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‘Alien Quadrilogy’ an encyclopedia of creepy thrills

Ventre: Nine-disk set include all 4 movies, plenty of extras

The crew of the Nostromo hears a weird cry from space and decides to land on a desolate planetoid to check it out. Right away you know trouble is coming.

Sure enough, John Hurt is brought back to the ship with what looks like a soft-shell Dungeness crab affixed to his face. From that point on, nothing is ever the same.

Thanks to the female-empowerment space heroics of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, the original “Alien,” directed by Ridley Scott, not only captivated audiences while spawning imitators, but it also gave birth to a profitable franchise in the form of three “Alien” sequels.

The people at 20th Century Fox wanted to do the series justice on DVD, so they put out what might be the home entertainment version of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Alien Quadrilogy” is a boxed set containing nine disks with enough suspense, action, extras and gooey creatures to keep sci-fi freaks locked in their rooms for weeks. Not that they wouldn’t be sequestered in there anyway.

“Alien” is a brilliant bit of creepy, eerie, “What’s around that corner?” excitement. Scott, who has gone on to become one of the seminal visualists of his time, is adept at spacing out the alien sightings and the mayhem, creating an edge-of-your-seat anticipation that less skilled storytellers would botch with excess.

“Aliens” came seven years later, in 1986, this time directed by James Cameron. Whereas Ripley did not start out in the original as the hero but rather ascended to the post by attrition, this time she’s awakened from a hypersleep and lured into duty to rid a space colony of some uninvited guests. Rare is the second installment that lives up to the original, but Cameron pulls it off with technical skill and narrative restraint, like Scott keeping the audience nibbling on their collective fingernails as Ripley goes about her task.

Alas, the series runs dry here. “Alien 3” is notable only because of the feature debut of director David Fincher, who went on to helm “Fight Club” and “Panic Room,” among others. While the action and production values make it eminently watchable, it lacks the individual stamps that Scott and Cameron put on their works. Ditto for the fourth film, “Alien: Resurrection,” an entirely forgettable escapade directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

The boxed set is fabulous, however, a tekkie’s dream gift. There are two versions of each picture — the original theatrical release and updated special editions, all with audio commentaries.

In addition, the compilation of featurettes is like a documentary festival for space geeks. There are many other goodies as well, such as deleted and extended scenes from the original picture, storyboards, screenplays and still galleries.

Once that initial alien child bursts out of Hurt’s chest, you just knew the saga would have to be carefully chronicled. This boxed set is the result.

Check out this special feature: On Disk Two is Sigourney Weaver’s original screen test. It can be viewed both with and without Scott’s commentary. What’s interesting is that Weaver is tested not on a plain sound stage but on the set of the picture in order to help her understand the story and character. This may have been the reason Scott concluded afterward that Weaver “was born to be Ripley.”

“HUD” Widescreen Edition
If you’re a fan of Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” and you enjoy stories about dusty Texas towns and the restless inhabitants thereof, then go back about eight years to 1963 for another beautifully acted, directed and photographed adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel.

“Hud” stars Paul Newman as a cad whose selfishness serves to alienate the ones who love him, especially his father and nephew, and adds to the financial ruin of a family business. Newman is perfectly cast and succeeds in creating one of his most memorable characters.

Look back at Newman’s career and it’s preposterous that the man didn’t win an Oscar until “The Color of Money” in 1986. That was a makeup call. Here, in “Hud,” he jumps off the screen in a drunken rage and socks you in the jaw with his work, yet he lost out that year to Sidney Poitier in “Lillies of the Field.” However, Academy Awards did go to fellow thesps Melvyn Douglas as Hud’s principled father and Patricia Neal as Alma the world-weary housekeeper. James Wong Howe, the master of black and white imagery, also won an Oscar for Best Cinematography.

This is one of those disks that the studio put out because it’s a popular title in the annals of moviedom and happens to be in their library. But aside from a terrific and classic motion picture, there isn’t anything else on here.

Surely Paramount could have put together a brief retrospective look at the film, with interviews of current directors, writers and actors who may have been influenced. Nope. Nothing. It’s as if everybody involved perished from foot and mouth disease.

Michael Ventre is a Los Angeles-based reporter who writes regularly for MSNBC.com.