John Hurt hurts…
Ared stain. Then a smear of blood blossoms on his chest. The fabric of his shirt is ripped apart. A small head the size of a man’s fist pushes out. The crew shouts in panic.” Five sentences is all it took for screenwriter Dan O’Bannon to make movie history, but the making of Alien’s indelible chestburster moment is almost as legendary as the scene itself.
Shot at Shepperton Studios in the latter half of 1978, legend would have it that Ridley Scott kept his cast clueless about the fate of John Hurt’s Kane. But this is only partly true: Sigourney Weaver and Veronica Cartwright had a sneak peek of the baby xeno in the special effects department, while Tom Skerritt spied on the crew as they set up the shot. And they all had O’Bannon’s five sentences. But Scott, sensing this was his film’s make or break moment, kept some tricks up his sleeve…
The 135-second sequence was captured across two setups, with four cameras constantly running. In the first, the crew of the Nostromo try to restrain a violently convulsing Kane. Between setups, the cast were kept away for hours as SFX supervisor Nick Allder and his team stuffed a fake Kane torso with offal acquired from a local abattoir, and preserved with formaldehyde. Cartwright compared the stench on set to an operating room.
If the cast weren’t already on edge when they were finally brought back, the clear plastic now covering cameras and crew must have set alarm bells ringing. On the first take, the hydraulic ram-mounted puppet failed to rip through Kane’s blood-soaked shirt. Tension was now at breaking point. All the while O’Bannon and co-writer Ronald Shusett watched from the wings, giggling like kids at Christmas.
During the second take, the chestburster successfully ruptured Kane’s shirt, but a blocked pipe left the scene curiously bloodless. The surprise spoiled, Scott instructed Allder to add a second pipe pointed at the cast, and turn the pressure up to 11. Receiving a jet to the face, Cartwright’s horrified reaction is anything but acting.
It’s this authenticity that makes Alien’s chestburster scene special. Scott had nurtured an environment that encouraged his cast to react with tangible terror, making it more than simply a conceptually horrifying technical marvel. Not bad for five little sentences. JF