When I was six years old, my dad drove the family down to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Being young, adventurous adults, my parents wanted to check out a number of attractions that absolutely terrified my little brain, film-based rides like Jaws, Earthquake, The Tower of Terror, and so on. But nothing left a stronger impression on me than The Great Movie Ride, which prominently featured a scene from a movie Alien where an animatronic version of the titular creature menaces ride-goers. I thought I was going to die on that ride, and it left an indelible mark on me, a repulsion and fascination with H.R. Giger’s design that’s been with me my entire life. So when I found out that someone had written a 300-page book on one particular Alien toy from over 40 years ago, I had to find out more.
Phil “Windebieste” Wlodarczyk is the author of Hideous Plastic: In Stores Everyone Can Hear You Scream, as well as the operator of the site of the same name. His book delves into the social, technical, and cultural history of the 18-inch tall Alien toy produced by Kenner in 1979, the first mass market commercial toy based on an R-rated movie. The figure has become a sought-after item over the past decades, with prices now ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on condition.
“This is a toy that was intended to capture the Star Wars market,” Wlodarczyk tells me via email, referring to Kenner’s previous success in selling figures based on George Lucas’s 1977 space epic. “It didn’t. It actually failed miserably. It was shunned by conservative parents. It kept kids awake at night. It just didn’t sell well.”
Looking at it now, it’s not hard to see why. The 1979 figure is surprisingly detailed, reflecting the erotic horror of Giger’s original designs. Today, these kinds of figures are sold to adult collector markets, but the Alien toy was aimed squarely at kids.
“At the time Kenner thought Alien would be released as a PG movie, so it made sense to make a toy of the titular character,” Wlodarczyk explains. “Kenner literally sold millions of Darth Vader toys the previous year. Obviously bad guys are popular with kids and… they thought the Alien character would be some kind of monster in the closet style bogeyman that would jump out and go ‘BOO!,’ making kids giggle. A kind of safe, comic book villain much like Vader was; and not so Evil and bad that it would rip your face off. Well, it turned out that was what the Alien is all about… Kenner even approached Fox to have the movie cut to PG levels, reducing the chestburster scene bloody reveal of the creature to PG levels. Fox said no.”
Nevertheless, kids around the world ended up receiving the toy for Christmas in 1979, and Wlodarczyk was one of them. He had already seen the film earlier that month, and consumed a great deal of books, magazines, and other materials about the movie before viewing it. But it wasn’t until much later, after some frustrations with his work in game development, that he began writing Hideous Plastic.
“I’d come off a bad game dev experience and wanted to work on my own project,” Wlodarczyk says. “At the time I was looking at how the video game scene had such a glut of product and everyone of them wants to be noticed, I decided I wanted a break from the gig entirely. So, I looked at other options.”
While there was already a wealth of texts on the Alien films, comics, novels, and scripts, there was nothing on the toys and merchandise the series had spawned.
“I settled on writing about the Kenner Alien toy because I knew a lot about it. Besides, compared to video game development it was clear skies — no one had tackled the subject… It occurred to me I could write the first book on this completely unexplored piece of popular culture and if nothing else, it would get noticed.”
The resulting project, Hideous Plastic, is both fascinating in its treatment of one of the biggest missteps in movie-tie ins in the 20th century as well as being a practically useful document for collectors. In addition to the thorough history of the toy, Wlodarczyk’s book features a spotter’s guide for prospective buyers, as well as information on restoration, considering that many of these figures have been rather battered over the years.
Interestingly, the 1979 toy was not the last time Kenner would attempt to sell the Alien franchise to children. The company produced a range of toys in 1992, including a variety of xenomorphs based on animal designs like a bull, gorilla, and scorpion, riffing on the dog-birthed creature from Alien 3, which was released in May of that year. These toys were intended to accompany a cartoon based on the marines from the film Aliens fighting against the titular creatures, but whether because of the poor box office showings of Alien 3 or because it proved too difficult to make the source material kid-friendly, the show was scrapped. Alien toys, however, lived on throughout the 90s and the subsequent decades.
As for Wlodarczyk, he’s looking to return to game development.
“I’ve been a PC game modder now for about twenty five years,” he tells me. “I spent eight years making content for Alien Versus Predator 2 creating single- and multiplayer maps for people to mess around on. Occasionally I have been able to pull paid contract work and have done so several times. Not everything comes to light and a lot of projects get cancelled… I did work on some of the Primal Carnage games and also worked on The Island during its early development. That would have been in 2012 and I’ve had my break now. I’m just about ready to get back into it again.”
Future books are on the table, too. The book’s site currently displays mockups for two potential installments with titles amusingly riffing on series taglines: “This Time, It’s More,” and the Alien Versus Predator-inspired “Whatever sells we buy.”