Sigourney Weaver Leads An Alien Box-Office Invasion

updated 09/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1986 01:00AM

For gore gourmets who like to feel their stomachs churn and their lungs contract into screams of terror, this was a landmark summer. Zombies, vampires, killer trucks, slashers and a man who turns into a fly added thrills to more than a dozen films. But the season also brought something unexpected to the horror genre: class.

You can see it best in Aliens, a sequel that not only improves on the original 1979 Alien, but offers again the imposing figure, intelligent brow and impressive acting talent of Sigourney Weaver. As the warrant officer super heroine Ripley, Weaver prevails against the most relentless monster attack in screen history. Some call her a female Rambo. Bah, says Sigourney, who sees Ripley as a triumph of mind over muscle: "I play her like Henry V." The heavy weaponry in the film embarrasses the actress, who admits to being "an active member of an antigun lobby."

What raises Aliens above its predecessor is the humanity that Weaver brings to her role. No longer a single woman out for herself, she's now a maternal warrior fighting for the life of a child, the survivor of an early alien attack. Weaver's impassioned battle has attracted audiences who'd never dream of attending a lesser creature feature.

Initially, Weaver had no interest in repeating her first starring film role. It seemed a step back for an actress who had since gone on to co-star with William Hurt in Eyewitness, Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously and Bill Murray in Ghostbusters and picked up a Tony nomination for her 1984 Broadway debut in Hurlyburly. "Why should we do this movie?" Weaver asked director James Cameron. The promise of playing a more fully rounded character and the million-dollar salary (compared to $35,000 for Alien) convinced her. On the set Weaver fought hard for character vs. special effects, demanding that Cameron reshoot scenes that didn't please her. "I'd make her sign in blood that it would be the last take," he says.

Midway through the four-and-a-half months of 14-hour workdays, the cast and crew also discovered Weaver's lighter side. Says her leading man Michael (The Terminator) Biehn: "She was a crack-up during one monster sequence when this phallic-looking thing is held three inches from her nose. I've never seen expressions like that." As most of her co-stars fell prey to deadly aliens, Weaver sent them flowers and usually a funny note of condolence.

Susan Weaver learned such social skills growing up in New York City as the daughter of former NBC president Pat Weaver and British stage actress Elizabeth Inglis. As a 5'10½" teenager, Susan changed her name to Sigourney (a character in The Great Gatsby) because she thought that it better fit her height. Ballet lessons, ski trips, private schools, a stint as a campus radical at Stanford and three grueling years at Yale Drama School helped her develop tastes that usually favor endeavors more refined than monster movies. She has just finished a one-week run (at a paltry $389 a week) playing Stella opposite Christopher Walken's Stanley in the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Her desire to do serious theater led her to take the role. Being near Jim Simpson, 30, her husband of two years and a director of the festival, was another reason. "The most important thing is being married," says Weaver, 36.

Still, there's work to do. She has two fall films (Half Moon Street and One Woman or Two), and there's talk of a sequel to Ghostbusters, which pleases her greatly. Sigourney, the serious actress, is really a frustrated comic eager to cut loose. "That's the best part of me, the crazier part," she says. There's also a blossoming maternal instinct, perhaps a rub-off from her mother-protector role in Aliens. In the Manhattan apartment she shares with Jim, Weaver points with pride to an antique toy box. "There is nothing we want more than kids," she says. A shake of the head answers the obvious question. Not yet, says Sigourney, "anticipating."

The man who moves monsters

Her real name is Horribilis Regina, the Queen of the Aliens, but Sigourney Weaver finds the best way to describe the 14-foot monster she battles in the climactic scene of Aliens. "You bitch!" snarls Weaver, and movie audiences cheer in agreement.

Those same crowds might develop another opinion of Regina if they knew the real monster. Away from the cameras this Hollywood terror becomes an empty shell, completely at the mercy of a quiet man who controls her every move. He is Stan Winston, the special effects whiz who transformed Arnold Schwarzenegger into the Terminator, created the monsters in this summer's Invaders From Mars and won an Emmy for making Cicely Tyson age to 110 years in 1974's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Though he and his staff of 40 spent eight months preparing Regina for the screen, Winston, 40, politely bestows the credit on his featured creature. "Regina is a great actress," he says, "and she performed well."

Regina entered Hollywood as an idea of James Cameron, who asked Winston to transform his rough sketches of the alien queen bee into sculpture. She became what Winston calls "a living work of art" after his crew recreated the sculpture in rubber and polyurethane (estimated cost: $1 million). In no time the Alexis Carrington of the alien set learned how to use Winston's crew to her advantage, particularly when it came to helping her act. Sometimes they suspended her entire body by crane. They used hydraulic power to activate her head, neck and torso, and Winston's 14 assistants used cables to operate her facial expressions and sets of hands. The arms were operated by two men, the legs by cables, and the tail was controlled hydraulically and with wires. "I haven't seen anything to date that equals her technically," says Winston. "She's a state-of-the-art enormous puppet."

The next step for Winston was fathering Regina's alien tribe. He was convinced that it would be incredibly tacky for such a class-act female to have henchmen who looked like humans in rubber suits, so he structured eight-foot alien warriors in skinnier-than-human molds and operated the beasts by cables. Their fearlessness also made them fitting companions for Regina. Says Winston: "For some reason, our human stuntmen don't want us to blow them up." Operated by radio and cables, alien puppets jumped in front of truck wheels and into exploding bombs at Winston's bidding.

At times Winston went all out to make Regina's clan look smarter than the average spacelings. The crablike face-hugger creature, so menacing in the original Alien, totally lacked versatility. So Winston built 15 of them, each with separate capabilities, and, operating most of them by cable, made them look like one creature. "It was a rather unique pull-toy," he says.

Word has it Regina only agreed to work with Winston because his background fit her requirements. Growing up in Virginia, Winston planned at first to become a dentist. (Notice Regina's fine set of choppers.) At 13, he and a pal made their first monster home movie. "I changed into a werewolf and my friend became Dracula," says Winston. He moved on to more sophisticated interests—painting and sculpting—as a fine arts student at the University of Virginia. Winston later headed for Hollywood to try acting but got sidelined into a Disney Studio makeup apprenticeship. Though he left Disney in 1972, Winston never broke from behind the scenes in 17 years of filmmaking.

Winston credits Regina's colleagues with some of her success. "If a movie has a terrific creature and no story or poor acting or poor direction, it never works," he says. Sigourney Weaver refused to mingle with Regina offscreen so that she could feel the full force of battle when they met before the cameras. "It's the emotion, not the monster, that is scary," says Winston.

Despite Regina's current fame, she must, like most stars, face the problem of what to do for an encore. Meanwhile she no longer looms as the central figure in Winston's San Fernando Valley studio, where other past creatures line the walls in various stages of bloody destruction. The Winston troops now spend their days primping a rubber creature called Miss Venus, who will compete in an intergalactic beauty contest on NBC's Amazing Stories. With no disrespect to Regina, Winston doesn't mind moving on, as long as it's in the right direction. "I've been fortunate to steer away from slasher and maniac movies," says Winston, who is married and the father of two. "My films always revolve around some fantasy element. That's why I can sleep at night." With visions of vicious Regina in their heads, A liens watchers who don't know her personally may be forgiven for feeling differently.

Grace Jones gets a taste for blood

Few people could carry off with grace the truly tasteless transformation required of the leading lady in Vamp. But Grace Jones, 32, who has packaged her beautiful body in some pretty strange outfits in past years, was a good enough sport to give it a try. "I didn't want to look at myself in the mirror," says Jones, "because I thought I would have nightmares."

Spending four hours every day for six weeks to get into her makeup and an hour and a half to get out of it, Jones donned "big contact lenses to make my eyes white so I could hardly see. Because I play a 2,000-year-old vampire, they made my skin sort of wrinkly and added pieces to my nose, jaw and forehead to make me look like a cross between a bat and a human." Jones was attracted to the role for the fun of it. "Putting on that makeup is a way to laugh at my normal face," she says. She also liked bringing some style to horror. "I'm the first narcissist vampire," says Jones, whose deadly lair was decorated with portraits of her by Keith Haring and Andy Warhol.

Despite the discomforts, Jones enjoyed the scene where she uses co-star Robert Rusler's neck as a midnight watering hole. "My blood was black and chocolate," she says. "Robert's red blood was sweetened with something. It was sort of icky-yicky, but it tasted good." Rusler claims that Jones actually nicked a piece of his neck in her zeal. "My fangs were supposed to fit right into two holes already in his neck," Jones says. "But it was hard to judge the distance so I bruised him a bit." She adds with a laugh, "I tell you, he loved every minute of it."

Charles Pogue stuns as a one-man double feature

Jeff Goldblum contemplates a shriveled ear that falls off his head, Anthony Perkins attacks a young woman in a toilet stall, and all across the country millions of people ask themselves: What kind of maniac would write this stuff? In the case of The Fly and Psycho III, the answer is: Charles Pogue. "What appeals to me about both stories," says Pogue, 36, "is man confronting his darker side or the beast within him and trying to keep some vestige of his humanity."

Considering that Pogue made his living until 1980 as a Texas-based stage actor and that The Fly and Psycho III are his first two Hollywood screenplays, you might say the guy has a flair for fright. Though Pogue had written for TV, making a horror movie did not come easy. One trial was sacrificing his ideas to please his cohorts. In Pogue's Psycho III script, the camera never focused on a murder in progress. But the producers felt otherwise: "They had to make it more shocking for today's audience," he says. "They had to show the blood."

Director David Cronenberg took many more liberties in rewriting Pogue's The Fly, which is off to a sensational $15.6 million start at the box office and looks to be second only to Aliens as the summer's top goose-pimpler. "The plot is still pretty much mine, but he changed the characters," says Pogue, who never met the director. Though Pogue has some quibbles with the final version, he disagrees with Vincent Price, who starred in the original Fly in 1958 and has said that the new film is too realistic. "They should have left more to the imagination." Pogue says Goldblum's metamorphosis from man to fly had to be graphic. "People remember the original Fly fondly because of that awful 'Help me, help me' at the end. The rest of it hasn't aged very well."

Proud as he is of his work, Pogue wishes parents would keep their kids away from it. "I'm tired of adults expecting the movies to baby-sit," says Pogue. "When I was a kid there were things I could not see. That's why I never saw the original Psycho till I was 17 or 18. Now I see parents bringing 5-year-olds to Psycho III. It bothers me that they are so irresponsible."

He thinks that even adults ought to choose their gore judiciously. "Horror is based on fear of the unknown," says Pogue, now writing a film noir mystery and an interplanetary swashbuckler for Disney. "That's why people on a hot summer night still pull a sheet over themselves. They just don't want to lay there exposed. What's scary about Psycho shower scenes is that the victim is confined, nude and defenseless. Seeing that same woman with her liver impaled on a fire poker may be awful or shocking. But it's not scary. Good horror doesn't make you throw up your popcorn because you've been grossed out. It's that slooooow sweep up the spine that makes your flesh tingle and gives you that involuntary shudder."

Friday's six faces

Back in the old days, when monsters still had faces, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney earned fame with their scary mugs. But even though Jason, the most famous zombie in a decade, has returned to kill, kill, kill in Friday the 13th, Part 6, few of his fans could recognize the face under the makeup or behind his famous hockey mask. "Nobody believes me when I tell them I was Jason," says Ari Lehman, 21, who played the original killer in 1980. At 15, Lehman was still short enough to play the 12-year-old Jason. He is greeted with even more skepticism when he mentions the role today. "It's like saying I was Frankenstein or something."

Making Jason such a maniac took the kind of forbearance that deserves some credit. The six actors who have portrayed him each spent up to eight hours per day donning the grotesque face that helped the six Friday films gross an astonishing $170 million to date. In Lehman's film, Jason was a mongoloid camper whose death by drowning led his grieving mother, played by Betsy Palmer, to commit wild murders. Stuck in frigid water for hours wearing nothing but a jockstrap, Lehman had to dredge up lake muck and rub it on his face before rising from the water as a zombie. No wonder he gave up acting. He now plays keyboard and sings with the New York City dance / funk band, Max Groove.

Francis Warrington Gillette III, 27, an investment banker, found his brief acting career as the second Jason no more appealing. "Everyone would leave for a meal, and I'd sit alone in the woods," he recalls. "I couldn't eat through the makeup. When they came back, I was pretty pissed. So it was easy to break through a window and grab some young girl around the throat. I was in the frame of mind to kill somebody."

For Richard Brooker, 31, a lighting technician, part-time actor and circus trapeze artist, a Hollywood debut in the 3-D third installment was much easier: "The director said, 'Don't ever come up to me and ask me about your motivation as an actor. You have no motivation. You have no reasoning. You just do it. You're like the shark in Jaws.' "

Ted White, 50, a character actor who once worked as a stunt double for such stars as Clark Gable and John Wayne, chose to keep his name off the credits in the fourth Jason epic, and he turned down two further offers to play the part. "Once was enough," he says. But the 6' 4", 225-lb. White admits he got some laughs from the role. Once he wandered away from the canteen truck at night and ran into a couple of stoned hippies walking down the highway. "They stopped dead in their tracks," he says. "I heard 'em falling over brush for 10 minutes screaming and yelling."

Richard Wieand, 41, one of the few Jasons who had dialogue, felt slightly put off by his audition to play the fifth killer. The director told him to stare at an empty desk and react as if he saw his own son lying there hacked to bits. "When I put on Jason's clothes, I felt strange, like I had lived other lives," says Wieand, now acting in commercials and on soap operas. "I didn't belong in his shoes because I'm absolutely not a scary person."

C.J. Grahm, 29, the star of this summer's installment, took the role as a challenge. "I practiced walking in front of a mirror just to make sure I had that powerful look," he says. "I didn't want to walk like Shirley Temple going through the tulips." Now back at his job as an L.A. nightclub manager, Grahm is the only Jason who has ever expressed a great desire to play the role again. "Jason is the horror figure of the'80s," says Grahm. "I'm hoping they'll want me to play him for the rest of the series."

The guru of gore gets his chainsaw comeuppance

The only rule for makin' great horror," says Joe Bob Briggs, "is that anybody can die at any moment." Joe Bob, a fictional persona adopted by Texas-based writer John Bloom, 33, has seen just about every sleazy, slimy piece of celluloid in his job as a syndicated redneck drive-in movie critic. Joe Bob's raunchy reviews once appeared side by side in the Dallas Times Herald with Bloom's award-winning general interest column. Then in April 1985, the Joe Bob column was discontinued after he wrote a We Are the World parody called We Are the Weird, which many readers found racist. Bloom, a quiet, intellectual bachelor, resigned in hot protest. Currently syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate, Joe Bob still offers the last word in fright flicks. The best of the lot, he says, is 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. "What more do you want?" asks Briggs of the film that took four weeks to make, cost only $160,000, has grossed an astonishing $75 million and remains a staple in horror video. "It has a stroke-of-genius title, shaky camera work and grainy film." No wonder, then, that Briggs was thrilled when director To be (Poltergeist) Hooper phoned to offer him a cameo role in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2.

Filming his part on the Austin set was a lot fancier than Briggs expected. Hooper, working on a lush $6 million budget, took eight weeks to make the film and added some upscale plot innovations. Leatherface, the film's lead maniac, now carves up yuppies—instead of the original's hippies—to cook in his barbecue pit. Having Bloom around in his Briggs persona gave Leatherface a chance to confront at least one trashy victim. "In my scene," says Briggs, "I act like a know-it-all for the benefit of two beauties. Then Leatherface jumps out of his catering van and carves the girls up. This is all done off-camera, shown only by pieces of designer clothing, high heels and bloody popcorn thrown against me in a hurricane-force wind. I'm so honored to be in the presence of the chainsaw master that I stand transfixed." Briggs smiles as he describes the coup de grace. "Then Leatherface plunges the chainsaw through my stomach." Another great moment in drive-in movie history.

Honor's Top 10

It's a Jekyll/Hyde story for the '80s. By day, mild-mannered Rick Sullivan, 30, labors in a New Jersey film booking agency. But by night he becomes the wild-eyed editor of The Gore Gazette, a monthly tip sheet that he types, Xeroxes and sells to 5,000 people at 60 cents per copy. A fanatical horror fan since the days when his parents forbade him to see scary movies, Sullivan grew angry when reviewers "trashed, ignored or made fun of all horror films. I felt we needed someone to tell us what was worth seeing." In 1980 Sullivan, who watches about 20 new and old screamers a month, took the job upon himself. The Gore Gazette (73 N. Fullerton Ave., Montclair, N.J. 07042) warns fans about horror films that get released repeatedly under different titles. It also rates special effects. "Nobody's perfected a way to make guts look like guts," Sullivan complains. "I always think, 'Oh no, here's the cow intestines packed into prophylactics again.' " Though Sullivan classes 1963's Blood Feast as his all-time favorite ("The best scare is when a maniac puts his fist in a woman's mouth and rips her tongue out with red Jell-O and stage blood over it"), he is disappointed in 1976's Bloodsucking Freaks, his all-time lowest groaner. "They killed real animals to make this," says Sullivan. "Effects are only fun when they're fake."

To bolster the genre, Sullivan has raised about $200,000 to make Deadly Metal, about "a heavy metal band that unwittingly allows the son of Satan to join as lead singer." The film, due to start shooting in a few months with Sullivan as writer and cameo player, promises to be "really sick" (Sullivan's highest compliment), but until its release, Sullivan will settle for reviewing lesser works, as he did for PEOPLE:

Aliens: One of the rare sequels that is better than the original, a perfect combo of Rambo and monsters. Biggest groan: No aliens in the first 65 minutes. Best scare: Aliens everywhere for the last hour.
[4 Skulls]

Poltergeist II: A talky budget-slashed sequel that looks as if it were made for TV. Best scare: Craig T. Nelson swallows a poltergeist-possessed worm that blows up in his stomach. Biggest groan: They use a cheesy Hollywood backdrop to make it look like Heather O'Rourke is in heaven.
[2 Skulls]

Psycho III: Best scare: The parody of the original shower murder is this year's most frightening scene. Biggest groan: When women treat Norman like a psycho sex object.
[4 Skulls]

The Fly: One of history's most morose, depressing and repulsive big-budget films. Really great and really sick. Best scare: A close-up of long fly hairs shooting out of Jeff Goldblum's back.
[4 Skulls]]

Maximum Overdrive: You have to worry when Stephen King touts this King-directed opus as the "loudest movie ever made." Best scare: Victims of killer trucks look like cantaloupes being flattened. Biggest groan: Trucks threaten humans with Morse code messages on their headlights.
[212 Skulls]

Friday the 13th, Part 6: A self-parody with less gore than earlier installments that makes Jason as lovable as Godzilla. Best scare: When Jason tears the stomach out of Ron Palillo (who played Arnold Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter).
[4 Skulls]

The Toxic Avenger: The first successful low-budget softcore gore comedy. Best scare: When a 98-lb. nerd, converted into a radioactive monster, buries his fingers up to his knuckles in a thug's eyeballs. Biggest groan: When the hero monster rips out a mugger's tonsils with a milkshake mixer.
[4 Skulls]

Invaders from Mars: A big disappointment. Director Tobe Hooper should go back to making Grade Z sick quickies instead of big-budget blowouts. Best scare: Original-looking Stan Winston aliens—a cross between turtles and kangaroos. Biggest groan: The 1953 original showed aliens drilling into human heads, but the camera turns away in this wimpy remake.
[2 Skulls]

Vamp: Lots of blood, but too many similarities to the disco vampire in last summer's Fright Night. Best scare: When Grace Jones drips blood from her fangs. Biggest groan: When she tries to be scary as she dances.
[3 Skulls]

Demons: Something to offend everyone. Best scare: Zombies with pustular boils that swell and burst. Biggest groan: Even a horror movie should have some plot.
[4 Skulls]

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