Author Archives: Haralambi Markov

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film, Monster Awareness Month, Review

Alien – review

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Harry Markov

Monsters fascinates us to no end. I think that the human psyche wants to face the wild and the horrific as an obstacle to physically and mentally overcome. As we progress we conjure more and more powerful monsters, to challenge us on all fronts, to draw our monsters from the past or from the murky depths or even from radiation. Bigger is better. Cinema has a long tradition with the outer space and aliens, as the vastness of the cosmos allows us to create without any restriction. Anything could be out there and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) proves exactly that.

Alien is an iconic movie in the sense that it pushed the horror into science fiction and gave the world one of the most unforgettable movie monsters. Alien spawned sequels, a prequel and questionable crossovers (the Alien vs. Predator series). It heavily relies on building its tension and establishing realism and a claustrophobic atmosphere, but at the same time it felt too long for me, which took away from the enjoyment.

The Nostromo along with its refinery

The opening scenes ran for too long without much happening. There are multiple shots of the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo as it returns from a trip with mineral ore. The camera goes on for a virtual tour of the ship, then it lingers on the crew as each member wakes up from stasis and goes on to perform regular duties. I can see why these scenes are included and realism does play a huge part in separating the movie from others in the genre at the time, but Alien runs for two whole hours and I expected a bit more action to fill the time.

At some point, the crew receives a transmission of unknown origin from a nearby planetoid, the reason why the ship’s computer wakes everyone up. Acting on orders from their corporate employers, the crew lands on the planetoid, but  not without damaging the ship. Here the camera constantly switches from the deathly quiet inside the ship to the raging storm on the planetoid, irritating me more than it should. The audio here creates a rather jarring shift that goes on for too long as the crew prepares for an expedition. Nothing happens.

The Crew of Nostromo

Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) venture out to investigate the signal’s source. Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), and Engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) stay behind to monitor their progress and make repairs. It’s here that the movie picks up its pace as the expedition leads to an alien ship. Kane comes to close to a vast nest filled with eggs and manages to awaken one. Out hatches the iconic facehugger and inseminates Kane’s organism with the true alien.

Hello, Facehugger

Ripley’s far from keen on letting Kane back on board, wanting to follow quarantine protocol, but Ash undermines her authority and lets the team back in, thus allowing the alien on board. From here on the plot considers crew survival and dealing with the alien, which hatches in a gruesome and truly memorable scene and then goes on to hunt every member one by one. A separate subplot about Ash’s special mission develops, which reveals that the company has an ulterior motive regarding this trip. As crew members die at the alien’s claws Ripley decides to blow the ship and make a hasty escape on the shuttle. Easier said than done, though, since the alien proves to be a smart predator.

The Newborn Chestburster

Alien is not a perfect movie. I still think that it’s too long for its own good, but maybe that is my intolerance for 119 minute long pictures. The slow pacing until the chestburster appears (and the danger of the alien life becomes too great to ignore), while establishing the characters and setting (making this a smarter horror movie), killed my interest. I have to wonder how the company knew about the life force in the first place and why the ship’s computer woke the crew from stasis on the return trip and not on the initial one. I assume the ship’s route was the same, so it all seems a bit suspicious. Ash’s involvement with his special order also seems suspect and not all the way integrated into the script. It’s no wonder that Scott’s doing a prequel to highlight the alien’s origins as there are many questions regarding how anyone can learn of such a creature’s existence and not be dead already. It’s just the perfect predator.

Claustrophobia

Then again, Scott’s main objective lies within providing the perfect stage to present the alien and he succeeds. Every frame carries expectancy that something horrid will happen and when it does, it sticks to the viewer’s memory. The alien rarely makes an appearance save for a few limbs and its mouth. I found this annoying, because Giger’s designs are capable to horrify on their own without the need to resort to techniques such as casting the creature’s shadow and keeping it mostly in the dark. On the other hand, I can understand that these techniques add to the overall menace and terror. The emptiness of space coupled with the industrialized setting of the ship, the layers of shadows, the claustrophobic dimensions of the corridors, elevate the viewer’s stress levels.

Two mouths are never good news

The extra-terrestrial life form in Alien has become memorable, because it’s a predator from the moment it lays its eggs to the hatching of the infant to the full grown adult. While we do fear the monsters on the outside, people also fear what could grow inside of them. Alien taps into our fear of the super parasite, one which can’t be removed and will kill us. This fear is quite powerful, because the host realizes that the enemy is within and therefore running away from it is not an option. It’s the fear of our own body and immune system betraying us, becoming a host for something that kills us upon hatching.

Even when the alien grows, it is invincible as it possesses superhuman strength, agility and the reflexes we lack. The alien’s blood is corrosive acid and killing it by conventional means is a death sentence on a space ship. It’s a ghastly prospect and the reason why Alien has grown to the status of monster icon with an impressive and still growing franchise. We’ve created the scariest monster, yet, and we are not sure whether we can truly kill it once it finds us.

3 Comments

Filed under Film, Monster Awareness Month, Review

Anatomy of Monsters [Japanese Art]

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Harry Markov

We’ve been busy this whole month to introduce you, the eager reader, to the monsters that have rampaged on the big screen [and which continue to do so in our memories {or re-boots and remakes; have your pick}]. We’ve tackled their history and place in cinema  as well as the people, who’ve helped to create them. Today, I want to bring to your attention the legacy the monster genre has left in Japan. I found the article on Pink Tentacle, a specialized site that imports vintage Japanese art. The website is responsible the translation of the anatomy, below every picture. I’m the shameless guy bringing it to your attention.

The anatomical features of Gamera and his foes are detailed in a set of illustrations found in one volume of the Kaijū-Kaijin Daizenshū movie monster book series published by Keibunsha in 1972.

Gamera anatomical illustration --
Gamera

Gamera’s features include infrared eyes with night vision, arms that can lift 50,000 tons, an organ for producing the flames he shoots from his hands, electrical spikes on his back, poison claws, sac-like organs for storing lava, coal, oil and uranium, balloon-like organs that blast jets of air out through the feet, and a tail of elastic cartilage that can deliver a powerful punch.

Guiron anatomical illustration --
Guiron

Guiron’s most prominent feature is his knife-shaped head, which is 100 times harder than diamond and is packed with shuriken-like stars that can be fired from a pair of openings above the eyes. The creature has 360-degree radar vision, 60 times more teeth than a piranha, lungs adapted for long-distance space travel, sac-like organs for storing energy and uranium, balloon-like organs in the legs that blast jets of liquid through the feet, webbed fins for stability in water, and magnetic suction cups on the hands.

Baragon anatomical illustration --
Barugon

Barugon’s features include dorsal spikes that produce a deadly rainbow ray, an organ to produce frosty liquid (-100 degree Celsius) that can be shot from his 30-meter-long weaponized tongue, a stomach that can digest diamonds (his favorite food), and radar horns atop his head.

Viras anatomical illustration --
Viras

Viras’s features include a spike-shaped head capable of piercing through a meter of steel, a brain with an IQ of 2500, organs for producing a force field and controlling the minds of others, tentacles that are 10,000 times stronger than an elephant’s trunk and which can emit powerful beams for space travel, and organs to break down cell tissue and control metamorphosis (for creating its human disguise).

Jiger anatomical illustration --
Jiger

Jiger’s features include a pair of horns that shoot missiles made of hardened saliva and one that fires a deadly “magnetium” beam, powerful suction cups covering her entire body, an organ for shooting jets of seawater at 300 kilometers per hour, a stomach that can melt iron ore, and an ovipositor tail.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Article, Monster Awareness Month

Creature from the Black Lagoon – review

Written by Monster Awareness Month member, Harry Markov

Black_Lagoon_3

Creature from the Black Lagoon (directed by Jack Arnold) is an exemplary illustration of the 1950s monster horror movies. Since its release the movie has achieved the status of a golden classic in the genre, while its monster, the Gill-man (above), has become an icon recognizable by monster fans even in my small and often isolated country of Bulgaria.

Watching Creature from the Black Lagoon brought great satisfaction to my ‘CGI eyes’ despite the lack of sudden cheap thrills (screams and flash appearances aplenty in modern movies) or the Gill-man’s foam suit. I can list plenty of reasons to explain its rise to horror classic. From the cast (Julie Adams as the Beauty to the beastly Gill-man) to the otherworldly underwater shots (handled by Scotty Wilbur), the intriguing role reversal and the boisterous soundtrack, I loved it all from the get-go.

Creature from the Black Lagoon, while an aquatic horror at first glance, is a science fiction movie at heart (Jack Arnold is also responsible for It Came from Outer Space and The Incredible Shrinking Man). The movie’s opening portrays Earth’s geological history moving to the evolution of life, establishing a serious, almost documentary atmosphere. From then on Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovers a fossilized hand with webbed fingers, which possibly explains the discovery of the missing link between marine and land life forms, the sci-fi themes increasing in frequency.

During the scene in which Dr. Maia pitches his expedition to the Amazon, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) speaks of spaceship colonization of other planets. The team’s assembled members consists of the ichthyologist Dr. Reed, his girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), Dr. Marcus Williams (Richard Dennings), the expedition’s financial aid, and one Dr. Thompson (Whit Bissell). Later on as the team sail on the Rita into the Black Lagoon, a ‘paradise from which no one returns’, Dr. Reed likens the Black Lagoon to another world. With numerous sci-fi tropes present it becomes evident that the marine expedition is more of a metaphor for an outer space voyage; an idea which is further reinforced by the admittance of Dr. Reed that humanity hasn’t even begun to understand the world below the water.

From this point on, the story picks up in pace. After the Gill-man becomes entangled in the ship’s nets, the team quickly realizes that it’s dealing with the real creature rather than just a fossil. The expedition morphs into a hunt, a match between the scientists and the monster with casualties on both sides. Subsequent encounters with the Gill-man claim the lives of two of the ship’s crew as the creature shows enough cunning to freely enter and leave the ship. Eventually it is captured and locked in a cage on board the Rita.

It escapes during the night and attacks Dr. Thompson, who failed to guard the boat carefully enough. Kay hits the beast with a lantern; resulting in the Gill-man’s escape and Dr. Thompson suffering severe burns from the fire. The scientists decide to call off the expedition as they are no match for the Gill-man with their current equipment. However, they find themselves barricaded within the Lagoon along with the Gill-man, bent on seeking its revenge.

Creature from the Black Lagoon impresses with the reversal of the typical genre roles. It is the scientists who are the villains as they invade the Gill-man’s home for selfish reasons (I want to point at Dr. Williams as the chief instigator for the creature’s capture, because of the success and fame it would bring him). It’s the Gill-man who is the victim rather than the monster. His actions are motivated by his instinct to defend his territory rather than intentional malice.

When not threatened the Gill-man is peaceful (best illustrated by the Gill-man’s amorous and almost tender behaviour towards Kay Lawrence) and this introduces the Gill-man’s frightening humanity. Yes, the Creature is a half-fish, half-man. It has never been in contact with humans before and kills to protect his habitat (as all predators), yet the scene when he swims right beneath Kay juxtaposes his freakish appearance with a shy, fearful adoration for the graceful Kay (played by Ginger Stanley during the swimming/underwater shots). It’s evident that the Gill-man is alone and misunderstood, impossibly so.

Black_Lagoon_2

The soundtrack foreshadows Kay’s demise (evoking Jaws’ score a bit), yet the Gill-man only enjoys stalking her as a sort of primal affection. Later, this affection is a plot device to move forward the story and is the key to the Gill-man’s undoing. In this regard Creature from the Black Lagoon echoes King Kong and the line ‘It was beauty killed the Beast’ is valid for the Gill-man as well.

Jack Arnold polarizes the audience, adding more emotional gravity to his picture. While in the horror genre the monster embodies that which has to be slain and the viewer sides with the survivors, but here it’s not as easily done. On one hand, I knew that the scientists didn’t set out to hunt down the Gill-man (not initially and not unanimously at the very least). On the other, it’s very hard not to sympathize with this lonesome, yearning for contact creature, which has been poisoned, clubbed, burned, blinded, speared and then shot to its supposed death.

On a different note, I find it difficult not to associate the Gill-man with Lovecraft’s The Deep Ones. Creature from the Black Lagoon shares several thematic elements with Lovecraft’s stories. The protagonists are scholars in search for knowledge – forbidden knowledge at that. Their victories (trapping the Gill-man) are temporary and carry a price. The Gill-man and The Deep Ones share similar anatomy, both are amphibian and both are stronger than humans. Perhaps, the only difference is that while The Deep Ones are of extra-terrestrial heritage, the Gill-man is a monster evolution, showing how humans are inferior from a biological standpoint. Whether this is so, is inconsequential to why Creature from the Black Lagoon is memorable.

Black_Lagoon_1

The reason why this movie has endured in the collective cultural memory and has spawned an impressive legacy, is because people love to see the human spark in their monsters. They want to experience the Beauty and the Beast all over again, knowing that on the outside the monster is hideous, but has redeemable qualities. This is the reason why movies like this one or King Kong continue to fascinate and intrigue us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film, Monster Awareness Month, Review