Secluded behind the drawn shades of his Swiss chateau, sci-fi man-in-black H.R. Giger pioneered a sublimely creepy “bio-mechanical” aesthetic obsessed with birth, sex, and death. This month, one year after his death at age 74, the artist draws fresh attention with a new documentary Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World, opening Friday, and mini-festival running May 22 and 23 at New York’s Museum of Art & Design.
Trained in industrial design, Giger directed music videos, made furniture, created night clubs, built bio-morphic guitars, directed surreal music videos for Blondie star Debbie Harry and produced the Necronomicon book of anatomically fantastical illustrations that served as a defacto bible for Goth-minded tattoo artists.
Oh yeah: Giger also won an Oscar for designing Alien in 1979, when he permanently raised the bar for what it takes to scare the hell out of sci-fi movie goers.
Giger’s legacy continues to reverberate. The decaying tooth version of Darth Vader seen in the recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer arguably owes a tip of the helmet to Giger’s skull-and-skeleton obsession sparked by his encounter with a museum mummy at age six, while cyborg Ava in Ex Machina echoes Giger’s fascination with hyper-sexualized cyber-women.
Unseen Cinema curator Jake Yuzna believes the visual language of science fiction cinema can essentially be divided into two periods: Before Giger, and After Giger. “When you look at science fiction movies before Alien, you either had cinephile filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick using aliens more as metaphors in 2001 A Space Odyssey, or else you still had the guy in the rubber suit going back to monster B-movies from the ’50s and ’60s, Yuzna says. “But once Alien hit, everything got really dark and really tense. Thirty-five years later, filmmakers still say, ‘We want this to be Alien-esque.'”
Giger became a master at tapping into unconscious sources of “body horror” anxiety, as Yuzna puts it. Just as importantly, he grounded even his most fantastical concepts in rigorous anatomical principles. “One of our films documents the original tests of materials and movements and sculpting that went into Alien,” Yuzna explains. “You can see that for Giger, everything had to make sense. If you’re making an alien creature, you can’t just put a fang in the middle of the forehead. Giger had a huge influence on production design with this idea that when you’re creating an otherworldly environment, there has to be a level of believability and logic, biologically speaking.”
For Dark Star director Belinda Salin, Giger defied expectations when she arrived at his home/studio to begin filming the ailing artist. “I had this image in my mind that Giger would be an unapproachable person with a dark nature,” she says, “But in fact, he was a friendly man with a great sense of humor.”
Yuzna notes that the Unseen Cinema program consistently depict Giger as a congenial collaborator. In researching the show, he says, “I discovered that Giger started making this work when he took therapy classes at design school, which made complete sense to me. Maybe Giger was such a kind guy because he’d found a healthy outlet for all of his internal demons.”
Dark Star shows Giger gleefully riding around his estate on a home-made railroad train that runs through a tunnel encrusted with hundreds of macabre baby head carvings. Toward the end of his career, dread-evoking artworks and daily routine had merged into a seamless whole, Salin says. “Giger’s pictures show archetypal things that we know from our nightmares, from our subconscious, from our primal fears. My intention was to show the way Giger literally lived within his art and made the uncanny, the sinister, and the scary his home.”
If the Unseen Cinema films capture an artist at the peak of his powers, Dark Star serves as coda for a life uncensored. Salin says, “The film begins with Giger showing us his first skull, the one he dragged through the streets of his hometown on a string at the age of six,” says Salin. “Almost 70 years later, despite his weak health, I think Giger wanted to make this film his last performance. In a society obsessed with youth, beauty, and fitness, it’s his last piece of art in the eternal cycle of birth, life, and death.”