The controversial action figure from an adults-only horror movie that was pitched at kids during the Star Wars toy boom.
These days, it’s no big deal for action figures to be based on decidedly adult content – after all, the main audience for a lot of these models are now grown adults with a need to relive their childhood or fill their homes with collectable items or just revel in the sheer inappropriateness of having toys based on ultra-violent movies. But back in 1979, everything was a lot simpler. Toys were for kids, and that was that.
At that time, 20th Century Fox and Kenner Toys were raking in money hand over fist from Star Wars toys sales, a seemingly endless collection of merchandise that would make even more money than the films themselves. of course, Fox’s share of those vast riches was going straight to George Lucas, who we have to credit with having the foresight to see the possibilities in what was effectively a two-hour commercial for merchandise (let’s not forget that Lucas sold the toy rights early on, putting a lie to the idea that he didn’t expect the very expensive major studio release to be a massive hit… but that’s another rant for another day). So you can’t blame the company for wanting to repeat that bonanza and this time actually keep the money.
Unfortunately, Alien was not Star Wars. This was, after all, an adults-only horror movie full of gore, tension and ‘adult situations’. It was a big hit and a big deal, but it wasn’t being seen by kids (maybe some kids in America, but still…). And it had a monster that no one was allowed to see photos of until the film was well into release, because the impressive xenomorph was the film’s ace in the hole. But once that monster did enter the public domain and began appearing on the covers of every science fiction magazine out there, kids were understandably very excited by a monster that was the coolest looking creature imaginable. So a toy range wasn’t quite as mad as it seems – essentially, it’s not that far removed from classic monster toys. But that said, there were limited opportunities for merchandise pitched at the pre-teens. There was a board game, because that probably makes a certain sense, and a target shooting game, which also makes a certain sense, though probably not that entertaining. What the kids obviously wanted was an Alien action figure. And that’s what they got. Unfortunately, the figure that came out was a touch too realistic.
The Star Wars figures had pioneered the switch to four-inch figures, from the previous norm of eight-inch Mego figures and twelve-inch GI Joe/Action Man. Smaller figures allowed more vehicles and playsets that were less expensive – a selling point for parents – and less space-gobbling – a selling point for kids who would, at best, have one room to call their own assuming they weren’t sharing with a sibling. The smaller figures didn’t necessarily skimp on detail, and it seemed as though this was to be the new norm. But the Alien figure decided to go the other way. It came in at an extravagant eighteen-inches. A foot and a half! That’s almost as tall as some of the kids who it was being marketed at, for crying out loud. It was, admittedly, an impressive beast – closer to the intricate figures of today than the toys of the time. But that didn’t work in its favour. Parents, understandably, baulked at a giant, grotesque monster with an uncomfortably sexual and needlessly luminous head, taken from a film that was being hyped as the most terrifying thing ever made. A monster that would shoot out an even more phallic mini-head – hell, let’s call it a tongue – when little Johnny pushed the head down. There was something unsavoury about the Alien toy, and the sheer size of the damn thing was just the icing on the cake.
Sales on the Alien were unexpectedly poor. Parents had written letters of complaint, though in those pre-social media days, an actual boycott was a little harder to organise. But no one seemed keen to buy the toy – which, of course, was more expensive than other figures on the market and towered above all your other action figures, making play a bit of a challenge. They started gathering dust on the shelves, before Kenner admitted defeat and pulled it from the market, cancelling plans for a full line of figures. It would be several years, and a cultural shift towards adult collectors, before Alien got another chance in the toy market.