"This is the oldest skull I have," the Swiss artist H.R. Giger says, showing off this prized possession the breezy way you might a set of Fiestaware. He lifts the skull and regards it. But then his speech is breathy and halting, tender with age, as he elaborates: His father gave him the skull when Giger was 6. Later, Giger dragged it in the street behind him, tied to a string, to teach himself not to fear death.
Among the many curious things about this small moment in Belinda Sallin's Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World is how humble that skull looks beside Giger's own work, those fleshily mechanical surrealist paintings, sculptures and tchotchkes stacked and packed all over his home, his museum and the deepest fear-centers of your brain.
What's inside Giger's skull is more upsetting to most of us than the actual dead person's skull that he so casually brandishes. Death we can make sense of. But the tubing and drill bits that penetrate the skulls in a Giger painting, or the scaled tangles of wire and reptile tails?
Our response to such psycho-sexual vistas is mysterious. Giger doesn't depict the usual horror stuff, the knowable monsters, but his hellscapes feel familiar, even if you've never seen them before: Whatever seems to throb and coil in the best Giger visions also seems to do so in us. (Giger himself died in May 2014, following a fall.)
Ridley Scott's Alien steeped us in Giger's hellscapes. Now Dark Star does too, with something of the patience of Scott's slow, immersive opening reels. Sallin's camera noses through Giger's house and across his canvases, idling over details, often allowing us to investigate the work without voice-over guidance. The film feels at times like a day spent picking through a collection, and Sallin isn't shy about including the cheesy right alongside Giger's most sublime abominations: The barbed nipples of the sculpture of a woman in his garden are more God of War video game than disciplined investigation of our subconscious.
The feeling of documentary tourism peaks when the camera tools about with Giger on the oversized toy train set that he rides about his garden. Giger expresses pride that at last he has the train that he wanted as a boy, but he doesn't offer much more insight than that into all the effort and money this must have cost him. He can stir in his art an unsettling sense of recognition — that his fossil-like tech beasts might be our primal pasts conjoined to our evolutionary future, or that his wired-in faces are us trapped in our Internet now — but he sometimes seems like that kid with a skull for a toy, absurd and desensitized.
More impressive: fresh behind-the-scenes footage from Alien, on its own more scary and memorable than most of that film's sequels. And Giger's museum in Gruyères, Switzerland, and its Giger-designed bar, dominated by great arches of alien vertebrae. That museum also houses a lounge called the "Spell Room," a small chapel of inventive obscenity, its walls surrendered entirely to Giger's sensual and ridiculous mural work. Sallin captures the artist's last visit there, and he seems overwhelmed by his own creation, as moved as you might be repulsed. There's magnificence to the Spell Room, but also evidence that Giger wasn't always the shrewdest judge of his own work. He mists up before the woman he has painted, nude and spreadeagle, impaled through the crotch on the horn of a goat-headed devil, an image that's familiar in the quotidian way, like what Geraldo Rivera imagines Dungeons & Dragons to be like.
You may find Giger hacky, tacky, sexist, vain. But Dark Star reveals him as a friendly and sentimental pack rat, pals with his exes and inspiration to his friends and managers. Death metal hero Thomas Gabriel Fischer, of Celtic Frost, drops by to pet Giger's cats and gush about the artist's early support. Giger himself, in emotional interviews, still seems stunned by the 1975 suicide of his muse and lover Li Tobler. He declares that his love for her is apparent in his paintings — and then Sallin shows us Giger's slick, airbrushed rendering of Tobler's face as it's overgrown with tumors and tentacles. The art is personal, the violations — he thinks — are loving, and the film is fascinating.