It was summer of 1979, I was five years old and two years into my Star Wars fandom. My mother dropped my sister and I off at Grandma and Grandpa’s house to stay the night. Mom and Dad were going to see the new film Alien. I don’t remember being disappointed about not going to the movie. I was only five and Alien was a very hard R. Plus, I always liked staying at my maternal grandparents house.
The story of my parents’ first experience with Alien is part of the family lore. Dad loved it. Mom spent most of the film’s running time sitting in the lobby. She bolted right after the infamous Chestburster scene.
“I didn’t want to be in the same room with that thing.”
The idea that there was a movie that was powerful enough to rattle my mother was very interesting to me. The film’s marketing campaign was also interesting.
In the late Seventies, movie studios were still trying to figure out how to market blockbuster movies to kids. After the success of Star Wars and the associated toys (of which I owned several), Twentieth Century Fox wanted to capitalize on the box office success of Alien. In their minds, Star Wars and Alien were both science fiction and therefore the same. Never mind the fact that Star Wars was fun for all ages and Alien, as stated above, was a very hard R.
Therefore, the powers that be thought that it was a great idea to market toys to children that were based on a film that they couldn’t see. Kenner, who was responsible for the successful Star Wars toy campaign, released a 12-inch figure of the alien and a board game. Neither of these products were on the shelves for long because parents loudly complained to stores and Kenner. Plans for 3 3/4” figures were abandoned. I don’t recall ever seeing the game or the figure in the wild.
Another product that was popular with kids back in the day was bubblegum cards by Topps. This worked really well for Star Wars, so they tried it for Alien. For some reason that is lost to the sands of time, my mother bought me one pack of the Alien cards. I don’t know why, but I am glad that she did, because this is what kickstarted my fascination with the film.
I vividly remember five of the cards. Two of them, shown below, were publicity shots of Ian Holm and Sigourney Weaver.
Two other cards depict John Hurt’s character Kane in very different moments. Looking at it now, I am amazed that the first card shown below ever saw the light of day. It shows part of the infamous Chestburster scene. Granted, you can only see part of the blood stain and the actual hole in Kane’s chest is obscured by Parker. Still, this was not appropriate for a five year old to have.
I also don’t understand why my mother never bothered to look at the cards, especially after her experience with the film. Given my history with horror, you will be surprised to find out that this didn’t scare me or give me nightmares. I didn’t know anything about the Chestburster scene, so I had no context for the first card was showing me. It just piqued my curiosity.
The last card that I remember owning is the best of the five – The Space Jockey. This is the card that I spent of lot of time studying. The Space Jockey was responsible for launching my imagination into the stratosphere. What is that thing? A fossil? A pilot? And look at how large it is compared to the astronaut. I wanted to see this thing in action. The Space Jockey remains one of my favorite images and is a high watermark in film design.
A few years later, my sister and I spent a few days with my paternal grandparents. Early in the trip, Grandpa took us to the library. I made a b-line to the science fiction section. One book stood out to me amidst the stacks of science fiction classics: A L I E N.
During the Seventies, publishers used to release “movie” novels. These are distinct from the usual tie-in novelizations. The movie novel reprints stills from the film in chronological order. Think of a comic book that uses still frames from the movie instead of art. The library had the movie novel for Alien. I couldn’t believe my luck. I grabbed it off the shelf. I was still too young to watch the movie, but this was the next best thing.
I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to check the book out, so I had to make the most of my time and look at it in the library. I excitedly scanned through each page. The images were incredible. I got a really good look at my Space Jockey. The Facehugger, shown below, was a new one to me and I didn’t know what to make of it. And the Derelict spacecraft was eerie and cool.
Then I got to the big moment: the Chestburster. My heart was racing. It was gruesome, bloody and I couldn’t believe or understand what I was looking at. There is a book in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories called the Necronomicon, which is a tome of forbidden knowledge. That is exactly what the Alien Movie Novel felt like to me at that moment. I knew that I shouldn’t be looking at that book, but I couldn’t look away. I was mesmerized. Unfortunately, my time at the library was ending so I had to stop at the Chestburster scene.
Looking back, the one thing that surprises me is that I wasn’t scared by any of this. I was fascinated and I wanted to learn more. I needed to see that movie. I knew that a full court press with my parents wouldn’t work because I was still too young.
So I waited.
Around the same time, when I was in the fourth grade, my parents were thinking about loosening my viewing restrictions and letting me watch certain R-rated movies. They told me that they were willing to experiment and let me watch Saturn-3, a science fiction film starring Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and a young Harvey Keitel. If I could handle it, then I would be allowed to watch other R-rated movies of their choosing.
I was excited! I let everyone at school know that I was going to see my first R-rated movie. The night came and we watched it. The movie was ok. It isn’t one of the bedrock foundational science fiction films and I have never felt a desire to revisit it. The important thing for me is that Saturn-3 was a right of passage. I was now in the R-rated movie club.
Two years later, Twentieth Century Fox finally released Aliens, the long awaited sequel to Alien. I was in the sixth grade. This was when I started the full court press to my parents. I wanted to see Alien. I was ready.
My parents said no.
When I was in the eighth grade, my family moved and I switched schools. Many of my new classmates had already seen Aliens and were quoting a lot of the dialogue from it. I was jealous, because I still hadn’t seen it. I stopped bothering my parents about Alien, because I wasn’t getting anywhere with them.
Then, one Saturday morning, Mom was going out to run errands. I wanted to go with her, but she told me to stay home with Dad. When Mom got home a few hours later, I noticed that she had two VHS tapes from the local video store. When I tried to peek at the titles, she told me to wait for her in the living room.
Mom rented Alien and Aliens for me to watch with Dad.
My time had finally come!
This is, by far, one of the best double features that I ever watched. This was before HD and widescreen televisions, so I was watching a square pan and scan image. But it didn’t matter. I was enthralled. The Space Jockey was everything that I hoped for. The Facehugger was a great jump scare. The Chestburster was brilliantly gnarly. The rest of the film was absolutely thrilling.
I was hooked.
I also liked Aliens, which is a terrific action-adventure thriller.
However, my favorite is still Alien. It is tied with Blade Runner as my all time favorite film. I have spent the decades since that blissful Saturday studying the film. I have many books in my library about the making of Alien. I have purchased many iterations of Alien on home video. As shown in the pictures below, my office desk is littered with Alien memorabilia. My wife commissioned Ben Templesmith to create the Alien in watercolor for me.
I tracked down a used copy of the Alien Movie Novel online. It is now a part of my collection. It brings back a lot of fond memories. I rewatch the film at least once a year.
Best of all, my Alien fandom lead me to my wife.
Back in 1997, I was attending Michigan Technological University in Houghton. It’s located about as far north as you can get in the Upper Peninsula. Anyway, I was in the middle of obtaining my Bachelor’s Degree and staying in one of the dorms. I was on my way back to my room from class and passed by a beautiful woman. I had never seen her before and wanted to introduce myself. However, I was not bold and somewhat self-conscious, so I kept on walking.
Throughout the coming weeks, I kept seeing her around the dorm. One day, I went to lunch in the cafeteria and found her sitting with some mutual friends. I got my food, sat down, introduced myself, and commenced with eating and listening. She was talking about how she was looking forward to the new Alien film Alien Resurrection. She was excited because it was going to be directed by Jean Pierre Jeunet the director of City of Lost Children.
I thought that I was one of the only people who knew about City of Lost Children, to say nothing of the fact that there was this beautiful woman who was eagerly awaiting the new Alien film like I was.
I am not exaggerating when I say that cartoon birds were floating around my head while Vivaldi’s Spring played.
(Sidebar: We saw Alien Resurrection separately during a break from school. It was a profound disappointment, one of the worst films in the series, and easily Jeunet’s worst film. My wife said, “Jean Pierre Jeunet betrayed me”. He ended up getting his mojo back with his next film, Amelie.)
We ended up having breakfast together every morning for the remainder of the school year and became good friends. It turned out that her parents are from the same area as my maternal grandparents, so we knew about the same places.
After we graduated, we ended up living near each other and hung out. The Director’s Cut of Alien played at one of the local AMC theaters and we went on opening night. I finally got to see one of my favorite movies on the big screen. And, I got to see it with one of my favorite people in the world. I was transfixed. My wife spent most of the running time with her face buried in my armpit.
The rest is history.
And it all started with a pack of bubblegum cards in 1979.