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The Influence and Legacy of Artist H.R. Giger

By David Konow

Whether you know the name or not, H.R. Giger's artwork is unmistakable and unforgettable. It's art that you can both fall in love with and get terrified by at the same time.

It will make a great question on a game show one day: What never-released movie had ambitions to be over ten hours long, star Mick Jagger and Orson Welles, feature a screenplay by the writer of Alien, and production design by H.R. Giger? Jodorowsky’s Dune of course, and the recent documentary on this unmade epic is a remarkable effort--probably the best movie about an unmade movie I've seen yet.

All filmmakers have dream projects that for one reason or another, never get made, and Dune was a real heartbreaker for writer Dan O’Bannon. He eventually rebounded with Alien, and brought the late Giger along with him to be the production designer. The rest, as you know, is sci-fi history, as Giger's designs for the creature and sets revolutionized the monster-movie genre. As Ridley Scott said in a statement after Giger's recent passing, the swiss surrealist was “a real artist and great eccentric, a true original, but above all he was a really nice man.”

Most people know Giger’s work from Alien, yet he created a large body of work in his lifetime. Whether you know the name or not, his artwork is unmistakable and unforgettable. It's art that you can both fall in love with and get terrified by at the same time. Giger was a fearless artist who looked deep into the abyss, and found it a great landscape to capture in his work.

We asked Frank Pavich, the director of Jodorowsky’s Dune, how important he felt Giger’s work was to the history of sci-fi. “I think he’s incredibly important,” Pavich tells us. “Let’s say we take the timeline of films, and let’s say we remove Alien from the timeline. There were so many films that directly or indirectly took influence from that film. If you compare Star Wars and films before that to the aesthetic of Alien, they’re completely different. Alien is, as he put it, a biological mess. It’s dirty, it’s messy, it’s gross, it’s disgusting, and I don’t think science fiction had that kind of horror. I think he really created that fear in us.”

Alien came out in the late seventies, and you get the impression that sci-fi art was moving in a darker, more underground direction by this point, which was another way the planets aligned for the film. Ridley Scott was influenced by Heavy Metal magazine, and he was also a fan of Moebius, but when O’Bannon showed him the Giger illustrated edition of Necronomicon, the director was completely blown away. As Scott recalled in an interview, “I nearly fell off the desk. I said, ‘That’s it,’ and why look farther? I’ve never been so certain about anything in my life.”

As Dan O’Bannon’s widow, Diane O’Bannon, explains, “Dan was always into underground comics, horror and science fiction – especially as a child. That underground had always been there: what happened was Dan was instrumental in bringing it into the mainstream. I think it was just perfect timing really. I don’t know when Ridley became aware of Moebius, but he had never seen Giger’s work before Dan brought it to him. He instantly agreed that it would be groundbreaking. Also, to bring Ridley up to speed, Dan had a few sci-fi and horror films screened for him, most notably The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Dan told him, ‘This is the intensity we have to reach to get noticed.’”

As Dan O’Bannon himself told me years ago, “I was struck by the originality of Giger’s paintings. Not only were they frightening works, but they were absolutely, utter original and beautifully executed. Looking at them, I thought, If somebody could get this guy to design a monster for a movie, it would be something no one’s ever seen before. So I went in knowing that I had the cherry on top with the visualization of the thing.”

Dan would also recall in Rolling Stone, “When I first took Giger’s work into the air-cooled arenas of power, the producers said, ‘That’s disgusting, this man’s sick.’ And I said, ‘Yes, yes, yes – can’t you see he’s the one?’ But they just sort of turned green. I’m used to having all my weirdest ideas edited out, but when Ridley Scott was hired he recognized immediately that Giger should design the Alien. The producers fucked around with a lot of things – story elements, visual designs, and script details. But thanks to Ridley, they didn’t touch the weirdest stuff.”

While Giger’s artwork made its mark through Alien, it’s amazing to think what could have happened if Dune had gotten made, and what impact it would have had on sci-fi. “There’s a couple of ways to look at it,” Pavich says. “We know what happened in this universe, which is Jodoworsky’s Dune did not get completed, did not get filmed, did not get released, and those ideas of Jodoworsky, and Chris Foss and O’Bannon still went out into the world. If his film had been completed, it could have been a transcendental masterpiece, or it could have been a disaster. If it was successful, and people went to go see it, and people loved it and their lives were changed, I wonder if the science fiction aesthetic would have taken a turn to the more cerebral, and towards the psychedelic and the religious. If Dune had been a failure, maybe the ramifications could have been even stronger.

“At the time, Lucas and company were putting Star Wars together for Fox, and Fox was already dubious,” Pavich continues. “They weren’t really behind Star Wars, and they didn’t really completely get what Lucas was doing. They were behind him because he’d made a lot of money with American Graffiti. If Jodoworsky’s Dune had come out and been a disaster, I’m sure come that Monday morning, the executives would have pulled the plug on Star Wars. Without Star Wars, where would we be today? What would the aesthetic be? What would the big tentpoles be every summer? Maybe they wouldn’t be superhero stories. We might be dealing with things more geared towards adults. I don’t think we’d be living in the universe of films that we’re currently living in for better or worse.”

Pavich also had the thrill of interviewing Giger for Jodoworsky’s Dune, which he called “an incredible experience. Giger has his own museum in this little tiny town of Gruyere Switzerland. In this tiny little town with cheese shops, fondue places, little tourist shops that sell trinkets, there’s the H.R. Giger museum on the corner, and the Giger bar, which is across the way. It’s a coffee shop / bar which is designed in the Giger esthetic. Suddenly this black Jaguar pulls up on this tiny little road where no cars are allowed. No one’s allowed to drive through there, it’s pedestrian only, and here comes this black Jaguar that pulls up in front, this white haired gentleman gets out, and oh my God, it’s H.R. Giger. He walks in, he was very sweet, sat down and talked to us for an hour and change.”

Pavich found Giger the opposite of his artwork, “an incredibly accommodating, incredibly sweet person. He was kind of the juxtoposition of the artwork that surrounded us, the Alien statues that were hanging over our heads.”

Even though he the opposite of his work in person, Pavich says, “There’s obviously something dark and scary somewhere in his soul to live with that artwork and to create that artwork. I read an interview many years ago with Dan O’Bannon. When he met Giger for the first time, Giger offered him opium. ‘Wanna smoke some opium?’ Dan said, ‘No, no, that stuff will give you nightmares.’ And Giger said, ‘Oh, I smoke it to get rid of the nightmares!’ So that’s what his artwork was. It was his way of dealing with the visions he might have been dealing with. It’s incredibly dark and terrifying work, but also incredibly beautiful, transcendent work, so it’s kind of this unique hybrid.”

In addition to is paintings and movie work, Giger also made incredible album cover art. His cover for Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery is an all time classic, and his illustration for Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion album, with an evil demon using Jesus on the cross as a slingshot, is an especially haunting creation. Tom Warrior, the lead singer and guitarist for Frost, was so distraught over Giger’s death he canceled a gig, unable to perform in is grief. (In a statement, Warrior called Giger “The greatest surrealist artist of our time…For 30 years, H.R. Giger has been my mentor.”)

Oddly enough, many of Giger’s obituaries didn’t mention is role in the Dead Kennedys controversy of the mid eighties. It was a time when the PMRC, The Parents Music Resource Center, was trying to go after rock and roll for obscene lyrics, and give albums ratings that would prohibit teenagers from buying them. During this pop culture witch hunt, Jello Biafra, the lead singer of The Dead Kennedys, was facing a jail term for distributing pornography to minors. The pornography in question was a poster reproduction of the Giger painting “The Penis Landscape,” which was included in the Kennedys album Frankenchrist.

“The Dead Kennedys, that whole ‘Penis Landscape’ painting was an incredible part of my childhood,” Pavich says. “I remembered watching that stuff on the news, that was a huge deal, and it inadvertently came from his artwork. He didn’t think he was doing anything shocking, or anything too shocking, but sure enough some of the more prim and proper people in the U.S. took umbrage to it. It’s almost like a part of our history that was brushed under the rug a bit. I was invited to Giger’s funeral and memorial service, and Jello Biafra sent flowers. It made me feel great that Giger had touched so many people in so many different ways.”

As for Giger’s legacy, Pavich says, “The vision that he created that’s been put on film for us, the whole look of the Alien, he’ll always be remembered for that. There are people who know him more for his paintings, and I have the feeling that’s what he’d be preferred to be remembered as, a painter as opposed to just the creator of the Alien.”

“Giger’s work, and his artistic influence will never die,” says Diane O’Bannon. “It will be referenced and reiterated and echo into the future. It’s a lesson for an artist or anyone really about their work: your work matters, possibly more than you know, so make it your best.”