The Films of the Solo Beatles series will continue in March (hopefully). January turned out to be an unexpectedly busy month, so watching those films, taking notes, researching their production and other minutia, and then writing it all up in a breezy 5000+ words just wasn’t in the cards.
The following article originally appeared in the Idle Times zine, Issue #1 (Fall 2008). Please note that some strident opinions have softened or changed entirely over the last decade-and-a-half, and there are some turns of phrase I would not have chosen at a later point in my writing “career.”
“There were giants in the earth in those days, and also afterward…” — Genesis 6:4
“Everybody said there was no honed iron hard enough to pierce him through, no time-proofed blade that could cut his brutal blood-caked claw…” — Beowulf, l.983-89
Human beings are by nature vulnerable. We have no thick hide, no tusks (unfortunately — wouldn’t that be cool?), nor any natural camouflage. We’re just six-foot tubes of delicious pink meat. All we have to protect ourselves is our comparatively turbo-charged brains — which is a double-edged sword. We have the mental ability to dominate the natural world, but also the ability to scare ourselves by imagining the most unnatural horrors.
When primitive humans huddled around the fire, they told tales of what lurked beyond the sheltering ring of light. Shaggy or scaly things, with sharp claws and dripping fangs. Waiting for a dim-witted or simply unlucky Cro-Magnon to wander just far enough into the darkness…
The best monster movies tap into this primal fear that’s been hard-wired into our psyches. So, what truly defines a “monster movie”? First of all, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a “horror” movie (although it helps), it just needs to make us humans feel very, very defenseless. Monsters should be an external threat. None of this “the-worst-monster-is-inside-us” psychological bullshit. So Hannibal Lecter, Joan Crawford, and their ilk are out. (Sorry, Mommie Dearest fans.) Monsters are also a very corporeal threat. Scary as they can be, ghosts are not monsters. Not even if they can wreak havoc in the physical world. No poltergeists, demons that make you do unspeakable things with a crucifix, or Freddy Krugers. The jury’s still out on whatever the hell Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are. They are certainly physical, but their inability to be permanently killed suggests ghosts or “undead” as opposed to human. But it’s a moot point because 1) their movies are really shitty (except for the first Halloween), and 2) I am officially declaring the “Unkillable Slasher” film to be its own separate genre, and you can read all about it in the Things That Suck ‘zine. But not here.
So to sum up, a monster should be able to eat you, stomp on you, or at the very least, carry you off…
#5 — The Undead
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)*
The performance by Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster was a double triumph. It combined a simple sensitivity with the ever-present threat of hulking brutality. The make-up designed by Jack Pierce is positively iconic. No modern audience can think of the Monster without picturing the lank black hair over a squared-off skull, the green-tinted skin, the neck bolts — all from the imagination of Pierce. (Why green make-up? It photographed as the perfect shade of corpse-like gray on black-and-white film. Gray make-up would look too white. Some color stills were released to the press, and the Monster has been imagined as green ever since.)
Bride of Frankenstein ranks slightly above the 1931 original in most people’s opinion because it incorporates a lush score (like many early talkies, the original had no music), its eerily beautiful set design, and visionary director James Whale’s imagery and highly theatrical humor. For those of you who dig subtext, watch for all the religious themes and iconography, and the homosexual undercurrents. Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorious might as well be credited as the first openly gay leading character in film history. (No, he doesn’t come right out and say it — this was 1935, after all. But some of his cleverly insinuating dialogue and the entire physicality of his performance left no one in any doubt, even in 1935.)
When it comes right down to it, as dated as they sometimes seem, all monster movies owe a tip of the hat to the classic Universal Studios monsters of the 1930s and ‘40s. Human-sized, awash in pathos, these creatures did not ask to be what they are — but if you cross them they will fuck you up.
#4 — The Hubris of Man
GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956)
Saturday night/Sunday morning. 3 AM. Can’t sleep. Sandwiched between infomercials and increasingly desperate Girls Gone Wild ads, one can usually find an old monster movie. Count yourself lucky if it’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters. (Count yourself cursed if it’s the 1998 travesty of a remake.) GKOM is the U.S. version of the 1954 Japanese original Gojira, about nuclear fallout that brings to life an enormous mutant dinosaur. The film was Americanized by toning down the bitter recriminations over Hiroshima, and adding footage of Raymond Burr as an American reporter (“Steve Martin ”) in Japan. He interacts with the Japanese cast through the use of body doubles and clever editing, and the process is surprisingly well done.
Despite the editor’s scissors’ careful elimination of too many references to a certain country using a certain weapon on a certain other country, make no mistake, Godzilla is clearly an atomic-powered monster. And he’s not the friendly nuclear dino of later sequels, defending the Home Islands against other mutant threats. No, in ‘56 he’s pissed. He rages, stomps, sinks ships, and burns thousands of innocents to a crisp with his radioactive halitosis. The lesson here is that there are Some Things In Which Man Is Not Meant To Meddle, and splitting the atom may just be one of them. Godzilla’s first appearance is quite late into the film, setting a pattern that all good monster movies of the future follow. Show little glimpses, show some damage and casualties, build up the tension before the big reveal. There’s no way to avoid the fact that the “big reveal” here reveals a guy in a rather cheap-looking rubber lizard suit, but if your powers of disbelief-suspension are strong enough, you’ll go along with it.
Collector’s Note: After decades of unavailability, the 1954 original can finally be obtained as a bonus disc included with the 2006 GKOM DVD. At the risk of angering purisits, it’s no better than the U.S. re-cut. It’s about 15 minutes longer, and most of that is emotional discussions about atomic energy.
#3 — The Thing From “Out There”
“In space, no one can hear you scream,” ran one of the greatest taglines in cinema history. We’re talking primal fear, remember, and fear of the dark is one of our most basic. It’s why those cavemen huddled close to that fire. It’s why the majority of children sleep with the soft glow of a favorite cartoon character glimmering in a nearby outlet. It’s why me, a grown-ass man, will pop on my bedroom TV after a particularly vivid nightmare. Why do we fear the dark? BECAUSE WE CAN’T FUCKING SEE ANYTHING IN IT. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. Who knows what’s lurking where we can’t see. Escaped circus animals, psychotic dismemberment aficionados off their meds, and…monsters. There’s always that possibility. We know there’s “no such thing,” but that assuredness slips just a tad in the dark, doesn’t it? And what is outer space but airless, silent, eternal dark? Midnight that goes on to infinity. And our confident daytime knowledge that there’s no such thing as monsters isn’t worth a bronzed turd, because we don’t know what such things could be…out there.
Maybe aliens are gentle, elf-like beings with glowing fingertips and hearts, and big, expressive anime eyes. Or maybe aliens are slavering, nine-foot insectoid beasts with a double set of jaws and a taste for human flesh, not to mention the ability to move at blinding speeds and lay their eggs in live human hosts by ramming an ovipositor down their throats, which “hatch” several days later in Technicolor glory right as the human host is sitting down for a nice meal after recovering from the earlier (very traumatic) ovipositor incident.
Guess which one this movie’s about?
#2 — Freaks of Nature (Part A: Land)
KING KONG (1976)
Straight off I should state that none of the three versions of King Kong are particularly frightening…to an adult. Kong himself, for all his ferocity, is presented as a figure to be pitied, exploited as he is by cruel, unfeeling Man. The 1933 version is rightly considered a classic, with Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation of the rabbit-furred gorilla puppet on the cutting edge of the era’s special effects. Peter Jackson’s somewhat overblown 2005 remake also had its thrilling moments. The Skull Island natives were shockingly creepy (my young son scooted from the room as soon as they came on). However, it physically shrank and totally de-scarified the great ape, to the point of having him skitter across a frozen pond like a big-pawed puppy.
The 1976 version starring Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin, and the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges, cannot in any objective way measure up to either of the other versions. It has enough hammy acting, atrocious dialogue, and implausible situations for two Michael Bay films. But I gotta be honest with you folks…this is the version that lives in my head. It scared the ever-loving piss out of me when I was two-and-a-half years old. Kong was bigger and scarier here than in any other incarnation. This is clearly indicated by the movie’s poster, where the mighty Kong has one foot firmly atop each of the World Trade Center towers, crushing an enormous aircraft in one hand, fur standing on end, and bellowing with a look of pure bloodlust on his simian face.
I have no conscious recollection of actually seeing this movie for the first time. It came out in December of 1976, and I was told at some point that we saw it in the family station wagon at the drive-in, probably in the spring or summer of ‘77 (big event movies, especially in the pre-home video days of drive-ins and “second run” theaters, stayed in release for a lot longer back then). All I know is that I spent the remainder of my preschool years in constant terror of gorillas or anything resembling a gorilla. I had nightmares of my family, including grandma, grandpa, and aunts & uncles, decapitated and devoured en masse by an enormous gorilla. When I was trying to fall asleep at night, every click and pop of the house settling was the sound of Kong, crouching outside in my backyard, tapping his massive, human-like black fingernail against the roof or wall as he bided his time until the inevitable attack. My older sister had a jigsaw puzzle version of the poster described above that I insisted she keep hidden at the top of her closet. (She mostly did — but would occasionally put it in various places around the house where I would be sure to find it and run shrieking from the room.)
The fear passed around the time I started school and I got on with my life, but I’ve viewed the film several times since then, and despite it being pretty terrible, there are some key sequences that can leave a frightening imprint on an impressionable mind. Kong himself had none of the herky-jerky phoniness of the 1933 film, nor the ultra-slick CGI of the 2005 version. It is clearly a man in a suit (make-up wizard Rick Baker, in fact), giving the monster a horrible, human-like bi-pedlaness. He walks upright, and in the early phases of his final escape, squashes fleeing humans with every step. The camera lingers almost lovingly on their broken bodies as he lifts his foot. The build-up to his appearance at the massive gate on Skull Island is almost unbearably tense, and one of the few sequences in the film that truly works as intended. There are repeated close-ups of Kong’s face, with his wide, staring eyes peering right at you. Enough to give an innocent 2 or 3-year-old a good case of the jitters as he huddles in his Grover jammies, waiting for the ceiling above him to give way and an enormous furry paw to snatch him up.
#1 — Freaks of Nature (Part B: Water)
Jaws taps into our primal fears better than any other movie. When we’re toddlers lying in our cribs or little race car beds, what is it we think the monsters will do to us? That’s right. Eat us. (See Kong fears above.) And that’s just what the great white shark in Jaws likes to do most. On top of which, shark attacks happen in an element where we humans are least at home. Our bodies are not meant for water. On the few occasions when I have swum out to depths above my head in a natural body of water (such a wrong thing to do), the merest brush of kelp or seaweed on my foot causes me to yip like a scalded Chihuahua and splash comically toward the shore. And reality TV-wise, what is Deadliest Catch without the ever-present threat of the sea? Ax Men, that’s what, and that’s no good for anyone.
So here we have the story of water-hating, boat-hating, uptight Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who happens to be the police chief of an island community that exists on the bounty the beaches provide — tourism. When a killer shark shatters the idyll by attacking swimmers, Brody must face his fears and do something about it.
Brody reluctantly takes to the high seas, aided by shark-hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and ichthyologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) for the final third of the film, and we see how isolated they are. Nothing but sea and sky, and their ramshackle little fishing vessel that begins falling apart, bit by bit, as it sustains repeated assaults by the massive shark. And I do mean massive. We’re aware that the dimensions of the shark as described in the film (25 feet long and 6000 pounds) are just within the realm of scientific possibility, which adds to our fear. It really could happen. It’s not pure fantasy. There is no pathos or pity for the monster here. It is the quintessential example of the Godless Killing Machine.
John Williams’ creepy score has become synonymous with being stalked by an unseen horror, and this movie made the career of the relatively unknown Steven Spielberg. Its numerous inferior sequels and knock-offs, and the money-grubbing “blockbuster” mentality it inspired in studios should not be held against this amazing, edge-of-your-seat adventure, one that still packs a few jolts for those who haven’t seen it. Yes, they exist. Feel free to strike them. No court would convict you.
Quint’s gripping monologue about the fate of the USS Indianapolis illustrates the battle they are fighting is only the latest installment of an age-old conflict: Man vs. Nature. Or, in our primitive Cro-Magnon cores, Man vs. Monsters. For most of the crew of the Indianapolis, the monsters won.
Bear with me, this idea has been kicking around my head for awhile, I got a little obsessed with it for a day or two, and this is as good a place as any to dump it.
The Jaws sequels were mostly garbage. This is inarguable. (Although 1978’s Jaws 2 did give us a tagline even greater that Alien: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”)
How about a Jaws…prequel?
Normally, I am against prequels. Too much backstory can be detrimental to a fictional character. (You don’t have to look any further than the Star Wars prequels for literally dozens of examples of this.) A prequel will usually have to re-cast, which ruins the chemistry that was created between the original actors and takes you out of the world the first film(s) built. The other option is to go ahead and use the original actors, who would in real life be older (sometimes by years) than they were in the original film which is supposed to take place later in the timeline.
So, prequels? No thanks.
This idea started rattling around in my head as I sat in my backyard reading chair, puffing on one of the few cigars I allow myself these days. The idea refused to go away. A Jaws prequel…
I decided it would definitely be a prequel to the movie, not Peter Benchley’s rather overwrought pot-boiler of a novel. I think it would be too sprawling for a single film. Maybe it would be a novel (better than Benchley’s). Or, better yet, an HBO Max-style limited series. I told all this to my son, and he decided to cast it. (The same kindergartner who was terrified by the ’05 Skull Islanders is now studying film theory at the university.) His choices: Evan Peters as young Brody, Paul Dano as young Hooper, Callan McAuliffe as very young U.S. Navy Quint (one quibble: he would need blue contact lenses to replicate Quint’s icy glare), and/or Joaquin Phoenix as older, more weathered Quint.
I started spinning the yarn to myself…
We are introduced to Martin Brody — the Martin Brody of 1957. An idealistic, crew-cutted recent police academy graduate just beginning to work the beat for the NYPD in Hell’s Kitchen, or maybe up in the Bronx. He gradually becomes disillusioned as he witnesses the corruption, graft, and racism that runs rampant in big city police departments. On the other hand, he finds happiness in his personal life when he meets an intelligent, above-his-station Wellesley College student named Ellen Shepherd, and begins dating her. They marry and start a family in the early ’60s. But the job is getting to him. He makes detective, works undercover. Gets in a lot of jams, barely escapes. As the ‘60s progress, the drug dealers take control of the streets. Maybe Brody runs afoul of the Mafia around this time. (At this point, picture Roy Scheider in The French Connection, maybe with a little of Pacino’s undercover scruffiness from Serpico.) He is ultimately too soft and sensitive for the realities of this type of work, and medicates more and more with alcohol. He grows moody and tense. After one too many threats against the family (slashed tires, ominous hang-up calls, maybe a rock through the window) Ellen gives him an ultimatum…it’s her and the kids or the NYPD…In the fall of ‘73, they head for a new life on Amity Island.**
We start Matt Hooper’s storyline in the mid-1960s. A “rich kid” from a prominent Brookline family, always the smartest one in the class, and not afraid to show it off. Intense, dark-haired, and fiercely opinionated, he is obsessed with marine biology (sharks in particular, of course) and not at all into the bourgeois social trappings of his family. We see a mismatched romance with a parent-approved daughter of fellow patricians, and perhaps a broken engagement plays out against the Boston College campus protests of 1967. He follows his actual true love to Florida, but it ends in heartbreak. He throws himself into his post-graduate studies at the University of Florida, earning his Ph.D in ichthyology (a quick monatge of him hitting the books and taking blood samples of various marine life can move us through this). Globe-trotting, shark-related adventures ensue — the Red Sea, Great Barrier Reef, etc. (If this is going to be a series, it should have a big budget.) Some exciting risk to life & limb. He grows out his hair and beard, which become bleached by the salt and sun. We end his story with him accepting a job at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and living in a little seashore house, alone with his shark books and the memories of his Florida girl, not knowing a fateful phone call will come one day from a panicked Amity Island police department.
I think Quint should retain at least a little mystery. If the prequel is in novel form, his parts can be told as interludes between chapters…perhaps all in italics to set it apart from Brody’s and Hooper’s stories. At first I thought Quint’s story would be based around his service in WWII as a Petty Officer Second Class on board the USS Indianapolis, focusing on the doomed voyage “from Tinian to Leyte” after the heavy cruiser had delivered crucial parts for the “Little Boy” nuclear bomb and was sunk by a Japanese sub, leading to the horrific shark feeding frenzy that killed hundreds of sailors (supposedly — the historical accuracy of Quint’s story is questionable, but we’re treating it as fact for our purposes.) Visually, the sinking and the sharks could be an amazingly visceral and scary sequence.
Then I thought it would be better to focus on Quint’s adventures in the post-war era, early 1950s, and leave the Indanapolis stuff to Quint’s monologue in the film. We see him in his dissolute years, bumming around from port to port, boozing and brawling (and losing arm-wrestling bouts), all the while suffering from soul-wrenching PTSD. Maybe we see very brief glimpses of his Navy service and the Indianapolis disaster in flashback nightmares. We learn how he acquires the Orca and settles in Amity to become a charter fishing boat captain, taking symbolic revenge with every shark he hooks. Perhaps some drama or storylines could be mined from conflicts with straightlaced Amity town officials, like the smarmy Mayor Vaughn. (And maybe we’ll see the origins of his mysterious, diminutive first mate that trails silently behind him when he leaves the town council meeting in the original film.)
We can jump back and forth between the characters in their different timelines, or have individual episodes or chapters be character-centric.
I’ve clearly given this more thought than it deserves, and decided to write it down here to get it out of my system.
(I borrowed Ellen’s maiden name and alma mater, and Hooper’s grad school, from the Benchley novel — the rest can be tossed.)
*Nowadays, I prefer the second sequel, Son of Frankenstein. Bride is a little over-campy, and the sequence with Dr. Praetorius’ tiny homunculi — while technically brilliant for the time — is really just too silly for words.
**Based on the police report Brody is typing up in an early scene, the film Jaws is set during the summer of 1974.
One response to “From the Archives, 2008 — The Holy Bee’s Top 5 Monster Movies”
Monsters vs Thrillers
Says it in the name … Monsters to me are creatures. The crazies Hannibal and Baby Jane are thrillers, because they are people.
Is there a difference? I guess I think so 😁
Good article 👍🏼