5 Creature Features That Make You Think (Mania.com)
Date: Friday, November 12, 2010
The phrase "creature feature" is a bit overarching. A lot of horror movies have monsters or even hoards of the damn things. So, what separates a "creature feature" from a plain old horror movie? Well, horror movies can deal with frightening things found in society, or the mind, or science, or nature, or whatever. The scares can come from an invisible force (The Entity), a flesh-eating disease (Cabin Fever), or latent sexual deviancy (Twilight). There's no rule that every horror movie has a monster. But, a lot of them do. The best monster movies have an iconic and definitive creature with a clever name and an unforgettable face (or faces). And like any good movie, they should leave you with something to chew on--not a severed limb, but a thought or an idea. For instance, perhaps you'll ask, "Was the monster was really the bad guy?" Or, "Was the creature really an expression of post-war fears about atomic annihilation?" Or maybe, "Can I get my 10 bucks back right now?" In any case, any creature feature can show a half-ass monster on the tear. A good one should make you think. Here are five that will leave your brain with something other than a mutation.
Everybody loves Godzilla, but everyone loves the Predator more. We've all seen the original movie 150 times. A special forces team is sent to Guatemala to track a downed helicopter carrying a presidential cabinet minister. Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) leads the team, with a CIA agent (Carl Weathers) in tow. When they get on the ground, they find a previous team that was sent in--found skinned alive and hanging from trees. It might be the Communist rebels (backed by the Russian advisors at their camp), or it could be something else--something not human. But, how does it make you think? First, Predator closely parallels Beowulf (the old story, not the Robert Zemeckis film)--but it's not as obvious as you'd think. The Predator is more like Grendal's mother with the rebels being more like Grendal himself (just read a summary online, please, so I don't have to repeat it). But, yes, Dutch, is Beowulf. It's that awesome. However, there's a bit more to chew on in Predator. It's endurance should make that obvious. It's cut and shot to maximize the tension. It's not always apparent these days, given that everyone has seen the Predator all over the place. But, watch it again--and pretend you've never seen those beady eyes and those mandibles. It's really damn scary. And, you can't help but notice that all of the unit's modern weapons quickly succumb to the Predator's superior technology. That seems obvious enough, but it's only when Dutch reverts back to something primal that he beats the alien hunter. Truly, the toys don't matter. It's the animal substance--the intestinal fortitude--that makes a man. Predator may not be subtle, but it forcefully reminds you what makes a man at the end of the day--the ability and the drive to stand up, even against the impossible.
4. Splice (2010)
Every best-of list has to have all of the classic examples, and a contemporary example or two thrown in. Splice explores the ethics of human cloning, organ growing, abortion, and the very definition of life as we know it. After a disastrous public demonstration involving lab-grown organisms (with lots of blood and death), Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, respectively)--two scientists, romantically involved--secretly introduce human DNA into their experiments. Quickly, it grows into a new life-form. They dub the creature Dren ("nerd" backwards) and try to raise it in secret, eventually taking it to Elsa's childhood farm. The inescapable (and, for most, uncomfortable) chain of sex, birth, adolescence, puberty, and, again, sex is explored in unflinching detail. Dren grows from a cute sort-of human to an unmanageable monster--complete with a stinger on her tale and wings. Then, she changes into a male. Shit gets real--and real fast. The make-you-think aspects are pretty obvious. Dren never asked to be born. She (or it) is an experiment that should've never occurred. But once she/it was created, killing her (can we just say her?)--even as a zygote--raises huge ethical quandaries. And then, once Clive and Elsa suspect she may be dangerous, they're in too deep to just kill Dren outright. They've raised her like a child and neither wants to let her go. But by that time, it's too late. Dren has become a teenage monster in the midst of the nastiest puberty anyone's ever seen. And, Clive and Elsa have to deal with the fallout--with only themselves to blame.
3. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Most critics label The Creature from the Black Lagoon a simple environmental fable. It seems pretty obvious on the surface, though--a bunch of scientists brave a remote corner of the Amazon in search of fossils connected to a skeletal claw. They find the mysterious Black Lagoon, complete with the Gill Man, who stalks them and kidnaps the one woman in the party. But, it's not really his fault because they shouldn't have been there in the first place, blah, blah, blah. Creature is a lot smarter than that. There's a bit of a Freudian thing going on, whereby the scientists (mostly concentrated on the surface) are plagued by a primal force from below, driven by instinct and unbridled sexual drive. The fight between the id and the ego has never been more apparent. But, you can go for an even less obvious interpretation. The Lagoon represents the vast and perilous unknown that forever confronts science. There's a boatload of scientists floating on top of a mysterious, nearly impenetrable pool. Science seeks to learn, but sometimes the things outside of our understanding can be terrifying. The Gill Man is the chaos--and the potential danger--of the unformed and unknown world beyond our own--one that is all around us. However you look at it, it makes you think.
2. Gojira (1954)
Everybody loves Godzilla. We can't get enough of rubber monster suits trashing miniature cities in sequel after sequel . But, it all started somewhere more respectable than Saturday afternoon kitsch. The first film is a darker affair that expresses Japanese post-war fears of nuclear attacks. We can be snooty and call it Gojira instead of Godzilla, because the Japanese and American versions are pretty damn different. The American version edited Raymond Burr into a bunch of scenes to act as a narrator for American audiences. It didn't wreck the movie, but it was an unnecessary revision to the film. But, the original Gojira is available now, and the film still resonates. Its dense night footage hides some of the special effects shortcomings in the shadows (though in a couple of shots, the Big G looks like Cookie Monster), and the aftermath of the attacks looks like, well, a bomb went off. Whatever your opinion of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no culture escapes something like that unscathed. That trauma frequently manifests itself in art. Gojira is an unsettling look at a country standing up to an impossible monster--from a country that endured something just as bad.. And, in the end, only a scientist prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice can stop the creature--until the sequels, of course.
1. King Kong (1933)
Yeah, we all know how great King Kong is. But, people have been trying to justify the Beauty and the Beast parallel since the film came out. But Maniacs, in my humble opinion, it isn't there. People have said that for years, and it's obvious in Peter Jackson's way-unappreciated remake. But, watch the original again. As Ann Darrow, Fay Wray screams in every scene with Kong. She evinces nothing but terror. Never once does she express sympathy for him. Where King Kong makes you think is the way Carl Denham and his crew treat the poor ape. The natives of Skull Island worship him as a god. As soon as they see the lily white Ann Darrow, they want her as a sacrifice. We can agree that there are some ethically questionable religious traditions among the indigenous peoples of the island. But, Denham and his men aren't any better. They kidnap Kong and put him on display as a spectacle. And, it blows up in their faces. Kong goes, well, apeshit. A bunch of planes shoot the poor primate down from the Empire State Building. The point is that Denham and everyone that paid to see Kong are just as bad as the natives. Kong is just an animal. He didn't ask to be what he is. On his island, he was contained by a wall and essentially harmless. But, Denham and his men had to kidnap him and turn him into entertainment. And, people suffered and an innocent movie monster died for it.