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Scary reading for a dark Halloween night: William Castle and Alien

by Mark Burger

“In space, no one can hear you scream.” With those eight words, Twentieth Century Fox staked its claim to one of the most successful science-fiction franchises in film history. One word said it all, then and now: Alien.

It’s the film that catapulted director Ridley Scott and leading lady Sigourney Weaver to the front ranks of stardom, and it certainly gave a boost to the careers of others involved, including British actors Ian Holm and John Hurt, the latter lucking into his role as the unlucky astronaut Kane as a replacement for actor Jon Finch, who fell ill days into the production.

Now, English author Ian Nathan has written what may be the definitive study of this landmark film series, and it says as much so in the title:

Alien Vault: The Definitive Story of the Making of the Film (176 pages; $35 retail), published by Voyageur Press.

Even the most jaded and knowledgeable Alien aficionado will be amazed by the breadth and depth of research Nathan has done. The book truly is everything you ever wanted to know about Alien but were afraid (for whatever reason!) to ask.

In addition to conducting extensive interviews with the film’s creative team, Nathan has also packed the volume with behind-the-scenes photographs (some never-before-seen) and a variety of inserts and enclosures, including reproductions of Ridley Scott’s storyboards, HR Giger’s conceptual art, sketches, blueprints, advertising materials and more.

Alien was, of course, the first movie of its kind to boast a female hero in Weaver’s Ripley, but who knew that in the original Dan O’Bannon/Ronald Shusett screenplay all the characters were originally written as men? Or that, at one point — until cooler (or more box-office-minded) heads prevailed — the alien would succeed in killing off the entire crew of the Nostromo?

Yours truly was completely unaware of these fascinating tidbits, and I consider myself fairly expert on the subject of Alien. I remember well seeing it the first time at age 11 at a second-run theater in New Jersey (now that’s scary!), and what scared me the most wasn’t the infamous “chestburster” scene wherein the Alien makes his unforgettable entrance (I knew that was coming!), but the sequence in which Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) searches for Jones the cat and instead comes face-to-face with… well, you know.

The true magic of Alien lies not in the special effects or the production design, although both are superb, but in the suspense – the awareness that something is out there, waiting. It’s the age-old tenet: Fear of the dark.

The making of Alien was not without complication. It was Scott’s first Hollywood film, and the filmmaker’s painstaking approach to detail didn’t always endear him to the Fox front office, or the cast or even the crew. Nerves were frayed, tempers were heated, and the atmosphere frequently fraught with tension. Yet as anyone who’s seen the film can attest, that intensity translated magnificently to the screen.

For more information about Alien Vault: The Definitive Story of the Making of the Film, visit the www.voyageurpress.com or alien-vault.blogspot.com.

You just can’t keep a good producer dead. William Castle (1914-77) remains one of the most beloved producers in the horror genre, having made his name with such gimmicky but profitable shockers as House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (also ‘59), Mr. Sardonicus (1961) and Strait-Jacket (1964).

His promotions including issuing $1,000 life-insurance policies for anyone who died of fright watching Macabre (life was cheaper back then); “Emergo,” in which an inflatable skeleton would fly over the heads of the audience during House on Haunted Hill (which usually inspired kids to lob popcorn boxes and other projectiles in its direction); and “Percepto,” in which selected theater seats were rigged to give an electrical jolt to the lucky(?) patron sitting there.

Castle scored his greatest triumph sans gimmicks: The 1968 adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby, which also became the producer’s biggest box-office hit. Yet it’s those gimmicks for which he is affectionately revered.

Now, Castle has “returned from the dead” with his first novel for young adults, From the Grave: The Prayer, Volume 1 (312 pages, $15.99 retail), published by Green Galactic. The story focuses on four teenagers gathered at an old house — haunted, of course — and forced to undertake a perilous journey to locate the Necronomicon, the fabled and fearsome manuscript immortalized in the writings of HP Lovecraft. The novel opens with Castle himself waking up to the realization that he’s dead… but not for long!

As the title implies, this is only the first in a series of books bearing the William Castle imprimatur. This Halloween, Green Galactic is also releasing the self-explanatory House on Haunted Hill: A William Castle Annotated Screenplay (248 pages, $24.99 retail), and, indeed, there are more Castle creations in the offing. Film producer Terry Castle, the filmmaker’s daughter, is overseeing a variety of upcoming projects… with a little help from Dad, of course!

For more information about From the Grave: The Prayer, Volume 1, visit the official Green Galactic website: www.greengalactic.com/, and you can also visit William Castle’s “personal blog” at williamcastle.com.

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