A Loss for Nightmare Movies: The Passing of H. R. Giger

Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger
Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger

H. R. Giger – artist, sculptor, and dark, imaginative architect of our collective nightmares – died last Monday, May 12. An administrator from the Giger Museum said he died of injuries suffered in a fall. He was 74.

The Swiss artist/sculptor/designer came to wide recognition in 1979 with his design of the xenomorphic creature for director Ridley Scott’s definitive sci-fi/horror classic, Alien. It was a new look – an unequalled definition – for what was then an underutilized B-movie sub-genre. Giger’s alien creature design thrust the little movie into the mainstream. It rocked audiences, sending them out theater doors rattled and jittery . It shook them to an extent only a handful of movies have ever done.

Giger’s alien changed movies.


Giger was born on February 5, 1940 in Chur, Switzerland as Hans Rudolf Giger.  At a young age, he developed a fascination for things outre, taking interest in the works of Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. He had a pivotal moment of inspiration when his father, a local pharmacist, brought home a promotional gift. It was a human skull. Giger is said to have been fascinated with it.

In his own words, Giger was “a horrible student”. After high school, his parents, recognizing his developing interest in drawing, encouraged him to enter the School of Applied Arts in Zurich. There, he studied architecture and industrial design. He started work in 1966 as an interior designer, at the same time completing some early paintings. By 1968, he was working exclusively as an artist and filmmaker, in 1969 publishing his first posters and having his first exhibitions outside of Zurich.

In the ’70s, Giger began to use an airbrush – then a new tool for artists. His works took on a distinct, increasingly otherworldly quality – hellish eroticism and alien elegance meticulously rendered on large formats in murky tones of grays and blacks. Giger had found his signature style. He was eventually considered the world’s leading airbrush artist, and proved that the device could be used to produce fine art.

Necronomicon came in 1977. It was Giger’s first book – a collection of his works. And it brought the artist to the attention of film director Ridley Scott, who was then putting together the production team for a little science-fiction movie, Alien. Scott lifted some of his team from director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed massive film adaptation of writer Frank Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi classic, Dune. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon is said to have written Alien while crashing on a friend’s couch, recently returned to L.A. from the aborted European project. Penniless, angry, and dejected, O’Bannon wrote a script in which a vicious creature kills the story’s every character but one in horrible, violent ways. Giger and designer Ron Cobb were other Dune alums.

Of hiring Giger to design the many forms of the titular alien, the derelict spaceship in which the alien eggs are discovered, and the unfortunate gargantuan “space jockey” pilot of that ship, Scott has said, “I’d never been so certain about anything in all my life.”

Giger based the creature on Necronomicon IV, his painting of a typically Giger-esque biomechanical humanoid with an elongated head, segmented tail, and tube-like dorsal vents. While the subject of the painting has large, black, ovoid eyes, these were eliminated from the film’s final design to make the alien seem more soulless and menacing.

The rest as they say is history. Ferociously propelled by the unsettlingly alien… alien, the little film became a sensation, turning the world of science fiction on its ear. Long-considered only a B-movie genre, along with the previous year’s Star Wars, Alien made Hollywood studios realize that science fiction movies could appeal to mainstream audiences and generate big money. The genre quickly became a summer tentpole staple – a position retained yet today.

To-date, Alien has grossed over $203 million worldwide on its $9 million budget. Together with its six sequels (including the two Predator cross-overs), the franchise has taken in over $1.4 billion, with a per-film average of almost $176 million. Production of the eighth film in the series, Prometheus 2, was recently announced.

Giger is credited in every one of those films for the design of the namesake creature. It’s a design that’s on par with those of horror legends Lon Chaney, Sr. and Jack Pierce – the former the silent film actor who created his own makeup designs for such iconic characters as the hunchbacked Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Erik the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, and the latter the virtuoso behind the makeup designs for Frankenstein’s monster and all other 1930s and ’40s classic Universal Studios monsters. The design also won Giger an Oscar, as a member of the team that won Best Achievement in Visual Effects for their work on Alien.

If you really want to get Giger, you need to see the movie that thrust him into the collective nightmare. You need to watch Alien. Turn off the lights and your phone, sit down and settle in. Granted, it’s not all Giger’s brilliant originality that makes the movie work – director Scott was at the peak of his creative form. But you’ll get Giger’s contribution the moment the film turns… alien. Then it descends into some further outre consciousness. And it never comes back.

Alien is that effective. It’s that good. See if you watch the movie uninterrupted. See if you can take it with no reprieve. That’s what audiences did in 1979. And Giger and Scott brutalized them.

Now Giger’s gone – perhaps to a place darker than his own imagining.

The H.R. Giger Museum opened in 1985, in the castle of St.-Germain, in the town-center of Gruyères, Switzerland. Operated by the Giger family, the museum contains the largest existing collection of Giger’s works – paintings, sculptures, furnishings, and details from film sets.  In 2005, officials in Gruyères’ ordered the museum to remove a model of the Alien creature from outside the museum. They said the statue wasn’t good for the town’s image.

There’s no more fitting tribute to Giger’s nightmarish vision.

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