40 Years Ago: The ‘Alien’ Cast Gets an Actual Terrifying Surprise
Ridley Scott has said that he wanted his Alien movies to "scare the shit out of people," so naturally, he decided the best place to start was by springing a terrifying surprise on the cast.
Remember how shocked you were when you first saw the "chestburster" scene from the original 1979 movie, as a presumed case of food poisoning suddenly results in a live alien exploding out of John Hurt's chest? Sigourney Weaver thought Hurt's life was actually coming to an end right in front of her.
"When we got down to the set, everyone [on the crew] was wearing ponchos," Weaver told BBC News in 2017. "Which should have made us think, 'Something is going to happen that's not usual.' But I don't think anything could have prepared us, first of all, for John's performance. I mean, it's such brilliant acting. I didn't realize he was acting. ... I didn't even think. All I thought was, 'John is dying.'"
Watch the "Chestburster" Scene From 'Alien'
It turns out none of the actors except Hurt, who almost didn't appear in the film, were informed they were about to be sprayed with real animal entrails, sheep kidneys and animal blood. According to actress Veronica Cartwright, they were only told the facehugger's "head will move, and it's going to have teeth."
To shoot the scene, Scott had Hurt positioned with his head, arms and shoulders poking through holes at the table of the Nostromo where the crew ate their meals. Hurt's midsection was mechanized and armed with a component which could spew compressed air on demand.
Scott rolled four cameras simultaneously, but the alien couldn't make its way out of Hurt's shirt. An adjustment was made and they did another take that did the trick. The animal parts and blood (pumped through a pair of hoses into Hurt's animatronic torso) started to fly, and members of the cast were in absolute shock. Cartwright was struck in the face with a strong stream of blood and passed out, while Yaphet Kotto, who played Parker, was reportedly so traumatized after filming the scene that he went home and locked himself away in a room for hours, even refusing to speak to his wife.
Though his strategy can be interpreted as a combination of purposeful and questionable, Scott believed it was necessary to get the right emotions out of the cast. "The reactions were going to be the most difficult thing," he said. "If an actor is just acting terrified, you can't get the genuine look of raw, animal fear."
"This thing came out of John Hurt's fake chest, sat on the table, looked around, went, 'Ewwwwrrrr," and ran off the table -- all in one shot," Weaver continued. "And there's a master, where all five of us are like [mimes being shocked and dumbfounded] -- and we're not acting, because we just went, 'What just happened?' It happened so seamlessly that it seemed so real."
"I wanted to scare the shit out of people. Totally, that’s the job," Scott said of the lengths he was willing to go to, and put his cast through, for real thrills during an interview with The Guardian. "It’s like if I’m a comedian, I want to make you laugh like hell. My day job is to be an entertainer. Some of it is art, but fundamentally I entertain – never forget that.”