Dead Star, and other HR Giger film projects we never got to see

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Alien artist HR Giger was involved in a number of film projects in the 1980s and 90s. We talk to filmmaker William Malone about some amazing films that never happened.

Given just how genre-defining 1979’s Alien was, it’s perhaps surprising that HR Giger, the Swiss artist who designed the title monster, wasn’t involved in more films. His creations appeared in the likes of Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), Species (1995), plus a little-seen German indie comedy horror called Killer Condoms (1996), but none were as high-profile or influential as Alien.

In the wake of that genre-defining space horror, other artists and designers tinkered with Giger’s unforgettable xenomorph in its sequels. Giger wasn’t involved in the making of Aliens, Alien Resurrection or subsequent prequels or spin-offs, and his work for Alien 3 was barely used. Instead, Giger had the curious habit of coming up with concepts and artwork for films that would ultimately never be made.

Hollywood sculptor and filmmaker William Malone, who first met Giger in 1979, tells us that even after the success of Alien, studio executives still baulked at the darkly sexual overtones in the artist’s work. “Film studios would look at his art and go, ‘I don’t know…,’” Malone says, adopting an uneasy voice.

Malone embarked on two projects based on Giger’s work in the 1980s, the first of which was expressly designed to explore the artist’s surreal, biomechanical landscapes in more depth. “It’s why I created The Mirror,” Malone says. “There’s much more of a world to explore that Giger created, it really should be seen.”

Like a handful of other projects Giger was attached to, however, The Mirror never happened. 

In the early 1970s, Giger produced several designs for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s famously doomed Dune adaptation – a failed project which at least had the benefit of leading Giger directly onto Alien. (Giger also did some design work for David Lynch’s 1984 Dune film, though only shreds of his influence made it to the screen.)

The Tourist and Dead Reckoning

One of several paintings the artist produced for The Tourist. Credit: HR Giger.

In the wake of his Oscar win for Alien, Giger became involved with The Tourist, an early-1980s sci-fi project which began as a script by writer Clair Noto. In development at Universal and later Francis Ford Coppola’s production company American Zoetrope, The Tourist was a surreal sci-fi drama about a young executive who also happens to be a shapeshifting alien. Giger produced some extraordinary imagery for it, but the film gradually sank among script rewrites, contractual issues, and a lot of bad blood among those involved.

Next came a potential second collaboration with Alien director Ridley Scott – a sci-fi thriller called Dead Reckoning. A project that coalesced around the year 1988, it began as a spec script by Jim Uhls, who’d later adapt Chuck Palahniuck’s Fight Club for director David Fincher. Set in a future Los Angeles on the brink of ecological collapse, it was about a genetically-engineered monster causing havoc on a moving train.

The script was purchased by First Blood and Terminator 2 production company Carolco, and Giger was brought in to come up with artwork for the project. Like The Tourist, though, Dead Reckoning would go through multiple rewrites and personnel changes. Ridley Scott abandoned it and went off to make Thelma And Louise; Roland Emmerich got involved, and the title changed to The Train and later Isobar. At one stage, it was going to star Sylvester Stallone.

The film never happened, though some of Giger’s ideas wound up in 1995’s Species, including an oddly out-of-place nightmare sequence in which a young Michelle Williams is glimpsed running from a bio-mechanical ghost train. That came straight from Giger’s work on Dead Reckoning, and Giger reportedly sank $100,000 of his own money into making the killer train in his studio.

As we’ll soon see, ideas from these collapsed Giger projects had a tendency to show up in other movies.

The Mirror

The Spell II – one of several paintings that would have formed the basis for The Mirror. Credit: HR Giger.

Of all the unmade films connected to Giger, the two most promising were headed up by Malone, an artist and filmmaker whose career was strangely intertwined with Giger and the Alien franchise. 

In 1977, before Alien was even released, Malone picked up a copy of Necronomicon, a book of HR Giger’s beautifully nightmarish paintings. Immediately captivated, he spent hours poring over it; when word emerged that a painting from the book would be used as the title creature for Alien, he went back through the pages and figured out which one was the likely candidate.

At the time, Malone was working at Bill Post Studios, a company that made masks based on movie licences; Malone sculpted the William Shatner mask that would later be used as the face of Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween. (“Everyplace I go, I see that damn thing,” Malone jokes.)

In 1979, around the time of Alien’s release, Malone began work on a mask based on the Facehugger. As Malone sculpted in secrecy at 20th Century Fox, Giger himself came to take a look at the work. “He started talking to me about how to do it – giving tips and so forth,” Malone recalls.

By the mid-1980s, Malone had become a filmmaker himself, having made two low-budget sci-fi horror movies with distinctly Giger-esque overtones: Scared To Death (1980) and Creature (1985). 

Afterwards, Malone began work on a project more directly modelled on Giger’s art: The Mirror. Described as “Alice Through The Looking Glass meets HP Lovecraft,” Malone’s script was about a department store worker who finds an old mirror in an antiques shop.

David Warner (pictured here in 1976’s The Omen) would have played The Mirror’s biomechanoid villain. Credit: 20th Century Studios.

“What she doesn’t realise is it’s stolen from an archaeological dig, and there are a number of people trying to look for it,” Malone tells us. Nor does the protagonist realise that the mirror is also a portal to another dimension.

“In that dimension, machines rule and not humans. They were created by humans, but humans have long since died out – [the machines] probably killed them. This takes place millions of years into the future in their world anyway. They’re trying to recreate humanity, so they’re stealing people and taking them back to that world. They take the woman who gets the mirror about halfway through the film.”

The Mirror was in production for several months at Orion Pictures, which at the time had just landed a hit with 1987’s RoboCop. Malone had licenced seven or eight paintings from Giger, which would be used as the basis for the world in the other dimension. He also had an actor lined up to play the villain: the great David Warner.

“He was one of the archeologists, and he gets sucked into the mirror early in the film and comes back as a biomechanoid sort of character,” Malone says.

With the film in early pre-production, Malone began sculpting models for the film’s creatures. During his chat with Film Stories, Malone kindly showed a couple of these: one is based on HR Giger’s painting, The Spell II, while the other is a monster of Malone’s own devising, which he calls the Earwig Monster.

Malone’s concept sculpture for one of the creatures he dreamed up for The Mirror: the Earwig Monster. Credit: William Malone.
Another of Malone’s sculptures for The Mirror, this one based on Giger’s The Spell II. Credit: William Malone.

“It’s like an HR Giger fest,” Malone says of the film. “In fact, this model here, which was going to be one of the main images, I made up as a sales tool. Also, for visualising what it would be. That was the premise of the film, and I think it would’ve been enormously successful. It probably still would be [if we made it now].”

Sadly, The Mirror never happened. Reports at the time suggested that the failure of George Romero’s chiller Monkey Shines gave Orion cold feet about proceeding with another horror film. Instead, Malone says, The Mirror fell victim to a regime change at the studio. 

“Mike Medavoy [Orion co-founder] was a supporter of the film. It was set to go into production, and then Orion got sold. Those things happen when regimes change – movies just go away.”

Dead Star

Giger’s rough concept sketch for the Devil in Dead Star. Credit: HR Giger.

In the wake of The Mirror, Malone embarked on another project: a space horror called Dead Star. As Giger once noted, its concept was essentially “Hellraiser in space”: in the 23rd century, a space expedition to a planet called Daveros leads to the discovery of an ancient alien artefact. The object, dubbed the Shard, turns out to be capable of opening a portal into another dimension (much like The Mirror, in fact), and from it emerges the Devil itself.

“You could basically go to Hell – Hell was a real place and you could go there through this Shard,” Malone explains. “In a way it was a spin on the Australian film, Dead Calm. Dead Calm set in space. This guy shows up on the research vehicle with this device and all hell breaks loose – literally.”

Where The Mirror was based on existing Giger paintings, Malone wanted the artist to dream up some new concepts for Dead Star. To this end, Malone visited Giger at his flat in Zurich, and spent about a week working with the artist on ideas for the film. Arriving in the winter of 1990, Malone discovered a vast space – actually two flats knocked into one – packed with Giger’s inscrutable work.

“It was packed with his artwork – he never sold anything,” Malone recalls. “He occasionally gave a piece away, but it was pretty rare. So stuff was stacked at least three feet deep all the way round.”

Again, Giger produced some darkly brilliant concept art for the film, not least an idea for how the Devil could look, with gigantic horns and a flowing cloak made from “living souls” as Malone described it in the book HR Giger’s Film Design

“I was sitting right next to him, and he had this pad that had about 150 sheets of paper in it,” Malone tells us now. “He was drawing so quickly he’d be flicking the paper over and I’d be going, ‘Stop! Go back one – that one’s really good!’ You’d have to slow him down a little bit. He was so fast.”

(While in Zurich, Malone also got an insight into Giger’s odd dietary habits – “the only thing I saw him eat was vanilla Yoplait yoghurt” – and ventured out for a drink with the artist at a Swiss biker bar.)

Much like The Tourist, however, Dead Star was chewed up by the Hollywood system, and what began as a low-budget independent genre film landed at MGM, where subsequent screenwriters began expanding it and moving it away from its devilish roots. 

“They kept asking me to make it bigger and more elaborate,” Malone says. “And I knew pretty much in the back of my mind: if this gets too big, one of two things happens. One is they’ll sell it to somebody and I’ll get [taken off], or they won’t be able to finance it because it’ll be too big and it just won’t get made. The first was what happened. The script kicked around for a number of years.”

Malone went on to direct the 1999 remake of House On Haunted Hill, and Dead Star eventually became Supernova, released in 2000. Its production was such a spectacular mess that it could fill a lengthy article all by itself: several high-profile filmmakers had worked on the film, with Walter Hill directing one cut. Then, in the midst of its production hell, Francis Ford Coppola was brought in to supervise a re-edit. (Hill ultimately had his name taken off the movie, which was credited to Thomas Lee.)

By the time Supernova emerged, all traces of Malone’s nightmarish concept had gone. It had also been beaten to cinemas by 1997’s Event Horizon – a space horror that, with its spiky gothic design and baroque gore that mixed metal and human flesh, contained more of Giger’s influence than Supernova did.

“That’s one of the films that knocked off my script,” Malone says. “By that time the script had been kicking around for about 10 years, and it was a favourite of a lot of people at the studios. For whatever reason they never called me up!”

Malone did, however, get at least one consolation from Dead Star. Not long after Supernova came out and flopped horrendously, Malone received a note from Francis Ford Coppola.

It simply read: ‘I wish we’d gone back to your original screenplay.”

The gothic space horror Event Horizon (1997) shares some eerie similarities with Malone’s unrealised Dead Star. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Malone remained in touch with Giger long after Dead Star, with the artist often sending letters and books through the post. 

Then, on the 12th May 2014, Giger passed away. He was 74.

“He died young – I think it was probably because of his lifestyle,” Malone says. “He was a very hard worker. I actually worried about him, because he would go in this dark room and paint using an airbrush. He had no ventilation. I told him, ‘This isn’t good. You need to wear a mask.’ And he said, ‘Oh no, it doesn’t bother me.’”

Giger’s output had slowed in his later years, although he did provide several sketches for Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus. Indeed, the artist’s fingerprints are all over that 2012 film, with the story’s premise inspired by Giger’s Space Jockey design, while the brief shot of a temple-like structure is clearly inspired by a piece of concept art for Jodorowsky’s Dune.

It’s a small echo of how Giger’s work has affected genre filmmaking as a whole over the past 45 years. The movies mentioned here were never made, but their ideas and artwork bled into the work of other writers and filmmakers for years afterwards. Indeed, it’s still rare to find an alien, monster or otherworldly environment that hasn’t drawn some sort of inspiration from Giger in some way, whether it’s in movies, TV or videogames.

Even after his passing a decade ago, Giger remains, as William Malone once said, “the greatest designer of the macabre.”

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