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Know Your Enemy (But Don’t Know Too Much)

WARNING: EXTREME SPOILERS FOR CLOVERFIELD. Also mentioned: Deep Blue Sea, Pitch Black, Alien, Predator, TremorsI get a lot of creature features through the doors of Bang2write. And that’s good, ‘cos as we all know, I love a bit of gore and general people-eating. But they do generally share one basic flaw in common and it’s this: the writers concerned always try and explain where the creature has come from.

So why is this a problem? Well, like all screenwriting stuff, it needn’t be. After all, there have been creature features that tell us exactly how the monsters have come about and they’ve been enjoyable. The underrated Deep Blue Sea for example tells us exactly why the sharks are insanely smart: they’ve been genetically modified by scientists searching for a cure for Altzeihmer’s. But crucially, that’s it. We don’t know exactly how the scientists have done this – and what’s more, we don’t actually care. We just want to see clever sharks going after people in flooded rooms and chopping them into bits. Similarly, in Pitch Black the creatures are actually indigenous to the planet the survivors have crashed on, with the HUMANS being the actual aliens. Nice turnaround. How the creatures got there in the first place, how they evolved, why they can survive for 22 years without human flesh – don’t care. We just want to see people eaten, thanks very much.

The problem often with the specs I see is that they try and explain TOO MUCH where the creature has come from; they literally blind the reader with science. Radiation and nuclear waste monsters remain a firm favourite, as do creatures summoned by spells or looked after by creepy villagers as a result of some curse or fairy tale. Again, no reason why these stories shouldn’t work, but often they’re so heavy on the exposition of HOW, they don’t deal enough with NOW: in other words, we end up not caring about the characters or why they should survive.

Looking at the evidence, there are far more films in which we have no idea where the creature has come from – and we STILL don’t care, we still just want to see people get eaten. Consider the fabulous Cloverfield: we barely see the creatures but for snatched moments of video footage. Hudd’s hysterical theorising about where the creatures come from adds to the drama: who wouldn’t be wondering about this, but similarly we know exactly what his friends mean when they snap, “Does it matter??” Knowing LESS actually ADDS to the movie, makes it more scary, like a bad dream.

In Predator, the creature lands in the jungle with the intention of hunting man – and happens to bump into Arnie and his mates. That’s it. Again in Alien, the creatures are non-indigenous, but where do they come from? Well the big fossilised creatures in *that* spaceship brought them with them of course, but what the hell were THEY? Once more: who cares?! Let’s have some chest bursting and general clawing, shredding and screaming please.

Similarly, Rhonda’s role in Tremors is added to by the fact she’s a geologist – who STILL has no idea what these seemingly prehistoric beasts are. Her theories, along with Val and Earl’s while they’re stuck on the rock in the desert again adds to the drama. End of the day, they have huge underground beasts with long tongues trying to eat them. That’s the problem they need to overcome, not trying to crack where the monsters come from.

Creature features are very often symbolic films: aliens in particular can be symbolic of conflict with other cultures, though they have also told of people’s preoccupation with health and infection too. Bogeyman-style creatures are childhood favourites that can tell of our fear that we will become helpless as a child again, unable to control our own futures. Vampires were originally conceived by the Victorians as a violating creature, for sex was taboo: similarly werewolves were symbolic of the kind of brute strength that cannot be negotiated with.

But creature features are not scientific films. Though they may flirt with science, they are by their very nature simple: there is a creature. It will kill you. Most of the time generally it’s kill-or-be-killed and the resolution will end with self sacrifice and/or a huge great big explosion. Other times, like in Cloverfield, the characters will simply die (they’re unable to do anything else), yet the story will be all the more powerful for it.

So: over to you – favourite creature features, least favourite? Why?

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15 thoughts on “Know Your Enemy (But Don’t Know Too Much)”

  1. Yay, Lucy you’re back! Actually I saw you last week in reality with my esteemed cousin, but you know what I mean: BACK ONLINE. How could we cope without you?!!!

    Cloverfield is aces. Gotta love that scene in the tube – or should I say subway? Kinda gave me motion sickness though, but you gotta suffer for art, etc.

    As for Deep Blue Sea – I agree! It’s funny. Great lines 2 – “As I walk through the valley in the shadow of death… I’m the MEANEST MOTHERFUCKER IN THE VALLEY!” W00t!

  2. John Carpenter’s The Thing is still my favourite creature feature, hands down. Or tentacles down, indeed. And in that classic, all we know of the monster is that it’s arrived from space, and may well have visited countless worlds and planets before doing so.

    Less is definitely more when it comes to scary films in general, I reckon. Cloverfield did this brilliantly… except for that lingering close-up of the Big Monster’s face. Unlikely, and totally unnecessary! I couldn’t help wondering whether some exec producer or financier insisted that they had to have “the money shot”…

  3. Ah ET, can always count on you to lower the tone.

    Uh-oh! Did someone say THE THING?!?!?

    But Jase! As for the last shot of the monster in Cloverfield, I thought it was great, more from Hud’s plaintive “Oh no…” After all, we all knew they would die, else the military wouldn’t have their tape, innit?

  4. Do you… not… like… The Thing?

    I just didn’t want to see that thing’s face up close – and when I did see it, it wasn’t nearly as good as the face in my mind. Also, it finally ballooned that lingering doubt which most viewers must have held all the way through – would you really still be filming at this point?

  5. I HATE The Thing. Controversial, but true.

    And as for stopping filming – come on! Any sane person would have stopped filming around the subway time, before that even, you had to let that one go early, surely?

  6. The Thing is my favourite horror film. Different strokes, eh?

    Yeah, I guess so. Still doesn’t make that last bit of madness any more excusable, in my book. Anyway, it’s a great film, so we’re hardly polarised on the Cloverfield issue.

  7. The thing about The Thing is…

    The blood test scene – which is a great scene in regard to ratcheting up the tension – establishes that just a drop of thing-blood is its own snarky entity and not to be messed with.

    So what does MacReady do at the end of the movie? He dynamites the bastard! Blowing it into a million pieces therefore creates a million separate “things”. Okay, some of the particles are vaporised or, in the other extreme, frozen. But it’s still not the best plan.

    Anyway, I would go over and check my DVDs to see what creature features float my boat, but I’m still tied to this f*****g couch!!

  8. Oh, I'm disappointed in ya hon!. Mr A would certainly get the reference.

    On a different topic, have you seen that Channel 4 have a short Powell & Pressburger season going this week.

    Typical, the films are on in the afternoons, which can make it a little inconvenient, but if you've never caught them either take the time out or plus them or record them.

    The Spy in Black is today at 1:00. One of Our Aircraft is Missing is tomorrow at 1:30. A Matter of Life and Death is on Wednesday at 1:30. Black Narcissus is on Thursday at 1:30. The run ends, rather disappointingly with The Battle of the River Plate, one of their later, minor films, on Friday at 1:15. Shame C4 couldn’t have got The Tales of Hoffman or Gone to Earth.

    If you’ve never seen them before, Tuesday, and especially Wednesday and Thursday’s offerings are absolutely must-see movies.

    And back to best creatures… ones you very rarely see. Cloverfield had that going for it. With CGI replacing string and sellotape creations, there’s a lack of restraint that I think really harms the stories. What you can’t always see is far more effective than…oh, is that it?!

  9. Whenever Lucy says she hates something (case in point: THE THING – how can anyone hate it?!), I console myself with the fact that she likes RESIDENT EVIL and BETTY BLUE (chortle!).

  10. Jurassic Park was fantastic. Yeah, it explained a lot of the ‘how’, but it worked cause it was really cool and atmospheric. It also kept the underlying loose theme clear – play god, and you pay the consequences.

  11. Chip! We both know my tastes are far superior to yours, don’t embarrass yourself with cheap justifications my friend ; )

    GD – defo true: the mind is more powerful than image. Give it a few more years and CGI will be relegated to a secondary place AFTER storytelling (instead of standing in for it, as it seems to all the time at the mo) as it effing deserves IMHO.

    Carlo – lots I liked about Jurassic Park too, but felt less science would have been good… The Lysene Contingency?! Puh-lease.

  12. Hi All, have to agree that the close up of the Cloverfield monster did it for me, as does The Thing! (back when carpenter was good) and my fave creature flick has to be JAWS! it doesnt get much better than that xx

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