Tuesday, May 1, 2007

You Have My Sympathies...

Some of my fondest memories from my youth involve watching movies. I'm not really an anti-social person, but growing up on the outskirts of a town with a population numbering somewhere similar to the follicle populace of Homer Simpson's scalp made for many evenings spent in my parents' room watching mid-day film marathons on television channels with fuzzy reception. Today, being sunny and cool, walking around the house with the windows open and nobody around reminded me of a topic that's been finding it's way into my thoughts more and more frequently these days. Where are all the monster movies?

I think it all started with Slither. In late 2005 I began seeing the trailers for Slither, complete with slug monsters forcing themselves down people's throats and terrorizing a midwestern town that never saw them coming. It reminded me of the low budget monster movies that I grew up watching. I can't quite explain what it was that reminded me of the films of my youth, but Slither had a presence that I remembered quite fondly. The odds were stacked against it, but Slither delivered. For me, anyway. The film did horribly in the theaters, and something tells me it's DVD sales have been less than impressive.

Next came Grind House. The obvious draw of Quentin Tarantino aside, Grind House began to stir up some of the same feelings as Slither. Now, Grind House isn't strictly a monster movie. In fact, Tarantino's portion of the film is far from it. Robert Rodriguez's offering, however, is essentially one big wink and a nod to fans of eighties-style action/horror/monster flicks. The day of the film's premier arrived and I was there with eyes wide and expectations high. I certainly wasn't disappointed. The same can't be said for the general populace, however. Grind House, the movie that had everything going for it and that everyone expected to bust the box office wide open, earned just over ten million dollars in it's first week. It's now been almost a month and the film still hasn't come close to making back the sixty-odd million dollars that it cost to make.

Then, out of left field came another contender: The Host. I began reading about this film all over the internet. Word had it that the movie had broken all box office records for a Korean film in and out of it's country of origin. Great! A monster movie finally getting the recognition it deserves. I scoured the web for showings near my home. The closest locale I could find was a forty five minute drive away in Gettysburg, PA. With all the acclaim that the movie seemed to be getting I expected quite a showing, especially considering how few and far between the venues for the film were. A whole ten people were in the theater for the showing, including myself and my movie-going companion. This put into perspective how poorly the film was actually doing despite breaking Korean records (which must not be a very high bar to shoot for).

All these instances taken into account, I sat down and really began looking at the monster movie situation. Allow me to run down a brief history of worthwhile monster movies from the last thirty years.

"Thirty?!" you ask? "That could take forever!"

Actually, it really couldn't. Let us not forget that I said worthwhile, and while opinions on the subject may vary, I think my timeline exhibits a fair standard of quality by which to judge other films in the genre. Here it is in chronological order:

Alien (1979)

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)

Aliens (1986)

Predator (1987)

Tremors (1990)

Slither (2006)

And there you have it. The eighties had us covered pretty well. The big two (Aliens and Predator) were there in full force, as was cult classic The Thing. The decade was preceded by Alien less than a year earlier and capped off with Tremors less than a year after it's end. Slither, however, clocks in much, much later leaving me to wonder: "What happened to the monster movie genre in the fifteen years between Tremors and Slither?" I recently posed this very question to Sean Dwyer, of the website Film Junk, and his co-hosts on the Film Junk Podcast, Jay Cheel, and Greg Gaspari. Below is the clip in which they address my concerns from the most recent episode of the podcast, dated April 29th, 2007.

The guys made some good points; namely the ever-changing market and the over-saturation of a particular genre when one becomes too popular. Jay and Greg even went so far as to offer some suggestions of monster movies that may quench my thirst for creature features. However, I have to take the stance that while some of their recommendations do in fact involve monsters, they may not be properly labeled as monster movies. Blade, for example, is better referred to as an action movie or even a comic book movie, although it does contain vampires. Generally, unless there is a specific and original twist on zombies or vampires, I hesitate to call them monster movies as opposed to zombie movies or vampire movies.

So the question remains: "Where are the monster movies?" Or perhaps more suitably: "What does the general population have against them?" With the sudden release and seeming failure of such films as Slither and Grind House, I have to wonder why monster movies are viewed so poorly. Is it the gore? I dare say not with the advent of slasher/torture films such as Hostel, Saw, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Is it the horrific beasts themselves that turn viewers away by the truckload? You'd have a hard time convincing me of that in the wake of hugely popular fantasy films populated by inhuman creatures like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. So what is it then?

Monster movies can bring so much more to the table than just creepy-crawlies mangling unsuspecting country folk and astronauts. When done properly, a monster movie of the particularly science-fiction-oriented variety can raise interesting questions and suggest incredible circumstances that no other genre of film can. If you look past the disembowelings and buckets of slime, films with not-of-this-Earth cast members are just like any other film, but perhaps with a bit more imagination. If you'd like an example of this, there may be none better than The Host, which is more about political commentary, family values, love, and overcoming extreme odds than it is about a giant mutated fish with lots of teeth. It just uses the scare-inducing sea-life to get it's point across.

While we may be a ways off from a revolution in monster movies, or even from deciphering the reason for their disappearance in the first place, I'm positive that there are a few out there that not even a fan such as I have seen. As such, it is you, the reader, that I charge with the mission of searching the depths of your own childhood memories for any films featuring ghastly ghoulies that you may remember fondly, and informing me of their existence. I am, after all, always in search of more movies to review, and why not discover a few more frightening favorites in the mix?

I wouldn't leave you hanging though, and in the spirit of spreading the word, here are a few more creature features to keep an eye out for (in addition to those listed above), along with a couple to avoid at all costs:

Alien3 - Not quite on par with the first two, but definitely worth a watch, and a fine end to the trilogy.

Alien Resurrection - This is the unwanted child of the series that should have been aborted shortly after conception.

Predator 2 - A good idea with a sub-par execution. So much potential, but pale in comparison to the original.

Alien vs Predator - If you appreciate the properties that either of these creatures were birthed from there is no way in hell that you should like this movie. Complete and utter garbage.

Tremors 2, 3, and 4 - They get worse as the series goes on, ending with the sad shell of a film that is the fourth movie. Two and three are watch-able.

The Faculty - If the WB made their own version of John Carpenter's The Thing, this is what you'd get. Look past the similarities and you've got a damn good monster movie.

Phantoms - High concept, low budget. A bit slow and ambiguous, but with a great performance by Liev Schreiber.

Virus - Another good concept with a less-than-breathtaking execution. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Give it a try.

The Relic - Some people trapped in a museum with a large four-legged creature. Forgettable, but worth a watch.

Mimic - Neat monsters and that's about it. Avoid the sequels at all costs.

Deep Rising - Cool monster and several like-able characters. Deserving of a sequel.

The Stuff - Low budget movie about a substance that tastes good, and when eaten takes over your body. Good luck finding a copy, but if you do you're in for a cheesy treat.

The Blob - Everyone's heard of it, but have you seen it? We're talking the 80's version. Creepy as hell. You'll never look at a sink drain the same way again.

Leviathan - Creature attacks the crew of a deep sea lab. Entertaining until the end when the budget apparently ran out and the special effects ceased to be impressive.

Critters - Little furry bastards from outer space with lots of teeth. Entertaining, but very cheesy. The first one's good, the second is even cornier but still not bad, the third is pretty weak, and the fourth takes place in outer space (in other words it sucks).

Pitch Black - Great concept for a species of monsters that leaves a lot of room for suspense. Unfortunately, the film quickly becomes more about Vin Diesel than the creatures.

Species - This movie gets a lot of flak because of it's infamous nudity and sex, but it's actually a great concept with a great cast. The second one is horrible, and I can only imagine that the third is as well.

Feast - Product of the third season of Project Greenlight. Incredibly fun, fast-paced monster movie. Lots of blood, guts, scares, and laughs.

In closing, I'd like to remind everyone to visit the guys over at Film Junk and give their podcast a listen. Also, I'd like to thank them for taking the time to address my question and help me out with recommendations.

Extra Credit - The first person who can tell me the significance of this post's title to the topic contained within gets a pat on the back next time I see you.

1 comment:

Kevin L Sheath said...

Firstly, the quote is from Alien, probably.
Secondly, you didn't mention "Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghiddorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack!" which is obviously the best monster movie ever.
Anyway I quite liked Host in the end. I like the way he spins around, grabbing things with his tail and the way he vomits bones. Bleeeeurgh.