As we all enjoy a healthy shot of adrenaline that originates from a good scare now and then, the next three installments tip their caps to fright and its designated day, Halloween. Fear is one of our most primal and intense reactions and a huge chunk of moviemaking is dedicated to these very lucrative genres.
First up, those terrifying, non-human creatures that arrive through time or space, usually after our own species has tinkered with the natural order. Whether they are an extinct animal summoned against our better judgment or an alien creature in search of greener pastures or a fully stacked pantry, one would think that humans would be a sinewy, noisy and unsatisfying snack for these behemoths. Much of the fun must be in the hunt and inevitable confrontation with those pesky provocateurs known as people.
Regarding the Monster Genre one thing is certain – if the original film is successful in creating a clearly defined identity to the dangerous antagonist, there will be plenty more films, each one displaying the latest developments in cinematic technology. That doesn’t automatically guarantee success, but a strong, iconic beast nearly always delivers a strong opening weekend, providing the franchise hasn’t been exhausted.
For this exercise I stayed with non-human monsters and avoided, as much as I love them, the classical Frankenstein / Dracula / Wolfman triumvirate. So here are five creature-features that remind us that homo sapiens’ grip on the top rung of the food chain is tentative, at best.
Jurassic Park – Steven Spielberg (1993)
As if our dependence on petroleum and the planet-threatening carbon emissions and oil-based plastics don’t provide enough of a threat, let’s go back to the original source and resurrect a few of the jolly giants from the age of dinosaurs, just for fun. In point of fact, most (not all) of the creatures highlighted in Spielberg’s exciting adaptation of Michael Crichton’s theme park gone awry novel are primarily from the Cretaceous Period, not Jurassic, but who’s going to nitpick with a T-Rex nipping at your tail? Like most kids of a certain generation, I was obsessed with dinosaurs and never satisfied with movies that taped fins and horns on baby alligators the antagonized them to fight. Spielberg answered our dreams when, to the stately score by John Williams, we get our first look at them walking, flying and feeding. Of course, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum/Dr Malcolm in one of the sequels, “Ooohing” and “Ahhing” gives way to running and screaming fairly quickly. This benchmark of superior CGI development made up only ½ of Spielberg’s showiest year when Jurassic Park devoured all box office records and Schindler’s List was a critical darling. Its one of the few times – perhaps the only time – a director was able to snag two brass rings in the same year with two totally diverse film experiences.
Alien – Ridley Scott (1979)
This moody, dark and painfully suspenseful space nightmare not only christened a new franchise, it presented us with that equally unique and rare being – a female protagonist in an action/sci-fi blockbuster. It also presented us with one of the most frightening (and unashamedly disgusting) creatures we can only hope we will never encounter. Following Jim Cameron’s equally exciting sequel, Aliens, the franchise continued with diminishing results. Scott’s vision deserves credit not only for reintroducing us to extraterrestrial terror; he presents his story dressed in H. R. Giger’s splendid otherworldly set and creature designs. And then there’s “that” scene which starts as indigestion and ends in something so original and horrific that audiences at the time will never be able to erase from their movie memory.
Godzilla – Gareth Edwards (2014)
The thirtieth time’s the charm for this Japanese concoction that first saw light in 1954 and that’s probably because only 21st Century technology can do justice to this cautionary enviro-tale of the effects of nuclear “solutions” to problem situations. Edwards film also has a heart as large as Godzilla’s – the titular creature draws our compassion as much as, if not more, than the tiny, annoying human creatures who keep pestering it and threatening the world in which it lives. Edwards’ action sequences are brilliantly directed as he lets them unfold naturally and inevitably, drawing us in with anticipation instead of causing us to brace for a series of overdone explosions. I would happily accept Godzilla as steward for our environment and, I guarantee, he would take better care of it than we have ever done. Plus – imagine what he could do with the deniers, poachers and industrial miscreants!
King Kong – Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack (1933)
Of the nine or ten Kong films that have hit the screen, one only needs the first pre-code/stop-action version. Its tragic Beauty and the Beast theme is simple and clear, Willis O’Brian’s animation, legendary, and matte paintings by Henry Hillinck, Mario Larrinaga and Byron C. Crabbé, deep and lush – suitable for framing. The film was a smash hit with audiences and critics alike, and was re-released directly to first-run cinemas five times before the mid-50s. It was a late night movie hit and regularly made the rounds during the 60s at Saturday kids’ matinees and was a staple at college/reparatory theatres during well through the 70s…then along came Dino Delaurentis and his World Trade Centre remake, which effectively shut down the decades-long roadshow for this classic. For all of the remakes, especially the big budget biscuits by John Guillermin (‘76), Peter Jackson (’05) and Jordan Vogt-Roberts (’17), the luxury of technology became the focus, confusing the story and ultimately draining the lifeblood that was so pure in the original. When the Hayes Code came into effect, a number of scenes were edited out due to violence and sexual content (yup), but if you are lucky, you may stumble upon a version with some of those scenes restored. It’s definitely worth searching for.
The Thing – John Carpenter (1982)
With all due respect to Carpenter’s seasonal favorite, Halloween, his remake of the 1951 film is by far his best work. Why? Because it’s terrifying, that’s why. Set in the 24hr nights in Antarctica in a remote (is anything in Antarctica NOT remote?) research station, a parasite wreaks havoc as it moves from organism to organism, not only destroying each host but causing panic and paranoia among the remaining inhabitants who are captive due to seasonal conditions. The film has achieved much acclaim in retrospect, but was panned by critics when it was released, and that release date was, unfortunately, the same day as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Its polar opposite, ET, enjoyed a re-release two weeks prior, so audiences were not looking to go back to the days when extraterrestrials were looked on with fear and disgust. Despite having the deck stacked against it, The Thing is now considered to be one of the scariest films ever made.
Monsters have played a key role in our mythology since the first story was shared with the tribe around the safety of a fire, and I expect they will remain the most popular way to allegorize our fears that stem from any phenomenon that has no immediate explanation. And they are great fun, to boot.