For John Hurt, dying was a great living.
The actor, who died Wednesday at age 77, often joked about how frequently he was killed off during his long career onscreen.
“The Many Deaths of John Hurt” was even a video compilation the actor highlighted on his YouTube page, displaying nearly 50 years worth of untimely demises (set to the “Baby, don’t hurt me” lyrics of Haddaway’s dance single “What Is Love?”).
But of all Hurt’s fictional expirations, one stands as among the most memorable on-screen deaths in movie history: the chest-bursting scene in 1979’s Alien.
Hurt’s character, Kane, an officer aboard the interstellar vessel Nostromo, makes an early departure from the film. He’s the first victim in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror classic, but his gruesome, grueling death makes an impression that doesn’t just last until the end of the film. It’s hard to shake – ever.
There was something Freudian about it, a psycho-sexual nightmare bathed in imagery of death that also mimicked birth. On another level, it activated the haunting notions of horror from within — the call coming from inside the house, the friend or neighbor who is revealed to be a pod person — the kind of threat from which there is no fight nor flight.
The moment arrives just as our guard is down. Kane is yucking it up with his crewmates over dinner after the apparent danger has passed. The Facehugger that launched from its pod and latched onto his face has died and fallen away, leaving no apparent lasting damage to the shaken deep-space mariner.
Then he chokes on his meal, sputtering his drink. It’s the kind of thing that makes you slap the back of a fellow diner.
But this isn’t a problem the Heimlich Maneuver can fix. The thing lodged inside him is coming out, but it’s cutting its own exit.
“There was a lot of writhing around,” Hurt recalled at the Bradford International Film Festival in 2010. “That’s easy. That’s just fun. But then, right towards the end, there’s a cut to someone, and that’s the changing point. When you come back, you only see the top half of me. I was bent double under a hole in a table, and the [fake] body was out here somewhere.”
Soon Kane is sprawling across the dining table, thrashing like a live-wire. He unleashes a single shriek as a geyser of blood jets out of his sternum.
There’s a pause as the rest of the crew exchange a silent look that could be summed up in three letters: WTF?
“The myth said they didn’t know what was going to happen. Well, of course they knew what was going to happen because they read the script,” Hurt said. “But they didn’t know how it was going to happen.”
Then a tent pops up in the dying Kane’s crimson-stained shirt and an erection-shaped creature with a tiny, mewling mouth of razor-sharp teeth erupts from his core. Lets out a scream of its own, and scampers away — the parasitic larva that will metamorphose into a predatory Xenomorph.
Hurt was the only actor in the film fully aware of what would happen during that sequence. Sigourney Weaver and the other actors were kept offset as Hurt was rigged into his dummy body, with designer H.R. Giger’s chest-bursting baby alien prepped for launch within.
That WTF? expression they share – it wasn’t acting as much as re-acting. Obviously, they knew an alien would pop out of their costar, but no one was fully prepared for the shower of gore, fake blood, and old meat. (Except for the camera crew. They were prepared, and their plastic-wrapped gear might have provided a hint of what was coming.)
Or as Hurt put it: “They should have guessed something was going to happen.”
After one take when the alien didn’t puncture the shirt, a false sense of security took hold. The actors got closer, unaware there were small blast caps embedded in the dummy beneath Hurt, and a pump for turning the blood into a torrent.
Hurt remembered the process as less than terrifying, which also lulled the other actors. “The actual burst-through was on the end of a stick. One prop man under the table was pushing, ‘Is it coming through yet, Alf?’ ‘No, Eric, I can’t see nothing!’ ‘Hold on, Alf … is it coming through yet?’ ‘Yeah, that’s more like it! Push it a bit harder!’”
Then – the horror…
The little creature ripped through in a shower of horror as Hurt twitched slightly. One plume of fake blood nailed actress Veronica Cartwright in the face, causing her to panic, stumble to the ground, and then scramble to get back on her feet for the rest of the scene. (That made the final cut for sure.)
“Oh man! It was real, man. We didn’t see that coming,” costar Yaphet Kotto told Empire magazine in 2009. “We were freaked. The actors were all frightened. And Veronica nutted out.”
So did moviegoers. No one has recovered from that thing. Even Oscar took notice. Alien won the Academy Award for best visual effects, it’s only trophy.
Hurt was not recognized for that performance (he had been nominated the previous year in the supporting category for Midnight Express, and would be nominated the following year in the lead category for The Elephant Man).
His character in Alien was short-lived, but thanks to that unforgettable death – he remains immortal.
And of course, he totally made fun of it a few years later in 1987’s Spaceballs. “Oh no, not again …!”