Okay, part of having a problem is admitting it. And I admit it. I LOVE creature features. I just can’t help it, it’s a compulsion. I know they’re predictable and I know they’re not the cleverest or academic of movies and apparently I’m supposed to be “above that sort of thing” as one of my friends pointed out the other day (“And you’re like, a WRITER and you like this crap?” he says with much exaggerated eyebrow movement), but there you go. But then you knew that anyway, right? I’ve gone on about it enough here.
I’ve been having withdrawal symptoms for a good creature feature lately… And it would seem others are too. For a while, when it came to horror anyway, the majority of scripts I saw involved ghosts or ghost killers or the idea of “The Monstrous Other”: the Michael Myers, Freddy Kreuger-style faceless killer. Yet just recently, literally in the last three months, I’m seeing a return in the scripts I read to the old school Beast. The creature with many teeth, razor-like claws, extra terrestiel or indigenous, that’s intent on ripping your guts out. And there is. No. Escape. RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!
So I thought now was a good time to revisit three of my favourite creature features and take a look not only at the iconic monsters in them, but the heroes of the hour and what they have to put up with (not always just the creature). Enjoy…
Ah, the one that started it all:
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
WRITERS: Ronald Shusett & Dan O’Bannon (story); Dan O’Bannon (screenplay)
TAGLINE: In space no one can hear you scream.
It’s pretty hard to believe this film is as old as I am. There were of course monster movies before Alien, but I find it difficult to grasp how they could possibly have been viewed as scary. Of course, that’s because my understanding of media image is more “advanced” since the special effects too are more “advanced” – (in the same way children nowadays seem to think of animation as “needing” to be 3D to be “good”. My son can’t believe that cartoons were once drawn with a PEN AND INK! “What the hell?” he says looking in a book. Altogether: one, two, three….aaaah!)
Before Alien however, there might have been monster movies, but they were essentially B Movies: monster arrives on earth (usually in a UFO): “Monster takes over the world! Arrrrrrrrgh!!!!!!” was *generally* the order of the day and why not? If film charts society’s concerns of the time (and I think it does), then it is easy to see how the 1950s in particular reflected society’s concerns regarding Communism and the “domino effect”, but also changing attitudes towards ethnic minorities in the US and Africa (and thus smaller nations like the UK).
Yet Alien put monster movies right in the mainstream. Even my Mum has seen Alien. (That might not seem that surprising, yet the last film SHE saw was when The Shawshank Redemption came out on video!) It was the “must see” of that year and of course spawned a multiple of other movies, ranging from poor to okay to ridiculously shite, placing the creature right in the middle of our consciousness. Kids even have toys of them: my son has a particularly impressive one from the 1986 sequel that blows up into small pieces when you press a button on its back.
Yet just what was it that made Alien so impressive? Well, the chest bursting scene, naturally. Yet that has been copied to great effect in all the subsequent movies and what they lack in shock value, they certainly make up for in gore so it all balances out as far as I’m concerned. It certainly wasn’t the dialogue, which I thought was somewhat lacklustre even before all the actors decided to mumble their lines ALL THE WAY THROUGH. It wasn’t even Sigourney in her pants, though that’s always welcome:
It was character. Ripley is cited as “the” feminist character and I have a bit of an issue with this: after all, as second in command (now Kane is dead) it should have been HER who went into the vent, not Dallas, but his inflated sense of responsibility means he goes instead when really it’s the captain’s job to stay at the helm, surely? But even then the excellent characterisation of Alien bails out this *minor* point for me: it’s BECAUSE Dallas has an over-inflated sense of responsibility and feels guilty about Brett that he goes into the vent – after all, had he not brought Kane on board with the facehugger attached, Brett would not have been killed anyway.
And it’s these little gems that keep us going the whole way. Parker and Brett are our comic relief, but Parker’s also so gung ho he gets himself killed – he could run from the creature, yet chooses to stand and fight AND not blast Lambert, our weakest link, as she stands in the way.
Then of course there’s Ash: our antagonist in addition to the creature, something all good creature features need for the horror to really resonate: oh, you’ve got a big fuck-off monster on your tail? Well guess what: a traitor is helping it! Alien really set the standard for this in modern creature features.
DIRECTOR: John McTiernan
WRITERS: Jim and John Thomas
TAGLINE: If it bleeds, we can kill it.
A humanoid creature that is very obviously designed from elements of human culture, Aztec, Egyptian, etc was a master stroke: why wouldn’t there be a warrior creature out in space somewhere? After all, the first thing humans would do if they came across an alien race is kick its ass, right? So a lone hunter creature going after a bunch of marines, fresh off the success of ALIENS was going to get my vote every time. but of course our hunter never reckoned on this guy:
Oh Arnie. How I loved you before you (allegedly) turned into a Humvee-driving, war-mongering Republican. Was there anything the Arnie of the 80s couldn’t do though? He was a natural choice for the role of Dutch, the hardcore, wise-cracking soldier guy who is nevertheless dwarfed by this enormous monster. If Alien was all about survival at all costs, with Ripley willing to destroy billions of dollars of star freighter in order to live, then Predator was “David and Goliath” of the highest measure, with Dutch forced to outsmart the creature in order to survive. Ironic really, since we associate Arnie with the kind of brute force that *seems* as if he could do anything. And it was this that makes Predator work: the story we’ve seen before, but it’s in a different place man, what more can you want? Eh?
PITCH BLACK (1999)
DIRECTOR: David Twohy
WRITERS: Jim and Ken Wheat
TAGLINE: Fight evil with evil.
Pitch Black pretty much reads like a pastiche of Alien and Aliens: we have monster creature skeletons right through to a young girl being attacked as another woman waves a torch at the creature in question, but there was enough about Pitch Black to keep me interested and his name was Riddick.
Yes girls, Vin is lovely isn’t he? But that wasn’t the only reason he was mesmerising. The notion of a protagonist as an antagonist was not a new one by any stretch of the imagination, but I am hard pressed to recall a triangle like Fry, Johns and Riddick, with Riddick playing a dual protagonist to Fry and a dual antagonist to Johns. It’s ambitious, largely because of its relentless structure that’s lean to the point of obviousness, yet somehow this package still works (especially towards the resolution on that second plot point in that fabulous green scene: “Then the verdict’s in: the light moves forward…”).
So: this is why I love creature features. It’s not the story. We all *know* what will happen – the Beast(s) will be vanquished, everyone bar one (or a couple) will die and the baddie on the inside will get what is coming to him or her. Yay. But a GOOD creature feature plays on the theme of survival and makes it bring out traits both bad and good in the characters that drive that straight-forward plot. Writers sell us a simple story with complicated characters. The monsters are the simple bit. The heroes are the complicated bit.