Fantasy villains are one thing; but why create a convincing monster when you can just raid a zoo, pump the occupants full of steroids, and unleash them on unsuspecting extras. Least that seemed to be the attitude in the 1950’s. The nuclear age had arrived, not that many people understood what the hell it was all about. Writers thus used radioactivity as a convenient plot device for turning assorted wildlife into fifty foot harbingers of death, Them (1954), The Giant Claw (1957), Attack of the Crab Monster (1957), Earth vs. The Spider (1958), The Wasp Woman (1959)
. That was fine at the time but in retrospect the necessary special effects were clearly knocked up by two men in a shed with nothing to use but bits of old washing machine and left over Halloween costumes. Most famously in Tarantula (1955)
the titular beasty was depicted by chucking a large floppy spider onto the roof of a VW beetle and driving it "menacingly” towards its victims. And people actually paid to see this. It wasn’t the idea that was a problem though, just the execution. A mean slice of Mother Nature is always going to pip fictional beasties to the believability post providing the creature can be successfully captured, bottled and discharged onto a theatre screen. Writer Peter Benchley came up with the masterful idea of scribing a genuine story of a creature on the rampage with his 1974 novel Jaws
. The average man in the street didn’t know much about sharks prior to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation of this bestseller. The Great White was the perfect foil then, terrified viewers believing everything they saw on screen thanks to naivety and impressive looking special effects. The first successful creature feature had arrived. A stampede of movies cashed in on Spielberg’s hard work, casting every organism known to man in the lead role, Bug (1975), Grizzly (1976), Orca (1977), The Pack (1977), Tentacles (1977), Claws (1978), Piranha (1978), Alligator (1980)
. Even nature itself got pissed off in Squirm (1976)
and The Long Weekend (1978)
. The flood eventually subsided, but ever since Amity Island was plagued to the tune of $470million in box office takings directors have been desperate to recapture the magic with any animal they can find or concoct, Ticks (1983), Bats (1999), The Rats (2002), Leeches (2003), Frankenfish (2004), Bear (2010), Sharktopus (2010)
. So after raiding the Hollywood pet shops, here are ten thoroughly worthy beasts.
- THE BIRDS (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock was such a genius he could have made a film about paperclips and it would have scared you witless. Having already put people off the humble shower for life, Hitchcock grabbed the Daphne du Maurier short story The Birds and set about ruining the reputation of our fine feathered friends. A good job he made of it to. The Birds (1963) was Hitchcock’s last great film, the director only getting behind the camera four more times after trashing Bodega Bay. Hitch decided that he would retain the premise of Maurier’s story, a family under bird siege in a farmhouse, for his film’s conclusion and expand on the animal’s "fowl” behaviour in the preceding plot. We follow pet store owner Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) as she makes a somewhat unlikely drive up the west coast to deliver a pair of lovebirds to Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a lawyer she meets in her shop. Dubious "meet-cute” out of the way Hitchcock then precedes to work his magic once more. The instances of bird nipping grow steadily more violent as the flock invade the town of Bodega Bay and the plot. The film slowly strangles the breath out of the viewer with numerous shocks throughout, the uptight Lydia discovering the eyeless body of farmer Fawcett being the most jolting. Hitchcock wasn’t afraid to jettison the standards of horror screenplay writing to supplement the violence. The bird attack-exposition back and forth is pushed to one side in favour of unpredictability, none more jarring than Cathy’s seagull battered birthday party immediately preceded by a chimney assault in the Brenner household. The concluding farmhouse entrapment came five year’s prior to Night of the Living Dead (1968) and proved just as chilling. And this is not to mention the countless classic moments that have claimed rightful position in movie folklore, the crows gathering on the climbing frame, the aerial bombardment of Bodega harbour, the silent escape from the Brenner home. And all to a soundtrack that had no music at all, just the ever increasing noise clamour of flapping wings and squawks. Avoid the sequel that nosedived direct to video many years later, The Birds II: Lands End (1994).
Tasty Morsel – Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter had concocted a much more bombastic conclusion with Melanie and the Brenners escaping by car, chased through a desecrated Bodega Bay by pursuing birds. The final shot would be of the Golden Gate Bridge covered with birds. Time and budget would not stretch this far though.
- JAWS (1975)
It would be impossible not to include the inventor of the summer blockbuster in a rundown of the best creature features. Jaws (1975) is such a tremendous film all ten of this chapter’s slots should be dedicated to it. It is simply untouchable. Every element of it is perfect, the casting, the acting, the pacing, the soundtrack, the cinematography, all of it. It is a mark of director Spielberg’s talent that he made the moments away from Bruce the Shark just as enthralling as the time spent swimming for our lives. Roy Scheider made for a brilliant everyman as Chief Brody, Richard Dreyfus provided some welcome comic asides ("It wasn’t Jack the Ripper”) and Robert Shaw was a delight as salty seaman Quint. But even the smaller roles, Murray Hamilton’s Mayor, Jeffrey Kramer’s Hendricks, made for sumptuous viewing. The legends that surround the film have entered folk lore, the arduous shoot, the bewildered Martha’s Vineyard locals, the multiple USS Indianapolis speech rewrites. You could make a film about the film and it would be better than most other movies. A surprisingly adept sequel with a genius tagline ("Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water”) followed three years later Jaws 2 (1978). There were two more outings Jaws 3-D (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987) which both stunk to high heaven. But not even these monstrosities could derail the reputation of Spielberg’s original. So what is there left to say about Spielberg’s masterpiece? Very little as words always fail to do it justice. Movie makers having been chasing Spielberg’s shark tale ever since. Even Peter Benchley, who was less than impressed with the finished film, tried to recapture the magic with his 1991 book Beast about a killer giant squid, and 1994’s White Shark about a Nazi produced shark-human hybrid. Forget the wannabes, forget the imitators; get yourself back down to Amity Island for a taste of the real deal.
Tasty Morsel – Quint’s boat, utilised in the final hunt scenes, was named Orca. Cashing in on the success of Jaws, Michael Anderson directed a film about a killer Killer Whale two years later entitled Orca (1977).
- PIRANHA (1978)
Most of the post Jaws copycats weren’t worth the effort it took watch them. It shouldn’t have been that hard to make a decent imitator; Spielberg offered up such a clear blueprint. One director that did create a solid Amity Island cover version was Joe Dante with Piranha (1978) His villain was a worthy imitator, the piranha fish. This South American menace was like a fist sized shark, sharp teeth and a thirst for meat, that swam in packs. It was a like having a swarm of baby Jaws. It also offered up some neat variety, dwelling in rivers and allowing Dante to move away from Spielberg’s seaside domain. Wisely, Dante ditched the po-faced approach; Spielberg had already done serious and there was no point in trying to top his masterpiece. Instead the director went for part parody and part horror movie. It was a triumphant combo. We follow investigator Maggie (Heather Menzies) and local woodsman Paul (Bradford Dillman) as they look for two missing backpackers. Their search leads them to a secret research facility where they unwittingly unleash a strain of super piranha into the local water system. With the film not taking itself too seriously there are some prime chuckles to be hard, mostly from John Sayles sharp script "Terror, horror, death. Film at eleven” quips one reporter. But the disarming sense of humour leaves you off-guard when the inevitable feeding frenzy begins. Some truly grizzly moments catch you by surprise, none more so than the attack on a group of children taking part in a rubber ring race and the climatic riverbank scene where a host of summer camp guests are stripped of their flesh. The films producer Roger Corman remade the movie in 1995, but unwisely removed the original’s winning sense of humour. A much improved remake Piranha 3D (2010) was released fifteen years later, reverting back to the original’s winning formula of black humour and shocking gore.
Tasty Morsel – Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) was a low budget sequel and the directorial debut of James Cameron. He was also replaced before filming was completed by the film’s Mexican producer.
- ALLIGATOR (1980)
There are two ways to make a good creature feature film. You either go for a genuine story that relies on the plausibility of an actual animal attack to scare the audience out of their wits, a la Jaws or The Birds. Or you piss out of them. You’re doing really well if you manage to pull off both of these methods of animal movie production, and that’s exactly what director Lewis Teague achieved with Alligator (1980). John Sayles and Frank Ray Perilli’s script manages the double treat of lampooning the likes of Grizzly (1976) and Claws (1978) whilst retaining all the best large beast on the rampage tension that the Spielberg’s Amity Island picture used to such terrifying effect. Building on that well known urban legend the film kicks off with a pet alligator flushed down the toilet, into the maze of sewer pipes under Chicago. Over the next twelve years the croc feeds on animal carcasses discarded by an animal testing factory experimenting in growth hormones. The unwanted side effect is a massive increase in metabolic rate, resulting it the discarded ‘gator growing an insatiable appetite and an impressive thirty six foot frame. When dead animals fail to satisfy its hunger the creature turns to nibbling on unsuspecting sewer workers. Robert Forster is the Chicago cop who must team up with reptile expert Robin Riker, the alligator’s who original owned the flushed alligator to put a stop to the creature’s man eating ways. The story is has pace to spare, coupled with many knowing moments of subtle genre satire and a surprising amount of dread given its low budget b-movie trappings. Though the film failed to take a large haul at the box office, a cult following grew, strong enough to prompt a sequel ten years later, Alligator II: The Mutation (1991). None of the original characters returned, and the follow up failed to replicate any of the winning traits from Teague’s enjoyable original.
Tasty Morsel – Oddly, a board game based on the movie was released by the Ideal Toy Company not long after the film’s release.
- CUJO (1983)
It’ll be a startling discovery indeed if they ever find out where Stephen King gets his ideas from. How the writer ever thought he could craft an entire novel out of the idea of a St. Bernard dog getting rabies is anyone’s guess, but he did. His 1981 novel Cujo was another fantastic page turner, his twelfth bestseller in seven years (including those under his Richard Bachman pen name). Two years following its release Tafy Entertainment took a gamble on a movie adaptation hoping to follow the success of King’s first two novel to film offerings Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980). Though director Lewis Teague’s film failed to scale the heights of these pictures, it was a fine addition to the creature feature horror sub-genre. A cinematic a slow burner the film took its time to reach its shattering final act, the only moment that gets the blood pumping during this build up a tense mist shrouded Cujo stalking an unfortunate soil. The climax is worth the effort though as housewife Dee Wallace finds herself stranded in her broken down car with her young son on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Outside a rabid Cujo is eyeing them up for his next meal, while inside the temperature creeps to unbearable levels as the sun bakes the family estate car. When Cujo mauls an inquisitive policeman to death all looks lost for Wallace’s Donna, particular when the dog starts smashing holes in the car windows. With one successful killer croc film under his belt, Alligator (1980), director Teague knew how to craft a tense set piece. But the finally forty five minutes of Cujo is one of the most terrifyingly claustrophobic conclusions in movie history. Credit must also go to Wallace who handled her challenging role with great skill, and the effects team and dog handlers who some how manage to dress up and transform the dogs cast as Cujo into the dogs from hell. How exactly Teague filmed the shots of him acting Wallace’s knackered motor with such real ferocity is a movie marvel.
Tasty Morsel – King has gone on record saying due to his alcohol problems at the time, he remembers very little if anything about writing the original novel.
- RAZORBACK (1984)
There was a skewed perception of Australia in the eighties. You can thank Mad Max (1979) for that. According to Max Rockatansky Australia was a barren dustbowl inhabited by bucktoothed weirdos decidedly hostile to "sheilas” and anyone that didn’t speak with an Aussie twang. Being that Australia is a twelve day plane ride away no one bothered to check whether this was actually the case. Plum pickings for a horror movie then. Taking advantage of this rusty wilderness director Russell Mulcahy filmed Razorback (1984) an adaptation of the 1982 Peter Brennan novel of the same name. The killer beast of choice was a wild boar that had grown to the size of a small car. Stocky, powerful, a snout full of teeth and tusks, it made for a formidable opponent. Into its path comes animal rights activist and reporter Beth (Judy Morris). Via some hands-on, rapey locals Beth becomes hog food. Her boyfriend Carl (Gregory Harrison) heads to the outback to find his lost beau. Mulcahy could have gone for the lazy option of making a straight forward Jaws rip-off but instead he aimed for something slightly more interesting. Mulcahy’s Australia is clichéd but he uses the exaggerated setting and characterisation to invoke all the best Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) vibes. Coupled with some wonderful lighting and imagery, the purples of night, the oranges of day, the decaying detritus of outback life, and an unexpected and unsettling hallucination sequence for our hero Carl, Razorback over achieves in areas it has no business straying into. What lets the film down slightly are the parts that should have been the easiest to create, the beast itself. The killer pig is wisely kept in the shadows but even then it looks like it cost all of twenty Australian dollars to knock up. Still, a fine slaughter house finale makes up for the lack of wild boar accuracy.
Tasty Morsel – The abuse of Australia in eighties cinema got so bad it actually coined its own sub-genre, so called "Ozploitation” films.
- ARACHNOPHOBIA (1991)
Everyone is afraid of spiders. Even those that say they aren’t would fill their underwear with brown if a gang of multi-eyed hairies hot-footed it in their direction. Prime villainy for a horror film then, bar the fact that they are notoriously difficult to manipulate and imitate. Directors have been trying to utilise arachnoids for decades and with the exception of some game supporting roles it hasn’t gone well. The first and only film to capture spiders in all their skin-crawling glory was Frank Marshall’s Spielberg-esque Arachnophobia (1991). Marshall had been a successful film producer, with the likes of Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981), The Colour Purple (1985), Back to the Future (1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) on his resume, bit Arachnophobia was his first time behind the camera as a director. It was a fantastic directorial debut and a winner at the box office. Playing on people’s built in fears, the sharp script sprinkled all manner of sickeningly plausible scenarios throughout the film once a local Californian cross breeds with an eight legged illegal immigrant; spiders in the shower, spiders in the barn, spiders in the American football helmet. Amongst the chaos is the spider fearing Jeff Daniels who moves to the sunny town of Canaima as the new local doctor. As the town’s population start to meet sticky web-induced ends the doctor must confront his fears and kill the mother of all spiders in order to stop the killer beasts from spreading. The horror is tempered nicely by a winning turn by John Goodman as the comic exterminator Delbert. But even so, its impossible to watch the movie without itching your legs and shifting in your seat every five minutes as your brain tricks you into creating your own accompanying spider infested living room. Cinema patrons at the time had much worse to contend with though, thanks to wily kids who took great delight livening up an afternoon showing by dropping plastic spiders on fellow audience members.
Tasty Morsel – Despite hitting a debut home run Marshall has to date only gotten behind the camera three more times, Alive (1993), Congo (1995), and Eight Below (2006).
- LAKE PLACID (1999)
Director and producer Steve Miner was no stranger to horror cinema by the time the twentieth century came to an end, with the likes of Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) and House (1986) in his back catalogue. But by the mid nineties Miner was stuck directing episodes of popular daytime television shows such as Diagnosis: Murder and Dawson’s Creek. A relative successful return to mainstream cinema directing with Halloween: H20 (1998) saw the director offered the chance to bring a smart creature feature script from David E Kelley to the big screen. The effort was released as Lake Placid (1999) was a surprise hit with audiences, almost doubling its $27million budget. Surprisingly for a film with such blatant genre origins, Miner was able to compile an accomplished cast with some marquee names in the form of Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt and Brenan Gleeson. The story is pure Jaws tribute, with a rogue thirty foot long crocodile stalking the fictional Black Lake, in Maine. Local Sheriff Gleeson teams up with Games officers Pullman, palaeontologist Fonda and crocodile expert Platt to track the beast down and save anymore locals being snatched for a death roll. As with all the best creature features, the script is smart, avoiding all the usual clichés in favour of smart, knowing quips to pep up the slower moments between all the croc chomping action, "Obviously some asshole in Hong Kong flushed him down the toilet”. The larger than usual budget for this sort of picture helps, and the crocodile when glimpsed looks suitably believable. But the best aspect is that everyone involved seems to be having so much fun, openly aware that Lake Placid isn’t going to take them to the stage of the Kodak Theatre but giving it their all anyway. The pleasant surprise of an impressive box office take ensured that the series slithered its way to three more straight-to-dvd sequels, Lake Placid 2 (2007), Lake Placid 3 (2010), and Lake Placid: The Final Chapter (2012).
Tasty Morsel – Despite delivering the box office goods Miner’s cinematic career was not revitalised and he returned to television directing work.
- BLACK SHEEP (2007)
Despite the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, its New Zealand setting and director did not inspire a Kiwi movie invasion. Aside from movies that benefitted from Peter Jackson tinkling (King Kong (2005), The Lovely Bones (2009), District 9 (2009)) the flow of films from New Zealand was minimal. But one novice director decided to delve into Jackson’s back catalogue for more direct inspiration. In so doing Jonathan King wrote and directed one of the finest horror comedy films of recent years. We meet Henry, returning to the sheep farm he grew up on. The farm is now run by his older brother Angus thanks to his father’s untimely death chasing a lamb over a cliff edge. A nasty childhood prank involving a dead sheep has made Henry terrified of sheep. But on this final visit to the farmstead Henry’s fears become justified as Angus’ new genetically engineered sheep bring a new meaning to the term wolf in sheep’s clothing. Taking all the best elements of Jackson’s Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992), King somehow managed to cram trough fulls of over the top gore into a "15” rated movie. He also managed to extract humour and terror out of cinema’s most unlikely killer beast, the cuddly sheep. A sharp script helped immensely, "Fuck the sheep...no time for that bro, go, go go!” and considering that this was King’s debut effort it is slightly disappointing that he has yet to go on to bigger things, his only directorial follow-up to date a feature length remake of the New Zealand television series Under the Mountain (2009).
Tasty Morsel – Keep an eye out for a cameo from King as the man pulled down by sheep while trying to find the keys to his car.
- ROGUE (2007)
Jaws may be the ultimate creature feature, but for sheer numbers the crocodile / alligator has delivered the most watchable rampaging animal flicks to date, and our third croc entry here comes courtesy of writer / director Greg McLean. The Aussie had caused a stir two years prior with Wolf Creek (2005) a project he almost single-handedly dragged into cinemas. Achieving a $28million take on a budget of $1.3million the box office success coupled with unusually glowing reviews from critics for a genre piece ensured that McLean could practically choose any film project to shoot next. Just as Wolf Creek had been loosely based on the abduction of two British backpackers, McLean turned to real life for further inspiration. In the late 1970s a five and a half metre crocodile that was nicknamed Sweetheart took to chewing on small boats and dinghies in the northern territories of Australia. McLean placed the Jaws template over the top of this and fashioned a tale of a sizeable croc chomping on people rather than small fishing boats. The set up follows an Australian wildlife cruise that brings together the standard mix of animal fodder to see who has the brains and luck to go the distance. Though fairly unknown at the time, retrospectively the cast includes some solid acting talent in the form of Radha Mitchell, Sam Worthington, and Mia Wasikowska; this and a slightly more cinematic pace ensured that McLean’s picture just topped fellow Aussie killer croc pic Black Water (2007) the was released the same year. The suspense is built nicely by McLean over the first half, borrowing again from Spielberg’s shark template by keeping his killer hidden for much of the early running. Characters are presented and played sympathetically so that once the croc is unleashed there is quite a bit of vested interest as to who makes it to the final credits. McLean’s eye of a great shot used to well in his debut picture is on display here again, pushing the b-movie story beyond its genre limitations. But Unfortunately for McLean Rogue ‘s performance at the box office was the exact reverse of Wolf Creek, taking just $4.5million on a budget of $26million. The director has yet to get back behind the camera, though a sequel to Wolf Creek is rumoured this year.
Tasty Morsel – Keep an eye out for Wolf Creek’s terrifying killer Mick in the form of actor John Jarratt, returning for his second McLean picture.