SPOILER ALERT – ARTICLE MAY INCLUDE SPOILERS, BUT SINCE I’LL BE MAINLY TALKING ABOUT FILMS FROM THE 50s IT’S YOUR OWN FAULT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THEM!
A series on monsters wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at an often overlooked side road. So this article will examine the wild animal and the alien as monster. The obvious examples are films such as the Jaws series, about some seriously pissed off Great White sharks, but it is in fact a venerable sub-genre with many precedents.
The first proper creature-feature (as they came to be known), and an iconic moment in cinematic history, was 1933s King Kong. This was a ground-breaking film, with stunning (for the time) stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien and secured Fay Wray’s reputation as the original ‘scream queen’. Many people forget that Kong was a sympathetic creature, who took Wray’s character back to his lair instead of killing her (as was intended by the villagers). Once he was captured and taken to New York, he was chained and mistreated, before breaking free and again seeking out the object of his love. As Robert Armstrong’s character observes in the closing moments of the film, “it wasn’t the airplanes, it was Beauty killed the Beast”. Merian Cooper’s film is rightly seen as a classic, despite Kong’s reputation as a mindless monster.
King Kong spawned a rash of sequels, spin-offs and imitations, but the creature-feature explosion was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Monster movies in this period were more reliant on tried and tested supernatural horrors that could be tied in to the Nazi menace: vampires, werewolves and mummies. But at the end of the war, something happened that changed the monster movie: America dropped two A-bombs on Japan, and the Atomic Age began.
In the 1950s, a new trend emerged with the testing of the hideously powerful H-Bomb, with over a thousand times the destructive capability of the A-Bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a new understanding of the horrors of radiation sickness. Movies were suddenly infested with creatures mutated by atomic radiation, somehow growing huge and developing a taste for human flesh, rather than growing tumours and developing weeping sores. These movies are fairly well represented by 1954s Them!, in which the evils of nukes cause giant ants, that’s GIANT ANTS, to rampage through a New Mexico town, eating people called ‘Gramps’ Johnson and Alan Crotty. It’s actually nowhere near as appalling as it sounds. It contains some genuinely tense moments and some good performances, including some seriously moving death scenes. Gordon Douglas’ direction is solid and his storytelling is well-balanced, as one would expect from the man who would go on to direct They call me MISTER Tibbs! in the 1970s. It was well received on its release and has been referenced and copied many times, with such ’50s classics as It Came From Beneath The Sea (which starred a giant, radioactive octopus and Howard Hughes’ one time lover, Faith Domergue), Attack Of The Crab Monsters (an early Roger Corman attempt with some frankly appalling rubber ‘crab monsters’), and Tarantula (starring Leo G Carroll and a really big spider).
The Japanese, certainly no strangers to the horrifying effects of the Atomic Age, came up with a long-running series of films centred around a man in a dodgy rubber suit stomping through a cardboard Tokyo. Released in the same year as Them! (1954), Godzilla (or more properly Gojira) was a landmark in Japanese cinema that led to nearly thirty sequels, remakes, a pair of cartoon series (one by Hanna-Barbera in the late ’70s, the other a Fox TV anime in the late ’90s), a poorly received American movie remake and a planned reboot! This makes it arguably one of the most successful film franchises ever. Godzilla is a classic example of the monster as a representation of atomic destruction. He is released by atomic testing, is radioactive, has ‘Atomic breath’ and is effectively immune to conventional weaponry. In fact, an early design of the suit gave him a mushroom-cloud shaped head. A huge number of the monster films of the 1950s and 1960s use the monster as allegories for a variety of real or perceived dangers: nuclear weapons and Communism are typical, although underage sex, alcohol, ‘un-American activities’ and other immoral behaviours are also targeted. The Godzilla franchise flourished in the 60’s, dominating cinema with films depicting the titular monster as a (kind of) defender of Tokyo against an ever-increasing horde of rubber suited stuntmen.
Other giant monsters crawled from the woodwork in the ’50s and 60s. We had scorpions (The Black Scorpion), locusts (Beginning of the End), man-eating slugs (The Monster That Challenged The World), venomous shrews (The Killer Shrews – Hollywood was really running low on ideas at this stage), large scorned ladies (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) and even jelly – or Jell-O to our transatlantic cousins (The Blob). Basically, anything that film-makers could recreate with some foam rubber suits, trick photography or the talents of Ray Harryhausen, would walk, stalk, slither or ooze across cinema screens for a couple of decades. Even plants got a look-in, in the shape of British sci-fi/horror The Day of the Triffids, adapted from the book by John Wyndham. The Triffids of the title were (in the film at least) semi-sentient alien invaders, ambulatory sticks of killer celery that were, rather conveniently, allergic to sea-water (which rather begs the question “Why did they choose to invade a planet whose surface is about 70% covered in the stuff?”).
Aliens were also a common feature of monster movies. The development of rocket technology had nations looking spaceward once again, and a rise in tensions between the political ideologies of East and West gave film-makers the perfect excuse to make a large number of alien themed movies with cookie-cutter communism-inspired antagonists. The Red Menace was sneakily inserted into a range of movies including The Flying Saucer (1950), Invaders From Mars (1952) and, of course, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). These films show the insidious nature of the Communist threat, how it can sneak unnoticed into your neighbourhood, brainwash and indoctrinate people you have known for years. One film that specifically targets the insanity of Cold-War paranoia is the timeless classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. This amazing 1951 film explores how a defensive and paranoid humanity reacts to an other-worldly visitor, who is quite clearly a stand-in for Christ, with his amazing powers, resurrection and message of peace.
In 1975, the movie monster changed. An adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws was unleashed on the public. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, the movie has a number of completely iconic touches: the triangular fin cutting the water, the shark’s haunting tuba-based leitmotif, the boat-based camaraderie of the three male leads, Brody’s warnings being ignored by those in power. It is an almost perfect monster movie, let down a little by the fairly poor (even by the standard of the 1970s) rubber shark. I first saw this film at a very young age and loved it, apart from the very end, when Quint (played to perfection with grizzled, Hemingway-esque machismo by Robert Shaw) slides helplessly down the deck of the listing boat and into the shark’s waiting maw. His desperate struggle against a force of nature sum up the film in that brief moment: man vs fish, and the fish is winning. It is a creature perfectly designed to survive in its environment, an environment that humans are playing around in. Jaws spawned a handful of sequels, none of which managed to match the intensity and excellence of the original, but it also changed the way that the average cinema-goer and critic thought about monster movies. They were no longer B-movies; they could be blockbusters.
Not all films lived up to this benchmark of course. A large number of cheap creature-features continued to be churned out by Hollywood studios, such as the largely unknown Joan Collins vehicle Empire of the Ants (which is worth digging up, if only for the hilariously bad special effects). Rather better known, as well as better production and better acting, is the Burt Lancaster and Michael York version of The Island of Dr Moreau in 1977. Although by no means flawless, it is a solid adaptation of the H.G.Wells classic, with a truly creepy Lancaster as the disturbing (and disturbed) doctor. It attempts to turn the genre on its head, in suggesting that the hideous ‘man-beasts’, the results of Moreau’s twisted experiments, are less monstrous than the dark soul of humanity, represented by the doctor. It is only by shedding their humanity and embracing the animalistic side of their natures that York and his love interest, Barbara Carrera, manage to escape.
In 1978, another creature attacked humanity, or rather lots of creatures. But these were not giant, irradiated creatures. No, these were slightly more everyday: bees. Or, to be more specific, a swarm of African killer bees. The Swarm stars Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia De Havilland, Slim Pickens and Henry Fonda. Oh, and a shitload of bees. It was directed by Irwin Allen, producer of such classic TV serials as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants, and the film was adapted from a novel by well-known (at the time) science-fiction author Arthur Herzog. An impressive pedigree, wouldn’t you agree? Apparently not. The film bombed. Badly. It was pulled from cinemas after a pathetically short run (in some places as little as two days) and was unable to even make half its $21 million budget back at the box office. Michael Caine is not alone when he describes it as one of the worst films he has ever made.
The next true landmark in the monster movie did not arrive until 1979, with Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece, Alien. Sold to the studios as “Jaws in space”, the movie brews a heady blend of tension, shocks and gore, with genre-defining visual effects courtesy of the deeply disturbing and undeniably sexual artwork of H.R.Giger. The alien is a shadowy menace, truly an unknown quantity, with a (pretty unlikely) life cycle of egg-crab/spider-chest bursting penis-huge shiny black cock with teeth. The sexual subtext of the movie has been commented upon before (many, many times), but if you are unconvinced, take a long hard look at this concept art for the xenomorph:
If you can’t see that this is a picture af a massive penis, there’s something wrong with you. Add that to the fact that Kane (played by John Hurt) is orally impregnated by the face-hugger and ‘gives birth’ in a terminal shower of gore from his ribcage. The writer of the screenplay, Dan O’Bannon, has explicitly stated that the Kane scenes are a metaphor for male fears about pregnancy and childbirth, and has explained the alien as embodying elements of male rape, payback for the countless female victims of horror movie monsters and serial killers. The only survivor is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in the role that launched her career and one that she would return to three more times so far), a woman who is in a masculine, industrial environment. She is not refered to by her first name, only her surname, which has the effect of clouding her gender. The film is about sex, but it is also an excellent horror movie, dark and moody with a perfect, iconic and terrifying antagonist.
Alien also signaled a turning point in the creature feature. Films moved away from ordinary animals turned evil (either by radiation or otherwise) and focused instead on extraterrestrial or supernatural horrors. Dream monsters (A Nightmare on Elm Street), alien hunters (Predator), ghosts (Ghostbusters 1 & 2) and gremlins (Gremlins 1 & 2) were the order of the 80s, and things didn’t improve much in the following decade, with only such paltry offerings as Mosquito and Anaconda (I really wouldn’t recommend either, but if you must, go for Mosquito, if only for its knowing nods towards its B-Movie roots).
The new millennium gave film-makers the chance to make ironically bad B-movies (following from the cult success of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead), and this gave audiences such wonders as Eight-Legged Freaks, featuring some toxically mutated spiders and a lot of screaming. It is a mixed bag of B-movie tropes and tongue in cheek dialogue, but the basic premise (monsters attacking a small American town) has been done before and done better, notably in Tremors six years earlier. Other 21st century offerings include a couple of Anaconda sequels (somehow worse than that first one), the fabulously titled (and apparently gloriously awful) Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus and its sequel Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus, Sharktopus and Mega Python Versus Gatoroid. These films revel in their B-movie credentials, deliberately using exaggerated monsters and over-the-top violence to titillate their audience.
Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves, was hailed as a new breed of monster movie and is told through the use of ‘found footage’, home-video style film of events of a monster-induced disaster. From a relatively tiny budget of $25 million, it made a massive $171 million at the box office. Its suggestions of terrorist attacks (the subtle reminders of 9/11 run right through the movie) gave it an intensity that most creature-features lack and it was met with high praise from critics and movie-goers alike. Again, the choice to show little of the creature served the film well, heightening the tension and creating the faceless menace to support the subtext.
Is the creature-feature dead? Replaced with endless movies about aliens destroying our cities? Or is this just a phase, and, like the changes in the 50s, we are due a new revolution? A new way of looking at the world around us? Maybe this has already started. Contagion attempted to tap into our collective fears of infectious diseases, following on from the real-life scares of SARS, Bird Flu and Swine Flu. The film didn’t capitalise on its own premise, but the portrayal of the emergency protocols and procedures slowly grinding into motion was interesting: in the world of Contagion there is no quick fix. So maybe the creature we will be scared of next are the ones that we really can’t see, rather than the ones that the film-makers keep hidden.
Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite…