Review by C.J. Bunce
For the 40th anniversary of Alien, OVID.tv is streaming a stunning, eye-opening documentary about the life and visual creations of H.R. Giger, who won an Academy Award for his design work on the science fiction/horror classic. Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World features interviews with Hansruedi “H.R.” Giger (pronounced geeger) at his home and during his travels in the weeks before his death in 2014. Interspersing archival footage and interviews with those who knew Giger best, his wife Carmen, his ex-wife, a psychiatrist, his former partner, his agent, the archivist of his personal collection, and others (even his Siamese cat Müggi makes several appearances), writer/director Belinda Sallin assembles a picture of the complex man, his unique creations, and his influences.
If you’ve viewed footage of Guillermo Del Toro’s vast collection of horror memorabilia (via interviews or in books like his At Home with Monsters), all housed in a lavish setting, imagine a home as fabulously creepy but built like an old abandoned grotto, centered around Giger’s horror paintings and statues, complete with dark corridors, and those eerie squeaky doors and stairs of a recluse’s hovel in a vine-covered corner. His “biomechanik” artwork, sculptures, and storage drawers are wall-to-wall, his book collection haphazardly stacked on shelves and in the bathtub, (real) skulls are tucked into nooks and crannies, a set of doors inside the modest front door is covered with paintings of his trademark human-alien hybrid characters, and an Academy Award is filed between dusty objects on another shelf. A mini-train ride through the vines outside the house take visitors on a haunted house ride through birth, life, and death. This is a haunted house, but devoid of spirits. Ray Bradbury’s attic in every way, only it isn’t. It’s Hansruedi Giger’s house.
Artists of any genre and fans of the Alien franchise can get an unprecedented, detailed, personal look at a man known for his disturbing imagery. Dismissed for decades by the mainstream art scene for Giger’s popular status in Hollywood, Alien indeed made Giger famous just as Giger made Alien famous. The influences behind his often dark and grotesque images will not be surprising: his father bought him his first human skull at the age of six, and his sister took him to a museum to scare him by showing him an actual mummy. Both of these things frightened the little boy, but he forced himself to look at these things repeatedly until, as he says in the documentary, he overcame his fears. But the nightmares never seemed to dwindle. He speaks of his dreams as a key influence, but he told a psychiatrist that the frightening images he saw lost their power when he committed them to canvas. He also acknowledges LSD use as the prompt behind some of his work.
In his last days he was hunched over, a bit like an elder gorilla (shuffling around like Ozzy Osbourne in his old reality series), walking around his house barefoot, sketching with his pencil, petting his cat as it approached looking for his affection. Giger also seemed to speak with some difficulty. He was surrounded by a raucous revolving door of people: his wife and business partner, his agent (who discusses first meeting Giger when he was a poster artist in Zurich in the 1960s), visitors getting his approval for forthcoming publications (including Stanislav Grof’s H.R. Giger and the Zeitgeist of the Twentieth Century), obtaining autographs for distributors, a mother-in-law keeping track of the money and his dealings with 20th Century Fox, an assistant (and metal band musician influenced by Giger’s art), and an archivist continually finding new treasures from the artist’s past. Part of his legacy is as an influence on the formation of cyberpunk, on tattoo art, and fetishists. He also created the famed Alien bars, one shown in the film, and a museum that bears his name, run by his family.
Sallin covers the first hints at the style Giger would become known for in works that included his model and then girlfriend, actress Li Tobler, whose suicide also seemed to contribute to the artist’s dark imagery–the frequent haunting female image in many of his works well into his career was based on Tobler. Sallin incorporates footage of his father’s creepy pharmacy (his father wanted Hansruedi to take on his profession), and she takes Giger and his wife to visit Giger’s ex-wife, who lived at the time of the film production at Giger’s boyhood home high in the Swiss Alps, a place surrounded by heavy fog–also possibly pointing to a creepy influence in his young life.
The film includes an archival interview with Alien director Ridley Scott, and footage of Giger on the production set working on the as-built Xenomorphs, their eggs, and surrounding goo and technology, and plenty of footage of Giger making his creations with an airbrush.