StarBeast — Alien, the Chestburster
THE ALIEN, SECOND PHASE: Once the Alien (First Phase) has attached itself to the face of a victim, it lays eggs in the victim’s stomach, and the egg grows into the Alien (Second Phase). This is a small creature which bites its way out of the victim’s body.
-Dan O’Bannon, original letter to H.R. Giger
With the Facehugger dead, the crew of the Nostromo has one last dinner before returning to cryosleep; unexpected to them (besides Ash), a creature violently erupts from Kane’s chest. To first conceive the appearance of the baby Monster, Scott directed Giger at Francis Bacon’s painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). Giger told Cinescape: “Bacon did a crucifixion in , and there is a kind of beast in it that has a head that is only a mouth — Ridley said he wanted something like that. It was logical; this beast has to come out, to chew and claw its way out suddenly, unerringly.” The first concepts, however, proved to be underwhelming; Giger himself was unsatisfied, labeling them in retrospective as “chickens without feathers.” Dicken, who had been assigned the construction of the Chestburster, was also less than impressed. “To me, it looked like a plucked turkey,” he said, “a veined, repulsive-looking thing with fangs. I said: ‘you want me to make this? It looks like a turkey.’ And they said, yes, that’s what they wanted. Well, there wasn’t a need for anything very complicated, since all it had to do was force its way out of the chest and then flop onto the table; so we figured the best approach was to build it as a hand puppet, about three times life-size so I could get my hand up into the neck. Obviously, you couldn’t get something the size of a large turkey out of a human chest, but initially they were going to cheat it somehow.”
Regardless, Dicken built an initial version of the Chestburster and presented it to the filmmakers for a test. “Dicken reproduced [Giger’s first design] very faithfully,” Scott recalled. “The problem was that what looked great on paper didn’t in actuality. Dicken normally works everything like a glove puppet, and so he brought this thing in and propped it on his knee. And while he was talking, he kept moving the head around so the bloody thing kept looking back and forth across the room — from Gordon Carroll to me, and then up his nose. The whole thing was entirely comical — it looked like some kind of a plucked, demented turkey. I was frankly terrified at the thought of getting a giggle at this time in the film, so we ditched the whole concept and started again.” The Chestburster scene was a pivotal and revelatory moment in the story; the rest of the film’s success hinged on the effect the Chestburster scene had to have on the audience. A failure was out of question — a new design had to be found.
“I wanted more of a biological link between the baby, which is what we were really designing, and what the final creature would look like,” Scott said, “and I wanted it to be a very smooth object. The other was all wrinkled and ancient-looking, like some malevolent Muppet. And when it came out, I wanted it to look very rude — and totally carnivorous.” Dicken elaborated some designs in plasticine in his workshop; concurrently, Giger also tried to envision a new Chestburster.
O’Bannon commented: “he was trying to do all of them. He was, of course, working on the big one; but on his workbench he was also well underway on both the face-hugger and the chest-burster. They were exquisite pieces of sculpture, too. Better, I think, than [those] that were used in the film. Especially the Chestburster. Giger really gave that thing a nasty mouth. It was much larger in proportion to the rest of the body, and the teeth were like oversized fangs, fully extended — a set on both top and the bottom. I mean he was building something designed for biting its way out — those fangs looked like they would go through a piece of steel!”
Ultimately, however, one of Dicken’s designs was used as a base for the final portrayal of the Chestburster. “Ridley ran over to Roger’s house one day to have a look at it,” O’Bannon said. “It had a head that was pretty much a miniature version of the big one, and kind of an elaborate body with legs – like little dinosaur legs. It was just in clay at that point, and Ridley looked it over a bit and then reached out and pulled off the legs. Then he wadded up little pieces of clay like dolphin flippers and stuck them on either side behind the head, and said, ‘there — that’s it.” Also removed from the design were the black, bulbous eyes based on Giger’s early concept paintings of the adult creature.
“The final thing ended up looking sort of porpoise-like,” Dicken said of the Chestburster. ” The head of the big Alien with a tail on the end was literally all it was.” Construction of the model for the sequence it stars in proved complex, due to the slender anatomy of the creature — which Dicken could not build as a hand puppet. “What I came up with was a curved metal rod which ran down into a hand grip,” he said. “About halfway along — up where the neck would have been if it’d had one — was a flexible steel spring, and then the rest of the rod went up into the head area and then down underneath the jaw to give it strength. I ran a wire, through a series of eyelets, along the whole length of the rod and then down into a ring which fit around my finger; so when I pulled on the ring, the spring would make the front section bend over. On the front section, also, were the mechanisms for making the jaw open and the little arms move out. These were just activated by air. I ran little air tubes through the model and connected them to rubber squeeze bulbs, so all you had to do was squeeze one to activate the mechanism. There was also a little bladder inside the thing’s chest so it could breathe, and a bladder on each side of the head so the ‘gills’ would pulse. Then I ran another tube up to the mouth and connected that to a bottle of fluid, so that when you squeezed the bottle, saliva would run out. The teeth I made out of epoxy, and they were then metalized in a centrifugal vacuum machine. Everything was really very simple. What was difficult was getting it all to fit in this narrow sausage shape. It was also very difficult to hide anything. Normally, if you’ re working with a dinosaur, or something like that you can slash him open and stitch him back up- you’ve got all kinds of scales and folds to conceal whatever you’ve done. But this thing was so smooth, with hardly any detail that if you made a mistake it was damn near impossible to get inside it again without destroying it.”
A red smear of blood BLOSSOMS on the chest of Broussard’s tunic.
Their eyes are all riveted to Broussard’s CHEST as the fabric of his tunic is ripped open, and a horrible nasty little HEAD the size of a man’s fist pushes out.
Everybody SCREAMS and leaps back from the table. The cat spits and bolts.
The disgusting little head lunges, comes spurting out of Broussard’s chest trailing a thick, wormlike tail — splattering fluids and blood — lands in the middle of the dishes and food on the table — and scurries away while the men are stampeding for safe ground.
-Dan O’Bannon, Alien draft, 1976
The Chestburster was actually the first of the three Alien stages to be filmed. It demands birth in a gruesome sequence, where the creature erupts from its host and scuttles away. The set-up included cutting a hole through the dinner table, and positioning John Hurt at an angle (“in a pretty uncomfortable position,” according to O’Bannon) so that only his head and arms would be visible. A fake fiberglass chest was constructed for the key shot of the creature emerging, blended into Hurt’s neck and arms, and bolted into place. Dicken initially wanted to perform the bursting himself, maneuvering the hero Chestburster from under the table; however, Scott wanted a quick initial burst — not achievable by simple hand puppeteering — so the special effects crew decided to build a mechanical effect and a specifically designed stunt Chestburster along with it. “I made a slush rubber cast of the Chestburster — without the tail — and filled it up with plaster and put a metal rod in it, which had a hole on the bottom so they could bolt it into something. There was also a loose lower jaw with a pin through it, and a piece of wire to pull it open.”
Allder designed and built a cantilever device that would thrust the stunt Chestburster upwards with enough force; the mechanism was inserted under the cutaway table, between the underside of the fake chest and Hurt’s actual body beneath. Once the creature was rigged, the chest was filled with actual animal organs and fitted with hoses that would pump out spurts of artificial blood. To cover this set-up, a chemically-prepared white shirt was used, in order for it to withstand one punch from the mechanism before breaking. A total of six crewmembers was needed for the sequence — one operating the device, two holding Hurt in place, and two operating the blood pumps.
Besides Hurt, the rest of the cast was not allowed on set and had only read about the sequence in the scripts. “What happened on the table was, after all, just an effect,” Scott said, “and we could reproduce it as many times as we needed to get it right. It was simply a matter of fiddling with it and shooting it again and again and again until it was perfect. The reactions to it were going to be the most difficult thing. If an actor’s just acting terrified, he never quite goes over the top and you don’t get that genuine look of raw animal fear. What I wanted was sort of a hardcore reaction, and I thought it best to give the actors an edge by not familiarizing them totally with what was going to happen. So when we started the scene, all three cameras were on the actors rather than the table.” About four takes of the scene were taken due to technical issues on the shirt (which, unexpectedly, also needed cuts to be broken through).
Once the actual bursting was filmed, the air ram mechanism was removed, and Dicken operated the hero Chestburster animatronic from under the table. He recalled: “that was quite an experience. I was in overalls and goggles; there were air hoses and blood lines running all over, and John Hurt was kind of half-crammed in there. too- so we were all legs and feet and kicking each other in the teeth. I worked the pistol grip and the jaw, and various effects guys helped out with the appendages and the saliva and all. Forcing it through the pre-lacerated shirt wasn’t a problem at all because it had the metal armature running through it.” After an additional emerging shot, Hurt was removed from his position — as the following shots were close-ups of the Chestburster — allowing Dicken more freedom to puppeteer the creature.
The monster scuttles away from its gruesome birth site, something allowed by the central slit in the table. Dicken explained: “the table was a circular one, slit through the middle; and they raised one half up a couple of inches camera-side so they could shoot from a low angle without the gap being seen. I was lying on my back on a trolley underneath holding the Chestburster up through the crack; and then during the take, they’d just whip the trolley across the floor. The original tail was hanging straight down through all this. What you saw was another one I had made up which was fitted with a piece of polythene tubing, and then just simply tied around the bottom of the model and around my wrist. Effects technician Allan Bryce connected the tube up to a compressed air bottle and when the air was turned on, the tail thrashed about as the creature made its exit, knocking over cups and food containers placed along its path.” Scott originally intended to show the Chestburster slithering away, leaving a trail of Kane’s blood and pieces of innards — but had to drop filming such sequence due to a lack of time in the shooting schedule.
For more images of the Chestburster, visit the Monster Gallery.