This is the 500th post at Cool Ass Cinema about a subject and type of movie that I have been particularly fond of since I was a little kid watching this kind of thing on the long dead, but not forgotten local channels 8, 13 and 48--three channels that carry with them a host of great memories.
The killer animal sub genre of the horror and science fiction variety have never seemed to lose their luster, or allure in the eyes of trash fans around the globe. Erupting from the bowels of the Earth, exploding from volcanoes, or emerging from isolated caverns throughout the world, Big Bugs were Big Business once upon a time and have frequently reappeared launching assaults against man over the years on both the big and small screen. Of late, it's predominantly the latter in what has become a painfully embarrassing upsurge of anemic computer generated monstrosities with no end in sight.
But times (and movies) weren't always so bad for the results of Mother Nature's wrath. In the 1950s, various man made threats and civilizations stupidity in maintaining peaceful, diplomatic relations both within, and without its borders gave birth to a slew of cinematic monsters. Some of these were otherworldy visitors while others were the result of man's own tampering with nature. Outside of a grand assault of McCarthy Era alien invaders, the 50s gave birth to the 'Big Bug' movies.
Bearing such luridly in your face titles as THE MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR (1954), IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), TARANTULA (1955), THE BLACK SCORPION (1957), THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957), THE BEGINNING OF THE END (1957), THE MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (1957), THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957), EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1958), THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (1959) and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES (1959), these are many of the more catchier monikered movies of the Arachno-Cephalo-Ophidio-Crustacean variety. Oddly enough, the single most famous example of the 50s 'Big Bug' craze bore a title that was anything but revealing. The mysteriously christened THEM! (1954) was a runaway smash and led the charge for the legion of other out-sized creepy crawlies that followed.
The special effects varied wildly in these movies. From meticulous, time consuming stop motion animated effects (THE BLACK SCORPION), to macro enlarged insects (THE BEGINNING OF THE END), to stuntmen decked out in non threatening black trash bags (ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES), the animal kingdom offered lots of entertainment for giggling tykes and easily amused adults alike. In many cases, the term 'B' movie meant something more than the cheaper second half of a double bill--'B' stood for BUG and they were crawling, creeping and slithering everywhere.
The plots were relatively interchangeable, too. They all essentially followed the same formula from one film to the next with very little variance. The central male protagonist was always a gung ho military figure, or an astute scientist, or some chisel featured, muscular everyman. The female lead was either a scientist, or some similar profession. Generally intelligent, these lovely ladies rarely, if ever, were able to make their escape from the title creatures without being rescued by the cookie cutter hero. All of these movies started the same--stock footage of various bombs being detonated while an 'Educational Film' styled voiceover warns of the catastrophes that are unleashed from the ignorance of man--cue title card backed by ominous music and shots of rippling oceans, blistering snow storms, or other bad weather by way of eye-catching cataclysm.
The nature of the creatures growth is almost always because of atomic testing disturbing some massive monster from prehistory, or causing giganticism in ordinary household insects. Replete with a plethora of scientific gobbledy gook, varied methods of dealing with said rampagers were trotted out with the oft used "Blow It Up Real Good" being the preferred method. The final shot of these movies was virtually identical from one to the next, but not always--the hero clutches the heroine/damsel close to his chest surrounded by soldiers looking on at the downed monster, carelessly created by man's folly and brought to an end by even more destructive, yet human ingenuity. This template remained somewhat unaltered during the two major resurgences of this sub genre.
By the end of the 1950s, the 'Nature Amuck' movies pretty much laid dormant till the 1970s when JAWS (1975) reinvigorated the sub-genre with its more visceral approach and potential to scare its audience to think twice before going into the water. Prior to Spielberg's killer shark spectacle, there had been a few examples that were variants on this style such as Daniel Mann's WILLARD (1971), Saul Bass's PHASE IV (1974) and Jeannot (JAWS 2) Szwarc's BUG from 1975. These movies attempted a more serious, adult approach to the material, but, outside of the kindly killer rats of WILLARD, the others failed at garnering much attention, languishing in obscurity, despite being very interesting movies particularly the former. None of these films featured gigantic creatures, but normal sized, yet super intelligent rats, ants and fire emitting prehistoric cockroaches as their antagonists.
Still, there was the occasional movie that begged the question of its existence, or provided any number of puzzling queries as to just how in the hell the cast managed to keep a straight face during the shoot. NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972) is a sterling example of this with its flurry of furry, flesh munching rabbits wrecking havoc on the resumes of such thespians as Stuart Whitman, DeForest Kelley, Rory Calhoun and Janet Leigh. Throughout the decade there would be a few more of these curious cluster bombs of cinematic crud. Amazingly enough, one film that pledged to poke fun at the sub genre lovingly embraced its badness relishing its total lack of production values. Amassing a huge cult following over the years due to its undying dedication to the art of schlock, ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES (1978) is one wild trip down bad movie lane.
While the 50s examples of the sub genre reflected the potential and all too real threats of the day, the 70s revival utilized environmental concerns as the catalyst for Mother Nature's vendetta against mankind. Granted, not every film was making an underlying statement, but many of them backed their "When Animals Attack" scenario with the misuse of chemicals, the careless destruction of nature, government experiments and other ecologically conscious issues. One of the best, and most serious takes on the 'Nature Strikes Back' formula is Colin Eggleston's LONG WEEKEND (1978). A criminally underrated and little seen movie, this Australian spooker is truly one of the creepiest movies you are ever likely to see. While it never descends into the typical over the top trappings of the sub genre, it does manage to venture into supernatural territory and does so in an unsettlingly realistic fashion. Brilliant from start to finish, LONG WEEKEND carefully builds to a suspenseful and ironically shocking finale.
Similar in tone to Eggleston's seminal, yet obscure feature is the earlier AIP flick, FROGS (1972) directed by George McCowan. The ecological message and dangers of pollution are poured on thick in this one as a family at a secluded country estate systematically feel nature's wrath from various reptiles and creepy crawlies spearheaded by the watchful eyes of hundreds of frogs. Jason Crockett, the crippled and crotchety owner of the estate hates nature and nature hates him and anyone associated with him. Once the dwindled cast manages to make their way to presumed safety, it's quickly surmised that natures retribution reaches much farther than the Crockett estate. Generally thought of as minor entry in the sub genre, FROGS does contain an uneasy atmosphere and a few bitingly effective scenes of suspense. The film does show signs of a bit of sardonic wit after the credits roll when an animated frog hops into view with a human arm dangling from its mouth that alludes to the fate of old man Crockett.
While Spielberg's seminal shark epic was largely responsible for the renewed interest in pictures about rampaging animal life, his film was a straight horror movie that dealt with the simple notion of a stray Great White that decided to stake a claim on a sleepy Connecticut hamlet. Once Amity's resident Carcharodon Carcharias terrorized swimmers, bathers and boaters, it was open season on humans once again. This time, it wasn't just relegated to creepy crawlies and many filmic examples of this period kept Nature's rampaging creatures to a more believable size. Also, the level of violence had increased since the 1950s and a PG rating often allowed for lots of blood and sometimes a brief flash of nudity. Incidentally, THE BLACK SCORPION from 1957 was possibly the most shockingly violent of the 'Big Bug' movies of that era. At one point, it featured shots of stop motion animated scorpions ripping apart screaming humans attempting escape from a wrecked train. JAWS (1975) managed shots of spurting blood, a young boy erupting from the water amidst a fountain of crimson and a severed head creeping out from under a sunken boat.
By 1979, John Frankenheimer, the respected director of the classic and controversial THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) was helming his own monster movie, PROPHECY, an environmentally conscious creature feature that had some startlingly gruesome sequences for a PG rated picture. A young child trapped inside a sleeping bag is ferociously catapulted through the air by the mutant killer bear, smashing into a tree and another poor soul is trapped inside an overturned vehicle as the mercury poison born beast tears his head off. Possessing stunningly gorgeous photography, a seethingly boisterous and foreboding score, Frankenheimer's film succeeds in its message (it was based on factual information regarding mercury poisoning), but the puzzlingly poor, yet highly touted creature effects derail much of this.
A much more successful and balanced picture is the fan favorite insect incursion found within the KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977). Thousands of tarantulas wage war against a small town that has crippled their natural food supply with the excessive use of DDT. This spider spectacular contains some of the most genuinely effective shots of arachnid attacks ever committed to film made all the more skin crawling in that the participants allowed themselves to be covered in real tarantulas. There's a truly inspired performance by William Shatner and exploitation starlet Tiffany Bowling and drive in regular, Hoke Howell add reverence to John Cardos's movie whose goosebumpery is enhanced by a stock score from the second season of the original TWILIGHT ZONE television program.
On the exact opposite end of the spider spectrum is the 'Do It Yourself' campiness of 1975's THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION. Boasting enormous arachnids from outer space, these eight legged critters of varying size were either large mock ups, or made mobile by being constructed with steel beams, aluminum tubing and wire mesh (among other things), then laid over the body of a Volkswagen. If any of the 70s animal assaults paid ultra low budget homage to the 50s films, it's this one. The later EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (2002) operates on much the same parameters, but with a vastly increased budget and a parade of CGI spider monsters.
In 1978, Roger Corman and his New World Pictures decided to dip their toes into the water to see if anything would bite with JAWS level dollar signs (to coincide with JAWS 2, released in June of '78). Joe Dante's PIRANHA was one such movie that assaulted theaters in August of that year and went on to become a huge success for Corman and one of New World's most enduring movies as well as a cult film sensation. Not only that, but a number of the crew went on to sterling careers and Steven Spielberg himself enjoyed the picture a great deal. Corman (no stranger to undersea creature features) carried on with ocean themed monster flicks with the similar, but inferior UP FROM THE DEPTHS (1979) and HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980).
One of the crowning purveyors of cheaply made, yet lovingly designed killer animal movies of the Fabulous 50s was Mr. B.I.G. himself, Bert I. Gordon. Seeing the lucrative potential begat by JAWS, Gordon helmed two of the more fondly remembered, and laughably bad examples in the annals of motion picture history. Both of these were AIP's THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977). Gordon successfully(???) turned two H.G. Well's tales into veritable carbon copies of his older ventures only now boasting high class actors at low points in their careers. The addition of color was now liberally peppered with a bit of gore for some additional chutzpah.
Behind the scenes of EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977) and the creation of the incredibly (not so) life-like ant monsters seen in the movie
The rock bottom budgets remained the same, too. The former is likely the most (in)famous of the two, and easily the most ambitious what with its enormous rubber (and frequently transparent optical) wasps, gigantic flesh hungry worms, massive macro enlarged rats and a riotous boxing match between former evangelist, Marjoe Gortner and an over-sized, stuffed chicken. Seemingly stuck in a time warp, little had changed in Mr. B.I.G.'s two 70s throwbacks--the template was basically the same, only now, elements of the big studio disaster epics were implemented to add flavor.
Irwin Allen, producer of such shows as LAND OF THE GIANTS, LOST IN SPACE and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, made big bucks from disaster movies with the likes of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974). He, too, tried his hand in the killer animal arena with the staggeringly hilarious Killer 'B' flick, THE SWARM from 1978. Essentially a disaster movie with 'Nature Amuck' trappings, Allen's movie, about an attack by millions of African killer bees, was a disaster in more ways than one. It has since went on to cult status on the level of Bert Gordon's FOOD OF THE GODS and the earlier travesty, NIGHT OF THE LEPUS. The only difference is that Allen had millions at his disposal and turned a potentially engrossing scenario into an unintentional comedy of the highest order.
Originally released at 116 minutes theatrically, the Warner Brothers DVD reinstates this nonsense to its "preferred" 156 minute cut. Bad movie lovers rejoice--You'll laugh, cry and cringe at the unmitigated damage done to a number of careers by Oscar winning thespians spouting some of the absolute worst dialog ever conceived. This Bee Balony is required viewing, but for a better Bee movie, seek out the TV flicks THE SAVAGE BEES from 1976, or even its TV sequel, TERROR OUT OF THE SKY (1978).
Other lesser 'Killer Kritter' flicks followed on the boob tube with such titles as the Made For TV movies, TARANTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO (1977) and ANTS (1977). Both of those had decent casts, but were mostly forgettable as was 1976's RATTLERS, whose title explains it all in a badly acted film about venomous snakes attacking people in the Mojave Desert after a military nerve gas makes the snakes a little too angry. The film does benefit from a few jolt worthy moments such as a scene where a woman is attacked in a bathtub by the fang toothed title reptiles. 1980's ISLAND CLAWS about an enormous, if mostly immobile crusty crab that terrorizes a seaside community, was a waste of a potentially cool concept. Stick with Corman's ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957) instead.
Promising up and coming exploitation director, William Girdler got behind the camera to shoot rampaging beasts making meals out of unfortunate human victims with the unexpectedly runaway smash GRIZZLY (1976), and it's underrated follow up, DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977). The former follows the plot of JAWS so closely, the end result would surely bring a tear to the eye of many a maverick Italian rip off artist. Benefiting from a wonderful cast, GRIZZLY has some choice photography, a nifty horror score and some shocking violence including one scene where the title creature tears the leg off of a small child! Profiting close to 40 million dollars, GRIZZLY did anything but grisly business at the North American box office. DAY OF THE ANIMALS is a much more ambitious affair, but sadly got lost in the shuffle of STAR WARS mania. That film is notable for a scene devouring performance by Leslie Nielsen who nearly steals the movie away from the marauding beasts of the wilderness.
By the dawn of the 1980s, nature decided to hibernate and end hostilities against civilization after one last horrifying hurrah with Lewis Teague's loving tribute to the sub genre, ALLIGATOR (1980). Sadly overlooked during its original theatrical run due to a last minute and detrimental distribution decision on the part of the producer, the film later found a home on ABC going on to be the biggest moneymaking independent movie shown on television at that time. One of the best of its kind, Teague's tale of a great gator enlarged after ingesting an experimental and quite illegal growth hormone boasts a great cast, a witty script and copious bloody limbs strewn about the screen. Other similar movies continued to be made, but less prolifically compared to the 50s and 70s.
In Italy, the sub genre was alive and well and ripping off JAWS with shameful abandon. Seemingly and bewilderingly content with ensuring their subpar entries would be denied anything resembling some form of release in North America, the Italians forged ahead with such glaringly similar bandwagon movies, one can't help but marvel at their audacity. There were a handful of JAWS clones, the most notorious being Enzo G. Castellari's THE LAST SHARK (1980). Castellari once boasted that his film was only pulled out of US circulation because Universal was embarrassed that the microscopically budgeted Italian picture was noshing frenziedly at takings of Spielberg's box office champ. Others that were brazenly similar, or only slightly so included Lamberto Bava's DEVILFISH (1984), Amando Ossorio's THE SEA SERPENT (1984), Joe D'Amato's DEEP BLOOD (1989), Bruno Mattei's patchwork CRUEL JAWS (1995) and two KILLER CROCODILE movies. These Euro facsimiles are enjoyable in a ridiculous sort of way, despite bringing nothing new to the table. Their utter lack of originality and unavoidably impertinent approach can in no way be taken seriously. The fact that such blatant mockery was even bankrolled at all is a joke unto itself.
Of all the Italian counterfeit creature feature creators, the one man who seemed to be able to get away with it and with a lot more credibility was Ovido Assonitis aka Oliver Hellman. He made a career out of riding whatever big Hollywood wave was pounding the multiplexes of the day. He did two underwater horror flicks--TENTACLES (1976) and PIRAHNA 2 (1981). Both films are generally derided by fans, but they are very entertaining and both contain a few moments of genuine suspense. TENTACLES, as the title suggests, has a giant octopus feasting on a cast of characters that includes one of the most jaw dropping names to ever appear in such a picture. Ovidio was able to wrangle in Henry Fonda, John Huston and Shelley Winters among a cast that also included Claude Akins and Bo Hopkins. The ending is startlingly creative in that neither dynamite or some other explosive device comes into play regarding the monsters destruction. PIRANHA 2 was distinctive in that it showcased flesh hungry fish that could fly and attack humans on land. The concept might seem wild and wholly unbelievable, but not beyond comprehension considering there are flying fish that can maintain flight upwards of twenty feet above the water. Both films also share grand scores by maestro, Stelvio Cipriani. Assonitis had planned to do a PIRANHA 3 sometime in the late 80s/early 90s, but this never surfaced.
The 'Killer Kritter' craze died down substantially for over a decade till a former Roger Corman acolyte, Luis Llosa turned in an unexpected box office sensation with ANACONDA (1997). This throwback to oldschool creature features with a modern sensibility successfully puked up all new audience interest in seeing various creatures, great and small assault cinema screens across the nation. A thoroughly dismal sequel slithered onto the silver screen in 2004 and would have been better suited for the small screen, an area where these types of movies were about to find their home. These quickies, as incomprehensibly as it may seem, have shown no sign of slowing down ever since ANACONDA more than tripled its production budget. The main culprit is the Sci Fi Channel, or as they now prefer to call themselves, SyFy. Dozens upon dozens of these direct to TV (or video) train wrecks gave SyFy plenty of programming with which to satisfy a mind boggling amount of interested viewers.
Granted, scant few of these movies were actually good. A few that were exceptionally enjoyable when compared with the usual Sci Fi Channel pablum were KING COBRA (1999), SPIDERS (2000), SNAKEHEAD TERROR and FRANKENFISH (both 2004). Snakes and spiders (among every other conceivable creature in the animal kingdom) were particularly popular during this time and through the new millennium with titles like ARACHNID (2002), SPIDERS 2 (2002), WEBS (2003), ICE SPIDERS (2007), BOA (2001), PYTHON (2000), PYTHON 2 (2002), SNAKE KING (2005) and what would soon become a trend akin to the old B/W monster team ups like FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1942), KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) and the much later FREDDY VS. JASON (2003).
The Sci Fi Channel and their cadre of movie making partners (including the much loathed Asylum cut-up crew) with little desire in making anything truly entertaining began pitting various creatures against each other in a series of numbingly interchangeable, throwaway productions. These include BOA VS. PYTHON (2004), KOMODO VS. COBRA (2005), MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS (2009), MEGA SHARK VS. CROCOSAURUS (2010), DINOCROC VS. SUPERGATOR (2010) and MEGA PYTHON VS. GATOROID (2011). All of these have two things in common--MEGA and CROCk.
Behind the scenes of THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (1975)--Building a better spider; Insert: google images
Interestingly enough, this new MEGAcrop of 'Creatures On the Loose' movies are glossier/sloppier examples of the low budget atomic age programmers of the 1950s. Man's foolishness with bomb testing is replaced with government experiments, gene splicing and the now worn thin device of the all pervasive monster as military weapon. These newer movies are anything but an improvement over the more antiquated B/W versions of yesteryear. Those movies, as low budget as many of them may have been, were crafted using limited means and as much ingenuity as one could muster to come up with even a moderately entertaining product. The people in front of the camera took the product seriously and when the end result was less than inspiring, this serious approach made for a memorable viewing experience. The newer incarnations with their crisp color photography can't even manage passable performances and the subpar video game graphics cum special effects do the experience no favors.
Furthermore, the cast members all look like swimsuit models, busty babes trying to pass themselves off as scientists, or buff muscle-heads that would look more at home modeling designer jeans than a purported military career. The prime components in these newer, lesser entries always have a group of cookie cutter civilians who look just as fake as the heroes saddled with saving them. The smell of a secret military compound is just around the corner as is whatever creepy creation has escaped from said government lab. Throw in either a ragtag band of army guys with highpowered weaponry, or a group of hired mercenaries and you have a lazy way out of coming up with interesting and dangerous scenarios with which to place the main, bland cast of characters, all of which likely have less than 8% body fat. Cue endlessly boring scenes of camouflage wearing, wisecrack spouting, cigar chomping marksmen plugging badly rendered CGI holes (that spurt plenty of badly rendered CGI blood) in all manner of over-sized creatures.
Roger Corman has since joined forces with SyFy Channel for a few of these crappy, lifeless and smelly examples of movie offal. His first for them, DINOCROC (2004), a title that acts as something of a euphemism for what you're in for, is actually a pretty decent little movie. Sadly, Corman's other genetically engineered monster fests continue on a downward spiral that recently saw the release of SHARKTOPUS (2010). This well below average bout of insipidness is one of the longest 89 minutes you'll ever suffer through. Watching the film, it's blatantly obvious the inherent awfulness was intentional, but the makers fail at making this effort engaging on even that level. The monster appears to be a rip off of the one seen in the equally crappy Italian movie from Lamberto Bava, DEVILFISH (1984); a film about a genetically engineered shark-octopi monstrosity.
With DINOSHARK (2010) having gobbled up over 2 million viewers (was there seriously nothing better on TV?) on the SyFy Channel March 13th of this year (PIRAHNACONDA is now in production), it's safe to say that trite, badly acted, badly directed monster movies with flat, unattractive computer generated creatures are here to stay. The old days are long gone where a bad monster movie was a good thing. Nowadays, bad monster movies are nothing of the sort; they're just plain bad. Years from now, genre fans will still be talking about such sci fi gems as THEM! (1954), lovably clunky crud as THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976), major blockbusters like JAWS (1975) and even the all too real skin crawling excess of THE KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977). At the same time, virtually no one will be able to name a scene, much less remember something like MEGA CROCOSLOPPYSAURUS MEETS ULTRA SCHLOCKOCTOCOBRASHARK.