In 2017, Swiss documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe premiered “78/52” at the Sundance Film Festival. He is a well-regarded filmmaker with a focus on docs about movies and movie-making, and “78/52” was a canny, thorough look at the shower scene (and only the shower scene) in “Psycho.”
Praised for its depth and smarts, “78/52” has earned a loyal fanbase, and Philippe thought he would do the same with the “chest-burster” scene in Ridley Scott's 1979 film “Alien.” (Aka the one where Kane, played by John Hurt, starts choking during dinner and flips onto the table; the alien exits his chest in an explosion of blood and viscera, possibly scarring absolutely everyone who saw it for life. Yes, that one.)
This plan did not happen.
Instead, Philippe produced “Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien,’” a detailed look at the iconic film’s component parts. The documentary screened Sunday at Fantastic Fest.
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In 95 tight minutes, Philippe explores the things that influenced the film. Writer Dan O’Bannon’s dirt-poor upbringings. His conscious and unconscious lifts from Roger Corman’s low-budget sci-fi films. The 1950s EC sci-fi and horror comics of his youth. The mythological roots of H.R. Giger’s horrifically game-changing creature and set design. The guilt over misogyny at the film’s bloody heart.
It’s a blast, a perfect de facto sequel to the 2013 documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune" (which tells the story of Alejandro Jodorowsky's failed adaptation of the novel "Dune," a project on which O'Bannon and Giger first met).
Philippe realized quickly that his approach to examining "Alien" had to be completely different from his approach on “78/52.”
“They're very different scenes and resonate with audiences for completely different reasons,” he said in an interview. “It's almost a sort of unconscious thing.”
He also realized “Memory” would arrive in time for the 40th anniversary of "Alien."
“Quite frankly, I don’t think audiences back in 1979 were ready for a lot of ‘Alien,’” Philippe says. “It’s a horror movie in space, sure, but it’s a horror movie in space that holds up a mirror to the nasty side of patriarchal society.”
“Memory” is packed with revelations. One of the most profound for more general, non-”Alien”-nerd audiences is the extent to which transgressive British artist Francis Bacon’s "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion" was a crucial link between Giger’s art and what director Scott wanted the Xenomorph to look like.
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“Once you start digging,” Philippe says, “you learn that those were also inspired by the Greek Furies, female figures which often appear to correct a natural imbalance and to avenge matricide and patricide and you go ‘Whoa, how cool is that?'"
As for the chest-burster scene itself, you might recall that Hurt's character is impregnated, essentially, by the Xenomorph when it attaches to his face (a scene both Philippe and several critics in “Memory” discuss as a rape) before it explodes out of his chest.
“I've heard countless stories of men in the theater, who sensed what was going on when Kane (flips onto the table), ran to the bathroom and found a bunch of other men just standing there because they couldn't face the chest-burster scene.”
“Yeah,” Philippe says. “I would be willing to bet that the ladies room was empty.”