In a small castle, in the medieval Swiss town of Gruyeres, I understand what Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley must have felt coming face-toface with the monster in Ridley Scott’s 1978 movie Alien. For there, crouched on a low-slung ceiling, is the same alien, teeth bared, muscles taut, as if ready to pounce. Elsewhere, a she-machine with spiked nipples and horny spine sports its long whip-like tail and a second alien, terrifyingly tall with a gnash of teeth in an eyeless head.
Frankly, it’s all a bit thrilling, and as unexpected as coming upon Museum HR Giger and its collection of Oscar-winning aliens here in this picturesque, walled city.
Decorating a small hill in the upper Saane Valley of Fribourg, in Switzerland’s west, Gruyeres has the kind of fairytale good looks you’d expect from a hilltop hamlet. It has a 13th-century castle with French garden, mountain views, cobblestone walkways and quaint woodenshuttered houses.
Huddled in its foothills is La Maison du Gruyere, a cheese factory with tours daily where golden wheels of the eponymously named semihard cheese are made. It’s the cheese popular in fondue and the dish du jour at Le Chalet de Gruyeres – a folksy restaurant in town where we sample both the classic and the moitie-moitie (half-half ).
Alien creator and Surrealist artist H.R. Giger bought the 400-year old Chateau St Germain in 1998 and immediately set about transforming the rambling edifice into a place to house his major works. He replaced the floors with so-called “biomechanical matrix” floor plates, cast aluminium engraved with computer-code hieroglyphs, and turned the interior into a dark, foreboding lair. It opened to the public in June that same year.
The permanent collection includes early sketches of the aliens, Necronomicon, the 1977 compendium of horror that first captured Ridley Scott’s imagination, artworks from the 1960s until Giger’s death in 2014 and “mechanoids”, his futuristic human-machine forms. There’s an assortment of movie memorabilia, too – a clutch of film posters, props and aliens from Poltergeist II and the Alien and Species movie franchises.
Nothing, though, prepares you for Giger’s biomechanical art.
Large in scale, some filling entire walls, the airbrushed works are explicit and disturbingly provocative. Machine-girls in various state of undress – some in lingerie, legs spread wide; with others entwined and joined to black-faced creatures. Others are giving birth to tentacled beings.
The effect, particularly in one room so narrow I’m forced to stand eyelevel mere centimetres from the knickerless splay of a machinewoman in red. Her gaze, insouciant at best, is disconcertingly erotic.
On a final lap of the museum and its proliferation of disquieting forms, I belatedly notice another “alien”. This one is quite small, behind a glass partition in the wall. It’s the Oscar Giger won in 1980 for Alien. Surreal, indeed.