Desert Island Films: Creature Features


        With the invention of cinema, there were two notable pioneering filmmakers who experimented in remarkably different ways with the medium. The Lumière brothers began making some of the first films by simply setting up the camera in various settings, the very first being footage of employees leaving a factory. They were also the filmmakers who shot the film of the train arriving at the station, which frightened audiences as was shown in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Even as they went on to make films of staged actions, the Lumière brothers stayed grounded in realism, while George Méliès can be said to have shaped the future of cinema upon its initial experimentation by taking a particular interest in the fantasy elements. While the Luis Lumière and his brother pioneered the technical aspects of cinema, it was Méliès who would show what the medium was truly capable of with A Trip to the Moon (1902) and countless others. Among them was the first monster movie ever made.


In 1907 Méliès created a parodied version of Jules Verne novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in a short film, thus creating the first creature feature. It was later adapted into a feature film in 1916, featuring the first underwater photography. Even more significant was the giant octopus which is essential to the film. There is nothing monstrous about the octopus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, except for the size of the beast, presumably due to the extreme depths of the ocean the submarine has submerged.



The same could be said of King Kong (1933), whose monster is a giant ape existing on an island containing a prehistoric circle of life that also includes dinosaurs. The ape in King Kong only becomes monstrous when confined and enslaved in the metropolis, New York City, which he does not enter on his own. Even his legendary climb to the top of the Empire State Building is a desperate attempt at escape, not an act of destruction. These early creatures are anomalies in size, though they are only violent when we disrupt them or their environment and because of this their destruction (often by military force) is seen as tragic.


        The large creatures disappeared from cinemas, until the 1950s when Hydrogen bomb testing “was the timely motive behind the resurrection or mutation of gigantic monsters in matinee features” (Worland 78). The first of these features was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), in which a hibernating dinosaur is unthawed when an atomic bomb is tested in the Arctic Circle. The dinosaur named Rhedosaurus attacks New York, and is eventually taken out with a radioactive isotope launcher handled by the military.


With the clear warnings about the dangers of the atomic bomb, it comes as no surprise to find that “the only nation ever attacked by atomic bombs, produced the decade’s most famous radioactive giant;” Godzilla. Japan’s famous monster, Gojira, a creature awakened by American nuclear weapon testing, was based on a real-life scenario in which a Japanese fishing boat was contaminated during similar testing (Worland 78). In 1956 the radioactive monster came to the United States with Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), with the references to the actual atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki removed from this version. Gojira is not the Japanese translation for Godzilla, but is a combination of the words gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale), the two animals Godzilla was originally meant to be a cross of. He was also conceived as a giant octopus before the dinosaur-like creature was decided upon.


Godzilla became the most iconic radioactive monster, but there were many others. Another dinosaur-like creature attacked London in Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959), while other monsters combined the radioactive theme with the previously popular enlargement of ordinary animals. It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) features a radioactive octopus wreaking havoc on San Francisco, atomically enlarged ants attack people in Them! (1954), and Tarantula (1955) involved enlarged spiders.


The creature-feature appropriately dissipated, until its return in the politically turbulent 1970s. There was a return to the simple fear of animals attacking after the box office success of Willard (1971), a film in which a social misfit uses his pet rats to enact his revenge. The films following Willard removed the human element, with the exception of the hormone-induced attacks from the giant rabbits in Night of the Lepus (1972). The amphibious attacks in Frogs (1972) are in response to excessive pollution, and while other creatures are abnormal only in size and aggressiveness, the frogs are deadly only due to massive numbers. There was also a remake of King Kong (1976) as well as another film with a giant ape wreaking havoc, Ape (1976), but the most significant of the giant creatures was found in Jaws (1975).


        The next wave came in the 1990s, though the creature-feature was less commonly employed in the horror genre, with an occasional exception. There were additional large-animal creatures such as large snakes in Anaconda (1997), giant deadly worms in Tremors (1990), a giant crocodile in Lake Placid (1999) and cockroaches in Mimic (1997).


        From its beginnings the creature film has often represented a lost or untouched ecosystem in a distant land, disturbed by human capitalism and war. Other times the creature represents the way in which nature has been mutated into a monster by the same human folly. In order to convey this message, the monster is rarely entirely unsympathetic, though its destruction is inevitable. We experience first-hand the injustices served by humanity in order to deserve the attack, often with an implicit message about pollution, nuclear or otherwise. Otherwise the creature is a mutation of normality, often due to the scientific experimentation on animals.


5. Jaws (1975)


The monster in Jaws is a gigantic great white shark terrorizing a peaceful American beach community, particularly the heroic protagonist of the film, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the new Chief of Police in Amity Island. Just as with the unsympathetic creatures of the 50s, Jaws shows that the monster’s destruction is possible due to the culmination of an effort made by military and/or the scientific community, if only on a smaller scale than previously seen. Three men set out on a mission to kill the creature, including Brody, Captain Quint (Robert Shaw), and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an employee of the Oceanographic Institute and representation of the scientific community.


Spielberg managed to personalize the terror, making it small-scale and familiar to anyone who has stepped into the ocean. This was the first film I watched that had truly frightening and gruesome images as a child, and it stuck with me. I can still close my eyes and picture the severed leg of the fisherman floating through the water, or Shaw’s final moments with the shark. I can play this film in my head because the number of times I have already seen it, but get caught up in it each time I watch it again.



4. The Host (2006)

The Host is a creature film, but there is remarkable effort to make this a film about the characters in peril more than the creature in question. The film follows a family as they try and find their youngest family member, who is struggling to survive in the creature’s nest deep in a sewer. There are many things going on besides the creature, but the essence of the film could at any minute switch back to horror should it randomly appear. Like many horror movies, The Host is a survival film. It is also a family-in-peril horror movie, somewhat like Jaws, Alien and Little Miss Sunshine all wrapped up into one South Korean gem.


Just as Jaws made the beach seem frightening and suspect, The Host turns the Han River, a dull and unexciting river running through much of Korea, into a horrifying co-creator and home for a monster to emerge one day to wreak havoc on the city. The creature is created when an American scientist tells a lowly Korean assistant to pour dozens of bottles of chemicals into the sink. This begins a theme against authority running through the film. It isn’t just American authority, although they don’t look that great at any one point, but all authority, including Korean officials and police officers.


The authority figures are of no help when a young girl is taken with her family left grieving, but even more shocking is their refusal to help when the family receives a phone call from the girl letting them know she is still alive and being held in the creature’s lair within the sewer. With the authorities claiming the phone call to be just a bad dream or grief, the family decides to break free from quarantine and escape to rescue her themselves.


Her father, a near narcoleptic bum, her grandfather, the owner of a small snack shop by the river, her aunt, a world famous archer, and her uncle, a college graduate who can’t find a job, all equip themselves as best they can and set out to kill the creature and save their youngest family member. Far better than I could have expected in terms of scale and emotional attachment to characters within a horror film, The Host is one of the best monster film in decades.


3. The Descent (2005)


        With the first two creatures on this list being monsters found under the sea, the third lives underground in a wholly unique vision of the creature feature from British genre director Neil Marshall. When a cave expedition turns disastrous, the explorers become hunted by underground predators vaguely resembling humans. These creatures were so unique and frightening in their conception that they were utilized in garnering sincere performances from the cast full of females. The cast was not even permitted to see what the creatures looked like until filming the scenes in which they were being confronted by them.


        This was Marshall’s second feature, and he seemed to be composing a perfect viewing companion to his male-dominated debut feature, Dog Soldiers. Though his werewolves were all men, The Descent is an almost entirely female cast. The female victims are not squealing sorority girls caught in states of undress as you might see in a typical slasher, but this is a group of bad-ass extreme sporting girls who stumble into an unfortunate situation. The success of the first film brought Marshall an opportunity to direct his first Hollywood blockbuster and inspired a decent sequel.


Though there are the usual problems that come with a horror sequel, The Descent: Part 2 still manages to bring on the occasional chilling moment. The creatures have lost the same impact, but the claustrophobic qualities of the setting remains as harrowing as the original. When the last remaining survivor from the previous incident emerges from the Appalachian cave system, she conveniently has forgotten what was encountered underground. This provides the perfect opportunity for a brash Sheriff and some tough rescue workers to reenter the cave with the traumatized victim. Once again people are dying before they can find a way out, and it seems like they just continue to go deeper underground with the blind flesh-eating creatures.



2. Cloverfield (2008)


        In truth there is little original about Cloverfield, but it is the combination of the familiar elements and a short running time that makes the film enjoyable. Immediately upon the release of Cloverfield it was compared to The Blair Witch Project, because the entire film is shot as though it were simply a home video. This found-footage style has become its own sub-genre in horror cinema recently, though Cloverfield was the first creature feature to utilize the method. This means inevitable shaky camera movement and a grainy quality, but while The Blair Witch Project established itself on the fear of something never really seen, Cloverfield makes certain to show plenty of the feared creature.


        The Host has nearly the exact same plot as Cloverfield, with the difference being a creature attacking Seoul rather than New York. Both are creatures without much explanation and both are so effective at destroying the cities that they must be quarantined. While The Host has a family traveling back into the city in order to find a young child missing from their group, Cloverfield follows a group of friends in search of a lost member of their group in New York.


        Long-time collaborator with Abrams, Matt Reeves, may seem an odd selection for director of Cloverfield, especially considering Reeves has only directed one feature before and it was quite unsuccessful, but he also spent a great deal of time working on the night-time soap, Felicity. Again, this may seem a strange shift, but Reeves brings the soap-opera mentality from the New York series and this helps to fill in the moments void of action.. The lack of humor allows for a quick delivery of excitement and thrills, perhaps not a lasting film for discussion, but certainly an enjoyable and creative use of familiar elements combined in an unfamiliar way. It is worth mentioning that Reeves also directed the number one film in my Desert Island Vampire Films List.


The physical body of the creature in Cloverfield is dissimilar to any one animal on Earth. Unlike the city-ravishing monsters of the 50s, there is no bomb testing or nuclear pollution, nor is there any other explanation for the creature’s sudden attacks that justify them. The creature arrives suddenly and begins destroying New York City, beginning with the Statue of Liberty. The creature has four legs, though the front ones are much larger like a gorilla. The backside almost looks reptilian, with a long tail extended beyond the hind legs, and feeding tubes on the creature’s side resemble additional limbs. Although individual elements of the creature could be specified to individual animals, it is the size that is truly abnormal and horrifying.


Embedded in single frames within the few jarring edits of the film, there are images placed from King Kong (1933), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Them! (1954). This may be a hint suggesting that the creature in Cloverfield is a combination of all three, though the origins of the creature’s biological structure have been kept secret even since the release of the film. A sequel was discussed for years. The concept of an additional camera being filmed at another part of the city during the same evening was the main preliminary plans for the sequel, but it was never developed.


1. The Mist (2007)


        The creatures in The Mist also retain a certain amount of mystery, though their origins are briefly hinted at. The variety of creatures suggests an alternate ecosystem in which humans are the weakest species. Some of the creatures in the film resemble enlarged and altered versions of animals and insects found on Earth, while others are entirely otherworldly. There are creatures which are insects, though their size is abnormally large and their sting brutally deadly. There are also spiders that spin webs of acidic silk and winged creatures which essentially resemble a type of bird, but the larger the creature becomes the further its appearance is from normality. The last creature to be discovered is a giant six-legged behemoth with countless tentacles.


The creatures in The Mist come suddenly, though there is much debate as to their actual existence. Their initial discreetness is due to the thick mist that arrives with them. Hearing the screams of those the victims stuck in the mist, the survivors in a local grocery store are too frightened to discover the truth for themselves. The point-of-view of the audience remains with the victims in the grocery store.

        The film begins with a storm which has hit a small lakeside community in Louisiana. The storm damages the home of movie poster artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane), uprooting his grandfather’s tree and partially destroying the house. The storm also damages the car of their neighbor, Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), a man David disagrees with so much that he even took his dispute to court for some unexplained reason. Despite the fact that these men don’t get along, they seem joined initially by the damage of the storm, David offering Brent a ride into town


        David takes his five-year-old son, Billy (Nathan Gamble) with him to the grocery store, and upon entering we are immediately given a distinct taste of the small-town community. Highlighted among the customers is a religious fanatic, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), the first to begin declaring that Armageddon has arrived when the mist arrives. Confined within the grocery store, this group is a diverse community with several individuals that have varying opinions of the events.

On one extreme side of the community is Mrs. Carmody insisting that the creatures want ‘expiation,’ believing that the attacks are warranted and humanity is deserving of the punishment. The other alternative for David and his son lies with the unknown dangers lying within the sudden mist that has surrounded the grocery store and its community. This film frightens me on every possible level, from the intensely emotional storyline to the diabolical creatures of a remarkable variety. Directed by Frank Darabont (“The Walking Dead”), The Mist marks the third film adaptation he has done of a story by Stephen King after The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.

  Click HERE for more Desert Island Lists


Maddrey, Joseph. Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American

Horror Film. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2004.  Print.

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 


No comments: