Monthly Archives: February 2011

Clean up in Aisle Five: The Mist – review

Written by author, Sonia Marcon

The_Mist_poster

The Mist will surprise some viewers because it’s not directly a scream-fest horror. In fact, the only thing that makes this film considered to be horror is that it’s based on the novella by Stephen King, who everybody knows as “that horror novelist”. The story of The Mist can be considered as more of a comment on human nature rather than a horror story. Sure, it has big scary monsters as the thrust of the story but, in my opinion, the monsters are not the point. This film contains much scarier things than a bunch of monstrous animals. The Mist is a film that really can’t go wrong for me. To begin with, I am a huge Stephen King fan and when King’s story ideas are adapted for the screen by Frank Darabont, there isn’t much room for a wrong turn. Everyone has to have seen, or at least heard about, The Shawshank Redeption, an amazing film adaptation by Darabont based on the equally amazing novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by King. The Mist is, in my opinion, a very close second both as a novella and as a film.

Seeing that The Mist is a creation by Stephen King, I think it pertinent to talk about this story in relation to him whether you’re a fan of his writing or not. Something that I truly feel is a gift of King is his ability to create, be it story ideas, character relations or plot developments. There are many people who don’t like King as a writer, and that’s fair enough. Each to their own. But I think a gift of King’s is to bring the unbelievable and unimaginable right outside your front door. Film adaptations of King’s works, however, can be very hit and miss. Frank Darabont gets it right because his story adaptation and screen direction add a whole new level to the story idea. Even though a story in itself can contain brilliant characters and story nuances, things like emotion can easily be missed by both a writer and a reader. Frank Darabont brings this emotion to the forefront where the viewer cannot help but notice it.

the-mist-screenshot-2

There are two parts of this story that greatly benefit from the visual medium of film, which are the approach of the mist toward the shopping centre where this story is mostly set and the reactions of the townsfolk to the monsters. The scene where the mist comes in and envelopes the supermarket is terrifyingly brilliant and it is made even better by the sound effects of the film. As a viewer, you really do share the reactions of the townsfolk, who think that everything they hear can be easily explained. The thudding heard must be earthquakes, the mist itself must be a poison gas cloud from the military base on the neighbouring hill. This is the talent of King at work; they are normal people with normal reasoning who don’t immediately jump to extraordinary conclusions. Darabont works with these ideas to create a feeling of utter fear and despair by keeping the normality of the characters; he really utilises the whole ‘seeing is believing’ mindset. He also makes sure, in his adaptation of the story to screenplay, that there are no heroes because in this situation there is too much confusion for heroism.

the mist

One of the most fascinating parts of this story is, in my opinion, the fact that the monsters are just animals trapped in an unfamiliar place. They are not there to destroy the humans, they are just trying to survive. This works with the idea that there is no room for heroism because whenever any of the characters hurt or kill the ‘monsters’, it creates a real sense of sympathy for them because the ‘monsters’ are just acting in the only way they know how to when in a strange environment with hostile inhabitants. When they manage to get into the supermarket where the humans are, they are not there to kill the humans. They are just chasing the smaller monsters for food, which is obviously what they do in their home place, and if they do harm the humans, it is purely out of defence and fear. I personally find this scene the hardest to watch because I can’t help but feel sorry for the monsters. To me, it’s the humans in this story who act more monstrously than the apparent monsters.

Being regarded as a monster film means that it must contain something that is monstrously scary. To me, the animals that are regarded as monsters are nowhere near as fearful as Mrs Carmody, the religious zealot character who rounds up followers in the supermarket. This character made me realise that The Mist is not precisely a monster film. The Mist is ultimately a character drama that happens to feature monstrous animals. I truly feel that the character driven element of this story, initiated by Stephen King but enunciated by Frank Darabont, is what creates the most interest. The Mrs Carmody character is there to show how despicable and selfish human beings can be when placed in a situation of peril. I don’t think her presence in the story is a comment on religion by either King or Darabont, but more a comment on the ways in which human beings are ultimately not very nice. This film seems to be one of the many I like because it has believable characters in unbelievable situations.

The Mist - Face Off

I honestly could not think of a better director for this film than Frank Darabont. His adaptations of Stephen King not only make great films (admittedly The Green Mile is very long, but still) but also memorable narratives in their own right. I think The Mist is a necessary addition to Monster Awareness Month because it adds a touch of variety to the mix with its character driven story. If you like Stephen King stories, that’s one reason to watch. If you like Frank Darabont films, that’s reason two. If you like a film with some of the most imaginative monsters that look like bugs with big teeth, that’s a big reason three.

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Pan’s Labyrinth – review

Written by Monster Awarness Month team member, Harry Markov


Celebrating the monsters in cinema can’t be complete without mentioning the monsters in our mythology. Pan’s Labyrinth is the perfect example of how the monstrous in our folklore can be assimilated in the cinematic format, creating a modern, dark fairy tale for adults. Unlike a lot of the entries in the Monster Awareness Month, Pan’s Labyrinth is far from being a horror, while at the same time it displays a horrifying reality that has nothing to do with cheap scares.

I consider the setting a post-Civil War Spain in 1944 to be a dark ghastly land, where people are the true monsters as soldiers are wont to become during wars. It’s the inhuman that contrasts with the spark of innocence and humanity, though there are real monsters among their ranks. As a whole Pan’s Labyrinth impresses with how well it dances on the line of being startlingly real and tangible, and incorporeal and surreal. Yes, CGI remains a tool to bring the special effects to life. The fairies that aid Ofelia during her tasks, the sentient labyrinth that guards her from the Captain as well as the mandrake root Ofelia puts in a milk bowl to heal her sick, pregnant mother, all exist because of CGI. Yet, they are small creative touches compared to the Pale Man, who wants to eat Ofelia, or the Faun, who is Ofelia’s task giver. Guillermo resorts to older techniques such as animatronics and latex foam makeup, which transform the actor Doug Jones into both creatures.

The genuine interaction between Ofelia and the creatures is what imbues the movie with the power it has. If all the monsters were done with CGI, then the viewer would be aware that he is watching a movie. Instead, del Toro reinforces how real for Ofelia the fairyland is even if she is the only one that can see it, as is shown near the end, when the Captain captures her in the labyrinth talking to herself, when a moment prior Ofelia pleaded with the faun. Through the whole movie I wondered whether Ofelia really was the long missing princess Moanna or whether the tasks and the faun constituted her coping mechanism with a cruel step-father, a sick mother and civil unrest surrounding the Civil War.

Questioning in Pan’s Labyrinth runs as a central theme. The viewer questions the validity and the reality of Ofelia’s quest. Ofelia questions the motifs of the faun. The Captain questions the loyalty of his people, though really his questioning is far from being sympathetic. Mercedes questions the safety of her position in the house and her invisibility given by her social status in the Captain’s eyes. Guillermo del Toro has written one of the most depressing and dramatic movies about the monsters that hide within the shadows and our hearts.

Pan’s Labyrinth draws from known fantastic tropes and watching it feels as though you have been transported back into your childhood. For instance, Ofelia’s crossing in the otherworldly world, populated with giant frogs and shapeshifting insects, evokes an Alice in Wonderland atmosphere, which progresses throughout the picture. The constantly shifting labyrinth throws back to David Bowie and Labyrinth from the 80s. The magical number three resurfaces as the tasks Ofelia has to perform amount to three. Blood sacrifices, innocence and purity of the soul function as central themes.

Shedding the mortal self in order to return to the otherworldly as royalty is Ofelia’s quest in order to become Moanna again. Unlike other journeys of chosen, magical children Ofelia doesn’t return to her own world like Alice or the heirs of Narnia. The happy ending for her comes, but in the form of a bullet to her chest and her blood draining in the otherworldly king’s portal. What makes this ascent and claiming of one’s heritage as hard hitting is the uncertainty as to whether the world exists or remains Ofelia’s fabrication, a tool to escape. Yes, Pan’s Labyrinth falls into the fairy tale genre, yet, it’s a fairy tale geared for adults. Ofelia doesn’t always make the right decisions during her quest and faces the consequences of her actions.

Despite Pan’s Labyrinth’s strengths, the movie is far from perfect. Guillermo del Toro weaves three stories within the movie. First, the complex family dynamics between Ofelia, her sick mother and the Captain. Then comes the Captain’s hunt for guerilla fighters, where Mercedes supplies the soldiers with medicine and provisions. Third, Ofelia’s quest. While well acted as separate storylines, there is not much cohesion between them, in the sense that one distracted from the other two and created the effect of watching three distinct short movies pasted into one two hour extravaganza.

Even with its shortcomings, Pan’s Labyrinth remains a powerful movie, where the monsters are saviors and protectors. Where the inhuman extends a hand in order to preserve innocence in an era, where innocence died on the front line.

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Cloverfield–trailer

Something is amongst us…and the last film of Monster Awareness Month is happy to show us just what….

Is your dropbox ready for tonight’s screening?

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Pan’s Labyrinth – review

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member Orrin Grey

While movies like Blade 2 and Hellboy had already put Guillermo del Toro in the geek movie spotlight, it was Pan’s Labyrinth, with its six Academy Award nominations and three wins, that really gained del Toro the worldwide critical acclaim and industry clout that he now possesses. And with good reason. Del Toro himself has many times said that Pan’s Labyrinth is one of his favorites among his own films, and it’s certainly the surest, most confident, and most accomplished entry in his filmography to date.

Listening to one of del Toro’s commentary tracks is always a fascinating pastime, and it always leaves me with a renewed sense of awe at his commitment to detail and the material. Listening to the commentary track for Pan’s Labyrinth takes this to a whole other level. The amount of care that went into the film is mind-boggling, as is the control that del Toro had over the material. Del Toro’s films are all carefully color-coded and stylistically controlled, with motifs that echo and repeat, but, again, never has any of his films felt more intricate, on close inspection, than Pan’s Labyrinth.

It’s a movie that del Toro himself has said is a “litmus test” for its viewers, with an ending that appears, at first glance, to be ambiguous. So as to avoid spoilers for those who maybe haven’t yet seen it, I’ll refrain from talking about the themes of the movie, or the objective reality of its fantastical elements, and simply say to watch the movie for yourself, and then treat yourself to del Toro’s commentary track, where he spells out his feelings on the film and its themes pretty plainly.

Instead of that I’ll talk about the monsters of Pan’s Labyrinth, since that’s kind of what we’re here for. As I’ve already said when talking about Hellboy, del Toro is a director who loves monsters more than just about anyone else I can conveniently think of. He’s been quoted as saying that “if there’s not a monster on the call sheet, I don’t show up for work.” And while the two Hellboy films are his most monster-filled movies to date, Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t far behind.

For a movie with a reported budget of around $19 million, Pan’s looks amazing. The creatures are almost entirely brought to life using practical effects. The most famous monster to come out of Pan’s Labyrinth is the incredibly creepy Pale Man, but the Faun deserves equal attention (especially the effect of his legs, which is only heightened by learning how it was achieved), and the movie also boasts fairies, a giant toad, and a mandrake root. Both the Faun and the Pale Man are brought to life by veteran creature actor Doug Jones, who previously played Abe Sapien in Hellboy.

In a lot of ways, Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy are two very different movies, one quiet and emotional, the other broad and pulpy, but they both show a visionary director working at the top of his game, bringing his considerable love of monsters to two very different tables.

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Barker’s Monsters – Part Three

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Sharon Ring

Before I began writing these posts I asked a few genre-friendly people to name monster / bogeyman icons from the last decade or so of mainstream horror cinema. The only two candidates who came up with any degree of regularity were Jigsaw from the Saw movies and Ghostface from the Scream films. This wasn’t particularly surprising. Horror movie tropes have gone through a good many incarnations since the early days of cinema: each generation has brought its own fears and troubles to the screen, each generation endeavouring to create new monsters that best illuminate the human condition at the time. The past decade has seen far fewer monster icons, the trends being more inclined toward unseen fears and a particular liking for more voyeuristic, surveillance and documentary-based  film-making.

When Barker’s early films were hitting the cinemas, however, the slasher and stalker sub-genre was hugely popular. The modern trend for this kind of film had begun with Black Christmas (1974), though it was not the first acknowledged slasher movie; as far back as 1932 movies would occasionally take on the theme, more often than not attempting to tackle socio-political issues of their time concerning race and class. The turning point for slasher cinema came with the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978. From here on in, horror cinema was rife with stalker bogeymen armed with hooks, knives, chainsaws and any other tool capable of delivering the killing blow.

This craze for deranged killers was, in part, the reasoning behind Barker calling Nightbreed a troubled movie. Though the novella had been primarily about its protagonist Boone and his relationship with Lori, and the film was directed to be more about the inhabitants of Nightbreed, much of the actual marketing for the film concentrated on Cronenberg’s character, Decker. Morgan Creek’s attempts to turn Nightbreed into a slasher film, with one executive at the company saying, “If you’re not careful, some people are going to like the monsters”, showed a distinct lack of understanding of Barker’s unique vision of the world of monsters.

Candyman and Helen Lyle

Far more sympathetic to Barker’s vision was the writer and director of Candyman, Bernard Rose. Rose approached Barker with a view to shooting one of his short stories, The Forbidden being a particular favourite of Rose’s. He was keen to highlight the social issues Barker had put into the original short story and, where the story was set in a rundown Liverpool housing estate, Bernard, in order to gather the required funding to make the film, changed the setting to a housing project in Chicago, Cabrini Green. This wasn’t an invented housing project, either. Cabrini Green was (most of it has now been demolished) for many years one of the most feared housing projects in America and at one time had the highest murder rate per square foot of land in the entire world. Almost all the exterior shots and stairwell scenes at Cabrini Green were shot on the actual estate; the production team had to negotiate with the project gangs in order to film at the location and many of the extras you see milling around the hallways and stairs are the gang members of that time.

Urban myth is a major theme in both the short story and the eventual film. Rose’s choice of location for Candyman allowed him to document both his interest in disenfranchisement and urban decay, and also the fundamental need of people living in such communities to create myths and mores which serve to bind them as a community and act as a warning to those from outside their environment. The film’s protagonist, Helen, and her friend, Bernadette, are studying urban myths for their doctorates. Helen’s husband, Trevor, has one scene where he is teaching a roomful of college students about urban myth, calling them, “our unselfconscious reflection of the fears of urban society”.

Candyman / Daniel Robitaille

After Helen and Bernadette hear about the Candyman story being linked to Cabrini Green they travel to the project to check out stories of a local murder attributed to him. Again, Rose took elements of Cabrini Green history to push the Candyman myth. In the film the murder of Ruthie-Jean is said to have happened as part of a design flaw in the building of the apartments. By removing the bathroom cabinet and pushing through the cabinet in the adjoining apartment, the murderer was able to climb into Ruthie-Jean’s home and kill her. This was an actual design flaw in the real Cabrini Green buildings, a flaw which had allowed a murder to take place some years before the film was made.

As with all the best urban myths there is a back story to the world of Candyman. Before he was Candyman the killer mythologised by the Cabrini Green tenants was known as Daniel Robitaille, the son of a slave who had grown up in polite society. Working as an artist, creating family portraits, Daniel met and fell in love with the daughter of a landowner. When the woman became pregnant with Daniel’s child, the landowner paid a group of men to torture and kill Daniel, the final act of Daniel’s punishment for crossing the boundaries of race and class to scatter his ashes across Cabrini Green. Everything needed to create the Candyman myth is present in the telling of Daniel’s story: a tragic love tale, the breaking of ‘the rules’, the sawing off of his right hand (to be replaced by a hook, essential slasher tool), being covered in honey (‘Sweets to the sweet’), being stung to death by bees (bees feature prominently in later scenes between Candyman and Helen), the funeral pyre and, finally, the scattering of his ashes to cement Candyman’s eternal connection with the land on which Cabrini Green stands. Candyman revels in his own mythology, telling Helen, “I am rumour. It is a blessed condition, believe me, to be whispered about at street corners, to live in other people’s dreams, but not to have to be.”

The three films I’ve covered in these posts are all strong love and seduction stories. In Hellraiser we have the story of Frank and Julia; in Nightbreed we have Boone and Lori’s story; and in Candyman we have the legend of Daniel and his original lover plus the seduction tale of Candyman and Helen. The theme of seduction is, perhaps, most overt in this last film. Daniel becomes a mythical killer, the slasher monster of the movie, because of love but he must be invited into the world of each victim for that killing to take place. The empty apartment covered in graffiti, the razor-laced candies, the stories of death and fear are all the means by which Candyman is both reviled and revered by of the Cabrini Green residents.  Several times he asks Helen to surrender to him, to be his victim. Asking for surrender is his means of asking for complicity in the act, reflecting his desire to be worshipped by the residents of Cabrini Green, and especially by Helen, who has lessened him in the eyes of his “congregation”.

The religious subtext is equally strong in Hellraiser and Nightbreed. The ascetic qualities of the Cenobites, who are all a part of the Order of the Gash, and the lost tribe mentality of the Nightbreed, who worship a deity called Baphomet, are comparable to Cabrini Green’s worship of Candyman. The Cenobites are governed by rules set by The Engineer, chaining them to the machinations of the Lament Configuration. The Nightbreed have survived into modern times because of their adherence to laws set down by Baphomet. The residents of Cabrini Green have, through over a century of rumour and fear, created a minor deity of their own, complete with his own rules of reverence and summoning, transforming a murdered lover into an eternal bogeyman.

Transformation is at the heart of much of Barker’s fiction. In a South Bank special on Barker, aired in 1994, he said, “I usually paint people in some transformed state or other. Either they’re on their way to being transformed or they are transformed.” I’d say this is true no only of his written work but also of the adaptation of his work from prose to cinema.

In Hellraiser we have a quartet of transformed creatures whose calling is to transform the flesh of pleasure-seeking humans. We also have Julia transforming from unhappy wife to love-struck killer as well as Frank’s transformation from flesh to a beating heart under the floorboards then back to flesh. In Nightbreed many of the Breed are able to transform at will, showing their more human faces at times, turning to smoke or demon at others, their protean flesh unbound by the laws of the naturals. There is also Boone’s transformation from natural to Breed and Decker’s seesawing between trusted doctor and messianic murderer.

In Candyman the transformation takes the form of deification. Rather than leave the viewer hanging on until the end of the film to discover the history of Candyman, it’s only thirty minutes into the narrative when Daniel’s brutal torture and murder is related to Helen. The creation of the Candyman myth is the story of how both gods and monsters (entities with far more similarities than differences) are made and it is told with the unhidden pleasure of making us, as with the Nightbreed, care about the monster. Candyman, in turn, transforms Helen, making her both monster and legend as he tells her, “Our names will be written on a thousand walls, our crimes told and retold by our faithful believers.”

Sweets to the sweet.

These three films, and the original stories on which they are based, represent much of what makes Barker’s take on monsters so very special. Starting with Hellraiser he creates confusion over who we are meant to see as the monster, even creating a sense of ambiguity and alluring mystery around the flesh-tearing Cenobites. In Nightbreed we move on to a more open siding with the monsters; our sympathies are deliberately steered in their favour as we are shown that sometimes the real monsters exist in our own world, in the very people we believe we can trust. Finally, in Candyman, we’re shown that not only do monsters exist in our own world but we act as their creators through our own monstrous behaviour; we give birth to the very things we fear the most and then feed those fears through myth and storytelling.

We are, perhaps, a little bit in love with monsters, even jealous of their abilities and dismissal of the usual rules of society. As one of the Nightbreed says, “To be able to fly, to be smoke, or a wolf… To know the night and live in it forever, that’s not so bad. You call us monsters but when you dream, you dream of flying and changing and living without death. You envy us and what you envy…”

[With thanks to Phil and Sarah Stokes. Their website has proved an invaluable resource for the writing of these posts.]

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The Mist–trailer

What’s in the mist? Dare you find out?

Is your dropbox ready for tonight’s screening?

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Blobs, Swamp Muck and Amorphous Things That Go “Splat!” in the Night

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Robert Hood

Given that violation of physical norms (being giant-sized, three-headed, lizard-scaled, part-snake/bat/bear/lion/dragon/Bobo-the-Clown, you name it) is one of the defining attributes of a monster, it’s not surprising that some of the most memorable of the clan are, in fact, of indeterminate shape. Amorphous horrors and all that. Things that go “Splat!” in the night.

The Blob? Everyone knows of the big strawberry-jelly mass of space gunk that reacts badly when poked with a stick, likes to scare cinema patrons by oozing through the screen in the middle of the movie and has a penchant for eating out at the local diner.


The Blob (US-1958; dir. Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.) mightn’t be a great film artistically, but many of its moments have achieved cult status and it is certainly charming in its own clean-cut ‘50s way. In the opinion of many, Chuck Russell’s 1988 remake is a much better film, with good SFX, effective characters, a decent script and dramaturgically competent storytelling, while retaining (plus updating and broadening) the themes of youth rebellion and generational trust. Changing the origin of the Blob from outer-space-entity-on-the-loose to product-of-a-Government-scientific-miscalculation-and-attendant-conspiracy is very 1990s, reflecting a general cynicism that what we really have to fear might originate right here on our doorstep rather than out in the universe somewhere. Needless to say, The Blob (1988) hasn’t garnered the same level of affection as Steve McQueen’s star vehicle with its rather innocent air of ‘50s kitsch.

Dinner becomes more gruesome in the 1988 remake

In 1972, Larry Hagman (of I Dream of Jeanie and Dallas fame) directed a sequel/reboot of The Blob called Beware! The Blob (aka Son of the Blob). It’s more comedy than horror and isn’t considered a classic, as cheekily eccentric as it may be. What it does best is reflect the sort of sardonic humour that Hagman was good at.

Godfrey Cambridge gets consumed while watching the 1959 film on TV

... and never gets to see the ending...

Coincidentally, June 1958 (a few months before The Blob premiered in the US) saw the release in Japan of another “Blob”-like movie – this one by Gojira director Ishirô Honda. It’s called Bijo to Ekitainingen (lit. Beauty and the Liquid People), but is best known as The H-Man. Nuclear tests in the Pacific create mutations that ooze about like radioactive slime and dissolve human flesh and bone. The movie is a crime flick as well as a monster picture – a particular cross-genre hybrid that appealed to the Japanese film-going public in this period and worked oddly well in practice. At any rate, though not well-known, The H-Man is an interesting take that is definitely worth your time, featuring some excellent and atmospheric horror sequences, in particular one set on a ghostly ship adrift at sea during a fog-bound night.

Hedorah, aka the Smog Monster

A more famous muck monster — one made out of a mass of animated pollution — is Hedorah, better known as the Smog Monster. In the history of Godzilla films, Gojira tai Hedora (1971; dir. Yoshimitsu Banno) [aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster] is the really weird one and it tends to be very divisive. The spectacle of seeing Godzilla fly through the air, tail tucked under his body and using his fire breath as a means of rocket propulsion, sends some fans into paroxysms of scorn. Yet I’ve always thought it fits into this particular movie quite well, given its theme of pollution and its hallucinatory imagery. In this particular G world, where smog can come alive and turn into a giant monster — and where Godzilla movies can have weird cartoon inserts and hippies hang about on Mt Fuji singing and dancing and generally getting stoned while the world burns — it seems entirely appropriate that Godzie could use his fire breath to propel himself through the air. This is Godzilla seen through a chemical haze — drugs being another form of pollution, after all. What with the nightclub scene where patrons turn into fish-headed monsters under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs (as in Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas) — or the scene where Hedorah sucks ecstatically on a smoking chimney as though it’s a bong — interpreting the blatant surrealism of Smog Monster as some sort of drug-induced supra-reality seems entirely appropriate!

Blob monsters were rather popular in the creature-feature comics of this period, whether or not they were “inspired” by The Blob. One that comes to mind is “The Glop”, in a story from Journey into Mystery Vol. 1 #72 (September 1961). “The Glop” features a dripping humanoid mass that “lives!” after an artist is hired to go to Transylvania to paint a monstrous statue using mystic, life-giving paint — something he hadn’t known when he started. Another is “Taboo! The Thing from Murky Swamp” from Strange Tales #75 (June 1960). Taboo is an alien muck monster, which, though destroyed at the end of the story, returned bigger and ever more adjectivally inexorable a few months later (in Strange Tales #77, October 1960).

Amorphous monsters like these soon became part of the pantheon of monstrous villains that superheroes had to contend with, once the superhero genre took over in comics. In 1958 when The Blob began production, the film was being called “The Glob [That Girdled the World]”. In 1969 Bruce Banner/the Hulk was forced to battle a murky sludge creature known as the Glob in The Incredible Hulk #121. The Glob makes several subsequent appearances in the Marvel universe.

A shapeshifting creature made of sand called The Sandman first appeared in Journey to Mystery Vol. 1, #70 (July 1961). Though an alien here, he proved to be a prototype of William Baker (aka The Sandman) from The Amazing Spider-Man #4 (Sept 1963), who accidentally acquires the ability to shapeshift via his sandy nature and uses this ability to harass our friendly neighbourhood webslinger. The Sandman appeared in Sam Raimi’s live-action movie Spider-Man 3 in 2007, rendered via spectacular CGI.

Swamps are a fertile breeding ground for amorphous monsters, as witness Taboo’s tagline: “The Thing from Murky Swamp”. The most famous comicbook swamp monster — either a man integrated with a mass of swamp debris following his “murder” or an elemental spirit, depending on which incarnation you’re reading — was DC Comics’ Swamp Thing. Swamp Thing featured in several comic series, two live-action films, a live-action TV series (directed by Tom Blomquist and Chuck Bowman) and an animated TV series. He also crops up briefly in the superlative animated series Justice League Unlimited. The first Swamp Thing film was directed by Wes Craven in 1982 and though uncharacteristic of Craven’s most famous work, proved reasonably successful. The Return of Swamp Thing (US-1989; dir. Jim Wynorski) followed, but wasn’t so well received. Swamp Thing is very much a “monster-as-hero” story, as the title character rises from the swamp to seek revenge on those who murdered him, but ends up pursuing a life of sometimes conflicted do-goodery.

Marvel’s Man-Thing series was very similar (at first), with a similar back-story involving swampy death and murky revenge, though the monster-hero is generally less sentient. The character originated in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971) — several months before DC’s Swamp Thing appeared (in House of Secrets #92, July 1971). There were murmurings of legal action (especially as the two creators were room-mates at the time), but it all came to nothing — and the two Things diverged considerably in tone and storyline as time went by. There has only been one film version of Man-Thing, a made-for-TV movie directed by Brett Leonard (2005). Much to the chagrin of fans of Marvel comic writer Steve Gerber’s surreal and rather tongue-in-cheek rendition of Man-Thing (which teams the tangle of swamp debris with Howard the Duck at one point), Leonard’s film is more a standard B-film creature feature, though it actually runs fairly close to the monster’s original appearances in comic format. If you can live with that, Man-Thing is an okay monster film, lurking somewhere midstream in the swampland hierarchy of Hollywood genre filmmaking.

The low-budget Swamp Devil (Canada-2008; dir. David Winning), on the other hand, is somewhat mired in a stagnant backwater of that particular tributary. It works a very similar scenario to those of Marvel and DC’s monster-heroes, though the titular beast is pure monster here. At any rate, there’s murder and backwoods secrets and swamp-monster violence involved. Some things never change: murder and swamps don’t mix. I must remember that — for next time.

Other types of amorphous monsters abound in the film world, often offering little more that a hive mentality in place of a single focus. The interesting monster of The Bone Snatcher (UK/Canada/South Africa-2003; dir. Jason Wulfsohn) consists of weird alien ants that swarm around random collections of bones to form into a larger, more coherent creature. In this they are rather like Grey Goo, the nano-machines that we’re often warned about by the scientifically pessimistic — tiny out-of-control robots that eat matter and sometimes form into whatever shape takes their fancy, usually monstrous (see the Justice League Unlimited story “Dark Heart” and the Gort-spawned nano-machine swarm that erupts across America in the climax of the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still remake).

Gort as a destructive nanotech cloud of destruction in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still

But such group monsters needn’t be so hi-tech. The Ruins (US/Germany/Aust-2008; dir. Carter Smith) does it rather effectively with virulent, psychic plants. From the psychotic avian menace of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) through to the mass African bee entity of The Swarm (US-1978; dir. Irwin Allen), nature in films has willingly formed itself into an amorphous object of mass terror, inflicting clouds of death and mayhem on humanity for its sins. In The Naked Jungle (US-1954; dir. Byron Haskin, based on the story Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson), Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker battle a 20-mile-wide, 20-mile-long column of army ants — millions of individual ants subsumed into a mass consciousness. That’s the point here. In these cases the characters are not dealing with lots of individual creatures but a single amorphous monster made up of millions of individual units acting together.

Charlton Heston vs the ants

And that’s not to forget the totally shapeless monster of the Aussie film Long Weekend (Aust-1978; dir. Colin Eggleston) and its 2008 remake, which is simply nature turning en masse against the careless vacationers. Talk about The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955). You can’t get much more amorphous than that.

  • Note: In my speculations here about Godzilla vs Hedorah I’m more-or-less quoting my review of the film on Undead Backbrain.

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