Friday, June 14, 2019


"She asked where he lived. 'Second to the right,' said Peter, 
'and then straight on till morning.'"
Peter Pan   J.M. Barrie

On the DVD commentary for Hammer Film’s Straight on Till Morning, British actress Rita Tushingham speaks of having been saddled with the image and moniker of “ugly duckling” since making her film debut as Jo in Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1962). A role the inexperienced 18-year-old won after answering a brazenly forthright newspaper casting ad seeking an “ugly unknown” to star in Richardson’s forthcoming film adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s groundbreaking 1958 play.
A Taste of Honey, while winning Tushingham a crateload of awards (BAFTA, Golden Globe, Cannes Film Festival) and overnight stardom, also saddled the actress with the persistent screen persona of common-touch antithesis to the Julie Christies, Judy Geesons, and sexy dolly birds and of ‘60s New Wave in British cinema. Whether assaying roles tackling kitchen-sink drama: The Leather Boys (1964), the sexual revolution: The Knack….and How to Get It (1965), the swinging London scene: Smashing Time (1967), or the international market: Doctor Zhivago (1965); Rita Tushingham’s large eyes and unique looks inevitably figured significantly in defining her characters.
Rita Tushingham as Brenda "Wendy" Thompson
Shane Briant as Clive "Peter" Price
Katya Wyeth as Caroline
Clair Kelly as Margo Thompson
A critic’s darling regarded as a serious actress with a flair for absurdist comedy, Tushingham had never been approached by Britain’s independent Hammer Films (“My teeth weren’t long enough,” she jokes, in reference to the company’s bread-and-butter staple of vampire films) prior to producer Michael Carreras—pivotal in the studio’s ultimately unprofitable move toward expanding Hammer’s image beyond color-saturated Gothic—coming to her with a proposal from playwright John Peacock (Children of the Wolf - 1971) to write an original screenplay especially for her to be directed by Peter Collinson (The Italian Job – 1969).
The collaboration resulted in Straight on Till Morning, an unorthodox, character-driven psychological thriller that’s a very grim fairy tale about a naïve and disturbed young woman with a Wendy Complex drawn to a psychotic Prince Charming lethally suffering from Peter Pan Syndrome. While the film represented a departure for Tushingham in terms of genre, the working class, socially-awkward character she plays feels a deliberate composite of many of the roles she’d played before.
At this point in her career, Straight on Till Morning represented at least the
fourth film in which Rita Tushingham portrayed an unsophisticated character
who moves from Northern England to find a life for herself in London

Brenda (Tushingham) is a timid young librarian sharing a drab flat in a particularly dreary section of Liverpool with her widowed mother. It's established early on that Brenda is a fantasist who retreats from reality by writing fairy tales about a beautiful princess named Rosalba who lives in a magical kingdom with a handsome prince. Though ostensibly children’s stories she hopes one day to publish, these fairy tales are actually Brenda’s escape-from-reality fantasies of the life she envisions for herself. 
A life she peruses with avid, if misguided, fervor after one day quitting her job and informing her mother she is pregnant and moving to London to find a man to take care of her and her unborn baby. It’s a lie, of course, as the withdrawn Brenda is a virgin. But the part about going to London to find a father for her baby is accurate, if deceptively worded: in truth, she’s going to London in search of a man to have a baby with.
Tom Bell as Jimmy Lindsay
And indeed, after acquiring a tiny apartment and landing a job at a trendy boutique (where she’s squirreled away, out of sight, in the wrapping department), Brenda plunges headlong into an indiscriminate, ultimately fruitless search for a man. Her method of flirtation...approaching sundry men on the street and greeting them with a simple “Hello!” and nothing else, Tushingham comes across as a grow-up Flicker Farkel, the hyper-friendly, monosyllabic little girl Ruth Buzzi portrayed on Laugh-In.
Brenda’s prospects improve briefly when she jumps at the news of pretty co-worker Caroline (Katya Wyeth) looking for someone to share her well-trodden apartment (“She’s man mad! Non-stop men and parties”). Unfortunately, soon after moving in it becomes readily apparent that if Brenda’s palpable desperation and clumsy social skills don’t immediately sabotage her with the guys, then the competition from her stunning roommate most certainly will. 
James Bolam as Joey
After losing a potential suitor to her roommate (in Brenda's mind, anyway…the crass, unappealing fellow she set her sites on never once treated her with anything other than bored indifference) a dejected Brenda salves her sorrows with a late-night walk and comes upon a scruffy-looking dog who’s momentarily got away from his owner. Upon catching sight of the dog’s owner—a tall, impossibly blond, strikingly handsome gentleman possessed of the androgynous beauty of a fairy tale prince—Brenda does what anyone would do under the circumstances: kidnap the dog, bathe it, and, using its tag as a guide, contrive a face-to-face meeting with the owner under the guise of returning the "lost" dog.

But we have seen that these two have met before. We have been made privy to the fact that they are both childlike fantasists who retreat into nursery rhymes and fairy stories while looking for magic. So, when we learn that the dog’s name is Tinker, the young man calls himself Peter (Shane Briant), and that he wishes to call Brenda by the name of Wendy and have her move in and take care of him …we know at once that each has found what they have been looking for.

Which isn’t exactly the same thing as finding what they want.

As a teen I always enjoyed Hammer’s 1970s anthology films (The House That Dripped Blood, Tales from the Crypt, Tales That Witness Madness, and Asylum) because they were contemporary, colorful, and, like the horror comic books I read as a kid, the scares they provided were of the fun, creepy type…not disturbing.
These films always played at the Embassy Theater on San Francisco’s Market Street on some low-budget double-bill, and so always had about them the air of grindhouse. I suppose I never gave the studio the credit it deserved because to my young mind Hammer Films was but the British answer to American-International: the latter relied on to supply a steady stream of cut-rate biker and beach flicks, the former solidified in my mind as the studio that gave us cheap, accessible horror. 
Because I never really cared much for Hammer’s vampire, mummy, and Frankenstein films, the contemporary setting and departure from the norm that Straight on Till Morning represents is precisely why I found it so fascinating.
"And three days later the Princess Rosalba was married to the prince of princes who
would love her for all time. And they lived happily ever after."

Fairy tales have always been a great deal darker and more horrifying that Disney would have us believe. John Peacock's original screenplay for Straight on Till Morning employs the violence and cruelty of classic fairy tales to spin a dark fable that serves as a warped commentary on the role physical beauty tends to play in the stories written for children.

Fairy tale tradition has it that all evil people are ugly, their villainous hearts manifest in their exteriors in the form of witches, hags, ogres, and monsters. By the same token, all good and happy people in fairy tales are beautiful. Glinda's explanation to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz that "Only bad witches are ugly," is pretty much broad strokes shorthand for how things go in fairy tales. 
But by way of a narrative sleight of hand that must prove confusing to the very young, fairy tales simultaneously like to promote the notion that even with all those externally beautiful princes and princes running around, all true beauty comes from within, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and  all that glitters is not gold. A happy heart and loving soul makes everyone beautiful on the outside, and sometimes, beneath the unprepossessing exterior of a beast, frog, or ugly duckling can flow a stream of inner beauty just waiting for the kiss of love to allow it to emerge.
Brenda Beautifies Tinker(bell)
Straight on Till Morning uses this fairy tale idealism as a foundation for a psychological thriller that proposes nightmare consequences as the price paid for the avoidance of reality and retreating into worlds of illusion.
Clive is the childlike prince, loved and admired only for his looks, who comes to loathe his beauty—and in turn, all beauty—because of what beauty has done to him...left him lonely, unloved, and uncared for. Brenda is the even more naive and childlike swan princess who dreams of finding happiness with a prince whom she can love, who will love her in return, and with whom she can have a baby. Her wish is that they’ll live happily ever after in a magic kingdom of gold. But the swan princess is under an enchantment that makes everyone who looks at her only see an ugly duckling. In her loneliness, she ceases to believe herself capable of being loved, and in turn focuses all her energies on finding someone (a prince, a baby) to give love to.
Wendy Keeps Peter Happy By Telling Him Stories 

The dark twist of Straight on Till Morning is that Clive and Brenda are actually oddly, perversely well-suited to one another. But their relationship proves to be a collision of fantasies, not a union. Brenda’s fantasy, while idealized, is at least rooted in the grow-up world of romantic love and sex. Clive, while finding Brenda unpretty and therefore someone he can love, wants only a mother; someone who will take care of him, allow him to forever remain a child, and has no desire for him because of his appearance.

When Brenda agrees to move with Clive and be the platonic Wendy to his Peter Pan living together in the isolated Neverland of his apartment, she does so on the strength ofhis vague promise (“We shall see…”) that he will be the father of the baby she so desperately wants.
Clearly, both of these individuals are deeply disturbed, but it is Clive who has the homicidally dark past that makes us worry for Brenda’s safety when at last she grows frustrated with their arrangement and assumes things will improve if she can only make herself beautiful.
Pretty For You
Brenda's fatal mistake is assuming no one could love her as she is

Straight on Till Morning is an original and effectively creepy thriller loaded with strong performances, a terrific (if a tad dated) look, and many good ideas and intriguing themes. But I’d be lying if I said they’re all given the opportunity to be fully realized. Part of the problem is with the script, which seems to have perhaps too many irons in the fire and thus suffers on occasion from jarring, dissonant shifts in tone. Some of the problem is to be found in Peter Collinson’s direction.
His extensive use of close-ups proves marvelously personal and intimate (and feels wholly unnerving after a while) and makes clever, extensive use of crosscutting and flashbacks to underscore themes. But—and this may be due to my personal fondness for Rita Tushingham as an actress—I think he severely miscalculates the depth of Tushingham’s sympathetic appeal, and thus at times, the film feels unduly harsh on her pitiable character (her beauty makeover is horrific). Indeed, I’d wager that the film’s poor reception and dismissed reputation is related at least in part to the film’s overall unpleasantness and irredeemably bleak vision of mankind. 
In an extreme departure for Hammer Films, the visual style of Straight on Till Morning is strongly redolent of late '60s experimental movies. As the camera follows several concurrent stories, characters who will formally meet later in the film are shown intersecting (often colliding) in early scenes. Throughout the film dialogue and inner thoughts are accompanied by contradicting or ironic imagery reflective of their pasts or their tenuous grasp of reality.
Since I've seen the film so often, I've become aware that several scenes visually echo and mirror one another as well. For example, Brenda's roommate Caroline appears in two pivotal sequences in which her seduction of a man ends in having a cataclysmic effect on Brenda's life. Both scenes are preceded by echoing images (the poised cup and unbroken gaze) where Caroline exhibits a sexual directness completely alien to Brenda.
As a side note, I like that the character of Caroline, whose form of beauty usually accompanies a bitchy personality in these kinds of film, turns out to be one of the most compassionate and unselfish.
Peter and Wendy Grow Up

Because I think Rita Tushingham has an absolutely fabulous face, it takes a while to get used to everyone in the film taking it as a given that she is plain and unattractive. (She does, however, sport a doozy of a '70s hairdo that rivals Susannah York's in 1972s X, Y and Zee for long/short schizophrenia). An engagingly natural and appealing actress I've liked since first seeing her in A Taste of Honey,  Tushingham's participation is the main reason I was drawn to this film I'd somehow never heard of until about two years ago.
Jazz singer Annie Ross appears briefly as one of the many blowsy mother figures (make that Sugar Momma figures) in Clive's psychotic past. Ross was the singing voice for Ingrid Thulin in Salon Kitty (1976) and dubbed Britt Ekland dialogue in The Wicker Man (1973). She sings and wrote the music for this film's title tune, screenwriter John Peacock contributing the lyrics.

I've read reviews of Straight on Till Morning that simply describe the character of Brenda as timid and mention of her being a seriously unbalanced woman. This, I think, is Tushigham's triumph. She inhabits her character so truthfully, you accept the character's vision of herself (Brenda doesn't see herself as deluded or disturbed). Shane Briant gives Tushingham a run for her money in the distracting hairdo sweepstakes (those pouffy '70s hairstyles made real hair look like wigs) but is happily on course when it comes to his performance. He's really quite good as the haunted boy/man, particularly near the end when he's able to somehow plumb the sympathetic depths of an absolute monster.

I have no memory of when Straight on Till Morning hit the theaters, but I've read that it was released on a double-bill with Hammer's Fear in the Night, a nifty thriller that pairs Judy Geeson with Joan Collins doing her patented Alexis Colby bitch shtick.
With big studios getting into the horror market with polished projects like The Mephisto Waltz (1971) Straight on Till Morning was one of a crop of films released by Hammer in the early '70s intended to compete. Unfortunately, it was an outright flop and cited as one of the against-type releases that hastened Hammer Studios' ultimate demise (its final production was The Lady Vanishes - 1979).
Which is too bad, really, because I really liked the '60s vibe of this '70s movie. All brown tones and eye-catching camerawork. As thrillers go, it's plenty eventful enough for me (in fact, I wouldn't have minded if a couple of the more unpleasant scenes were shorter or excised entirely) but fans of the genre may find it slow going. I appreciated the film's deliberate pacing, finding the time spent on developing the characters allowed both for the opportunity to savor the strong performances and ample time to cover your eyes once the screaming starts.

Although Rita Tushingham has expressed little fondness for Straight on Till Morning, that didn't stop her from appearing the following year in another John Peacock-penned thriller with a fairy tale theme (playing yet another repressed librarian). This time for an episode of the BBC-TV anthology series, Armchair Theater.
Rita Tushingham as Grace in Little Red Riding Hood  1973

This essay is an entry in The 2nd Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis & Realweegiemidget Reviews. Check out the links to read about more films!
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Sunday, June 9, 2019

ALIEN 1979

When I think of the films that have given me the most memorably fun scares of my movie life, my mind goes to Wait Until Dark (1967), The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975),  The Omen (1976), and Alien. In another category entirely are the films I find frightening because they are unsettling or disturbing, but watching those kinds of movies is an experience I would describe any number of ways, few evoking the word "fun."
But seeing Alien, Ridley Scott's science fiction monster movie masterpiece, for the first time on opening day in 1979 was a fun, thrill-ride experience I've never forgotten. 
Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley
Tom Skerritt as Captain Arthur Dallas
John Hurt as Executive Officer Gilbert Kane
Veronica Cartwright as Navigator Joan Lambert
Yaphet Kotto as Chief Engineer Denis Parker
Harry Dean Stanton as Engineering Technician Samuel Brent
Ian Holm as Science Officer Ash

In my earlier essay covering Alien’s opening day at Los Angeles’ Egyptian Theater in 1979, I mentioned how I wasn’t initially all that keen on seeing the film because sci-fi flicks—like westerns, sports films, and war movies—are not generally my cup of tea. This wasn’t always the case.
When I was young, television (all three channels of it) was virtually non-stop westerns, sporting events, military combat shows, and sci-fi programmers. And broadcast movies were only more of the same. After years of exposure to these male-centric entertainments, I began to grow weary of their elemental sameness. What they all seemed to share was strict adherence to the fundamental format of your average western: evil force terrorizes a township or isolated group only to be confronted and eventually vanquished by a solitary, lantern-jawed hero (always white, always male) while the women shriek helplessly on the sidelines and the weaker men resist taking action.
Having this macho myth recycled endlessly in films and TV shows over the years may have done wonders for bolstering the egos and fueling the fantasies of adolescent boys of all ages, but the combination of predictability and patriarchal pandering only led to my developing a strong, broad-strokes antipathy toward films that fit any of the above-named genres.
But what I DO love is a good scary movie, and the advance trailer for Alien was nothing if not the promise of a good, old-fashioned fright night at the movies.
What first appealed to me about Alien was the comfy familiarity of its setting and premise. It reminded me of Creature Features sci-fi programmers like The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Green Slime (1968). Just two years earlier George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) had spectacularly updated those Saturday matinee adventure serials of the ’30s and ‘40s, so the idea of Alien being a throwback to the tradition of those space invader films of the ‘50s I used to watch on TV as a kid struck me as both welcome and promising. 
And Alien did, indeed, live up to its promise…exceeded it, in fact, by emerging as both a throwback and a work of canny originality. For all its harkening back to the sci-fi monster movies of my youth, Alien, by merely tweaking some of the more careworn clichés of the overly-familiar genre, proved that innovation doesn’t always require redesigning the wheel; sometimes it’s simply a matter of getting that wheel out of a rut. 
Described aptly (if a tad dismissively) by many critics at the time as “Jaws in space,” Alien, at least on a superficial level, does appear to be a film with but one objective: scare the bejesus out of the audience. But the means by which the film goes about achieving this not-so-simple goal is why memories of the original Alien remain indelibly etched in my mind, while the numerous sequels and prequels in the franchise all seem to converge and coalesce into one derivative, pedantic blur.

One of the smartest things Alien does is immediately establish a sense of realism via its Used Future look. Alien envisions a recognizably grungy 2122 devoid of 2001: A Space Odyssey sterility and (mercifully) lacking in self-consciously futuristic attire like bodysuits, spandex, or metallics. There’s none of the shiny optimism of Mid-Century Jetsons streamline that flatters our illusions of progressiveness. Instead, the future looks very much like industrial now.
Which leads to the next great thing about Alien’s setup.
In lieu of adventurers, space explorers, Colonial Marines or other interstellar travelers who knew the job was dangerous when they took it, Alien gives us a motley crew of laborers ill-equipped and ill-suited for the events that await them. The seven-member crew of The Nostromo, a commercial towing vehicle, are space truck drivers who…like your average working stiffs…spend their time getting on each other’s nerves, quibbling about their salaries, and griping about the quality of food. They have zero interest in anything but finishing their jobs and going home.

The characters are well-delineated in an ensemble cast sort of way, fleshed out in minimalist detail by the talented actors in a way that sidesteps the kind of war movie shorthand of Whitman Sampler archetypes that marred Aliens (1986) for me. The flinty crew of The Nostromo come across as comfortable with each other, relaxed and natural in their behavior (crucial to rooting a fantasy film in a recognizable reality), and, at first glimpse, refreshingly non-heroic.
The latter goes a long way toward infusing Alien’s disarmingly uneventful early scenes with a great deal of suspense. I like that when ordered by MU-TH-UR, the mainframe computer responsible for running The Nostromo, to investigate a possible SOS signal on a nearby planetoid, everyone is of a different mind about it. No one, not even the captain, leaps to hero mode; they do so more out of professional duty (fear of forfeiting their pay shares) than moral obligation. And since we’ve ready had a foretaste of their workplace fellowship (Parker and Brett are in a clique, Ripley and Lambert have an unexplained friction between them, nobody seems to care for Ash) throughout the expedition—from exploration to alien infestation—there’s absolutely no certainty of what to expect from any of them.

H. R. Giger’s designs for the rapidly-growing alien and that creepy derelict spaceship are as iconic as they are nightmarish, but it’s chiefly through the film’s ability to get me to identify with and relate to the human characters…to get me to see them as real and care about their fates…is where Alien triumphed and succeeding in becoming a genuinely scary movie experience. 

I know others feel differently, but when I’m watching a science-fiction or fantasy film, the details of set design, accuracy of the science, or the sophistication of special effects aren’t nearly as significant in creating a sense of verisimilitude as the characters. If the characters are written with complexity and dimension, cast with actors capable of inhabiting a role and bringing it to life with minimal dialogue and screen time, if they behave and relate in ways consistent to the character and recognizable human psychology; most any situation or setting, no matter how fantastic, can be made believable and convincingly real. (1978’s Superman: The Movie comes to mind.)

Alien is blessed with an uncommonly talented cast providing an example of ensemble acting at its best. The way each creates a full-fledged character whose life I can envision beyond The Nostromo reminds me of some of the personal, small-scale performances I’ve seen in the films of Robert Altman or Alan Rudolph.

Perhaps due to the fact that at one time or another I've had co-workers similar to The Nostromo crew and I always gravitate to the Lambert type (a little high strung), I have a particular fondness for Veronica Cartwright in this film. It’s not just that I’d behave EXACTLY like her character in this situation, but as Tom Skerritt once stated, Cartwright gives the best performance in the film. And I absolutely agree.
With Sigourney Weaver commanding the screen with assurance and staking her claim for movie immortality in this, her star-making feature film debut (not counting a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it bit part in Annie Hall), the strength of the performances of the women in Alien play no small part in it being my favorite sci-fi thriller of all time.
Jonesy the cat is cute and all, but he's a bit of a jerk
and is responsible for far too many deaths and close calls 

Not being one of those mainstream film critics of the ‘70s conditioned to ignore the contributions of Black Cinema, I was aware of both Pam Grier (Foxy Brown – 1974) and Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones – 1973) as trailblazing female action movie heroes long before Sigourney Weaver blasted that alien “The fuck out into space.”  Yet, factoring in the widespread success and influence of the whole Alien franchise, it’s hard to over-emphasize the impact the character of Ellen Ripley has had on the depiction of women in action and sci-fi films.
By now, most everyone knows that Warrant Officer Ripley was originally conceived as a man; a gender-switch regarded at the time as just another unexpected thriller twist for the audience. As it turns out, having a woman be the sole self-rescuing survivor in a traditionally male-dominated genre came to rank right up there with the hiring of H.R. Giger to design the creature as among the sharpest of Alien’s pre-production decisions. 
Having Ripley be a woman (the role allegedly not altered in any significant way in the transition) adds all manner of intentional and unintentional layers to Alien. The otherwise typical workplace resistance to authority exhibited by engineers Parker and Brett (Kotto & Stanton) plays differently when the figure of authority is a woman. And although we later learn why he acts as he does, Ripley’s interactions with Ash likely resonate with any woman who’s ever had to deal with men exhibiting frustration with having to answer to a female superior.
As this pertains to the scene where Ripley orders the infected crew members to be quarantined, it begs the question of whether or not there would have been such swift resistance to the command had it come from Dallas or Kane. 
One of my pet peeves is when screenwriters assume they have created a strong, feminist female character when they have really just created a woman who behaves in a macho manner (say, like the hot-rodding women in Russ Meyer's Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!). Sure, it's important when a woman has agency in a film and her actions propel the plot, but simply ascribing aggressive male characteristics to a woman and declaring "feminist!" only signals to me the writer has little understanding of either.

Ellen Ripley may have evolved into an action-hero type over the course of all those sequels, but in Alien she’s just a no-nonsense type, good at her job and not prone to panic. For all her resiliency, she’s an incredibly empathetic, good-hearted, and sensitive character. Just check out Weaver reactions during the chest-bursting scene…Lambert is horrified and in hysterics (again, me) but Ripley’s face (and it’s the most amazingly subtle thing) conveys both alarm and compassionate anguish for what Kane is going through.
While I fully understand the well-taken criticism, I'm in the camp that doesn't find Ripley's controversial strip to her underwear sexualizes her. It feels like a connecting link to the opening scene where John Hurt awakens from hypersleep and the camera lens lingers on him in his underwear. Both scenes emphasize the vulnerability and humanity of the characters against all that space technology.

Much in the way Twyla Tharp loose-structured dance designs made her the ideal choreographer for Miloš Forman’s adaptation of Hair, Alien (and, indeed, the entire science fiction movie genre) owes an unpayable debt to the biomechanical nightmare designs or Swiss artist H. R. Giger. 

It’s not often that one encounters the unimaginable (thank God), but Giger’s exceptionally strange, sexualized, body-horror designs for the film are what set Alien apart from any other film I’ve ever seen. The unsettling blend of the mechanical with the organic—in which both structures and organisms share the same solid/soft, vulnerable/impenetrable contrasts—transport the primal shocks of the average monster movie to places so dark (male rape, impregnation, and violent birth) you feel slightly queasy. Thank goodness Ridley Scott chose to keep shots of the fully-formed alien to a minimum, I was unnerved enough by the facehugger, the chest-buster, and the ribcage/vertebrae interior of that creepy ship they explore.
Giger's magnificent, ugly-beautiful design work, triggering subliminal impressions of sex, flesh, metal, and machine, heighten Alien's ick factor by making the unimaginable not only possible but credible. And once a horror film succeeds in making the impossible credible, you're a goner, for then you know you're in a place of the unstable and unpredictable where anything can happen.

In space no one can hear you scream.
I've intentionally left out behind-the-scenes trivia and information pertaining to the making of Alien because the internet overflows with a veritable treasure trove of information, scripts, production notes and all manner of and details relating to the production. Here are links to a few of my favorites.

"This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off."
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, May 25, 2019


The sci-fi horror thriller Alien turned 40 this year. And in that timeprogressing from sleeper hit to franchise to authentic classicRidley Scott’s 2nd feature film has enjoyed a growth cycle arguably as swift and expansive as that of the titular xenomorph itself. As a rule, science fiction tends to rank somewhere beneath westerns, sports films, espionage thrillers, and war movies in my roster of least-favorite movie genres, but Alien is a different animal entirely. An ingenious and genuinely scary update of those '50s sci-fi Creature Feature programmers I recall from my youth; Alien is a solid suspense thriller that just happens to take place in outer space. I fell in love with it when I saw it on opening day in 1979, and after all these years, after seeing it countless times, Alien still rates a special place in my heart. Just as long as it's not in my chest.

On the occasion of Alien's 40th Anniversary, 
my electronic film diary memories of Alien's opening day, May 25, 1979. 

A Cruel Summer
Alien and a then-unknown Sigourney Weaver make the June 18, 1979 cover of Newsweek

Because movies aren't created in a vacuum, because successes can't be predicted, and because I'm forever fascinated by the almost alchemical selection process by which the public responds to one particular motion picture over another; allow me to take a moment to put the release of Alien in a bit of context by taking a look at what was hitting the theaters in the summer of 1979.

The year began with new releases from favorites Robert Altman (Quintet, A Perfect Couple), Woody Allen (Manhattan), & Milos Forman (Hair). And the fall promised an original musical from Bob Fosse (All That Jazz), a romantic comedy from Alan J. Pakula (Starting Over), and the film debut of Bette Midler (The Rose). But when I looked ahead to what the summer months promised in the way of film releases, the Summer of ’79 didn't appear to be shaping up to be much of a banner season at the movies.
For those who like their big-name stars served up with as few surprises as possible, there was Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz and Barbra Streisand reteaming with her What’s Up Doc? co-star Ryan O’Neal in The Main Event (getting a significant publicity boost from La Streisand’s late-to-the-party stab at disco with the film’s theme song). That summer also saw my beloved Audrey Hepburn and Ali MacGraw testing the limits of the adage ‘Everybody loves a comeback story’ by appearing in the high-profile miscalculations Bloodline and Players, respectively.
Photo: Gary McVey
On the topic of adages (or proverbs), no summer would be complete without echoing homage paid to: ‘If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice.’ On that score, the Airport and James Bond franchises persisted with The Concorde… Airport ’79 and Roger Moore’s 4th go-round as 007 in the 11th Bond film Moonraker. Meanwhile, major industry money was riding on the sequels Rocky II and More American Graffiti (the former delivered, the latter, not so much) while somewhere in the distance Irwin Allen was squeezing the life out of the once vital disaster film genre with his unasked for Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.

For those inclined to play it safe, there were limited-engagement 70mm rereleases of both Grease and The Exorcist. For the gamblers, the summer presented a roster of television personalities making a play for big-screen gold: Charlie’s Angels’ Farrah Fawcett appearing in SunburnThree Company’s John Ritter in Americathon, and SNL’s Bill Murray in Meatballs. And if those prospects weren’t scary enough, The Amityville HorrorProphecy, and Dracula hoped to add a few chills to the summer heat.

After enduring nearly four years of hype and controversy, the film I was most stoked to see was Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. No one believed it was going to make its exclusive August 15th opening date.  

Which brings us to Alien. I wish I could say that the film that turned out to be my number one, absolute favorite movie of the summer was a film whose release I'd eagerly anticipated. That it was a film I'd read about, heard advance word about, and knew would be a hit. I wish I could. But the truth is, Alien was a movie woefully off my advance radar. Maybe it was due to other, more high-profile films hogging the publicity landscape at the time, but I have ZERO recollection of even being aware of the existence of Alien before teaser ads began to appear in the trade papers at the start of the year, and when intriguingly cryptic ads began airing on TV.
What really brought Alien to my attention was when posters for the film began to appear around town. They really grabbed me. I mean, after the PG-rated, retro earnestness of Star Wars and all that benevolent optimism in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, here was an R-rated sci-fi monster movie that held the promise of a creature that wasn't so nice.
Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley
Tom Skerritt as Captain Arthur Dallas
John Hurt as Executive Officer Gilbert Kane
Veronica Cartwright as Navigator Joan Lambert
Yaphet Kotto as Chief Engineer Denis Parker
Harry Dean Stanton as Engineering Technician Samuel Brett
Ian Holm as Science Officer Ash the Android

An Alien Encounter
I saw Alien on the Friday evening of May 25, 1979. The date was the kickoff of a long Memorial Day weekend which also happened to be the 2nd Anniversary of the blockbuster release of Star Wars. The studio 20th Century-Fox (no doubt hoping that lightning would strike twice) marked the occasion by premiering Alien, its new sci-fi release, in 70mm and Dolby Stereo at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Not an official, invitation-only movie premiere, but an exclusive engagement that had Alien was screened for 48 continuous hours over that holiday weekend, its debut feted with searchlights, towering signs, giveaways, lobby displays of props and models, and a massive scale replica of the film’s “Space Jockey” in the theater’s courtyard (Space Jockey is a name that came to stick sometime later. Then, still in the flush of Star Wars mania, many referred to it as the “Star Pilot”).  
The line I stood in was an incredibly long one that stretched west from the theater’s massive curved marquee (George Hamilton’s Dracula spoof Love at First Bite—a holdover from April—was playing in the smaller Egyptian Theaters II and III) past the London Britches blue jeans store next door (in 1927 it was the Pig 'n' Whistle restaurant), beyond Jambi’s sandwich shop, down to the Pioneer Chicken take-out on the corner, winding around McCadden Place across from the Scientology building, all the way down to Selma Avenue.
Certainly, public interest was high for any all science fiction films released while awaiting the December premiere of Star Trek: The Movie, but a contributing factor to Alien's huge turnout had to be that it had the weekend virtually all to itself. Friday the 25th also saw Mann's Chinese Theater regretting booking Peter Sellers' The Prisoner of Zenda (a film I'd wager even his fans have forgotten), and further up the boulevard headed east, minimal competition was offered by the release of David Cronenberg's The Brood.
By 1986, the sequel to Alien would open in dozens of theaters throughout the Los Angeles area, but in 1979, I only recall Alien premiering at 2 locations: the Egyptian in Hollywood and the Avco Center Cinemas in Westwood (above). As you can see, the triplex also hosted Harrison Ford's WW II bomber bomb Hanover Street and The China Syndrome.

The buzz standing in line was tremendous because, like Star Wars, Alien was an “event” movie with nary a star in its cast and a film that no one knew anything about. It was a high-concept scary movie whose marketing seized the imagination by playing up the ambiguity. With a campaign and poster designed by the same team responsible for the groundbreaking marketing campaign for Rosemary’s Baby, everything from Alien’s trailer to TV ads were all about what you didn’t know and what you couldn’t see. Similarities to the iconic 1968 Rosemary’s Baby poster could be seen in Alien’s eerie green/black color scheme, its arrestingly simple typeface, the bold graphic of a scabrous egg emitting a green vapor from a glowing crack in its surface, and that irresistible, unforgettable (now classic) tagline: In space no one can hear you scream.
Philip Gips, Barbara Gips, Stephen Frankfurt, Paula Silver, Gina Stone, Belott-Wolfson photography

A significant part of my excitement that night was anticipation born of simply not knowing what I was in for. I didn't know anything about Ridley Scott or designer H.R. Giger, and I’d never heard of a Sigourney Weaver, much less knew how to pronounce it. Everyone else in the cast was familiar in a vague kind of way from TV episodics or small roles in films. Tom Skerritt I remembered from playing Shirley MacLaine’s husband in The Turning Point (1977), Yaphet Kotto as the bad guy in Live and Let Die (1973), John Hurt from when PBS aired The Naked Civil Servant back in 1976, and Harry Dean Stanton from appearing in practically every TV show on the air in the ‘60s. Curiously enough, Alien’s biggest star and primary draw for me was Veronica Cartwright, the versatile and underappreciated actress I’d fallen in love with after seeing her in Inserts (1975), Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976), and nearly walking away with the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). 
Before Alien, sci-fi movies were a boys club genre where women were either ornamental or sat worrying on the sidelines. My initial disinterest in Alien was sparked by this teaser ad that appeared in the trade papers. It made the film look like another one of those snoozy sci-fi melodramas like Marooned or Capricorn One.

While I’ve since matured (calcified?) into the kind of person who runs in the opposite direction at the mere sight of a line forming, back in May of 1979 when I was a 21-year-old with a far more gregarious nature, the idea of waiting in a line for two hours to see a film merely added to the overall excitement of the moviegoing experience. The evening the general atmosphere on the line was genial and full of anticipation, and with no cell phones to bury our heads in while waiting, many of us joined in conversation with the folks standing near us in line, each of us comparing notes about how much or how little we knew. And what with the aforementioned Jambi’s sandwich shop and Pioneer Chicken take-out doing land-office business with patrons sitting along the boulevard eating and drinking, waiting to see Alien also felt like an automobile-free tailgate party.

A funny thing about standing in line for a new film, especially on a street as heavily traveled by tourists as Hollywood Blvd, you can find yourself seized by this foolish, decidedly silly notion that you have suddenly become part of the city's attractions to gawking out-of-towners. Just standing there amongst the Walk of Fame stars on the sidewalk and the beaming Klieg lights at the curb, you are no longer yourself, you are now "a huge line outside the Hollywood premiere of Alien" in somebody's vacation anecdote.
Photo: William Malone
Prop of the Alien Egg Chamber

Ever the eager-beaver when it came to movie opening nights, I was able to snag a primo bit of movie line real estate. A location very near the entrance to the theater’s courtyard which afforded a prolonged look at Alien’s posters and lobby cards, along with a sizable, unsettling 3-D promotional display/movie prop that at the time looked to me like rows of oozing, two-feet-tall Cadbury Crème Easter Eggs that had seen better days.

As the line progressed further into the theater’s then-roofed courtyard, things began to take on the feel of an amusement park. Following a barricaded path to the theater entrance, patrons were led through the dark, padded hallway of a spaceship when then opened out into a rather dazzling geometric room of tiny yellow lights and computer screens. This, of course, was the mainframe computer room of The Nostromo, but at the time I only had Disneyland’s Space Mountain ride as a point of reference, and that’s what it all reminded me of.
Photo: Lisa Morton
Photo: Alien Explorations
By this time I’d already begun to feel somewhat giddy with anticipation, but when the enclosed computer room opened out into the larger rear courtyard (near the Wishing Well of the Stars) I came face-to-face with a mind-bendingly bizarre structure that looked like the skeleton of an elephant fused into a chair and looking through a futuristic Planetarium projector…well, I was a goner. Neither I nor anyone else in line had any idea of what we were looking at (a ¾ scale prop of the Alien Space Jockey) but it struck me as being surreally grotesque, phallic, and utterly disturbing…in other words, absolutely gorgeous.
Photo: William Malone
At last, we were at the entrance to the theater. Regrettably, my awareness of the throngs of people waiting to get in, combined with my obsession with grabbing the ideal seat smack dab in the middle of the auditorium, prevented me from even noticing that there were more props and models from Alien on display in the lobby. I simply dashed to my seat, ignoring the snack bar and the very likely prospect of a souvenir program for sale (you can get a look at all the lobby props I personally missed at this blogger's account of the Alien premiere Here).

Upon entering the auditorium, early arrivals were given a free promotional pinback button. An item that triggered an ungrateful, inner “WTF?” response from me.
The reason is that the free souvenir button didn’t feature the film’s tagline, a picture one of those alien eggs, or even the film’s title. Any of which I’d have been happy to have. No, it was a black button approximately 2 ½ inches in diameter that simply had the words “You Are My Lucky Star” printed on a starry background. Hindsight plainly reveals this to be a very clever giveaway that patrons wouldn't appreciate until after they'd seen the film (Ripley sings the song to herself in the climactic scene as a means of calming her nerves) but at the time all I could think was what the hell did a tune from Broadway Melody of 1936 have to do with Alien
I kept my button for decades, only recently selling it on eBay
in one of my misguided attempts to unclutter my life

These days, especially here in L.A., it’s not uncommon for movie theaters to display the props and costumes of films on exhibit in their lobbies. But back in 1979 such pomp and circumstance were largely the stuff of star-studded premieres and rarely available to the public. That novelty factor is perhaps why the Egyptian put faith in the honor system and left the safety of its display items in the hands of just a few strategically-placed “Please Do Not Touch the Display” signs. When I returned to the theater the following weekend to see Alien a second time, the props had all been removed due to someone having set the Space Jockey sculpture on fire. Imagine, an extraterrestrial fossil surviving all that time on a planetoid, only to be demolished in a matter of days when confronted with the boundless stupidity of what passes for "intelligent life" on this rock called earth. 
Strange Shapes
So, what was it like seeing Alien for the very first time with absolutely no foreknowledge of what I was getting myself into? Abso-fucking-lutely A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.

What did I ultimately think of the film and what were my overall impressions?
That's for my next post. 

Happy Birthday, Alien!

Copyright © Ken Anderson