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Creature Features in Review: PHENOMENA (1985)

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The further we get into this new series, the more I realize just how versatile creature features really are. I’m not afraid to admit, though I love the sub-genre, I kinda always pigeon-holed them as simple monster movies. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. So far we’ve seen the echoes of Hiroshima through the lens of Godzilla. We’ve walked the mythological soil of Midian in The Night Breed and we’ve walked the eco-horror swamps in Frogs. We bunkered ourselves in Outpost 31 in The Thing. We witnessed the destruction of New York City in Cloverfield. We were chased by the Creeper in Jeepers Creepers. And we’ve witnessed the birth of a new species of humanoid insect in Mimic, not to mention the transformation of a lonely scientist into a fly in The Fly. In each and every one of these, we’ve discovered that they are not just simple monster flicks, there’s something else going on behind the scenes. And we’ve only just begun. This is March. The last review for Creature Features in Review doesn’t post until December. So, in the words of doomed Ray Arnold, “Hold on to your butts,” cause this show is just getting started.

PHENOMENA (1985)

Kim McDonald

 

The supernatural is a factor in many of Dario Argento’s films. SUSPIRIA, INFERNO, and MOTHER OF TEARS all deal with witchcraft and, in DEEP RED, a psychic senses a serial killer. In PHENOMENA, Jennifer Corvino, (Jennifer Connelly,) uses her unique ability to communicate with insects to solve the disappearances and murders of several young girls in a remote part of the Swiss Alps. Jennifer, the daughter of a famous actor, is sent to the Richard Wagner School for Girls and immediately begins having nightmares and episodes of sleepwalking in which she is able to psychically witness the murders.

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The film is confusing at times, and it gets hard to keep up with all of the jumping around, but it’s still a good story. It begins with a young tourist, (Fiore Argento,) who gets left behind by the bus in the countryside. She goes to a local house for help and is speared by the killer and decapitated by a pane of glass, a typical Argento death.

PHENOMENA borrows elements from SUSPIRIA. There is a voiceover as Jennifer arrives at the school, and she must explain a delayed flight made her late. The Headmistress, (Dalila Di Lazzaro,) seems to take an instant dislike to her, and all of the girls think she’s odd, except her roommate Sophie, (Frederica Mastroianni,) The area around the school is eerie. There is a constant high wind that supposedly has driven people mad. Jennifer is told it is known as “The Swiss Transylvania.”

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During her first sleepwalking episode, in which she sees everything glowing and finds herself in a hallway of doors, Jennifer wanders to the house of entomologist, Professor John McGregor, and his chimp Inga, who is fascinated by her gift. After the disappearance of Sophie, he encourages Jennifer to help him investigate the disappearances using a peculiar insect called The Great Sarcophagus, which is attracted to corpses. With its help, Jennifer finds the house of the tourist’s murder but is scared away before discovering the truth.

Jennifer’s behavior after Sophie’s death convinces the HeadMistress and other girls that she is bizarre. They gang up on her and she calls down a swarm of flies on the house. The Head Mistress convinced that Jennifer is an evil “Lady of the Flies,” tries to have her committed. Jennifer runs away to the Professor, only to find he has been murdered. She is taken in by a teacher Frau Brukner, (Daria Nicolodi,) claiming to have been sent by her father’s agent.

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Jennifer quickly realizes the Frau has it in for her and ends up finding her way into an underground tunnel where the Frau has been keeping her deformed and deranged son, Patau. In a scene reminiscent of POLTERGEIST, Jennifer falls into a pool of rotting corpses and has to claw her way out. She tries to escape by boat but is attacked by Patau and has to call upon her insect friends to save her. It is never entirely clear if Patau or his mother are the ones who have been killing the girls.

Sound is important in PHENOMENA, directed, co-produced and co-written by Argento. The sound of the wind and of the different insects are pronounced. He also uses shots from the insects’ multi-lense perspective. Along with music by The Goblins, Argento uses songs by Iron Maiden and MotorHead during the murder scenes. PHENOMENA is cited as one of Argento’s favorite films. Perhaps he felt like a misfit like Jennifer growing up. The story she tells Sophie about how her mother left is based on Argento’s life. Unfortunately, it is uneven and often confusing. The ending feels pulled out of nowhere. The audience is left not knowing who is the real killer.

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Kim McDonald is no stranger to Machine Mean, having reviewed for us during our Fright Fest series back in October, The Thing (1982). And we here at Machine Mean hope to have her back on again soon! Kim lives in Charleston and loves all things horror, especially foreign horror. Kim also publishes reviews for LOUD GREEN BIRD, tackling some of horror’s greatest treasures, giving readers a deeper retrospective and often introspective on films like “The Iron Rose,” “Baskin,” “The Conjuring 2,” “The Witch,” and much more. As you can see, she is no stranger to the art of movie reviews. You can follow Kim @dixiefairy on Twitter and you can follow her blog, Fairy Musings, here.

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Creature Features in Review: The Thing (1982)

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Thirty-five years. On June 25th, we will be celebrating thirty-five years since the release of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The review you are about to read, written by the incredibly talented William D. Prystauk, aka Billy Crash, not only the second half of the infamously awesome The Last Knock podcast, but also a teacher, director, screenwriter, and loving husband and friend, has carefully crafted what I believe to be the definitive review of The Thing. I’m glad Bill decided to take on this “creature feature.” For those who know me will be quick to understand, The Thing is by far my most favorite movie.  Not just my favorite horror movie, but my favorite overall film in its entirety. From score to cast to dialogue and landscape to practical effects and most of all its unabashed fearlessness towards nihilism. Disney has spoiled generations of audiences by spoon feeding them a resolution to the conflict and the always dominant hero. But in The Thing, we are denied those expectations, wonderfully so. Not everything has to have a resolution. Not every story must end with the hero defeating the monster. Ambiguity exists in nature and thus should representation on screen, at least sometimes, right?

The Thing

by William D. Prystauk

Introduction

When I first saw The Thing on the big screen, I was overwhelmed by the oppressive nature of John Carpenter’s film as well as its mystery, music, cinematography, and remarkable special effects from Rob Bottin and company, as well as the gripping writing from Bad News Bears scribe, Bill Lancaster. Unfortunately, 1982 was a banner year for strong movies so The Thing didn’t make the final cut when it came to earnings, and Carpenter is supposedly still bitter about his film’s poor performance in theaters. Today, however, the film’s considered a masterpiece by many horror cinephiles, and rightfully so.

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This is not a Remake

Carpenter’s version is not a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World with James Arness playing the alien version of Frankenstein’s monster. In this case, the movie deviates from the original tale, “Who Goes There?” a short story spun by John W. Campbell Jr., and leaves fighting the creature to the military still deservedly basking in the glow of a post-World War II world right before the horrors of The Korean War. In the story, scientists resolve the alien issue, though Lancaster’s script calls for scientists and military veterans to try and figure a way out.

Carpenter stayed closer to Campbell’s tale with its shape-shifting monster and the paranoia it caused. The director chose to have a much smaller staff at National Science Institute Station 4 instead of a larger component of men, but he kept most of the major characters’ names. As for Campbell’s tale, it’s actually a bad read due to repetition (he must have referred to MacReady as being “bronze” a hundred times) and from a sad overuse of “to be” verbs. For his part, Carpenter and Lancaster made Campbell’s story shine like gold.

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Who the Hell Are These Guys?

For a science station, the men who work there don’t really fit the bill. Sure, Billings (Peter Maloney) is a meteorologist, Norris (Charles Hallahan) has a broader mind beyond his geology degree, Windows (Thomas Waites) serves as the radioman, lumberjack looking Clark (Richard Masur) handles the dogsled team, Nauls (TK Carter) feeds the crew, and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) does his best to keep everyone healthy. The man who keeps the team in line is Garry (Donald Moffat), who for some reason has a six-gun strapped to his side with a gun belt to match and serves no other purpose than a security guard. Childs (Keith David) is one hell of a mechanic, who can obviously juggle boilers, tractors, and helicopters with ease. The pilots of the choppers are Vietnam vets Palmer (David Clennon), a stoner who one wouldn’t trust to fly a remote control whirlybird, and MacReady (Kurt Russel). Both men suffer from PTSD in their own way, and while Palmer socializes and engages in marijuana, MacReady isolates himself and indulges in scotch. The final part of the troupe is Blair (Wilford Brimley) and his understudy assistant, Fuchs (Joel Polis). At one point, Doc Copper orders Blair “… to start an autopsy right away.” In Campbell’s story, Blair’s a biologist, which makes sense for the movie version, but why would he be a master of autopsy? Since the dogs have no veterinarian, he may also play that role and could have performed necropsies on animals in the past.

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When witnessing the game room scene, it’s clear the men are often “standoffish.” Nauls, who a second ago was resting in his cot and watching TV with Palmer, plays pool with Clark. Windows fumbles with the newspaper from the couch, while Norris, Bennings, and Garry play poker. There’s no banter, no noise, and clearly no fun. It’s as if all these guys did something heinous and were sent to Antarctica to cool down for the “first goddamn week of winter.” Yet, they not only have handguns and shotguns at the ready, and at least one German rifle from a Norwegian, but they also have three flame throwers and dynamite. Doesn’t sound like a science station. Could it serve as some Cold War outpost? If so, this expansive complex can certainly support more men, and one wonders if abandonment of the facility looms on the horizon thanks to budget cuts.

The Thing Itself

The boogeyman in The Thing differs from the average creature feature antagonist. Each monster has a weakness, or so it seems, and once the human hero figures that out, the monster will be destroyed. In this case, the alien can replicate someone’s cells, absorb their language and mannerisms, and apparently the knowledge they have stored in their brains. Worst of all, it can seemingly infect anyone at any time (more about that later).

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Our intrepid crew doesn’t know which part of space the creature came from, but thanks to Norris, we know it’s ship crashed down onto the continent about 100,000 years ago. Beyond the being’s extensive hibernation, the ship proves to be a massive one, unlike the smaller craft in the 1951 film. What we don’t know is if this was a ship built by the Thing and his or her people, or if the creature got onboard and overwhelmed the entire crew with its cellular replication. Later in the narrative, we learn that the creature tries to recreate his craft on a smaller scale with the same look as the original. Since the Thing can absorb knowledge, and since we don’t know its age or where it’s been, this may be the optimal ship design it had discovered from its journeys across the cosmos.

Oddly enough, the creature ends up away from the ship on higher ground. This can certainly happen because the topography changed due to plate tectonics and maybe volcanism, but what did the Norwegian team actually dig up? If the creature crashed in Antarctica and went into hibernation after a short walk, it certainly didn’t overtake a human at the time. Too bad the Norwegians hadn’t filmed what this Thing actually looked like. But they did videotape the outline of the ship, and they unearthed the craft thanks to thermite charges. In the movie, one may think they blew up a massive hole the size of Rhode Island, but that would have displaced tons upon tons of ice and rock – and would have certainly registered on Norris’ seismograph at the station (there has to be one). The point is that MacReady and company, for some reason, land on a ridge above the ship and rappel down.

And once the creature thawed, it went to work on absorbing the Norwegians and its dogs.

The Other

The greatest element to the short story and both films is the element of “The Other.” As we discover in many science fiction and horror movies, the other is a xenomorph (“a strange form” by definition or an “alien” or “monster”) that either must be assimilated or destroyed. What is fantastic about this tale is both creature and human are “The Other.” Humans don’t belong in Antarctica and neither does that Thing. Since the “human others” can’t determine what the monster is, it can’t be assimilated and must be killed. The “alien other” wants to assimilate the humans, yet destroys them in the process.

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To see something like this in cinema is rare, though one finds such a human-xenomorph “other” combination in Ridley Scott’s Alien. The human component doesn’t thrive naturally in space, and though the alien creature comes off as the bad monster, the humans did bring this entity upon themselves in a “curiosity killed the cat” theme, though Jonesy lives to hiss another day. Unlike The Thing where destroy versus assimilate comes into play, Alien is all about kill or be killed.

Communication’s Down

Windows couldn’t connect with McMurdo (where he refers to the outpost as number 31 just like MacReady, instead of 4). The men of the station are in conflict about who should lead and who shouldn’t be trusted. But there is absolutely no communication between human and Thing.

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This horror turns into a cat-and-mouse game between human and alien. Yet, if the creature just wants to survive and escape in a ship, why didn’t it simply ask for help? When MacReady addressed the members of the camp and realized they all weren’t infected because they would have jumped him, why didn’t he ask what the creature wanted? After all, it’s a stranger in a strange land, and “probably not in the best of moods” after portraying a xenomorphic popsicle for too many centuries.

Without any women on the station, one may think the crew was being macho or stubborn, but the reason runs deeper than an emotional state and posturing, though both of those elements certainly exist in the narrative. Like the alien, the humans are also predators, and that’s why communication between them never took shape. It’s a fight to the end, pure and simple. Think of it as any competition where one squares off against an opponent – to the death.

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Even so, a little communication could have gone a long way, but that would have made for a different kind of film, and one that wouldn’t be worthy of review for this category. By the way, ET phoned home in 1982 on June 11, and Carpenter’s film came out two weeks later as Spielberg’s friendly alien continued to captivate little kids and their parents nationwide.

Getting Infected

This has been a point of contention for many The Thing fans: Who got infected when, how, and even why? A meme showed Blair tapping a pencil against his lips after the autopsy. Hmm… However, the answer is far simpler: They were all at risk of infection the moment they unwrapped the creature with two faces, akin to the theater masks of comedy and drama, looking outward with one connected tongue. Doc Copper in all his medical expertise asked, “Is that a man in there?” when he and MacReady dug up the monster and brought it home to infect everyone else. Clearly, no quarantine protocol was in effect.

When they unwrapped the frozen creature, with the heat of the room, water evaporated from the body and Blair backed off from the stench. After all, the Thing began to defrost once inside the warmer helicopter. Now, as MacReady proved later with another item from the book, that each cell was a creature on its own, who knows what flew into the air and made its way through the mouths and nostrils and into the lungs of the crew. Yes, some became infected (though we really don’t know when), and others did not (though we really don’t know why), but airborne infection seems to be just as likely as bloodborne in this case.

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Due to each component of the Thing being its own individual entity, this creature may be its own entire civilization. In 2015, Robin Corey, a biochemist, wrote that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, not including bacteria. This means that once the Thing takes over a human host, that can make for one hell of a population. Blair had calculated that we’d all be infected in 27,000 hours, which is a little over three years, but there’s an excellent chance that infection, or assimilation, would happen much faster.

The End

There are many more mysteries packed within Carpenter’s amazing horror, but that’s for another time. The important thing is to watch the film and become a prisoner like the others, trapped “a thousand miles from nowhere” without a radio, and a heavy storm that prevents anyone from escaping even on foot. This is what the horror genre is meant to be: isolated and frightening with a sense that there’s no way out.

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Carpenter tips his hand that there’s little hope for our characters right from the beginning. The opening shot after the credits is that of a sheer rock face. The camera lingers there as if to say it’s too foreboding and not scalable. We see the Norwegian helicopter flying over the rock as it heads towards its own doom, but it’s clear that our “science” crew won’t make it out of the station alive.

In the film, we’re left with a couple of characters waiting for what might possibly come next. We don’t know if one is infected or if either one of them is. We do know, however, that they’re both not infected because an alien greeting most definitely would have been different. And in the brownish light of a fiery night, the camera pulls back from the pair and we fade to black. In the television version, after the camera pulled back, we see a dog leaving the station, bookending the film in excellent fashion. Maybe it doesn’t really matter who was infected since all is lost.

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Thankfully, The Thing survived its poor and undeserved theatrical showing and keeps bringing the scares and incredible in-camera effects to new generations of horror fans. Whether you’ve seen the film once or a thousand times, keep your eyes peeled for the multitude of little mysteries that neither the characters nor the audience can answer (Who got to the blood anyway?). Revel in ambiguous horror that delivers on every level, including bottom end gloom from the renowned Ennio Morricone’s doom-ridden composition, and the excellent cinematography from one of the best, Dean Cundey. Carpenter created something for the ages, and for fans – human or otherwise.

WilliamP

William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) cohosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at http://crashpalaceproductions.com. He’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film he’ll shoot in Seattle with his company, Crash Palace Productions. When he’s not listening to punk rock and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.

Keep up with Billy Crash’s many exploits by following his site!

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Creature Features in Review: Cloverfield (2008)

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Note: The below is written based on the assumption that you’ve seen Cloverfield. If you haven’t yet, go and see Cloverfield. Or be both spoiled and confused. Your choice.

I tried to resist the obvious pun. I really did. But I can’t do it. So, with apologies…

Cloverfield is a very odd beast.

Sorry.

But it is.

I mean, on the one hand, it isn’t, at all. Giant monsters have destroyed Manhattan Island since forever, after all. Like London, New York is one of those rare cities whose ‘centre of the universe’ mentality is actually somewhat borne out by reality (Tokyo is the other one that immediately jumps to mind, and oh, look…). So, I mean, of course, the aliens and monsters are going to start there. Why wouldn’t they? It’s where, as they say, the action is.

In that regard, Cloverfield is part of a long established tradition – none more trad, arguably, in the giant creature feature genre.

Similarly, found footage? It’s rare as a horror fan you’ll go through a month without someone complaining either on your Facebook feed or in a blog post about the ubiquity of the found footage movie and it’s disastrous impact on the genre – such complaints are almost a sub-genre themselves, at this point. Ever since the not-universally-popular-but-at-least-successful-and-then-somewhat-original Blair Witch Project rattled our tents and planted in our ears 17 years ago (yes, you’re old, get over it), seems like every indie wannabe superstar has been chasing that found footage Bigfoot, trying to recreate the magic. In musical terms, it reminds me of the rap/metal explosion that followed Rage Against The Machine – people trying to combine the same mechanical elements (hip-hop singer with a metal band) without the slightest clue as to what made Rage so damn special in the first place. Gifting the world Limp Bizkit and a million behind them that were even worse. Thanks, recording industry.

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But hang on, though, because we may just have stumbled over the point, there, while getting on our self-righteous nu-metal-bashing hobbyhorse (yeah, you were up here with me, don’t deny it). Because prior to Rage, there had been both Hip Hop and Metal (obviously), and both movements were, by ‘91, well established enough to have had mainstream successes, even while remaining musical subcultures as a whole. But aside from one-off songs like Aerosmith/Run D.M.C’s Walk This Way, nobody had thought to combine the elements – and certainly not in a fully functioning band unit, where neither style held obvious supremacy.

So, to finally get on topic, found footage movies weren’t unusual. Neither were giant creature features.

But a found footage giant creature feature?

That’s new.

And we might as well get this out of the way; one of the principle reasons it’s new is because it’s also an insane idea. If you’re making a giant creature feature in 2008 and wreaking Manhattan in the process, you’re doing it largely with CGI. However, if you’re making a found footage movie, especially with an in-fiction non-professional camera operator (as you are in Cloverfield) then you’re talking strictly handheld.

And to be fair, for your indie horror filmmaker, that’s an enormous plus, for the obvious reason that it’s dirt cheap. Slap cheap digital cameras into the hands of your actors, and then let loose the mayhem, and hilarity and awards ensue, right? And all the auto-focus fails, and blurry shots of the maybe-thing-maybe-person stalking or whatever, that all just adds to the atmosphere, right?

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Except, now, with Cloverfield, your shaky-cam is filming a skyscraper exploding, or your shutter speed is blurring the head of the Statue Of Liberty as it bounces down the street, or the autofocus is failing to decide which piece of the 200-foot monster to focus on.

And, of course, none of those things actually exist, outside of some computer whizzes laptop.

.That is what, frankly, blows my mind about Cloverfield, and why I wanted to write about it.

Because I do sometimes find myself wondering (outside of the total movie geek circles I am proud to inhabit) how many people really understand just what a staggering achievement this movie represents. I wonder if the average movie goer, benumbed as they must be by massive digital spectacles, fully appreciates how complex, how difficult, and how special Cloverfield is, in terms of what it achieves. How tough it is to integrate digital effects with handheld footage in such a way that the unreal appears so naturalistic that the only reason you know the creature isn’t really there is because it would be impossible to build.

It is, in the parlance of our times, fucking awe inspiring.

Of course, director Matt Reaves pulls every trick in the book to make it work. In 1975, a malfunctioning robot shark inadvertently forced Spielberg to the genius realisation that having the monster mostly be off camera made it WAY scarier, and while Reaves in a found footage format doesn’t have the luxury of cutting to the monster’s POV, accompanied by a John Williams score, we do see far more of the creature’s handiwork than we do the creature itself, in the scarred streets and skyline of the city. There’s also a return of the good old ground tremors from Jurassic Park, and a ton of similar tricks employed throughout to both build tension and, by happy coincidence, save money (another brilliant example is when the creature passes by the store our protagonists are cowering in – before it passes, the air outside becomes so full of brick dust and ash from a collapsing building that the monster itself is only heard and felt, not seen).

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It’s smart, savvy filmmaking, selling us on the scale and power of this thing without providing even a glimpse. Similar brilliance announces itself elsewhere in the storytelling. One of the central strengths of found footage is also its central weakness – you’re stuck with one perspective, one window on the world. This is compounded in Cloverfield by also ostensibly being unedited footage, the only cuts being when the camera operator turns the device off for some reason (during which segments we’re treated to bleed-through from the previous recording that is being overwritten – a cute device for delivering back story, albeit not one I’m convinced makes sense in a digital age – sure, a videotape would work this way, but digital files?).

Horror fans and writers will immediately grok to the appeal and strength of such an approach, but it can cause problems, not least when trying to transmit a sense of scale, or hints at a wider world response to events. There’s a superb moment where Rob, desperate to restore his mobile phone charge, runs into an electronics store that’s in the process of being looted. Our camera man follows him in, huffing and puffing (one of the funniest lines in the movie is his exclamation early on that ‘I don’t really do this running stuff!’) only to be pulled up short by the TV coverage. Via his camera pointing at the TV, we get a glimpse of how the news coverage is panning out, at least until he’s pulled away by his friends and off into the next part of the story.

Similar brilliant flourishes abound, from the camera perspective on the Brooklyn bridge as a tentacle (actually tail, we later learn) smashes into it, knocking the cameraman off his feet, to flickering or emergency lighting creating a dramatic, nightmarish strobe effect, to a brilliant sequence in the subway in which first the camera torch is employed, and later the night vision, in what is for my money one of the best jump scares of the last ten years – without cheating with some dramatic score or jump cut.

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And then there’s the creature.

The beast itself is on camera rarely – I’d bet less than five minutes of the total running time feature any glimpse of it, and most of that is exactly glimpses – a tale, an arm, and a stunning in motion underneath shot as our heroes plunge into the subway and the army engages in a fierce firefight. Even seen on the news footage or from the evacuation chopper, it’s partially obscured by buildings, or smoke, or just the trembling of the camera man. But in the closing minutes of the film, we’re finally treated to a full, uninterrupted view, and it’s just glorious – huge, organic, monstrous both in size and features, raining grotesque parasites – it really is brilliantly realized, the stuff of nightmares.

So, yeah, there’s a lot to recommend Cloverfield, and I think it’s a brilliant movie – or at least, near brilliant. There are some elements that don’t quite hang together, for me. There’s the technical stuff – I’ve already mentioned in passing how the ‘bleed-through’ of the old video footage only really makes sense in the analog age and given that mobile phone networks were disconnected across New York throughout 9/11, Rob’s suspiciously functioning mobile is, well, suspicious.

And as we’ve brought it up.. So, there’s the 9/11 thing.

Because prior to 2001, there were a lot of movies that indulged in disaster porn and specifically blowing up New York. And let’s be honest – it felt like good clean fun at the time. I vividly remember being utterly thrilled at the destruction of the Empire State Building and The White House in Independence Day when it came out – not even slightly in a ‘fuck America’ way, to be crystal clear, but in a totally generic ‘wow, big badda-BOOM!’ way.

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And I similarly vividly remember watching ID4 for the first time post-9/11. And it felt different. A lot less fun. Kind of a bummer, actually.

But, you know, historical artifact, innit? Like any seismic historical and cultural moment, there’s just a pre and post-9/11 divide in art, and you can’t judge one by the standard of the other.

Except then, there’s Cloverfield.

And it kind of explicitly plays with the imagery and atmosphere of that day. When the attacks first start, and all people can see is explosions, one of the voices at the party says ‘Is it another attack?’. The police evacuating people in the street, clearly well drilled in massive disaster response. The moment I talked about earlier, with the group hiding out in the store as the smoke and dust rolls past – that could almost be footage from the day.

Now, I’m pretty much a free speech absolutist, to be clear. This isn’t about what people should or shouldn’t be allowed to say or write or film. At the end of the day, the same rights that protect your right (hypothetically speaking) to be a racist fuckhole are the rights that protect me calling you out on your racist fuckhollery and telling others about it. That’s how it works, and, IMO, the only way it CAN work. Social change powers political change, not the other way around. So be the change you want to see in the world and all that.

So I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t make a piece of popcorn entertainment in 2008 that evokes the imagery of 9/11. Of course, you can. Equally, though, as Dr. Malcolm might say, it might be worth thinking about whether or not you should.

Not just because 9/11 was an event of global trauma, the repercussions of which are still shaping lives and getting people killed – though it is. But because… well, look – you can make a movie like World Trade Centre, which is a pretty straight telling of the events of the day. That’s one thing. But to take imagery and iconography from the day and chuck them into your, let’s face it, popcorn monster movie… well, it is, at least, a little uncomfortable, and at worst smacks of being tasteless, even exploitative.

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Again, to be clear, I’m not saying the movie shouldn’t have been made, or anything like that. And I can even sympathize with the filmmakers in some ways – with the found footage vibe, it’s all about verisimilitude, after all. And damn, now we’ve got real footage of what a demolished Manhattan skyline looks like at street level – how could you not use that information?  At the same time, as much as I like Cloverfield (and I do, a great deal) this aspect of the film always leaves me feeling a little queasy.

And you know what, that’s okay. It’s okay – healthy, even – to have ambiguous or conflicted reactions to art. It’s okay to like or even love a movie (or album, or book) even as it’s flawed make you sad, or angry, or uneasy. To climb back on the free speech soapbox one more time, that’s almost the point. Conversation, discussion, argument – that’s how we improve our understanding, refine our opinions, and yes, sometimes, learn something new that changes how we see the world or a facet of it.

Cloverfield is a very good movie, that for me edges on greatness (and in a technical sense, it is unambiguously great, I think). Far from flawless (aside from the above, the plot that drives the characters is as hack and obvious as it’s possible to be, and the actors, while solid, don’t quite manage to elevate that into something more), but the things it does well it does SO damn well that, especially first time through, it’s a total thrill ride of a movie, a classic popcorn rollercoaster.

And yeah, it’s a brilliant giant creature feature. Maybe even the best post-2000 one, what with the intelligent and expertly realized use of the found footage format and a brand new monster that looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

And if parts of it make me uncomfortable… well, how bad is that, in the final analysis?

After all, beats the shit out of being boring.

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Kit Power is no stranger to Machine Mean. He was reviewed for us both The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the forever classic Monster Mash Pinball Game. And participated during Fright Fest with a review on Parents. Mr. Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as the frontman (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as,GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers. You can read Kit’s review of Bride here.

You can get Breaking Point, Kit Power’s newest release, for $2.99 on Amazon!

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BREAKING POINT – THE LIFELINE TRILOGY

A Cyclist is knocked unconscious on his way home and wakes up in a nightmare…
A devoted husband begins to suspect all is not well with his marriage…
A desperate family man, running out of time and options, turns to an old schoolmate from the wrong side of the tracks – looking for work – any work…
A young man’s world is thrown into chaos as his father is abducted…
Four tales of people pushed to BREAKING POINT.

For ‘The Loving Husband’ – “Gripping, compelling and utterly nerve-wracking.” – DLS Reviews.

For ‘Lifeline’ – “More savage than Rottweiler on meths with its nads caught in barbed wire.” – zombiekebab, Amazon reviewer.

“One of the best novellas I’ve had the pleasure to read.” – Duncan Ralston – Author of Salvage.

“a sliver of sheer brutality and nastiness that is unbridled.” John Boden, author of DOMINOES.

“Power gets splatterpunk in a way that few do.” – Bracken MacLeod, author of Stranded and Mountain.

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Creature Features in Review: Frogs (1972)

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In an era known for lurid movie posters, the marketing plan for 1972’s eco-horror film, Frogs, stood out from the rest. Posters presented man-eating reptiles, showing a picture of a human hand hanging from a giant frog’s mouth. Pulpy text promised “slithering, slimy horror,” hellbent on devouring everything in its way, cutting a furious swath of reptilian destruction. Nature’s revenge against pollution, a cold-blooded stand against the wanton use of pesticides, the animals finally taking their rightful place upon the earth. Glory, glory, hallelujah!

As is often the case, promises are made to be broken. This is not to say that Frogs is a terrible movie. It isn’t. The replay value of this movie is practically immeasurable. But audiences looking for blood and gore, sinews being snapped by angry teeth, are going to be disappointed. What those who watch this film are presented with is more like people dying in the presence of assorted reptiles and amphibians.

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The reason for this so-called reptile rebellion is plainly laid out. It is the Fourth of July, and the family of Jason Crockett (the venerable Ray Milland) has gathered at the family plantation for the holiday. Photojournalist Pickett Smith (a mustache-free Sam Elliott) is injected into the situation when his canoe is toppled by Jason’s jackass son, Clint (the late Adam Roarke), who is hot-dogging in his speedboat. Smith is brought back to the house for dry clothes and is invited to spend the weekend.

Smith is investigating the disappearance of wildlife in the area, and quickly deduces the cause as the ridiculous amount of pesticides Crockett uses to keep his property bug-free. This is a place delightfully ignorant of the many uses of citronella. However, it does play into the headlines of the early Seventies, where chemicals like DDT and Agent Orange caused terrible damage to the environment worldwide. It was a time of mutations and increased birth defects. It was obvious we were destroying the planet, and filmmakers latched onto that, creating worst case scenarios, science fiction mixed with social commentary and, if one was lucky, a little bit of T&A.

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Frogs does offer a boisterous, scene-chewing performance by Milland. Bound by both a wheelchair and the strongly held convictions of the Old South, he barks orders to his family like a drill sergeant, demanding punctuality and subservience with every breath. This rigid structure is shown to us through the eyes of Elliott’s character, the stranger in town, rolling in like John the Baptist from the desert, extolling the virtues of ecology and bucking against the confines of the patriarchy. He is the voice of reason in this film, his message falling on deaf ears.

But it is the promise of animal attacks that lures us to this movie, and apart from a crocodile attack, actual critter-on-human violence is non-existent. We get a woman who wanders into a swamp, gets some leeches on her and falls down in front of a rattlesnake. The snake bites her and kills her, but is this really strange behavior? Snakes are going to behave like snakes. A man dies in a greenhouse when lizards knock over jars containing toxic chemicals, which combine to make breathable poison. However, even in these examples, none of the animal behavior seems particularly malevolent. It all seems accidental, casualties by causality, without any malice aforethought.

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That’s partially what makes Frogs so entertaining. There are frogs in the movie, even some abnormally large toads, but they simply do what frogs and toads do. They hop. They croak. They look slimy and weird. This makes Frogs less a movie about nature taking revenge on humanity and more of our fear of nature. It’s about how we’ve become comfortable in our homes, our cities, our conclaves. The sight of animals in what we conceive of as our natural habitat feels like an invasion. It knocks us off balance. We see a spider in the shower and that son of a bitch must die. A bee flies into our car while we’re driving, and lose control, veering back and forth until we can safely pull over and let the accursed beast out. We are imposed upon, the unclean thing daring to enter our sanctuaries and touch us.

That’s some heavy exposition for a drive-in programmer, but the movies that endure, even B-movies like Frogs, always have layers of thought and meaning beneath the exploitative surface. Certainly, Frogs can be enjoyed on that top level, where it’s all snakes and toads and wouldn’t it be gross to have tarantulas on your face. But there’s more here, and this little movie is a solid reminder of how far removed we are from the world around us, the world under and around the edifices we have constructed. There be no shelter here, and there is no safety.

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Frogs is available on glorious Blu-Ray from Scream Factory as a double feature with Food of the Gods, creating a dandy eco-horror double feature. Seek it out.

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Jeffery X. Martin is the published author of several stories that are sure to shock, including those in the Elders Keep universe. He also published a fantastic tale in The Black Room Manuscripts. You can find his work, including his latest novel, Hunting Witches, on Amazon’s blood-soaked altar. When Mr. X is not writing creepy mind-benders, he’s the host and/or contributor to several podcasts and review sites, including but not limited to, Popshifter, Kiss the Goat, and the Cinema Beef Podcast. He is a frequent contributor to Machine Mean, reviewing for us The Wolf Man (1941), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), Revenge of the Creature (1955), and Squirm (1976).

You can pick up Hunting Witches on Amazon for $4.99!!

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Creature Features in Review: COMING SOON!!!

Greetings folks! Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls. As we begin this new year it is my great pleasure to announce the start of a brand new “In Review” series. Creature Features…beloved by many, loathed by some, irrefutable masterpieces that tell a tale of where the world is during each era of release. From the nuclear wastelands of Hiroshima in Godzilla and the radiated test sights in Them! to the hideous shadows in swamps and space fiends coming to terrorize quiet small town America in Critters and Swamp Thing to the worlds of mad science and mythology to humanoids and mutations, Creature Feature films have been at every turn in pop culture. Spanning decades, here at Machine Mean, thanks to our mob of talented and twisted guest writers, will bring to you beginning this Thursday and running until December, on every Thursday a Creature Feature in Review. Set your clocks and mark your calendars.

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The fun begins this Thursday on Jan 5, 2017.

Follow the series on Twitter at #MonsterThursday


The Black Scorpion (1957)

 

Narrator: For centuries, the prayers of Mexico’s peasants have been their only shield against the devastating furies that have wrecked their homes and destroyed their lives. And so today, again they kneel, terrified and helpless, as a new volcano is created by the mysterious and rebellious forces of nature. The Earth has split a thousand times. Whole acres of rich farmlands have cracked and dropped from sight. And millions of tons of molten lava are roaring down the slopes, in a quake recorded on the seismograph of the University of Mexico as the most violent of modern times. To the benighted citizenry of this remote countryside, the most alarming aspect of the phenomenon is the fact that its unabated hourly growth is without precedence, having reached a towering height of nine thousand feet within a few days. And with each added foot, it spreads its evil onslaught into a wider circumference. But what is now most feared is that rescue work will be severely hampered by the hazardous inaccessibility of the terrain.

 

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As we enter into The Black Scorpion, we’re greeted with the above narration, giving no clues to the future horror in which we will soon behold. The premise is basic and strangely different from a majority of sci-fi movies during this very Cold era. A volcano erupts in a little hamlet near Mexico City and the local villagers and animals, mostly cattle, are vanishing. The corpses that have been found are infected with a strange wound and a puzzling poison, biological, natural, and otherworldly found within their bloodstream.

As the story progresses, American geologist Hank Scott, played by well-known sci-fi actor Richard Denning (who looks a hell-of-a-lot like Kenneth Tobey from The Thing from Another World), and his local partner Dr. Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas), travel to the sight of the temperamental volcano to conduct research and investigate why the sleeping giant has decided to wake. Their investigations lead them into an odd series of findings that eventually reveal the true source of the disappearances of locals and cattle. On their initial venture, they stumble upon a small pueblo that has been completely decimated. They find only one survivor, an infant. The only other person the duo happen upon is the missing constable, eyes frozen in terror and an eerie puncture wound on the back of his neck.

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Team Hank then travel to San Lorenzo, which seems nearly overrun with panicked villagers who believe the disappearances and the destruction of their homes are the cause of a demon bull. Hank and Artur seem un-phased by the frenzy or by Major Cosio’s pleading for them to remain in San Lorenzo, not for the safety of the scientists, but so that if something were to happen to them, the Mexican army would not be forced to waste their time in a rescue mission instead of working where they are needed more, with the scared and frightened villagers. Hank simply laughs and continues on with his expedition, which to me seemed odd. They haven’t specified if he was there to investigate the vanishing people and cattle, only that they were there to survey and study the volcano.

Well, this wouldn’t be a quasi-American 1950s sci-fi movie without at least one damsel in distress. For this role, we’re given the lovely Sunset Boulevard showgirl, Playboy Playmate (1958) Mara Corday who plays cattle ranch owner Teresa Alvarez. No stranger to cult sci-fi movies, Mara has been in a few well-known classics, including Tarantula, The Giant Claw, and a number of spaghetti westerns, such as A Day of Fury and The Man from Bitter Ridge, to name a few. Teresa is thrown from her white horse and as one might expect, Hank comes to her rescue. The two seem to fall in love at first sight (barf) and are invited back to her ranch for…well, more than tea I imagine. Before venturing off, Dr. Artur discovers a strange volcanic rock and takes it back with them to the ranch.

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At this point, if you’re still watching the film, you might be wondering, where are the giant bugs? And I would agree with you because this is what I was gripping about when I screened the movie late last night. Everything thus far has been “setup, setup, setup,” with little to no release. We’re given a little tease at the beginning, an eerie ringing off screen, but nothing satiable. Don’t worry. The movie is about to pick up the pace.

At the ranch, while Hank and Teresa nauseously flirt, Dr. Artur, after splitting open the rock, discovers what he originally thought to be a fossilized scorpion, is actually alive and scurrying about on the pool table. Here we can almost feel the mood of the film change, slightly. How can a scorpion survive being capsulated in a rock inside a volcano? It doesn’t make sense. It breaks the laws of nature as we know it. Soon after, Teresa makes contact with her phone repairmen who are suddenly attacked by the true villains of all these bizarre disappearances of people and cattle. Giant black scorpions strike and kill the repair men. Special effects guru Willis O’Brien, who created the stop-motion effects for the original King Kong, gave his talents to the creature of these creatures. And let me say, here and now, without his work, this movie would have absolutely flopped.

Why?

Well, for many reasons actually. The script was the oddest mod podge of traditional ‘50s sci-fi (think Atomic-age, mad science), western, horror, and a mix (rip off) of Them! and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Most of the acting was great, but there were cringe worthy moments when you’re going, “Did they really just say that?” Case in point, when Hank and Artur are with a local laboratory scientist, Dr. Velazco, the very “mad” looking fellow asks his assistant for alcohol, distilled water, salt solution, and tequila before conducting his experiment on the poison he found in the blood system of one of the found victims of the scorpions. Hank asks, “Well, the alcohol, the distilled water, the salt solution – I can understand that, but what’s the tequila for?” And, right on cue, the good doctor says, “Well, in your country I believe they call it a coffee break” (enter drum roll here).

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The mood of the movie is hard to place. Something strange is going on in the story. People are being horrifyingly eaten alive by giant freaking scorpions. Whole towns are vanishing. Cattle are being devoured. And when you see the scorpions on screen, it is insanely terrifying. O’Brien really did a phenomenal job. Stop-motion has certain qualia about it that get under my skin, especially when used with horror. But the cast seems nonchalant about it all. Hank and Artur venture into the subterranean realm of these beasts, discovering a variety of forgotten species, a very Jules Verne Journey to the Center of the Earth type place, made up mostly of only insects, making it even creepier. But still, these scientists don’t seem all that scared. They’re cool. Too cool.

The ending was even more scandalous. After discovering that the all the creatures were not destroyed with the cave-in, they watch as the “granddaddy” scorpion straight up murders the smaller scorpions, making him king scorpion, as if he wasn’t already. The witty humans lure the uber-giant scorpion into an arena, away from civilians. While the Mexican army batters the beast with tanks and gunfire, Hank manages to finish it off by using an electric cable attached to a spear, of which he somehow was able to thrust into the scorpion’s throat, it’s only vulnerable spot. Finally, electrocuted, the monster is slain.

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As the scorpion lays there, smoldering, Hank begins to walk away. Artur and Velasco beckon him to stop so that they can conduct research on the creature. And, I shit you not, in more or fewer words, Hank takes the voluptuous Teresa across her hips and smiles, “I’ve got my own research to do,” or something like that, and the two rush away for what we assume to be…well…you know, while the remaining cast and crew grin in that stupid way people did back in the day when something funny was said.

Ugh!

Okay, my tone is probably giving away more of my feeling of the film then needs warranting. And yes, mentioning again the fantastic work of special effects master Willis O’Brien, and how the scorpions on screen really were disturbing, especially that scene with the phone repairmen, truly horrifying. The rest of the movie though seemed short on talent. I’m not saying it was the fault of the actors, most were really good, despite laughing to myself as it seems a habit of Hollywood to cast Anglo-American in roles that ought to belong to someone else. Also, the use of the ringing effect with the scorpions was (lets no dance around it) a total rip off of Them! Not to mention the whole idea of a prehistoric species surviving and returning to the present day is very reminiscent of The Gillman movies.

The upside to all these failings eventually leads the movie to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the early 1990s. So…there’s that. Overall, The Black Scorpion is mildly entertaining. Not the best of what the ‘50s had to offer in sci-fi; not the worst either.

My Rating: 3/5 

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Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character-driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò. His paranormal-thriller series, The Subdue Books, including Dwelling, Emerging, and Conceiving, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can check out his work on the altar of Amazon here.

Before you go, Thomas has a new book out he’d like to mention. Conceiving (Subdue Book 3) will release on 11/29. Preorders are available now on Amazon for those looking for eBooks. Paperbacks coming soon. If you haven’t read Subdue Books 1 & 2 (Dwelling and Emerging), no problem. While sure, this news may bring a tear to the author’s eye, he has ensured us that new readers can follow the story easily without having read Dwelling or Emerging. You can preorder YOUR copy of Conceiving here.

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