paranoia and rending of flesh seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing remake (1982), or even as an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (also 1975). But Cronenberg himself was less interested in where his film’s influences came from or what they paralleled and was more concerned with where they were going — and they went, in his estimation, directly into 1979’s Alien.

“I have to say that some of my images like this [parasite] ended up in things like Alien, which was more popular than any of the films I’ve ever made. But the writer of Alien has definitely seen these movies, Dan O’Bannon. The idea of parasites that burst out of your body and uses a fluid and leaps on your face, that’s all in Shivers.”
~ David Cronenberg, David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grünberg, 2006.

From the get-go Cronenberg expressed frustration with Alien. “It has no metaphysics, no philosophy,” he told Fangoria in 1979. “The creature winds up as a man in a crocodile suit who chases a bunch of people around a room. I think that my own films do a lot more in touching a deep seated nerve, more than the simple reaction that you don’t want a crocodile to eat you. Alien was just a $300,000 B-movie with a $10 million budget.” The pivotal chestburster moment also came under fire: “The parasite device isn’t used in a metaphorical way, it wasn’t used to evoke anything,”Cronenberg said. “In Alien, John Hurt has the parasite in him, he goes about his business as usual. In Shivers, the parasite stays inside the people and changes their behaviour and their motives. It’s used for something more than simple shock value.”

But Alien’s lack of philosophy bothered him less than the alleged plagariasm of its writer. “Dan O’Bannon knew my movie,” Cronenberg insisted in an interview with thefilmexperience.net. “In a case like that you wouldn’t mind a little credit for it. But beyond that, if you are influential –and I’ve had many young filmmakers say that I was a big influence and sometimes their movies do remind me of my old movies– you take it as a compliment. You obviously touched a nerve. It’s nice to have people be aware of that. But beyond that it’s inevitable; things become communal understandings, let’s say. The whole parasite thing. I mean there are movies called Parasite. But I did it first but, you know, whatever.”

Cronenberg often reiterated that he did not know and had never even met Dan O’Bannon, yet he was resolute that Dan had seen his films and deliberately plagiarised from them. His source, he revealed, was An American Werewolf in London director John Landis. “John Landis told me that [Dan] knew very well what he called ‘the Canadian films’, by which he meant Shivers and Rabid, when he wrote Alien. And so I know he stole all the parasite stuff from Shivers. And Ron Shusett said, ‘He never saw those movies and knows nothing about it’ … Dan O’Bannon later denied that he had ever seen those movies, but John Landis swears that he talked about them all the time and knew them very well.” Cronenberg has told this story several times, always referring to the oblique ‘Canadian films’ which he took to specify his own films. “I mean, everybody steals from everybody else,” says Cronenberg, “but he was apparently a very aggressive sort of hostile character. I don’t know, I’ve never met him.”

But Alien, though it certainly employed body horror (“a human subject dismantled and demolished,” Kelly Hurley defines it, “a human body whose integrity is violated, a human identity whose boundaries are breached from all sides”) merely uses it as a launching pad for its plot rather than as a fulcrum. The creatures in Alien and Shivers (home-grown experiments in the latter, of unknown alien origins in the former) are also quite distinct from one another. The facehugger in Alien is but one transitional stage of the Alien’s lifecycle; the parasites in Cronenberg’s film do not undergo metamorphosis: they slither from body to body in order to spread and survive, whereas the Alien can be more accurately described as a parasitoid or protolean being, defined by Wikipedia as creatures “that begin the growing phase of their lives as parasites, and in particular, typically as internal parasites. As a rule they end that phase of their lives parasitoidally by killing or consuming the host, and then they emerge as free-living adults.”

“As far back as Alien, for example, which totally ripped off things from my movie Shivers – Shivers featured a parasite that lives in your body, bursts out of your chests, jumps onto your face, and jumps down your mouth, and suddenly you see this in a studio film, which was hugely successful, Alien. The writer of the script, Dan O’Bannon, had seen Shivers, we know that he had seen my movie and, shall we say, appropriated it. So this is not new stuff for me.”
~ David Cronenberg, Collider, 2015.

The creation of the facehugger and chestburster has been covered extensively on Strange Shapes, along with the insect influence on the creature’s life-cycle. Dan’s Crohn’s Disease, undiagnosed but certainly afflicting him at the time, also influenced the Alien’s agonising birth process, as did the various comic strips that he had read in his youth, many of which featured alien spores erupting from human bodies to run amok.

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‘Defiled’, Death Rattle Vol I, 1972

Despite his distate for Alien, Cronenberg was approached by Fox to direct Alien Resurrection, an offer he found temporarily appealing. “It’s tempting for a minute because they’re begging me to do it,” he told combustiblecelluloid.com. “And it’s Fox, and I’d love to work with Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder. It’d be great fun. [But] the problem with doing a schlocky big-budget horror film or studio film is that it wouldn’t actually be fun for me. I’m innately honest, I think. If I’m gonna do Aliens 4, then I’m gonna deliver Aliens 4. I’m going to try and make it the best version of Aliens 4 I can. So I’m not going to try and subvert it and make it something else, because why spend $80 or $100 million of the studio’s money, and just be deceitful and be fighting them all the time, and have them combat at you, and then end up with something that isn’t really good either way … I actually said to them, ‘You know, I don’t even do sequels to my own movies; why would I do sequels to somebody else’s movies?’ I didn’t do The Fly II. Why would I do Aliens 4?”

There was another famed director by the given name of David who also, apparently, found O’Bannon’s film to be uncomfortably appropriative. David Lynch has never, to my knowledge, publicly spoken about Alien, but HR Giger, eager to work on Lynch’s adaptation of Dune after two failed attempts under Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott, tried to reach out to Lynch in the early 80’s.

“Through friends I asked Lynch if he was interested in my co-operation,” Giger told Cinefantastique magazine. “I never heard from him. Later I came to know that he was upset because he thought we copied the chestburster in Alien from his monster baby in Eraserhead, which was not so. Ridley Scott and I hadn’t even seen that film at the time. If one film influenced Alien it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I would have loved to collaborate with Lynch on Dune but apparently he wanted to do all the designs by himself.”

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The Eraserhead (1977) baby, a sickly, mewling creature, is similar to the chestburster in that they are embryonic, apparently serpentine, monsters, but Lynch’s baby frightens because of the juxtaposition between its humanity and inhumanity: it is frighteningly monstrous and yet helpless. The relationship between the viewer and the baby is one of unease, disgust, and pity. No such relationship exists between the creatures of Alien and the film’s viewers: the Alien is an interloper that uses human bodies both brutally and impersonally.

“People have asked [Lynch] about me,” said Giger, “but he isn’t really enthusiastic about my work. I’ve been told that he thinks we stole his Eraserhead baby for the Alien chestburster, but that’s not true. I told Ridley Scott that he should see the film, though he never did. David Lynch said that it was filmed exactly as his was, but it couldn’t have been because Ridley hadn’t seen it! Lynch talked like it was some sort of homage to his work … He doesn’t seem to want to be friendly to me, and I don’t know why.”

Ever gracious, Giger, who took every given opportunity to exalt Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, finished by saying: “I think he did a great job [with Dune]. I admire Lynch tremendously. I think he’s one of the greatest filmmakers and I would very much like to work for him some time.”

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Newt’s Chestburster

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“By the way, it’s not in the goddamed cat and it’s not in Newt, either. I would never be that cruel.”
~ James Cameron, Starlog magazine, 1987.

Alien 3′s hypnagogic opening leaves the viewer with many questions, the foremost being the well-worn ‘how did the Alien egg get aboard the Sulaco?’ Another question, answered later in the film, is ‘who did it impregnate?’ For a time Ripley, and thus the audience, suspects that the creature is coiled within Newt; and at one point in the film’s production that theory was temporarily true.

One early draft by producers Walter Hill and David Giler, dated October 1990, definitively states that the stowaway facehugger seeks out Newt as its host:

NEWT’S FACE
As she sleeps.
From below her crypt a strange sucking sound.
Like a surgeon removing a rubber glove.
A shadow falls over Newt’s eyes.
Something is crawling onto her faceplate.

As their EEV sinks into Fiorina 161’s turbulent ocean Ripley awakens and glimpses Newt slowly drowning within her cryotube. Suddenly, a spew of slime erupts from the girl’s mouth and from her throat crawls:

A SMALL ALIEN
Slithers out of Newt’s mouth
Tiny forearms pushing at the sides of her stretched lips…
It struggles to free itself from Newt’s jerking and twisting carcass.
Tiny razor sharp teeth glint in the firelight.
As Newt’s face returns to normal, she smiles and…
Ripley can only scream.

Ripley falls unconscious, and dreams that the Alien has disarmed and trapped her. Sliding its tail between her legs, it spins her around and pushes her “down and across the sleep tube…” She wakes up to later discover that the Alien embryo invaded her body after abandoning its former host, and now the seed is maturing inside her.

The next draft, dated December 1990, includes an elliptical flash of the Sulaco’s med-scanners, which displays an image of a facehugger encasing Newt’s head. The next shot describes “marks on her face” and a look that “seems to say: Help me, Ripley.” Rex Pickett’s January 1991 draft also features this image, though both drafts omit the infant chestburster later crawling out of Newt’s mouth.

HR Giger drew some preliminary designs for the body-hopping Alien, envisioning it in his sketches as an ‘aquatic facehugger’ with webbed appendages (or ‘swim skin’) ostensibly purposed for gliding through the water – an aesthetic detail apparently carried on to the ‘super’ facehugger seen in the assembly cut.

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The aquatic facehugger and escapee embryo, though both designed or conceptualised to an extent, were ultimately nixed after director David Fincher concluded that the overall effect had potential for unintended silliness.

“The original montage onboard the Sulaco was planned with a facehugger that was going to crawl out of Newt’s mouth,” Fincher explained. “I’d seen that effect in The Company of Wolves and it just always looks like a rubber casting of someone’s head with somebody else’s fist being forced through it. I just never thought it would work.”

The scene was eventually included in Dark Horse’s comic book adaptation of the film, depicting an oily black chestburster crawling from Newt’s mouth and slipping into the rising water…

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Queenburster

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Aside from the host animal from which Alien 3‘s monster emerges, two other changes between the theatrical and assembly cuts are worth noting: firstly, we are introduced to a new facehugger within the latter cut; an obsidian, armour-plated Queen-maker known as the superfacehugger. Secondly, the Queen-embryo manages a Pyrrhic birth in the theatrical cut’s finale, erupting from Ripley’s chest as she plummets into the prison furnace. In the assembly cut, the birth was removed, as per David Fincher’s original wishes.

After Aliens‘ release, James Cameron outlined the growth and maturation of his Alien Queen in Starlog magazine as thus: “an immature female, one of the first to emerge, grows to become a new Queen … Subsequent female larvae remain dormant or are killed … or biochemically sense that a Queen exists and change into males to limit waste.” The gender distinction is slightly confusing, considering that the Queen does not require a mate to breed and is therefore asexual/hermaphroditic, but we have always struggled somewhat without gender-specific labels. We can reconcile this entire idea by substituting gender with ‘ability to breed’. With a mature Queen present, the other Aliens ‘switch off’ their reproductive abilities until such powers are necessary; say, upon the death of the matriarch figure—an immature Alien could moult and become a Queen or, whilst in the process of this, morph the bodies of other entities into eggs, as seen in Alien‘s deleted materials. Of course, most if not all of this is rendered moot in Alien 3, where the Queen is a royal egg-maker from its very beginning within the host’s chest.

“We designed what we called the superfacehugger,” explained Tom Woodruff. “It was supposed to be a new strain of facehugger, presumably one which could implant the seed of a Queen. It was much bigger than the regular facehugger, had translucent webbing between the fingers, and was heavily armoured with plates and spines. It was cast out of urethane and had an armature inside built to look like bones. It was articulated so you could put it in any position, but it was never meant to be seen alive.”

“Super-facehugger” prop.

The design of this creature probably has its origins in some of Giger’s aquatic facehugger designs, which is darkly coloured and sports webbed limbs for swimming. “There was an idea that was originally banded about because they needed to frame the specialness of the Queen,” said Fincher. “The original montage onboard the Sulaco was planned with a facehugger [sic – embryo] that was going to crawl out of Newt’s mouth. I’d seen that effect in The Company of Wolves and it just always looks like a rubber casting of someone’s head with somebody else’s fist being forced through it. I just never thought it would work.” The aforementioned scene made it into the comic book adaptation.

Confusion abounds among the differing cuts of Alien 3. In the theatrical release, a facehugger impregnates Ripley with a Queen embryo, and then goes on to defy franchise rules by impregnating another life-form, a colony dog, with a regular embryo. In the assembly cut, a new creature called the superfacehugger impregnates Ripley with a Queen embryo and the colony’s dog with a regular embryo—which makes for no real distinction in the reproductive abilities between the two creatures. Frustratingly, the body of the facehugger that we’re familiar with from the first two movies is glimpsed in the opening shots of Alien 3‘s assembly cut, which makes for the presence of both of the creatures. Though we would naturally reconcile the presence of both ‘huggers by concluding that Ripley was impregnated by the super variety, and the ox by the non-royal variety, this is rendered moot when the superfacehugger is discovered with the ox, and the other ‘hugger is not seen nor found at all. The latter simply exists in the assembly cut as a continuity mistake. There is also an in-film notion that the rampaging dog/ox-Alien protects Ripley, or at least refrains from harming her, due to her carrying its Queen, but the Alien never takes steps to create a nest (though it does so in one iteration of the script), slaughters all potential hosts, and does not take measures to prevent Ripley from harming herself, such as cocooning her to await the birth.

More controversy abounded during the filming of the movie’s finale. Originally, Fincher had Ripley fall into a vast whiteness, with the Queenburster remaining inert. Ripley then fades into martyrdom. Twentieth Century Fox and producer David Giler however, felt that a money shot was needed, and what better than to see the franchise’s heroine finally succumbing to the franchise’s villain? “The original background had Ripley falling into what was solely white, and had her just dissolving into it,” said special effects producer, Richard Edlund. “It was very stylistic and a much more cinematic ending. It was really quite beautiful, but David Giler came in and told us what he thought of it and that he felt the movie should be bookended by Ripley having a chestburster.”

Queenburster prop. The emerging embryo sports the adult Queen’s crest, long, thin legs, and secondary arms.

“I didn’t want to have the Alien come out,” claimed Fincher. “I still don’t like the idea of the Alien emerging … I never thought it was necessary to show the creature. We showed it to preview audiences and it was voted that we would do this. I was very much against this and dragged my feet and said, ‘I don’t believe in it, I don’t think it is important to see the monster’ … No matter what cathartic experience we could expect from finally seeing the two strongest images from the first movie, the chestburster and the character of Ripley, if we left the movie with her choking on her tongue then the audience would feel worse going out of the film than they do now. I said ‘whatever happens, she has to be a peace at the end. It has to be a sigh rather than gritting teeth and sweat.'” Fincher considered the idea of having Ripley bear a stigmata-like spread of blood across her chest, but “Everyone felt it was too religious.” Finally, Fincher acquiesced and filmed the ‘burster emerging. “So we talked about it and went over and shot this blue-screen element. I don’t know if it works.”

“The chestburster in the original movie was great,” Fincher went on, “because it had been grounded in reality. There was a loss of control there that was really frightening. And the victim was lying on a table, which gave them the ability to do the effect. But we had Ripley standing forty feet in the air with nothing but steam around her for one hundred seventy five feet. How were we going to put this thing on her so she didn’t look like Lou Costello? Sigourney’s a very statuesque woman; and to hang all this stuff on her, as well concealed as it was, just made her look porky all of a sudden. It was inelegant all round.”

In addition to looking silly, the director felt that having Ripley kill herself at the moment of birth robbed her of any actual sacrifice. “If she gets ripped apart before she falls into the fire, that’s not sacrifice, that’s janitorial service,” he said. “To knowingly step into the void carrying this thing within her seemed more regal.”

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