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Posts tagged “nature

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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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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Universal Monsters in Review: Revenge of the Creature (1955)

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The safe word today is, science runs amok! A familiar theme with Universal Monsters. And come to think about it, nearly all of the monsters, at one point or another, have been tethered to mad science. Even Dracula, who in Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein, ole Draco mixes himself up in some strange business with bolts and laboratories, in an attempt to resurrect the infamous monster in his own image. And lets not forget the amazing Werewolf of London, to which the werewolf curse is passed on to a botanist who then attempts to use science to cure himself. The main theme people typically walk away with is that science never solves anything, but that doesnt sound right, does it? No, science in itself is not the enemy, nor is nature singularly the enemy either. Maybe we can look from the perspective of the characters, and with those characters, sure, nothing ever seems to go right. Considering, if science is by definition man’s way of understanding nature and the world around him, mankind sure seems to always blunder any attempt to understand his world. The more these characters force to understand nature, the more we get the impression that maybe there are some things we shouldn’t know. Last night, during my first screening of Revenge of the Creature, the running thought in head during the duration of the film was basically the idea of man attempting to concur nature, and failing, because nature is something that cannot be tamed or easily categorized (yup, borrowed that one from Fox Mulder). And perhaps there are some things mankind should not know, or perhaps is not ready to know. The Gill-Man returns in form with some excellent script writing for this round-about sequel to Creature of the Black Lagoon. I found myself routing for the monster, especially due to its mistreatment and shameful exposure for paying customers of the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium, which became, for a time, the new Freak Show. Well, I think we’ve all had enough of my own ramblings, lets see what our esteemed guest has to say regarding, Revenge of the Creature.

Revenge of the Creature

By: Jeffery X. Martin

It’s not easy being the missing link. People keep trying to capture you for research, and there’s no Anti-Vivisectionists League for bizarre aquatic creatures. If they can’t capture you, then they just try to shoot you. Tranquilizers, bullets, anything that can be fired out of a gun, humans will shoot it at you, just because you’re different. Oh, and forget dating. It’s one thing to have psoriasis or contact dermatitis, but full-on scales and gills? No woman puts that on her list of likes.

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The end of The Creature from the Black Lagoon shows our old buddy, the Gill-Man, in precisely that situation. He’s been dynamited, shot, and after eons of hunting for a nice girl, he finds one. But as soon as he tries to take her home, the humans get all twitchy. They take the girl back, and they shoot the Gill-Man a few times for good measure. That’s a bad day, y’all, and if I were he, I would want revenge, too.

In 1955, the Gill-Man returned in Revenge of the Creature. There’s not much actual revenge in the movie, but the story of the Creature does take an interesting turn. Although we were led to believe the creature died in a hail of bullets at the end of the first film, that’s not the case. He is captured with ease back at the Black Lagoon and taken to the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium, a waterpark much like Sea-World. Scientists there hope to study the Gill-Man and find out what makes him tick.

This goes exactly as well as you think it will.

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Revenge of the Creature is a low-budget production. It stars John Agar, and that makes it feel even more low-budget than it actually is. He’s not an actor normally associated with high-quality work. He’s handsome, all right, but what did it get him? In this movie, he’s nothing more than a giant chin and hormones, as he tries to get into the pants of the “lady doctor,” played by Lori Nelson.

Nelson’s character finds herself in one corner of a love square between John Agar, the Creature’s caretaker, Joe Hayes (John Bromfield), and the Creature himself. Every main male character in the movie (including the Creature) is a sexist schmuck, attempting to mold Nelson into some kind of precious doll that needs to be protected. Never mind that she’s a brilliant student of ichthyology, perfectly capable of taking care of herself. There are so many “step aside, little lady” moments in this film, she may as well be doing the Electric Slide instead of walking.

Joe and John Agar fight over her. The Creature and Joe fight over her. John Agar and the Creature fight over her.  No one wants to fight alongside her, or get to know her as a human being because that would make their testicles fall off.

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The main point of the film involves the scientists’ attempt to communicate with the Creature. I’m not sure why this is important. It’s not like the Gill-Man has read any good books lately and would love to discuss them. Their big idea for communication is teaching the Creature involves shocking him when he does something wrong. This kind of Pavlovian conditioning elicits responses, but that’s no more communication than someone grunting when they stub their toe.

At least the Creature still looks cool. In a movie filled with wonky science and terrible human relations, he’s the high point. He’s got those huge eyes, webbed hands, and the tendency to open his mouth wide, gasping for air, when he’s on land. He’s a scary monster, difficult to humanize, because you cannot tell his intentions from his face. He can’t raise an eyebrow, give a sly glance, or smirk. There’s no way to tell what he’s thinking, which may make the Gill-Man the scariest of all the Universal Monsters.

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It’s a shame this sequel isn’t better. It feels cheap and the script is shallow. If anything, it feels like Jaws 3-D was a remake of Revenge of the Creature. In a lot of ways, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen the other. While the shark is an eating machine, the Creature just wants to fertilize some eggs and go back home. Maybe, in that way, the Gill-Man is also the most human of all the Universal Monsters. The Frankenstein Monster and Dracula have their own particular pathos. It’s part of why we love them. The Creature from the Black Lagoon has no personal demons to be dealt with, no extended back story. He has aught but the instinct to survive.

This singularity of vision makes the Creature hard to love, but easy to fear. It certainly makes him worthy of a better sequel. This isn’t it.

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Jeffery X. Martin, or Mr. X to you, is the published author of several stories that are sure to shock, including those in the Elder’s Keep universe and Tarotsphere. He also published a fantastic tale in The Black Room Manuscripts. You can find his work on Amazon. When Mr. X is not writing creep mind-benders, he’s the host and/or contributor to several podcasts and blogs, including, but not limited to, Pop Shiftier and Kiss the Goat.