H.R. Giger, artist who designed the creature in the 1979 film ‘Alien,’ dies at 74


Swiss artist H. R. Giger in 1981 with some of his artwork. Giger died on May 12 at 74. (EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY)
May 13

H.R. Giger, a Swiss artist who designed the nightmarish creature that takes over a spacecraft in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film “Alien,” attacking the helpless crew in what has become one of the most admired horror and science-fiction movies of all time, died May 12 in Zurich. He was 74.

He had injuries from a fall at his home in Zurich. Members of his family confirmed his death to the Swiss broadcasting network SRF.

Mr. Giger’s surrealistic monster — part dragon, part machine, part erotic fantasy — helped “Alien” win an Academy Award for best visual effects. His eyeless monster is a vision of pure malevolence, with an elongated head and neck, a powerful tail and two pairs of jaws with tyrannosaurian teeth.

It was a “perfect organism,” in the words of the doomed spacecraft’s science officer, played by actor Ian Holm. “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

Before directing “Alien,” Scott had seen a copy of Mr. Giger’s 1977 book, “Necronomicon,” a collection of elaborately drawn artworks of otherworldly figures, fusing mechanical and biomorphic shapes. Mr. Giger’s images, often painted by airbrush, have a way of evoking terror and dread, of being revolting and seductive at the same time.


Sculptor Emma Pryke looks into the jaws of part of the monster used in the film “Aliens.” Swiss surrealist designer H.R. Giger won an Oscar for the monster he created for Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” (Johnny Eggitt/AFP/Getty Images)

“I nearly fell over,” Scott told London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper in 2012.

One of the producers of “Alien,” after seeing Mr. Giger’s art, reportedly said, “This man is sick.”

But when Scott received the assignment to direct the movie, he immediately knew his designer would have to be Mr. Giger: “I’d never been so certain about anything in all my life,” he said.

The film, based on a story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, takes place aboard the Nostromo, a commercial spaceship returning to Earth in a future century, with tons of minerals. At one point, an egg hatches into the alien creature. In its fully adult form, the monster was portrayed by a 7-foot-2 student wearing a specially made costume.

Alien” was only the second feature film for Scott, who went on to direct “Blade Runner,” “Thelma & Louise” and “Black Hawk Down.” It made a star of actress Sigourney Weaver and in 2008 was ranked by the American Film Institute as the seventh-best science-fiction film of all time. But, in a real sense, the movie’s most dominant character was Mr. Giger’s unsettling creature.

“I loved the script, but on one level it was a B-movie,” Scott told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2003. “The monster has to be great, otherwise, you haven’t got a good film. We got a great monster, and I never questioned anything else.”

In perhaps the film’s most shocking scene, the embryonic monster comes to life by bursting through the chest of one of the crew members of the Nostromo, played by John Hurt. The scene was shot in a single take, but the cast was not fully informed of what to expect. The special-effects department had filled a box with animal entrails and offal acquired from a butcher.

At the precise moment when the slimy creature emerged, an air cartridge was released, causing the exploding viscera to splatter the cast and crew. The screams heard in the film were real.

“Afterwards, I saw different cast members sitting in different solitary places,” one of the actors, Yaphet Kotto, told the Star-Ledger. “It took me three or four days to get over it.’ ”

Hans Rudolf Giger was born Feb. 5, 1940, in Chur, Switzerland. He said he had a carefree childhood, but he did deliver leeches for his father, a pharmacist, and often visited a local museum that displayed a mummy.

Mr. Giger studied architecture and industrial design at a college in Zurich and became a full-time artist in the 1960s, influenced by the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, fantasy artist Ernst Fuchs and the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.

Mr. Giger’s longtime girlfriend and frequent early model, Swiss actress Li Tobler, committed suicide in 1975. A later marriage to Mia Bonzanigo ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Carmen Scheifele-Giger, who is the director of a museum devoted to Mr. Giger’s art in Gruyeres, Switzerland.

In addition to his work on “Alien,” Mr. Giger also contributed designs to “Poltergeist II” (1986), “Alien 3” (1992) and “Species” (1995). He and Scott revisited the “Alien” franchise in 2012 with the film “Prometheus.”

Mr. Giger was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2013 and has been a lasting influence on filmmakers, science-fiction painters and tattoo artists. He also designed furniture, jewelry and the interiors of two Swiss bars that bear his name.

He created many album covers, including Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Brain Salad Surgery” (1973) and Debbie Harry’s “KooKoo” (1981), as well as a custom-built microphone stand for Jonathan Davis, lead singer of the heavy-metal band Korn.

In a rare interview, Mr. Giger said he was once stopped by customs agents in the Netherlands who thought his paintings of body parts and other hyper-sexualized images were photographs.

“Where on earth did they think I could have photographed my subjects?” he said. “In hell, perhaps?”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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