Is there a scene in the history of cinema as awesome in its terror, as primal in its horror, and as memorable a freak-out for the audience that first saw it as the shower scene from “Psycho”? “MEMORY: The Origins of Alien,” the latest anatomy-of-movie-love documentary written and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, makes the case that the chest-bursting sequence from Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), in which John Hurt, squirming in nightmare agony on a table, watches a fleshy fetus with silver teeth and a shuddery long tentacle erupt out of his stomach, might be the equivalent, in sheer depth of impact, of Hitchcock’s most infamous moment.
Philippe ought to know. Two years ago, the filmmaker was at Sundance with “78/52,” a documentary that devoted itself to a fascinating and nearly fetishistic dissection of Hitchcock’s shower scene — though really, what made the documentary singular and captivating is that it was such a close-up, far-reaching appreciation of “Psycho” itself, in all its Freud-meets-the-death-of-God gothic slasher trap-door mythology. Philippe is that rare thing, a wide-eyed cinephile — a fan — who’s also a vibrant filmmaker. His documentary appreciations of these movies are rich and deep and layered, steeped in history and myth, psychology and design, yet they’re never academic. Philippe goes right to that place where the four-dimensional profundity of cinema touches the ardor of movie-buff obsession. For him, to be a fan is to grasp a film from the inside out. It’s to be a kind of supreme critic, who liberates the magic of what’s on-screen by seizing its hidden layers.
“MEMORY: The Origins of Alien” is a study of everything that made Ridley Scott’s famous sci-fi horror film so uniquely artful and unsettling, and it culminates in an examination of the chest-bursting scene — how it was created, how it was dreamed, and why it had the impact it did — that feels, in every detail, like an essential, bracing piece of movie scholarship. The visual design of the creature wasn’t an easy thing to nail down. A great many concepts and models were tried and discarded, until the filmmakers wound up with a skittery beast that looked like what “Alien” cast member Veronica Cartwright, interviewed for the movie, describes as a monster penis (and that was no accident). It was operated as a puppet, sunk in the red goo of store-bought animal guts, which made the set smell vile, and when the crew members of the Nostromo reeled back in cringing shock at the blood spray, it wasn’t all acting. No one knew, on the set that day, how badly they were going to be splattered.
Yet the most telling aspect of the scene is how the creature’s face (no eyes, those small jutting teeth), its presence, was conceived. Philippe treats the visual aspects of “Alien” as a detective story, and the alien fetus turns out to have been directly inspired by a seminal painting of Francis Bacon: the right-hand panel of “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” his 1944 triptych that became, like a ghastly version of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” ground zero for Bacon’s ghoulish aesthetic.
The head on that panel juts out, upside down, from a long straight neck, with no eyes, its single row of teeth extended, an expression of pure hell mixed with pure…appetite. “MEMORY” investigates how the painting purged the self-loathing that Bacon experienced around his own homosexuality, due to the rejection it provoked in his father. And while almost no one seeing “Alien” would make that connection, the staggering upshot of “MEMORY” is that this emotional level of meaning — the 20th-century rage at being despised for your sexual identity — is encoded in Bacon’s image, and therefore in “Alien” itself. That’s the way primal pop works.
Of course, it’s not as if “Alien” was all Ridley Scott and Francis Bacon. The film’s obsidian nightmare imagery, from the ghostly spaceship to the Egyptoid alien planet to the metallic skeletal creature with its mercury-dripping jaws, was famously based on the monumentally creepy sarcophagus-meets-laboratory-brain-hook-up sadomasochistic head-trip visions of the Swiss artist H.R. Giger (pronounced Geeger), and we hear in detail how that collaboration played out. We also learn that the idea of using Giger in the first place came from the formative creator of “Alien”: screenwriter Dan O’Bannon.
I’d always figured that O’Bannon, the John Carpenter associate who made the prankish “Dark Star” (1974) with him, didn’t bring all that much to “Alien” beyond the concept and the basic story structure. I had always given the lion’s share of the credit for the film’s awesomeness to Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger. But “MEMORY” traces how O’Bannon drew “Alien” out of his own pulp Petri dish.
Raised in rural Missouri, he dreamed big and borrowed liberally: from the giant-bug horror films of the ’50s, from the dreamscape dread of H.P Lovecraft novels like “At the Mountains of Madness” (about an expedition to the Antarctic that confronts the frozen remains of an alien life form), from movies like “The Thing” and “It! The Terror from Beyond Space,” from the life cycle of the local cicada, and from an eight-page story entitled “Seeds of Jupiter” that was published in a 1951 EC Comic. The idea of imbibing an alien seed and carrying it around inside you until it erupts — it was all there in that story. O’Bannon even drew inspiration from his battle with Crohn’s disease, the gut-twisting inflammatory condition that ultimately killed him.
O’Bannon put all this in a blender, and out of that erupted “Alien.” (His co-writer, Ronald Shusett, came up with the face-hugger, an image worthy of Room 101 in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”) But it took a number of years to get the film made. After O’Bannon delivered his script, the executives at 20th Century Fox got a look at H.R. Giger’s work and nixed the plan to use him as a consultant; they thought he was “sick.” Talk about not getting it! (Of course Giger’s work was sick; that was the point.) But the situation changed after the release of “Star Wars.” Space was suddenly hot, and “Alien,” two summers later, became, in effect, the dark side of “Star Wars.” I’ll never forget seeing it on opening day. I felt like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” being subjected to some brutal mind f—k of a mental experiment. The difference was, I couldn’t wait to go back.
“MEMORY” captures the hypnotic layers of history and meaning that were folded into the shock value of “Alien.” And it expands on a theme that’s often been talked about: that “Alien” was a subterranean feminist horror film — not just because Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley turns into one of the most potent heroines in cinema, but because the movie, drawing on the Greek mythology of the Furies, conjures a symbolic nightmare fantasy of a man getting raped (by the face-hugger) and then, in the chest-bursting scene, giving birth. (At that moment, the cosmos seems to be asking men: How do you like this?)
There’s one theme, however, that “MEMORY” leaves out entirely, maybe because the documentary gives the second, haunted-house half of “Alien” surprisingly short shrift. The helmet-headed monster that spends the rest of the film stalking the crew is a squirmy lizard built like a mechanical death trap: an image of technology merged with flesh. And that, as much as anything, is what marked the vision of new era. In “Alien,” what’s eating us alive isn’t just a beast; it’s the soul of a new machine.