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Monster Movies

Entry updated 1 September 2022. Tagged: Theme.

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A term colloquially used for a very specific genre of film, usually borderline sf. A monster movie – sometimes called a Creature Feature – must contain the unexpected appearance, normally in a serene setting, of a creature (or many creatures) hostile to humanity. The nature of the creature is usually revealed gradually, and its attacks normally increase in severity. It may be a mutated animal or human (see Mutants), an Alien, a kind of animal normally not hostile (as in Hitchcock's The Birds [1963]), or any unnatural (but not supernatural) creature.

The Monster is usually rationalized (often half-heartedly) as, for example, a dormant prehistoric Dinosaur species newly awakened as in Gojira (1954); an unintended result of scientific experiment as in Tarantula (1955); a Mutant created by radioactivity as in Them! (1954) or alien infection as in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955; vt The Creeping Unknown); a secret government experimental warfare device gone wrong, as in the remake of The Blob (1988); or a product of ill-advised Genetic Engineering as in Species (1995). In the majority of cases the monster represents a punishment for humankind – for tampering with Nature, corrupting the environment or creating vile Weapons. The featuring of a monstrous creature – e.g., the Vampire protagonist of Dracula (1931) and its successors – is not in itself a sufficient condition for a film to be classed as a monster movie. The monster must occupy our world – a world where cause and effect are operative, and phenomena normally have explanations – and not a fantasy world; for this reason monster movies can properly be defined as sf. The monster is, however, not a natural occupant of our world, and to this degree monster movies approach the condition of fantasy. Even the supposedly mundane soldier ants of The Naked Jungle (1954) are highly exaggerated when compared with the reality.

If the monster movie has an ultimate moral, it is about the fragility of the Age of Reason in which we supposedly live. Unreason lurks in the surrounding dark, just beyond the light cast by our campfires, and may break in. The case can be put psychologically, too: in Freudian terms as the revenge of the id over the conscious ego (see Forbidden Planet), or in Jungian terms as the irruption of archetypes into a world which does not consciously recognize them. The oldest part of our brains, the hindbrain or limbic system, wellspring of our fight-or-flight reflex, is sometimes claimed as the source of our monsters, not so much Unreason reclaiming ground from Reason as the Primitive asserting its continuing strength over the Sophisticated. It is one of the interesting qualities of monster movies that any attempt to unravel their subtexts nearly always reveals a critique of the smugness of "civilization" – indeed, a questioning of the very nature of civilization. Thus one of our most apparently childish genres asks some of the most unanswerable questions of our world.

Various elements that make up the generic monster movie had previously existed in isolation: prehistoric survivals in The Lost World (1925); a gigantic threat to humanity in King Kong (1933); deformed creatures revenging themselves against normality in Frankenstein (1931), Island of Lost Souls (1932) and Freaks (1932). It was only with the sf movie boom of the 1950s that the generic structure of the monster movie took the shape it retains today, quite rapidly developing inflexible conventions. The most plausible candidate for the first such film is The Thing (1951), with subsequent milestones including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Gojira (1954), Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955). The boom climaxed with a veritable eruption of monster movies in 1957, including one of Roger Corman's first, Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957); Bert I Gordon's perhaps underrated The Beginning of the End (1957), with giant grasshoppers invading Chicago; and, unusually, a UK offering, the marvellously insane Fiend Without a Face (1957). The cascade continued in 1958, with variations on the theme becoming more knowing – a sign that generic conventions had sufficiently hardened for audience expectations to be consciously manipulated – in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), The Blob (1958) and The Fly (1958). But generic rigidity soon degenerated into decline and fall. More monster movies were made in 1959-1962 than in the whole of 1951-1958, but almost without exception they were low-budget, cynical exploitationers of no real quality aimed at the teenage drive-in market; an exception might be made of the surreal Japanese Mosura (1961).

The structure of monster movies normally follows, in sequence, the following narrative conventions: the peaceful beginning; the first intimations that something is wrong; half-seen glimpses of the monster; disbelief of the first reports; attacks of increasing ferocity in which the monster is fully revealed; the fight back against the monster and its destruction. Often there is also the revelation in the final frames that more monsters are hatching.

An important variation, signalled by King Kong, is the sympathetic monster, doomed to destruction, sometimes magnificent in its monstrousness, more often merely pathetic as in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955; vt The Creeping Unknown), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Not of This Earth (1957) and The Fly (1958). Here the subtext might be that the monster, basically, is us. Humans transformed into monsters by radiation, electricity, Alien infection or the experiments of Mad Scientists are among the long-established Clichés of cinema. Further examples include Man Made Monster (1941; vt Atomic Monster), The Werewolf (1956), The Vampire (1957; vt Mark of the Vampire), The Alligator People (1959) Monster on the Campus (1958), The Manster (1959), The Wasp Woman (1959), Ssssssss! (1973; vt Ssssnake!) and The Incredible Melting Man (1977); there are many more. As long ago as 1926, P G Wodehouse spoofed the monster-making mad scientist trope in his Mr Mulliner story "A Slice of Life" (August 1926 Strand Magazine), whose opening scene recounts how the heroine of the popular film-serial The Vicissitudes of Vera suffers the attentions of "a mad professor who [...] tries to turn her into a lobster" by injecting lobster-gland extract into her spinal column. Wodehouse's imaginary serial title of course alludes to The Perils of Pauline (1914).

Another classic variation is the monstrous creature that can take over, or assume the shape of, human beings, as in It Came from Outer Space (1953), Invaders from Mars (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Quatermass II (1957; vt Enemy from Space), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), Unearthly Stranger (1963), Terrore Nello Spazio (1965; vt Planet of the Vampires) and the television series The Invaders (1967-1968). Such films still turn up occasionally, as in The Hidden (1988) and They Live (1988). Their subtext, however, is entirely different from that of monster movies proper (see Paranoia) and many would not regard them as the real thing.

After The Birds (1963), few monster movies of any quality were made for some time. Routine additions to the canon from 1963 to 1967 include The Crawling Hand (1963), The Day of the Triffids (1963), The Earth Dies Screaming (1964), The Night Caller (1965; vt Blood Beast from Outer Space), Destination Inner Space (1966) and Island of Terror (1966; vt Night of the Silicates) and The Deadly Bees (1967). Then came the extraordinary Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which the director, George Romero, rejuvenated the genre by adding to it one of its great icons, the army of (scientifically created) Zombies, literally eating society away. In the 1970s the revenge-of-Nature theme of The Birds was taken up again by a number of other films in which the "monster" was natural, aside from its exceptional ferocity towards humanity. Among these threats were frogs and other amphibians in Frogs (1972); huge carnivorous rabbits in Night of the Lepus (1972); flesh-eating earthworms in Squirm (1976); spiders in The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977); and, perhaps most famous of all, the great shark of Jaws (1975). Phase IV (1974) and Bug (1975), both featuring intelligent insects – ants and cockroach-like beetles respectively – also have points of interest. Most of these films are marginal sf at best, being closer in their Paranoia to supernatural fantasy.

In the mid-1970s monster movies – not just in the revenge-of-Nature subgenre – began bit by bit to make their comeback, often through the work of quirky, independent directors Death Line (1973; vt Raw Meat) and It's Alive (1974) are both notable for sympathetic monsters. The latter is the work of the deeply eccentric Larry Cohen, whose subsequent monster movies include It Lives Again (1978) and Q (1983; vt The Winged Serpent; vt Q: The Winged Serpent). David Cronenberg also began making borderline monster movies in the 1970s, with The Parasite Murders (1974; vt They Came from Within; vt Shivers), Rabid (1976) and The Brood (1979), all notable for being both intelligent and disgusting. Joe Dante's Piranha (1978) is another witty and subversive independent production. Indeed, it was now becoming clear that the second generation of monster movies, far from being primitive exploitation movies, were attracting some of the most radical and sophisticated directors. Any of these films offers sufficiently complex readings, often political, to give grist for a doctoral thesis. This is only possible when genres enter their mature phase, where, although self-referential decadence (see Recursive SF) can become tiresome, virtuoso variations on a theme are also likely to occur.

The year 1979 was a turning point for monster movies. Although it featured one of the most disappointing ever made, Prophecy (1979), an expensive flop for John Frankenheimer, it also saw the release of Alien (1979), directed by Ridley Scott, which was an enormous success, both commercially and, in the view of some critics, artistically. Thus, although the 1980s saw the continuing release of interesting low-budget monster movies from independents – e.g., Alligator (1980), Day of the Dead (1985), Critters (1986), Society (1989) and Tremors (1989) – it saw also more expensive productions from companies encouraged by the success of Alien. A surprising number were remakes (mostly middle-budget), including two that were very interesting indeed and may come to have classic status: John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) and David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). Also better than most people expected were The Blob (1988) and The Fly II (1989). Other middling-to-large budget monster movies of the period were Predator (1987) and its efficient sequel Predator 2 (1990), Leviathan (1989), The Abyss (1989) – where the monsters turn out to be good Aliens – and perhaps the best of them, the spider movie to end all spider movies, Arachnophobia (1990), which has a strong element of social comedy.

Indeed, outright comedy – either at the expense of or through the medium of monster movies – is quite common, with one of the first examples being Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), which in one episode features a giant breast on the rampage. Most monster movie spoofs (there are quite a few) are bad, with Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) being typical in its ineptness. Schlock (1971), on the other hand, featuring a Neanderthal survival rather than a monster proper, is rather funny, as is Larry Cohen's The Stuff (1985), about a passive monster disguised as food. Two subsequent monster-movie satires targeting Middle America are Terrorvision (1986) and Meet the Applegates (1990): the latter ingeniously shows life from the monsters' point of view. This is also true of Monsters, Inc. (2001), whose likable monsters are rehabilitated in Children's SF terms as merely doing their job of scaring children.

Traditional monstrous excesses continue or are reprised in The Relic (1997) – where a thought-to-be-mythical Brazilian forest chimera rampages through a Chicago museum – and in the remade Godzilla (1998); weaponized bats fly amok in Texas in Bats (1999); giant spiders return yet again in Eight Legged Freaks (2002); tentacular and other horrors besiege a supermarket in The Mist (2007); a huge alien monster and its parasites wreck New York in Cloverfield (2008); tornado-borne sharks terrorize the mainland in the Absurdist Sharknado (2013) and its sequels; a UFO-like aerial predator lurks within clouds in Nope (2022); and so on, forever. The monster-movie tradition adapts and mutates – with, of course, increasingly sophisticated use of CGI – but never truly dies. [PN/DRL]

see also: Famous Monsters of Filmland; FJA's Monsterland; Media Magazines; SSSS.Gridman.

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