The most foreboding title among the horror and science fiction lexicon, besides perhaps IT or They (which is just a cheap knockoff of the more impressive film we’re about to discuss), is the 1954 masterpiece known as Them! Among the many different creature features, be it swamp critters or critters from space or super mutant hybrids, bugs freak me out the most. As defined by the omnipotent Wikipedia, “Entomophobia (also known as insectophobia) is a specific phobia characterized by an excessive or unrealistic fear of one or more classes of insect, and classified as a phobia by the DSM-5. More specific cases included apiphobia (fear of bees) and myrmecophobia (fear of ants).” Now, that being said…I think my “fear” can be measured by mass. The smaller the insect, the less I get “freaked out.” Hence, small little pests like flies and mosquitoes are simply put…pests, easily swatted or shooed away. But on the other spectrum, the bigger they get, the more I’m apted to run away screaming. If someone were to make a monster movie with the intention of provoking the mass amount of fear from yours truly, Them! would be the quintessential experience.
But it cannot be done in a silly way. If you want a serious reaction, the movie will need to have a serious undertone. Them! is a perfect example of this. As a fan of most dubbed “classics,” basically timeless pieces of cinematic history, be it 1930s or 40s or 50s or 60s or even those in the Silent Era, I took double pleasure in the fact that this now 63 year old movie can still capture that tension, that wonderful feeling of dread so fantastically. Them!, not too sound too fan-girlish, is utterly amazing. By modern standards, Them! easily tops what producers consider to be blockbusters in not just storytelling and characterization, but also special effects. It makes me curious what original audiences thought when they first sat in their parked fin-tailed red and chrome Chrysler’s at the local drive-in, WITHOUT having been desensitized by years of modern computer generated graphics.
Alas, those day’s are gone forever.
All we can do now is cherish the time we had.
For those who have not had the pleasure, here is a quick synopsis of Them!
“The earliest atomic tests in New Mexico cause common ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters that threaten civilization.”
Boom. You don’t really need anything more than that, do you? Needless to say, IMDb isn’t wrong. In a nut shell, those are the stakes. A mutated strain of ants are multiplying in the New Mexico desert and could very well threaten civilization. And not just any mutated ant species, but a mutation of the Cataglyphis genus, better known as Desert Ants. These sand dwellers are among the most aggressive of ant. The perfect bugs to supersize for a horror/science fiction movie, right?
One of the fun aspects of Them! is how the movie starts off and is treated more or less throughout the entirety as a “detective” story. The movie opens with a patrol car doing their normal patrol and pickup a little girl, no more than six years old, strolling through the desert alone dressed in a nightgown and cradling a broken doll. They try talking to her but she is catatonic, speechless, staring blankly out at the brown sand. That feeling of dread we talked about begins to weave slowly into the movie and as the policemen investigate a nearby trailer, finding it mostly destroyed, pulled apart from the outside (they deduce) the tension builds even further.
The next scene certainly adds to not only the mystery but also the horror when police sergeant Ben Peterson’s (played by the very awesome James Whitmore) partner “disappears” off screen investigating a strange sound. He get’s off a couple of shots and then screams, that kind of scream that sends chills down your spine. The sound the officer investigates permeates throughout the entire movie. A familiar nature melody for anyone living in suburbia or out in the country. The sound of cicada or crickets singing in trees or in tall grass. Come summer, that sound is still quite pleasant to me, despite this film’s attempt to ruin it. Though, there is a lingering feeling of “what’s really making that sound? Are they, Them! watching me?”
And I love how, despite the excellent movie art on the poster, knowing there will be giant ants in this movie, the story stalls the BIG reveal, forgive the pun, until the absolute right moment. And that moment, much how the newly brought on character, FBI agent, Robert Graham (played by man’s man James Arness), to its frustrating conclusion through the “comic relief” of sorts Professor Harold Medford (played by Santa himself Edmund Gwenn) and his “if a boy can do it a girl can do it too” daughter Dr. Patrica Medford (Joan Weldon). The Dr. Medord’s are not really that comedic, the old man is sort of how we might think brilliant old men are, a tad absent minded to every day tasks, but a genius in their preferred fields of study. And the female Dr. Medford, despite her strong grace of femininity, wasn’t overpowering or preachy. She was meek but smart and willing to go places most men wouldn’t dare go. In a decade before feminism really took off in America, it’s hard to place the purpose of her character. Regardless, I was and am very pleased with her performance, second to her father perhaps, how she was not the ditsy romance how most other movies place actresses. Harold may have been love struck, but everyone else called her Pat, a genderless name, and I prefer it that way.
The reveal was perfect, as I said. A sandstorm kicks up and everyone’s goggled and stumbling around for clues. Somehow Pat get’s separated from the group. That chilling buzzing, ringing, clicking cicada sound starts again, getting louder and louder, and everyone is looking around wondering what that noice is and where it’s coming from. Above Pat on a dune, emerges a large black head with giant orb eyes long furry antenna and large sharp looking mandibles. She screams, alerting the others who begin opening fire, destroying the ant’s antenna (to the suggestion of Dr. Medford). The ant is killed and while the others are staring at this impossible horror, Dr. Medford makes a statement, the inspiration and message of the entire movie, I think. He says, “We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true – ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the beasts shall reign over the earth.'” He says something very similar towards the end of the movie, stating, “When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”
The Atomic Age…
Full of sparking large logos and flashy gadgets and a new generation of fast food and drive-in theaters and modern jazz and rock-in-roll, but this was also an era of uncertainty. Hiroshima and Nagasaki awakened something in humanity. Something more than just awe and dread. Something darker and more pious than religion. The Atomic Age was this new fear of the bomb. Uncertainty over world powers, the growth of the Cold War, and a horizon in modern science to which many did not understand. Not knowing is the greatest fear of all, at least according to H.P. Lovecraft. The Atomic Age also gave birth to this very feature we find ourselves enjoying (hopefully), the birth of unnatural monsters such as Godzilla and Them! Better known as Creature Features.
Them! acts as a cautionary tale. Be warned, what will await us on the other side of the door. Will science bring upon us destruction and darkness? Will man’s ignorance? Them! isn’t about the dangers of real giant bugs, its about consequences. That in everything we do or strive to bring about, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, as Newton had once said. Its a message every new generation hears, right? Cautionary warnings from the old folks rocking on the porch, talking about how things used to be.
The rest of Them! takes on that similar detective story we were introduced to in the beginning. They hunt down the hive and destroy the giant ants with poison, only to discover a few queens had escaped prior. Now the once localized investigation turns into a global event. Hush hush, of course, to avoid widespread panic, the team with the added benefit of the military and select government officials quickly work to destroy Them! But the movie doesn’t end like some monster movies with the creatures being destroyed…there is a feeling of uncertainty, astute given the era, and we are left wondering if perhaps there are more giant mutated ants out in the desert thanks to atomic weaponry. And as Dr. Wedford said, “nobody can predict.”
My rating: 5 out of 5
Who doesn’t love a good story? From great works such as, All Quiet on the Western Front and Salem’s Lot, Thomas S. Flowers has a passion to create similar character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore fests to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, Thomas has published several novels, including, Reinheit, The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, Beautiful Ugly and other Weirdness, Feast, and PLANET OF THE DEAD. In 2008, Thomas was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served 3 tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Military Police Officer. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at http://www.machinemean.org, where he contributes reviews on movies and books along with a gambit of guest writers who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. Follow Thomas on his website www.ThomasSFlowers.com.
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During the 1990s it felt as if horror movies had descended into the visceral and psychological methods of storytelling, such as In the Mouth of Madness, or Jacob’s Ladder, or Candy Man, or even Freddy Krueger exploring the realm of mythology in New Nightmare. Some monster flicks kept to their proverbial roots. The payout, of course, is what typically happens with most creature features, when the directors, producers, screenwriters turn on the cheese factor and make the movie a satire, such as Arachnophobia or Gremlins 2 or The Faculty. Seldom do we find anything that’s actually haunting. Anything that makes us sit on the edge of our seats. Anything that forces us to watch even though we want to look away. The horror pickins are slim. There is one director, however, who, up until this point in his career at least, did not bow to cheese in order to make a monster movie. Of course, I’m talking about 1997’s cult hit creature feature, MIMIC, directed by none other than Guillermo del Toro. Before del Toro was pitting giant robots versus behemoth sea monsters, his work was subtle and carefully crafted, honing in on character building and turning on the suspense until the deluge spilled over into a wonderfully cataclysmic conclusion. Thus was the work of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, and also what we get with Mimic.
Before we begin, here is a classic IMDB synopsis:
“Three years ago, entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler genetically created an insect to kill cockroaches carrying a virulent disease. Now, the insects are out to destroy their only predator, mankind.”
Bravo IMDb, bravo. Yet again another astute generalization of one of my favorite creature features. You’re not wrong, IMDb, it just feels a tad oversimplified. For starters, if you’ve seen Mimic, but haven’t seen the Director’s Cut, stop now and go rent/buy/whatever you need to do to see this edition. Let me tell you, I was happy with the original version, but I LOVE this Director’s Cut. And sure, it really only adds about nine minutes or more of footage, but those added moments really help make the story shine all the better. I especially love the added bits at the beginning, the extended opening sequence that shows us this ravaging disease called Strickler’s, that is decimating a huge percentage of New York City children, and then we get Dr. Susan Tyler, played fantastically by Mira Sorvino . She genetically creates a new species of insect called the Judas breed. They target the city’s cockroach population, releasing an enzyme which causes the roaches metabolism to speed up and starve themselves to death. The Judas breed was created to be all-female with a short life expectancy. The last opening clip (from the Director’s Cut) shows Dr. Tyler releasing the Judas breed into the sewers. She kneels and watches as her “children” begin their work as she is stylistically swarmed by roaches. And a moment later we see a river of dead cockroaches and an announcement from the CDC that they have eliminated the “Strickler’s” disease.
Fade to black.
Now we find ourselves three years after the release of the Judas breed. Just three years. What can happen in such a short span of time? Well, if there is any indication from the name of the insect, Judas, well…historically things have never really worked out with things named Judas. Not to mention any species introduced into the wild trusting that a genetic “all-female” plug will hold, I mean, haven’t these people seen Jurrasic Park? To quote Ian Malcolm, “Life will find a way.” And life certainly did find a way, as our scientists are soon to find out. After the fuzzy “all-is-well-with-the-world” moment, the movie opens again on a man being chased onto a roof at night in the rain. Here we get our first glimpse at what has become the Judas breed. Strange clicking sounds and an odd shadowy face and the outline of what looks like a man in a black trench coat. The movement of this mysterious “man” and the design are incredibly creepy, and no wonder, as legendary The Thing and The Howling practical effects master/guru Rob Bottin had a hand in the development of the creature.
Let me stop here for a moment. I have a confession. Bugs freak me out. I think this is a well-known fact if you’ve read any part in my Subdue Series books you should know. I’m not sure why. I don’t recall being traumatized as a child, not with insects at least. The My Buddy doll my folks got me for Christmas is another subject entirely (thanks, Sis!). I think people have their own thresholds for fear. Some hate clowns. Others hate anything to do with eyeballs. Some teeth. For me, big nasty arthropods are what tickles my medulla oblongata (technically the amygdala, but medulla oblongata sounds cooler). Too many legs. Nightmare mouths. Multiple glass eyes. Ugh!!! And as the movie, Mimic, was so kind to point out in Dr. Tyler’s lab of horrors, certain species of insects can do some rather impressive stuff, such as certain warrior ants that even when injured will continue to attack. Wasps that turn prey into zombies. Spiders that lay eggs inside a host to be consumed as a snack when the babies hatch. It’s not evil in the sense of good or morality. There is no morality when it comes to insects. To quote another Jeff Goldblum line, “Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise.” And here perhaps is what trips my fear sensor the most, the absence of compassion, compromise, especially in something as large as what the Judas breed becomes.
Soon after the death of the man on the roof and some cut scenes of Dr. Tyler and her husband, Dr. Mann, and their on-screen hopes of becoming parents, solidifying again the overarching theme of Mimic, fertility, some well-meaning “hood-rat” children out to make a quick buck bring Dr. Tyler an “interesting” find they discovered below ground near one of New York’s many metro tracks. Dr. Tyler soon realizes just what this large bug really is. Though “just a baby,” as she says, the creature is as large as the palm of her hand. But Tyler isn’t alone in her lab. There’s a shape at the window, a mysterious “man” in a dark trenchcoat. Okay, pause. I have to once again give a nod to both Rob Bottin and the original author of the creature in this flick, Donald Allen Wollheim who came up with the short story, titled, “Mimic,” a first-person narrative about a dude who notices a strange “man” in a trenchcoat standing on the streets in his town but never says anything to anyone. Following the sound of screams, the narrator discovers the “man” dead in his apartment, but upon closer examination, he unveils that the mysterious “man” isn’t a man at all, but a large bug imitating a man. This, for me, adds to the creep factor here. Not only are we dealing with larger than normal insects, but we’re dealing with an insect that has evolved to “mimic” us.
Stories begin to collide at this point. All leading back deep underground onto some abandoned metro tracks that would inspire curious urban spelunkers to explore. Dr. Tyler, Dr. Mann, officer Leonard (played wonderfully by Charles S. Dutton) and Manny (a father searching for his lost autistic son who “followed” the Judas breed into their underground metro hive). All these motivations would seem to make the movie feel too complicated, but in actuality, they add to the movie’s believability. That they happen upon each other, sure, could be a stretch, but otherwise getting a glimpse at their personalities and motivations actually benefits how audiences feel towards them. I wanted them to survive. There were no “villains” here. Even Dr. Mann’s doomed assistant, Josh (played by Josh Brolin), though kind of cocky and moronic, you don’t hate the guy and you felt something when he was killed off, fairly horribly I might add. All this was accomplished without a bunch of unnecessary backstory. At this stage in del Toro’s career, he had made a name for himself for interweaving likable heartfelt characters into his story, not through exposition, but dialogue and interaction.
Mimic is not without some cheese.
This is, after all, a creature feature.
Whoever came up with the genius plan to get the old boxcar trolley operational is…a moron. Seriously. But, not altogether unrealistic. People come up with horrible ideas all the time. Consider the Shake Weight exercise dumbells. Yup. Someone thought that was a good idea too. No, though the trolley idea was moronic, it was not out of the realm of what someone in that situation would probably do. The real cheese for me was what the “King” Judas bug was doing at the end. But, let me explain the entry of this “new” character. Nearing the climax, we discover that part of the genetic code used to create the Judas breed came from a species of insect that has one male as the only fertile member of the colony. Of course, they had created the species as “all-female,” thus supposedly limiting the lifespan of the Judas breed exponentially. However, as fans of Jurrasic Park should know, “life finds a way,” and thus the species adapted. Part of the enzyme that gave Judas the ability to eliminate the cockroach infestation by accelerating the roaches reproduction rate, essentially burning them out, in turn, gave them the ability to mass reproduce at an alarming rate. Consider how in just three years the Judas went from cockroach size to human size, developing the necessary biology in order to grow. Reproduction, fertility and natural childbirth seem to be a motif in Mimic.
Back to the cheese.
A big creep factor in this movie was the fact that these insects were not acting in any personal way. Insects do not have politics, remember. They simply…are. They do as their genetic makeup implies for them to do. They attack when provoked. They feed and breed for survival alone. There is no pleasure, “no compassion, no compromise (I’m telling you, Jeff Goldblum should have been cast in this movie as Dr. Mann).” That said, in the end, the “King” Judas bug didn’t seem to be following the movies preestablished rules of insect politics. The “King” acted mightily pissed off. Before being mowed down by a subway car, that sucker “looked” like he wanted blood. Half-burnt, limping after Dr. Taylor. But, that’s just a small blip on an otherwise decent and definitely creepy creature feature flick. My only other “WTF” is the last line in the movie when Dr. Taylor and her bo Dr. Mann reunite, both are happy the other survived the subway fire that wiped out the Judas colony. Dr. Mann whispers in his wife’s ear, “We can have a baby,” or something to that extent. As the last line, this kinda has me in a loop. After everything they survived, the ordeal, that’s what he tells her? This, of course, brings the circle around regarding the theme of natural childbirth and fertility. But what did it answer? Or better yet, what question did it raise? Unnatural fertility will breed monsters? Seriously? Maybe I’m missing something.
Regardless, Mimic was an excellent escape from the visceral and psychological methods of storytelling that seemed to dominate the 1990s. And Mimic was definitely one of del Toro’s best pictures if you ask me. This flick could have very feel come off as a cheap B-movie, it had the trappings for such a disaster, but it didn’t. Mimic came out as a genuinely creepy monster movie. If you haven’t seen this one, you need to, but be sure to watch the Director’s Cut. It’s only really nine minutes of added footage, but those added moments make the movie all the better.
My rating: 4 out of 5
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 Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and 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 author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
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Welcome, my friends to the start of a brand new series here on Machine Mean. I’m more than ecstatic to present to you the first of many Creature Features that will be reviewed during this duration. And what better way to kick things off than with one of my favorite horror sub-subgenres, mad science. Looking over the landscape of Creature Feature movies, there seem to be plenty that fit the bill of mad science, including, I would argue, those radiated atomic age giant sized monsters. How could we not include those? Did Dr. Oppenheimer and the rest of the Manhattan Project not considered (if not to each other to be) mad scientists? Following a successful test of his bomb, Oppenheimer dedicated his life to restricting the use of such a device. His intellect pursued the impossible and when said impossible was achieved, he drew back in quiet revulsion. Mad science…and even creatures of the macabre have a tendency to show us the things we most fear. Considering the mad scientists of the atomic era, they created and let loose upon the world a weapon so powerful that it changed the global culture and set us into a new age. Most had their own motivations, no doubt about it, but I would be confident to assume a majority of those motivations were intellectually based. Pushing the boundaries, so to speak. Creature Feature movies come from a similar vein. Unresolved fears gleaming into a new dawn. Numerous what if scenarios. Of invaders. Of the future. Of what lurks in the basement or in the woods or under the bed or out in the swamps. And some relate to our unresolved fears within our own bodies…and our minds. David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) is a masterpiece of body horror, also known as venereal horror. Let’s take a closer look.
Here’s a synopsis of the film from the always wonderful IMDb:
“A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong.”
This IMDb synopsis isn’t wrong. It just feels horribly simplified, right? There’s so much more to say about The Fly. One could point out the romantic triangle between the “mad” scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and his newly minted lover/journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) and her ex-lover/editor Stathis Borans (John Getz). One could also point out a possible allegory of puberty, as Seth undergoes “changes” in his body, pimples, and other oozing features while becoming obsessed with his physique and sexual intercourse. Or we could go with the basic plot of an eccentric scientist and his doomed experiment. But neither of those feels quite right, do they? No. Something deeper is going on.
Before we consider The Fly, we ought to consider the director. David Cronenberg, also known as the King of Venereal Horror, back in the 80s and late 70s, set in motion a series on what film nerds refer to now as organic-horror, biological horror, or simply body horror. Anything to do with the horror of the human anatomy. For Cronenberg, we can look to Dead Ringers, Videodrome, Scanners, Shivers, The Brood, eXistenZ, and Rabid that could arguably be counted toward his run on body horror themed films. Each one taking on a different aspect or story regarding our humanistic fears about our own bodies juxtaposed to our vulnerability to disease or technology or parasites. In The Fly, this fear seems to be centered around the fear of mind versus body. Fear of what our minds create, that is technology, doesn’t feel dominate, though it definitely plays a part in Cronenberg’s philosophy.
We cannot ignore it.
Seth Brundle admits during the first hour of the movie that he has extreme motion sickness and he feels that this is a crippling condition. He cannot travel very far without getting sick. So, motivated by this horror he feels handicaps him by isolating him, scientist Brundle sets out to create a teleportation device, so that he may beam from one point to another without ever getting sick. His endeavor works. He has invented and created a teleportation pod, or tele-pod. But there’s a catch. The machine cannot properly read or understand flesh. This failure is clearly and disgustingly seen in the teleportation of Baboon #1 as the poor monkey is turned inside out. The machine doesn’t understand flesh, just as the character Seth does not understand flesh. He works exclusively alone, isolated from even his peers until he can no longer tolerate being alone. As he says to Veronica, the reason why he sought her out in the first place was because he had been alone for too long, he desires, craves, lusts for human contact. In a way, this illustrates the drama taking place between mind and body. His mind wants to continue its intellectual pursuits, but the body demands human interaction and thus intervenes and creates obstacles in the path of his goals.
While the mind is presented as being purely objective, the body is thought of as being subjective. During the duration of the movie, these ideas of mind and body are turned inside out, just as the Baboon was, and exposed for the ugliness this philosophy can bring upon us. Ideas become twisted. Seth creates a machine to solve his motion sickness problem. Okay, but he’s alone and finds solace in journalist Veronica. His bodily craving is resolved, for now, until more fleshly desires present themselves when Veronica puts the moves on our bumbling scientist. Suddenly he understands the dilemma between mind and body due to his ignorance of body and correlates his discovery with the tele-pod machine. He then successfully transports Baboon #2. They celebrate. Unfortunately, Veronica has to, as she says, “scrape off the heel” of her shoe the problematic ex-lover/editor Borans. Unschooled in the ways of human interaction, let alone women, Seth believes his new girlfriend is cheating on him or whatever and gets drunk and decides to go through the pod himself. Abandoning mind for bodily created jealousy. Unknown to him, a fly joins him in the pod and away they go. The machine wasn’t programmed to account for two separate genetic codes and so decides on its own, or more likely a fallback program, to splice them together. Seth emerges from the other pod in a cloud of white smoke seemingly unharmed or changed, instead, he is glistening and muscular, perfection one might say of both mind and body…but as horror fans, we know all too well there are no such guarantees.
Something went wrong.
It is interesting how Cronenberg differed here from the original 1958 film. When scientist Andre Delambre (played by Al Hedison) emerges from his pod he is instantly changed. His head is that of a fly’s head and his once human hand is a mandible-like claw. Differing, in this 1986 adaptation, Seth Brundle emerges seemingly unchanged but then goes through a slow and grueling deformation of his flesh and eventually his mind too. At first, he denies what’s happening, as any good horror character will do. When Veronica realizes something is amiss and tries to make him realize he is different, Seth screams at her, “You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t you? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you? I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, gray, fear of the flesh. Drink deep, or taste not the plasma spring! Y’see what I’m saying? And I’m not just talking about sex and penetration. I’m talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh! A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool!”
The pacing of this film is magnificent. Shortly after the above scene, Seth witnesses the first of many parts of his body that begin to fall off. Slowly, with each stage of decomposition, which quickly is realized as a perverted form of evolution, his bodily-humanity is degraded, ruined, being transformed into something else. At first, Seth accepts this new discovery, jokingly referring to his medicine cabinet as a Brundle Museum of Natural History. But the more insect he becomes, the more he realizes his once beloved intellect will also slip away into the obscurity of a brutal body-dominate fly. This realization is made in one of the movies best lines when Seth asks Veronica is she “ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first… insect politician. Y’see, I’d like to, but… I’m afraid, uh… I’m saying… I’m saying I – I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake. I’m saying… I’ll hurt you if you stay.”
Seth quickly goes to work to try and resolve this transformation before he loses his mind to the bug. The machine analysis in an algorithm that he would have to splice two or more pure humans to reverse the insectoid growth. Devastated over Veronica’s departure, Seth discovers she is pregnant and chases her down when she seeks an abortion. Ina dream, Cronenberg himself plays the gynecologist, which is stoically brilliant. Seth, of course, crashes into the changing room and takes her away, imploring that she does not kill what remains of his humanity. She cannot and so he goes about his last-ditch attempt to reverse the progression of the insect with one of the best transformation effects ever conceived on screen as Brundle becomes a fully matured Brundlefly. The attempted abortion and the splicing algorithm give clues to this “other” possibility of resolving the conflict between mind and body. The mind can take action to destroy physical progression. Consider how people are outside of the movies. Why do people pursue cosmetic surgery? Why do we have organ transplants?
The Fly calls to our extremes. The war between our minds and body’s. Seth ignored his body, pursuing only the mind, to end up pursuing his physical desires over the discovery his intellect had made, only to realize all too late the need for an equal relationship between both mind and body. The Fly is definitely one of my favorite 1980s horror flicks and one of my favorite Cronenberg films. Great composition. Amazing practical effects. Top notch character acting. And gratifying gross-out scenes. But not just that, The Fly also has a deeper meaning that I find equally satisfying to all the blood and guts and giant humanoid insects, what would I be without my mind? What would I be without my body?
My Rating: 5/5
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 Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving (coming soon), 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 author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
If you’re subscribed to my newsletter or have been following my feed on Facebook, then you’ve probably already heard the news. The next installment in my growing Subdue Books Series will release next week with Limitless Publishing LLC. This new title is called Conceiving, and in this post, I’d like to tell you a little bit about the new story. Before that, though, maybe I should recap what happened in the previous books…without giving away any spoilers for anyone who has not read either Dwelling (Subdue Book 1) or Emerging (Subdue Book 2). What I’ll be giving then is general information while avoiding major twists and such. And let it be made know, to follow along in Conceiving, you do not have to have read the other books. Okay…let’s begin.
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away….
At the beginning of Dwelling, we are introduced to Johnathan and Ricky who are both in the U.S. Army serving in Iraq during the 2006-ish years, basically Operation Iraqi Freedom era. While on guard, Johnathan thinks he sees something…unnatural during a sandstorm. The event is juxtaposed with an actual attack on the Iraqi Police station they were guarding. Johnathan and Ricky’s trunk is hit with an RPG. And…no spoilers here as it is made very abundant in the beginning, Ricky is killed instantly, while Johnathan suffers the loss of a limb. This is how Dwelling opens. From here, we fast forward one year from the attack that claimed Ricky Smith and we are introduced to some other major characters.
Bobby Weeks (one of my favorite characters), who also served in the U.S. Army during the Iraq War, is now a homeless veteran. He wanders the streets out of necessity, or so he imagines. Bobby believes, due to a particular curse, he has to keep away from those he loves, his family and his friends. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Bobby has a secret, a curse he contracted in Kurdistan when the moon is full he blacks out and wakes the next morning either naked or nearly, and covered in blood and grime. A strange woman finds him in a field and tells Bobby what he is and offers him a place of safety, to keep the beast within him away from the public at large.
Jake Williams is another character we meet. He is a Presbyterian minister with a dark conscience. Like Johnathan, Ricky, and Bobby, Jake also served in the U.S. Army, but not as a combatant. Due to his strict religious observance, Jake was a chaplain’s assistant. Something happened over there, something Jake had witnessed, something strong enough to weigh heavy on his guilt, powerful enough to fracture his faith in God. In the book, Jake struggles with his faith as he fills his religious void with sex. Eventually, his guilt manifests in haunting ways and a soldier he believed dead returned.
Maggie Smith is our last of the group of childhood friends known as Suicide Squad (I know, the name was picked before the movie made the comic popular again!). Maggie is the widow of Ricky Smith and we get to know her one year following the death of her husband. She’s still on base housing but will be forced to relocate. During her house hunt, she is reminded of one of the summers her childhood friends (Johnathan, Bobby, Jake, and Ricky) had come across an odd old farm house in Jotham, TX. Said house, she discovers, is for sale. Maggie quickly buys the house and moves in almost immediately. This wouldn’t be much of a thriller book if the house was normal, would it? And as such, the House on Oak Lee is anything but normal. She begins to hear things at night, crawling, scratching behind the walls. Then she begins hearing sounds, like footsteps, coming down the hall. Haunting or hallucinations, we do not know, but they are escalating. Fearing she is losing her mind, Maggie writes to her childhood friends, hoping to bring them back together, to visit her at the House on Oak Lee.
The House could certainly be another character. It has a strange history, which is revealed through the chapters with Augustus Westfield. If you enjoy historical fiction, I’ve been told these chapters were the favorite for some. But, most of what happens in the House happens in the next book, Emerging. Since Dwelling and Emerging are so closely related, there is no need for new character introductions. Emerging picks up where Dwelling left off. The once childhood friends, Johnathan (and his wife and step-daughter), Jake, and Bobby reunite in Jotham, Texas at Maggie’s house. Adding to Jake’s fear, Maggie looks…different, strained almost…sickly. Johnathan is struggling to keep his marriage together. Seeing one’s dead best friend talk to you in a public restroom can change a man.
Bobby agrees to go, but only if Jake promises to take him back to Houston before the next night. There’s a full moon coming and Bobby has no intention of putting his friends in danger. However, none of the others know about Bobby’s curse, and thus, especially with Johnathan, treat him as an eccentric selfish recluse. It has been years since the childhood friends were together. And things don’t smooth over that first night. The next morning, Bobby goes missing. The gang attempts to find him in town.
Unable to locate Bobby, and after being visited again by Ricky’s rotting specter, Johnathan and Jake become desperate to get Maggie out of the house. They don’t really know what’s really going on or what the house really is. All they know is that their friend is in danger. Her body seems to be wasting away before their very eyes. As the danger intensifies, trust is elusive, and betrayal is certain…
So…that’s a pretty good sum up of both Dwelling and Emerging.
Now for the “good stuff.”
Conceiving…if you’ve read the ending to Emerging…you may be wondering “how the hell do you go from there?” While keeping to my nihilistic style, Emerging still had some very finite conclusions. Things happened that you cannot write around or walk away from. However, that being said, I felt that there was still more to be told. Me? I’m a fan of developing characters. Sometimes they start out as minor and vaguely important. And sometimes they can grow and become much more influential to the story. Luna Blanche is one of those characters. She was in Dwelling and Emerging, but only in a minor role, attached to Bobby’s arch. In Conceiving, her role is much bigger. Though separated from Bobby, she can still “see” him telepathically due to her unique gifts. But the Mississippi Delta woods are limiting her visions, isolating her even farther from what she loves. Her garden. Her grandfather’s house in Hitchcock. And Bobby.
The cabin in the Mississippi woods is quiet. There are no other family members to help Luna take care of her ailing grandmother. No friends. Nothing but the sound of the trees swaying in the wind and a dark presence she can feel hiding in the woods. To add to the strangeness, her grandmother seems disconcerted by her prognosis and instead seems both urgent and hesitate to share with her some sort of secret, some family sin Luna will eventually inherit. If you recognize the name Blanche, especially the name Ronna Blanche, your suspicions are true. Ronna Blanche, now Memaw, is a holdover character from another story of mine called Lanmo. Lanmo was based in the 1960s when Ronna was a young voodoo priestess. Now she is aged and sick. And feels compelled to warn Luna, that she must get her granddaughter to understand why she did the things she did before she dies because her sin, the family sin, has not gone away but remains, hiding in the woods. I don’t really want to spoil anything here, but if you have read Lanmo, you can pretty much guess what that “sin” is.
The only major holdover from Dwelling and Emerging is Bobby Weeks. I don’t want to say too much about Bobby, as it may inadvertently give away something from the previous book. However, I will say that Bobby is attempting to move on with his life. He gets a job. Makes a real go at being normal, despite his curse. Poor Bobbs. Nothing ever seems to pan out for the guy. Eventually, he will spiral and be consumed with revenge, set on a trajectory back to Jotham.
There are a lot of new characters, but the most important ones are Boris and Neville Petry. And yes, Neville is a girl. And I love these two people. I know I wrote them, but that doesn’t make them mandatory to love. And yet, I do. They represent, for me, a young American couple seeking a piece of the American Dream. Boris is a history professor who is offered a job teaching at Baelo University, an obscure little school on the outskirts of Jotham, Texas. Neville, while reluctant to leave behind their life at Ole Miss, agrees, hoping in part that the change will maybe help cultivate the family, the child, she so desperately desires. Weeks following a faculty party, it seems her wish has come true. But dark nightmares plague the happy pregnancy…as does her husband’s strangely distant behavior towards her.
I could say more…but why spoil the fun!
And there you have it, folks. The low and dirty of Conceiving. Plenty of dark twists and history and story to unraveled. And again, you do not need to have read Dwelling and/or Emerging to follow the plot in Conceiving. It certainly helps, especially in understanding Bobby, but the guilt he carries is made pretty clear within the pages of this new story. I am really excited about this one. When I wrote it and turned it into my publisher, I immediately started working on Book 4…which is finished and contracted with Limitless. News on that one to follow soon. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this new book. Lots of horror to devour. Voodoo priestess. Werewolves. Cults. Extra-dimensional insectoid creatures. Strange pregnancy. And my own personally take on the Frankenstein monster. Plus all the human drama and humor we love to feed on.
Conceiving is now available for preorder. Due to release on November 29, 2016. You can get your copy here. Or if you fancy getting a paperback, you can order that here. And if you are curious about my other books, you can find them on Amazon by following this link here. And as always, you can connect with me on Facebook here, where I post new book info and other horror related topics. Thanks for reading everyone!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.