When Walter Hill was flipping through the first 40 pages of the science fiction/horror script that became "Alien," he considered it turgid, a snooze.
"I thought it was just terrible," said Hill, who co-wrote and co-produced the movie with his partner, David Giler. It barely diverted Hill from watching Jimmy Carter's acceptance speech at the 1976 Democratic convention, which was on his TV in the background.
Then Hill got to the now-infamous "chest-burster scene," where a creepy little critter — with a head like a slimy, tiny sperm whale — explodes from the chest of a spaceship's executive officer and traumatizes the crew.
"I had never read anything like it or seen anything like it," he said. "I began to think that if you did a good version of the screenplay — so it didn't insult your intelligence — and then shot it like an A movie, you might just have something."
Hill said by phone from Beverly Hills, "Just about any movie you see today that is expensive and made by a studio is essentially a B movie" — a bare-bones genre film that doesn't go beyond the usual kiss-kiss-bang-bang.
But when Hill went to work on "Alien," it was revolutionary to do "a B movie as if it were an A" — giving an exploitation script a dramatic spine, outstanding cinematography and a first-class score.
"Still, we were very irreverent about it," Hill recalled. "David even proposed the ad line, 'It will scare the pants off your date.'"
20th Century Fox later came up with a better line: "In space, no one can hear you scream."
The next selection for the 'Gunky's Basement' series, curated for the Maryland Film Festival by musician Dan Deacon and artist-filmmaker Jimmy Joe Roche, "Alien" plays a cunning game of "gotcha!" with its audience. The skillful, clever build to that "chest-bursting scene" has given it more staying power than all the movies it has influenced, from "Leviathan" to "Pitch Black."
Hill, who'd become a hot writer in Hollywood with scripts like "The Getaway" (the Steve McQueen version), had just launched his directorial career with the great Charles Bronson film "Hard Times" (he'd go on to direct such classics as "The Long Riders" and TV's "Broken Trail").
It's funny to think of Hill reading the original script with one eye while watching Carter deliver his address with the other. "Alien" comes out of the zeitgeist that produced Carter's "malaise" speech. The skipper (Tom Skerritt) mistrusts the science officer (Ian Holm). The blue-collar engineers or "truckers in space" — Harry Dean Stanton in a baseball cap, Yaphet Kotto in a sweatband — are at odds with the officers. By the end, the corporate bosses' intention to study a predator for potential biological weapons devastates the crew. But the bad vibes often play like deadpan comedy.
The Nostromo, the scene of almost all the action, is a commercial towing vehicle hauling a refinery and 20 millions tons of ore back to Earth. The ship's crew is coed and eclectic (it includes two women, a couple of Brits and an African-American). Their antagonist couldn't be more, well, alien. It's a freak of nature: "A perfect organism," the science officer says. "Its structural perfection matched only by its hostility." The plot kicks in when the Nostromo's computer, "Mother," awakens its crew of seven to answer a distress signal from a planetoid on their route. Several follow that signal into the bowels of an abandoned ship. A monster plants itself in one of them and is taken onto the Nostromo.
This alien grows from a gross oblong egg to what looks like an enormous wart with digits and a tentacle, and then into that baby leviathan. Off-screen it transforms into a snaky devil, complete with pointed tale. It's an evolutionary Satan, absorbing the strength of its victims like a vampire.
"Part of what sets 'Alien' apart," said Hill, "is that for a science-fiction film, it's more of a horror-monster movie. And for a horror film it's set in an interesting place — a spaceship in the middle of nowhere, instead of a Gothic-looking house."
Hill and Giler made the Nostromo's warrant officer a woman, then turned the second half of the film from an objective adventure to a subjective thriller told from her point of view. Hill thinks this was key to the film's popular triumph.
"This kind of story works better with a female lead," said Hill. "Audiences will impute a kind of vulnerability to her that they wouldn't to a traditional male lead." As producers, they fought to cast an unknown in that role. "If it was somebody who was a well-known movie star, you would always know she would prevail. We wanted that to be in greater doubt than it usually is in films." Sigourney Weaver won the role. It's a thrill to see her Warrant Officer Ripley emerge from the ensemble as a smart, tough officer — and then assume a valiant hero's role.
"We had an unknown film director, Ridley Scott, who made what I think is still his best movie by far," said Hill. "And we had an inexperienced actress, but we could have looked around for 10 years and not found anyone better than Sigourney. It was a lucky movie."