Saturday, December 19, 2009


I never like turning this space into a memorial for the recently passed, but this one was a personal hero: screenwriter, sometime director and one-time actor Dan O'Bannon, dead at the depressingly early age of 63.

Whatever media is even bothering to note his passing generally cites him as the author of Alien, and that is indeed one impressive credit. O'Bannon was the only officially credited screenwriter on what is still one of the best horror movies ever made, though it's well known that his script passed through many hands on the way to the screen. Still, the most disturbing elements of the story--the chestburster, most notably--are O'Bannon's, and it was he who convinced director Ridley Scott to hire conceptual artist H.R. Giger to design the title creature, one of the most iconic and influential creatures ever seen on screen.

Alien should have been O'Bannon's launching pad to immortality, but his subsequent produced scripts were alarmingly few, most of them heavily-rewritten by less talented hands. (The creepy Dead And Buried is well worth seeking out.) In 1985, he finally got a chance to direct with the alternately hilarious and genuinely disturbing Return Of The Living Dead, which introduced many key concepts into the zombie sub-genre that are still in play today, but again, despite its excellence and wide influence, it failed to open any doors for O'Bannon, who would only direct one subsequent film.

For me, though, O'Bannon will always be Sgt. Pinback, the character he played so memorably in Dark Star, the ultra low budget space epic he and John Carpenter expanded from a student film they'd made at the University of Southern California. With its dark, airless visuals and spare electronic score, Dark Star is easily recognizable as a Carpenter film (and he'd revisit its theme of working class men under pressure many times, most notably in The Thing), but I've always felt the dominant voice in the film was O'Bannon's. He scripted, designed the sets and supervised the ambitious visual effects. And its deadpan humor, stoner philosophizing and overall sense of melancholy are its own--there's no movie quite like it, and it had a deep personal impact on me the first time I saw it. It's a movie I'll always treasure, and consider a part of me, and Dan O'Bannon will always be a name that means a lot.

Here he is as Pinback--or is it Bill Frug?--in a memorable scene from Dark Star.