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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Heroes & Monsters: Creature Features

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...

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Ah, the one that started it all:

ALIEN (1979)

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.


PREDATOR (1987)

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...").

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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.

Any thoughts?

29 comments:

Tom said...

Lots of thoughts and damn it, I should have been quicker off the mark on this as I was going to do my own dissection of both the Alien and Predator franchises in anticpation of the release of Aliens Vs Predator 2 this weekend (and why the concept is great but ultimately flawed).

Anonymous said...

A little off topic here, but can we have one of your lists please soon - how about a list of elements of films that can tell us how to write a particular device better? Like - montage? non linear flashbacks? subtext? etc

Cheers

(also called Tom)

Dom Carver said...

Alien was ace, Aliens better. Predator was OK, although I prefered Predator 2.

While on Trigger Street a few years back I read an excellent script with a creature in it, hunting down people halfway between life and death, around a giant maze. If they survived to find the exit they got to go back to their previous lives, if they didn't they died. A fantastic script full of tension and suspense, very well written. However, I've not heard of it since, which is a shame.

Creatures can be over used though. Take Primeval for example. Every episode it's the same. A creature escapes through one of the time portals and the team have to capture it and send it back. They run around a building hunting it down, nearly getting themselves killed once or twice before they send the creature back. The show is stuck in the 'creature of the week' merry-go-round, which is boring and will eventually kill the show. Too many creatures is a bad thing.

Carlo C. said...

Do zombie flicks count as Creature Features? Not the horror type, but the '28-days later' or 'I am Legend' type?
What about Jurassic Park?

Lucy said...

Tom - didn't realise we were competing! Go on, go on, go on... would like to see your thoughts on AVP, defo.

Tom 2 - no problem, will give it some thought and post, probably next week though, schedule's gone to hell and I've already promised the lovely JB a post about comedy.

Dom - I feel the same way about Primeval and it will be figuring in my "10 on Tv Drama" very soon. As for the script you're talking about, I know the one you mean! I've emailed the writer, thanks for reminding me.

Carlo - that's a good question. Normally I would say vampires have their own voices, so therefore are not the same as *true* creature feature since the ones I like are all about humans vs. the monsters, but in 28 Days Later and other zombie movies in particular those monsters don't have voices either. HOWEVER I don't think I'm as keen on monster movies where characters can TURN INTO the monster; I think on the whole I prefer those where the stakes are literal death - you get eaten and/or torn apart, hence liking Alien, Pitch Black, Predator etc more than zombie films.

What does everyone else think?

Elinor said...

There's been a whole slew (see what I did there?) of analysis on the Alien films. namely that they reflect social fears about cloning and AIDS and reflect male fears about birthing. In the quadrilogy, I see that the version of Alien there, hints at more of a relationship between Ripley and Dallas thereby heightening the ridiculousness of his gallantry in going into the ducts. He might have been trying to protect Ripley but actually that's rather the point; she either doesn't need him or she could have saved him thereby reinforcing the particular fears that the film addresses.

Lucy said...

We've had this conversation before and I'm unconvinced Elinor. AIDS did not really hit social awareness until the 80s I thought? (Remember those adverts with the word AIDS carved out the rock?!)

But even if it was in the West's consciousness before the 1980s, I see more of a relationship between the notion of cancer and the "beast within". Whilst it had been accepted for a good while that smoking was bad for you, no one realised just HOW bad until the early 70s - around the time Alien would have been in development. I think it's less about "birthing" than the "shadow on the lung" given the creature is a literal chestburster.

Chip Smith said...

I see that you've neglected to mention John Carpenter's THE THING, which of course is far better than PREDATOR ;-) I shall have to remedy this by writing a long & verbose post about it.

Incidentally Elinor, for male fears about birthing, give ERASERHEAD a spin (about the same time as ALIEN, scarily enough).

Lucy said...

THE THING???? WTF, are you insane Chipster??? Where was the characterisation in that? Ok, Predator is not exactly *rich* in character either, but it hasn't dated in the same way as that dog scene in The Thing AND it has great lines like, "I ain't got time to bleed!!"

As for Eraserhead... One of my most hated films ever, for personal reasons more than anything being a gymslip Mum myself.

ed said...

"Yes girls, Vin is lovely isn't he?"

Man, I've got the queer eye for THAT straight guy, lol

Jules said...

I believe the script that Dom Carver refers to may have been mine; EXIT. Not a creature feature as such; the monsters were vigilantes - though what they do to the victims they catch is pretty monstrous. Nice to know it was remembered. (Though interesting however that is remembered as a creature feature. What does that say?) Thanks Dom. You'll be pleased to know it's been given a few more passes since its Triggerstreet days and is still doing the rounds of prod cos. Someone's gonna bite one day!

Anyhoo... Creature Features. Lucy's comments hit the mark; the best monster movies are the ones with delineated characters and well-defined story arcs for each them. Empathy, goals, conflict. Each of Lucy's choices are on my favourites list.

Three others I'd like to add; 1) the Thing re-make; a great examination of the breakdown of trust in a claustrophobic environment. 2) Tremors; interesting monsters, wonderful characters, flawed and funny - I cared about them. Always a plus. 3) For an excellent monster movie that pre-dates Alien and which brought the characters out of themselves through the course of fighting the "big bug" you'd be hard pushed to beat the "ID" creature of Forbidden Planet. Literally. Invisible, and near infinite energy to regenerate itself...? Mummy! ;o)

Elinor said...

Fair point Lucy, I might well have been thinking about later Alien films when the Aids consciousness thing was well and truly kicking in.

Yep, Riddick, how gay is he? I loved Pitch Black but was never convinced about his and Frye's attraction.

Eraser head - I loved it. I had my own mutant baby to deal with...

Tom said...

I don't see how you can criticise Rob Bottin's effects work on The Thing while not casting the same aspersions about the very apparent Man In Suit alien in, well, Alien! As for characerization - hello? Predator? The likes of Arnie and Jesse "The Body" Ventura against Wilford Brimley, Keith "I was in Pitch Black too you know" David and Donald Moffat. Come on!

With regards to the threat of AIDS, I agree that Alien is probably less about that - again, The Thing has this going for it - it's all about the blood, remember? Alien is much more about sexual predation - to whit, three rape scenes and an unwanted pregnancy? Predator? Not so much dealing in big themes, just big guns.

Jason Arnopp said...

The Thing is my favourite horror film . Terrifying!

Oh, and incidentally, the imminent Alien Vs Predator: Requiem is nowhere near as bad as most snooty mainstream critics have made out. It's a gory monster-fest!

Carlo C. said...

AvP:Requiem was the biggest waste of time I've spent in a while.

Nothing. Happens. I thought the end was the second act break for crying out loud.

Oli said...

"Predator was OK..."

Okay? Okay? Okay?

...

I quite like Predator.

Genuinely looking forward to the AVP sequel, even though the first movie was shite. One of the best trailers I've scene since Chalie's Angels 2.

Not kidding. The trailer for Charlie's Angels 2 was awesome.

Lucy said...

Jules - totally agree on TREMORS. Love that film.

Elinor & ed - didn't do it for me either re: the attraction, but there is *something* about him I reckon... Even in that crappy overblown sequel.

Tom - S/FX always date I grant you, but there is so much more that is dated about The Thing than Alien! But even if that weren't the case, the reason I don't like The Thing is because it owes way more to those 50s B movies than the real essence of the creature feature. Creature features are about suspense as much as gore, plus the dramatic context shifts throughout from running to standing and fighting, whereas B Movies are about running away and hardly ever have enigmatic heroes behind them. You just cannot compare the likes of Kurt Russell to a guy like Arnie in my view: it's like comparing a dog to a cat. It just doesn't work.

Boys at the bottom of the thread: I'm looking forward to AVP 2 - I enjoyed the first one, crap as it was, for the very fact it was ridiculously convoluted which I think is a skill in itself. I feel another post coming on...

darren aka eat my shorts said...

ok: gun to your head time. Over an entire body of work, Kurt Russell or Arnie? Choose one or die...

Anonymous said...

Arnie, unquestionably. Even deducting 14000 points for his politics and a further 1000 for LAST ACTION HERO and that one with the toy in it that was like Buzz Lightyear AND Junior, we've still got the moves: Total Recall! Commando! Terminators! What has Russell got?? Vanilla Sky?? Deathproof?? NO WAY!!!!

Luv Mike

Anonymous said...

Big Trouble In Little China. Escape from NY/LA?

I rest my case. Russell it is.

Tom said...

Lucy - did you really just infer that Arnie plays enigmatic heroes? Really?

And again, how can you say The Thing isn't a real creature feature because it lacks suspense (again - really?) and yet calmly talk about Predator? Did you watch the same film as me?

Lucy said...

How foolish of me Tom. Of course: I WAS watching different movies. No wait: I was watching them WITH MY EYES CLOSED. That's the problem.

; )

Caroline said...

I'm tempted out of lurkerdom 'cos I love creature features too. Pitch Black would be up above Predator for me. There are several characters battling it out until the bitter end and I found it moving (am I weird?). And Riddick is obviously a great character. Whereas Predator didn't work for me because it's just Arnie trying to out-warrior the beast when everyone else is already ripped apart.

In defence of The Thing - it may be dated but it was good at the time surely?? I saw it before I saw Alien so it made a big impression.

But I'm wondering about the 'creature feature' status of other films that I like. What about Starship Troopers which has similar beasties to Pitch Black but is all about war and enlistment and patriotism (I think, long time since I watched it)? And The Descent with it's hungry cave-dwelling creatures? Do they count?

Lucy, very interested in your promised slot for Primeval in your 10 on TV drama. Going against the grain here I have no shame in admitting that I loved the first series. I forgave its (many) flaws because it hooked me with its interesting 'dinosaurs' (and the odd dodo) and game attempt to create an interesting scooby-gang type cast of characters. However, I was disappointed with the first ep of the new series. It pretty much was just a long chase round a shopping mall with little else. Hope it gets better again.

Caroline

Chip Smith said...

Lucy: I watched THE THING again last night, and it's fab, so there! I don't think the effects have dated that badly, and as for characterisation: hmmm, you're probably right, but I don't care! That said, Blair building a spaceship under the ice was a bit silly, but even so: I think it stands the test of time pretty well, and stacks up brilliantly against your paradigm of the 'baddie on the inside'.

Lucy said...

Lurking Caroline:

definitely agree, Pitch Black is WAY above Predator on my list, largely because as you say the conflict between the characters, whereas it was really about Arnie and Arnie alone in Predator, so I kinda wanted everyone else to die quicker. But that probably makes me a bad person! ; ) Will write the next "10 on TV Drama" next week I think: I'm baffled as to why Primeval does not have the same appeal as Dr. Who to its fans. Probably it's a history thing but whilst it's certainly true you have a "creature of the week", you have an "alien of the week" in Dr. Who. But then I don't really like either - though I think it's good that ITV are yet again commissioning risky series. Would be a shame to see Primeval go.

Chip - why is my opinion so important to you? Go forth and like THE THING better than Predator!!! You have my blessing. Just stop crying, it's embarrassing...

; )

Chip Smith said...

I have your blessing? What a relief! I feel so much better now ;-P

Carlo C. said...

AVP:R Is really much worse than the original. The original was intense because they were struggling to survive.
*spoilers*

In AvP:R, everyone is just going about their lives, oblivious that there are any aliens or a predator anywhere.
For the last 20~minutes, -some- people are aware that some weird thing is happening cause there are a couple of reports of people drying or missing.
For the last (literally) 5 minutes, one of our main-ish characters finally sees the alien fighting the predator, and this is the first time the predator is actually -doing- something.
Then they blow up the town to exterminate the 'monsters/serial killers/whatever'. None of the characters understand their enemy to be 'aliens' or 'predators' (unlike the first movie, where the situation is understood by the characters).
After they nuke the town, the movie is over. That's it.
It's a bunch of people frollicking about in their average (boring) lives, then aliens kill a few people, they are reported to the police, a small alien-versus-predator fight ensues, but is interrupted by a bomb that destroys the town and ends the movie.

Yeah.

Stephen said...

The Thing. Dated? Endlessly rewatchable. Awesome film. Tension from start to finish.

Oli said...

Lucy - did you really just infer that Arnie plays enigmatic heroes? Really?

No, she implied it. Slightly different.