Analysis Hollywood Hegemony

Six creature features to keep you checking the long grass this summer

With the approach of summer, it would be easy for us to feel like we were approaching light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It is always the case that we are keen to escape our homes following another harsh winter, but especially after a year of fear and loathing in lockdown, immersing ourselves in the natural world seems particularly sweet this time. But even as the sun beckons us to venture beyond our usual controlled habitat, in search of some new freedom, we should be careful that this enhanced sense of joie de vivre does not develop into a sense of invulnerability. After all, we are re-entering someone else’s domain.

Creature features are an occasionally brilliant (but more often fabulously absurd) niche of the horror genre. Unlike the more fantastical supernatural or extra-terrestrial threats of the rest of the horror classification, creature features usually centre on a threat provided by a real, existing scientific classification. Sometimes the animals in question will have mutated in some way that drives them to attack people – but more often, the reasons why are left undefined, while their actions seem to implicitly punish the actions of humans in the local environment. That could be in relation to unbridled corporate greed, unethical scientific ambition, or the arrogant encroachment of housing on ‘uninhabited’ land – ultimately it boils down to the arrogant assumption that humans have an innate right to reshape the natural world in any way they see fit, and that they do not have to fear any repercussions for that.

As we scrawny, physically weak apes limp back into the natural world, following a crisis which was most likely caused by our refusal to respect nature (though I am yet to see a creature feature centred on bats or pangolins), it is only right that we revisit some films which might remind us of our place in the world, and prevent us repeating our mistakes once again.

Jaws (1975)

Usually I would try not to list such a successful film in this kind of article. Readers want to hear about something new, and perhaps to experience it off my recommendation. With that said, in recent years it has been increasingly apparent that more people I know have watched the godawful Sharknado franchise, or the comically inept Deep Blue Sea than Jaws. As big a fan as I am of the traditional trash-fire-film-night everyone loves to host with their friends, that’s simply not on.

Along with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, this is arguably the finest creature feature of all time. Both feature an inexplicable natural phenomenon, where a creature suddenly decides to turn its talents to butchering people with an almost supernatural knack for carnage.

As with his earlier movie Duel, which also pits an emotionless juggernaut against a frustrated everyman, Steven Spielberg deploys a plethora of polished cinematic techniques to foreground a menace lurking in the camera’s periphery, while also intelligently colour-coding the figures on screen during chaotic and traumatic scenes where we might otherwise lose track of what is going on. In particular, the iconic “get out of the water” scene exemplified this, and demonstrated Spielberg as a master craftsman when it comes to visual construction.

At the same time, like a top creature feature should, Jaws features corporate greed and unethical scientific ambition, as well as a timely reminder that we are far from the dominant force we think we are when we stumble onto someone else’s home turf. In particular, the Mayor continuously underestimates the risk a killer shark poses to the paying public during peak season (who drew comparisons with Boris Johnson for his unwillingness to lockdown the UK in the early weeks of the pandemic), while shark hunter Quint reveals that he survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis before the film’s climax.

The ship delivered parts of Little Boy, the first nuclear weapon ever used in combat – and after its mission to help disrupt the natural order of life came to a close, permanently placing the fate of the planet in jeopardy, the ship was sunk by the Japanese Navy. The surviving 890 crew faced exposure, dehydration, saltwater poisoning, and shark attacks while stranded in the open ocean. Quint not only cues up the film’s conclusion with this story, but emphasises the underlying warning of the story, that people who are engaged in disregarding the world’s natural order often meet with grizzly ends.

Razorback (1984)

As I warned earlier, while some notable exceptions show you can make a creature feature that stands the test of time, 80% of the time you are probably making something people are going to laugh at a few years later. Razorback defies gravity however, in that it manages to deliver a little on both fronts.

The film begins with Jake Cullen (Bill Kerr) witnessing a gigantic wild boar rampage through his house, shattering the building into matchsticks and devouring Cullen’s grandson without breaking stride. The bereaved grandfather later crosses paths with Carl Winters (Gregory Harrison), the husband of an American wildlife reporter who was also devoured by the demonic swine.

Following some hilarious pseudo-scientific babbling (at one point Cullen asserts that the razorback is unstoppable as it has “no central nervous system”), the pair conspire to cut the hulking hog down to size. The plan innevitably gets rerouted several times after several tragic twists, before a gripping confrontation between Winters and the pig transpires inside a moodily-lit dog food factory. Watch out for the ridiculous reaction shot of the razorback when our hero slings insults at it to get its attention.

This is much, much more than just ‘so bad it’s good’ fare though. Director Russell Mulcahy would go on to helm Highlander two years later – another stupendous cult classic, rife with bizarre acting choices and delicious neo-noir lighting – and his phenomenal style is on full display here. The deranged Mad Max dystopia of apparently modern day Australia is wonderfully accentuated by his glowing lights and windblown drapery. Meanwhile, much as Sean Connery would later carry Highlander, Kerr puts in a gripping performance as the film’s ageing mentor – and deserves a lot of credit for not being too precious to lend his gravitas to such a bizarre piece of work. He would later go on to perform similar miracles by hosting the fabulously ridiculous Animal X Natural Mystery Unit ‘documentary’ series.

The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

As the knowing guide Samuel (John Kani) notes at the beginning of this incredible 90s schlock, “Remember this: even the most impossible parts of this story really happened.” Nobody used to believe me when I described this film to them. I watched a late-night screening of it on ITV2 in the early 2000s, and afterwards (but still before everyone could instantly Google everything with their smartphone), when I told people about it, it sounded like I was pulling it out of my arse.

“So Val Kilmer is pretending really badly to be Irish, and he has to build a bridge in Africa to help preserve the British empire (which apparently consists entirely of one furious Tom Wilkinson), but progress grinds to a halt when lions decimate his workforce for fun. He is later given vital support by a former confederate soldier, played by a mulleted Michael Douglas, who manages to get hundreds more people killed, when he overrides the know-how of the site’s only doctor in how to build a hospital. There’s some truly awful use of green-screen during the lion attacks, and a great dream-sequence where our hero’s oblivious wife is tackled by a lion as she cavorts about with a newborn baby next to some conspicuous long grass.”

Of course, Samuel’s assurances at the beginning of the film count for nothing. The film is indeed based on real events, but as described by Colonel John Henry Patterson, who greatly exaggerated the number of men killed by the lions to both inflate the sense of heroism attached to his eventual shooting of them – as well as diminishing his responsibility for the workers they did kill. After all, no wonder it took him so long to bag them, they were practically supernatural.

In contrast to Razorback, this is a bit more of a conventional creature feature, in that the people are more overtly being ‘punished’ for their encroachments on the natural world. As they cut great scars across the face of the previously pristine savannah, their arrogance pushes them deep into the territory of dangerous animals which they have not performed the slightest due diligence to prepare for. However, this angle doesn’t really go far enough – never really being developed beyond the idea of ‘nature vs human progress’ – and besides Tom Wilkinson seeming suitably evil for his role in British expansionism, everyone else is a blameless passenger. Patterson might be painted as a loveable family man, but his task is essentially to ensure a murderous empire can more efficiently connect its African colonies to its system of exploitative arteries.

With that being said, what do you expect of a film so utterly tone-deaf that its saviour figure is someone who fought for the South in the US Civil War? Mercifully, Michael Douglas’ grizzled ‘rebel’ does meet a suitable ending at least – even if it is supposedly a sad moment – so this is still redeemable for a (critical) terrible movie night.

Burning Bright (2010)

One of the most ludicrous ideas regularly trotted out by antagonists in monster films is “what if we could harness this unstoppable killing machine for our own ends?” Think of the military applications, goddammit! It’s not something you’ll find in Sun Tzu’s Art of War for good reason: if you have no means to harm or reward a creature, as it is largely impervious to harm and its only desire is to eat you and everyone else in the room, there is only going to be one result when you unleash the ‘perfect killer’ you have enraged by temporarily confining.

Burning Bright is an incurably stupid film, but in this regard, it serves as a brilliant micro-satire of this kind of thinking. Schlubby loser Johnny Gavenue (Garret Dillahunt) purchases a tiger in the hopes he can deploy it to kill his step-children. Gavenue admits to having killed their mother (significantly less imaginatively with an overdose of pills) but that she left him out of the will – so needs the tiger to eat her next of kin for him to be in line for a payout. The tiger is unsurprisingly not interested in this plan.

As with most bad films, it is crushingly depressing as a watch on its own. In a group, however, there is enough absurdity and food for thought to prompt a fun discussion that lasts well into the early hours.

Komodo (1999)

A mawkish hybrid of many of the things I have already talked about, Komodo is a far-fetched horror thriller film directed by Michael Lantieri. During the 1980s, a driver transporting a black market shipment of exotic animals through Emerald Isle, North Carolina, assumes a bad smell means a crate of reptilian eggs is rotten, and tosses them off into the swamp. Nineteen years later, the Connelly family arrive at the island to return to their summer vacation home, though in recent years a major oil company has been developing on the island, polluting the local environment and damaging tourism.

Safe to say, most of the Connellys don’t make it off the island, except 15-year-old Patrick. The shock of the experience sees him unable to remember the events – prompting his psychiatrist to suggest they return to the scene of the trauma for closure. That goes as well as you would expect too.

Adding to the convolution, Bracken, a Mockney oil baron portrayed by haphazard Australian actor Simon Westaway sends two goons to clear the island of carnivorous reptiles so that his company can continue drilling there in peace. Bracken has concealed the existence of the reptiles, as he believes their endangered status would mean the environmental lobby would then see his refinery canned. Even now this is something of a stretch, but in the late 90s it is even more far-fetched to believe the US would inconvenience the production of black gold for the sake of some rare lizards.

As with The Ghost and the Darkness, there are brief moments of interesting commentary on American capital’s relationship with the environment. However, they are in the hands of a cast and crew who don’t really know how to handle them, or for that matter, why they are trying. In the end then, all this is pushed aside for a relatively pedestrian, if entertainingly ridiculous CGI-driven showdown.  

Cujo (1981)

As I was born in 1990, I encountered the Beethoven films long before I ever crossed paths with Cujo. Perhaps the most incredible thing about it was that I suddenly perceived the apparently cuddly St. Bernard in a horrific new light afterwards.

My God, how the hell have we incorporated this bear-sized killing machine into family entertainment so seamlessly?

At the beginning of this adaptation fo Steven King’s novel, the titular Cujo is every bit as lovely as Beethoven – but as we know, the craft of King is that he so often brings out the darkness in things we perceive as unthreatening. I don’t assert that he makes them threatening – cars, clowns and dogs literally kill people all the time – instead, what I think he does so well is to find the things that actually do pose a threat, but because we have to engage with them so regularly, it is not practicable to acknowledge their potentially deadly nature. That’s what makes this such an effective creature feature as, after being bitten by a rabid bat, the family’s beloved hound soon transforms into a slavering nightmare. Just as suddenly becoming aware that in reality every car we cross paths with at a zebra crossing could be our Christine is very uncomfortable, the idea that any dog we dote on as it pads past on its walkies is equipped with the tools to kill us leaves us feeling very vulnerable.

Rightly so. Because of the ownership dynamic of household pets, humans often assume they command an automatic dominion over any beast they keep in their home – and often with terrible consequences. Of course the outcome is inevitably worse when it is a jerk who decides to keep a chimp or a bear as a ‘pet,’ but still, that does not preclude apparently domesticated animals from being a similar threat. As much as people foster a strange Treadwell-esque belief in innate kinship with their animals, and for all the centuries of breeding and training humans have engaged to cultivate ‘man’s best friend,’ if we do not treat these creatures with the due care and respect they deserve, there will be consequences.

Is there a film you would like to recommend for a creature feature movie marathon? Would you like to complain about the absence of The Edge, Lake Placid or Anaconda from this list? Let me know in the comments below. I’ll read them… probably.

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