Author Archives: Robert Hood

About Robert Hood

I am a writer of genre fiction and a graphic designer. With over 100 short stories, three story collections and five novels published (as well as about 16 children's books and other miscellaneous stuff), I have something of a reputation in the horror/SF field, in Australia at least. The fact that I was dubbed "Aussie horror's wicked godfather" in the tagline of a recent interview says it all. You can get all the details of my writing at my official website: roberthood.net

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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Tentacles, Ancient Whispers and Monstrous Gods

An Overview of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos on Film

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member Robert Hood

Few filmmakers have been successful in translating New England horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s dense, adjective-driven tales of Elder Gods, Great Old Ones and the Horrors That Lurk Just the Other Side of Reality into effective cinema. Or so they say. For those poor souls who are unfamiliar with Lovecraft and his arcane writings, there is plenty of information on the web. Start with the Wikipedia entries for H.P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu Mythos and Great Old One and followed the links you’ll find on those pages. Even better, many of HPL’s stories are available for free download through Project Gutenberg. Collected Stories is a good place to start.

Artist's impression of Cthulhu Rising in Ancient R'lyeh

In brief, Lovecraft’s highly influential stories, taken together, posit a vast cosmic race of monstrous beings that once ruled the Earth but were driven off during the dark times of pre-history. Unfortunately, however, they’re still hanging around, lurking in hidden dimensions, waiting for foolish or ambitious humans to summon them back into the world. Most of our information on the Great Old Ones comes from a book called the Necronomicon, a sort of hideous grimoire written by the Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred. Those who spend too much study time with the Necronomicon end up in lunatic asylums or worse, finding themselves face-to-face with some huge ancient monster intent on re-opening a gateway back into the world. These “dark gods” take multitudinous forms, but in the popular imagination tentacles play a large part in their physiology. Descriptions within Lovecraft’s stories tend to be vague and portentous. His deific monsters live in the darkness and when they make their appearance tend to drive the observer out of his/her mind.

The evocative but indirect power of Lovecraft’s writing offers considerable challenge to those working in an essentially visual medium such as the cinema. As a result filmmakers are often accused of violating HPL’s work and failing to capture its spirit. I’m not convinced. Changes are necessitated by cinema’s demands, and often require plot threads to be added to stories that are characteristically static and internalised. Many of the Lovecraft-inspired films work well, even if their effect is different from that of the original stories.

Dean Stockwell reads from the Necronomicon in The Dunwich Horror

Despite interesting earlier forays such as The Dunwich Horror (US-1970; dir. Daniel Haller), Boris Karloff’s Die, Monster, Die! (US-1965; dir. Daniel Haller — a version of “The Color Out of Space”), Roger Corman’s Poe-styled translation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, The Haunted Palace (US-1963; dir. Roger Corman), The Shuttered Room (UK-1967; dir. David Greene) and The Curse of the Crimson Altar (UK-1968; dir. Vernon Sewell), which was supposedly based on “The Dreams in the Witch House” though it bore little resemblance, it wasn’t until Stuart Gordon came on the scene that the movies began to feel even slightly Lovecraftian in their styling. His films, such as Re-Animator (1985, based on “Herbert West, Re-Animator”), From Beyond (1986), Castle Freak (1995, based on “The Outsider”), Dagon (2001) and most recently H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch-House (2005) from the Masters of Horror TV series, are somewhat more visceral and bloody than Lovecraft’s stories, at least on a surface level, but at their best they create an effective atmosphere of cosmic dread. The underrated Dagon in particular – despite cosmetic changes made to the setting and its conflation of several Lovecraft tales into a more dynamic plotline – reeks of Lovecraftian horror. The fact that a very in-your-face CGI Dagon appears at the end is fine with me.

An unfortunate discovery regarding parentage from Gordon's Dagon

Other post-1985 Lovecraft-based films include The Unnamable (US-1988; dir. Jean-Paul Ouellette), The Resurrected (US-1992; dir. Dan O’Bannon, based on “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”), the anthology picture Necronomicon (France/US; 1993; dir. Christophe Gans, Shusuke Kaneko and Brian Yuzna, with three stories based on “The Rats in the Walls”, “Cool Air” and “The Whisperer in Darkness”), The Lurking Fear (US-1994; dir. C. Courtney Joyner) and many, many short films.

Given Lovecraft’s prominence in the horror field, the difficulties inherent in translating his tales to the screen have meant that mainstream films based on his work have not been as common as one might have expected — and that one of the most successfully Lovecraftian films ever was not even based on his work: namely John Carpenter’s vastly under-appreciated In the Mouth of Madness (1994).

Horror novels prove deadly In the Mouth of Madness

It’s strange how some films seem doomed to be devalued right from the start. Third in what Carpenter refers to as his “Apocalypse Trilogy” (the first two being The Thing and Prince of Darkness), In the Mouth of Madness is an effective exploration of communal perception and its role in forming accepted reality – and remains for me one of Carpenter’s most disconcerting films. It is also one of the best of the films based on or inspired by the Cthulhan imaginings of H.P. Lovecraft, with their vision of vast inhuman “Old Ones” intent on re-gaining command over the human world. Here, inter-dimensional conquest takes place via a phenomenally popular pulp horror novelist, whose works increasingly upset humanity’s psychic (and physical) stability and offer up a fiction that is designed to consume reality itself. Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator who is rather smugly adept at defusing the attempts of fraudsters to impose their small, self-serving views of reality on insurers and other financiers. “He’s an amateur,” Neill’s John Trent says of one such fraudster, and longs for the challenge of a true professional. In the end he gets his wish, but to an apocalyptic extent that totally overwhelms him … and, given the ending, us as well. If Carpenter’s The Thing was a study in claustrophobic paranoia, In the Mouth of Madness is its agoraphobic twin.

In recent times, production of Lovecraft-based films has been ramping up. In 2005, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society made the well conceived and executed The Call of Cthulhu (US-2005; dir. Andrew Leman), which adopts film techniques current at the time the story was written to create a strong sense of period (it’s made in the manner of a silent-era film) and evoking an effective atmosphere of dread. It proved to be one of the most accurate renditions of the famous Lovecraft story ever. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has also created a terrific radio-play version of “At the Mountains of Madness” and have been working on a second feature film, based on “The Whisperer in Darkness”. It’s due for released this year. Below is the latest trailer:

In 2007 Dan Gildark directed a modernised Lovecraft tale, Cthulhu, based loosely on Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. Since 2005, the Masters of Horror TV series has featured the afore-mentioned Stuart Gordon effort Dreams in the Witch-House, as well as the pre-Lovecraftian Ambrose Bierce tale The Damned Thing (US-2006; dir. Tobe Hooper), which has a very Lovecraftian sensibility.

Other independent films, often shorts, crop up from time to time. Color From the Dark (US-2008; dir. Ivan Zuccon) is an independent feature film based on “The Color Out of Space”, which won best feature at 2009’s H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival — an annual festival that highlights hordes of shorts and independent features based on the Master’s work. Winning films from each year have been released on DVD; of the ones I’ve seen (which is in no way comprehensive), Zuccon’s effort is worth a look for the Lovecraft aficionado, as is Bryan Moore’s Cool Air (1999).

Meanwhile rumours of big budget Lovecraft tales have been around for some time, with features from the likes of Stuart Gordon (rumoured to be making “The Thing on the Doorstep”) and Guillermo Del Toro (with his big-budget take on “At the Mountains of Madness”) — not to mention such Lovecraftesque monster films as Altitude (US-2010; dir. Kaare Andrews). In this one, a group of young folk flying high in a small plane find themselves looking a very Cthulhan multi-tentacled creature that inhabits the clouds directly in the eye.

Saying "Hi!" to monsters in the clouds in Altitude

Meanwhile, I’ve put together a Call of Cthulhu film festival. Go to my film commentary website Undead Backbrain and you might be surprised by what you see. Well, amused at least, I hope.

  • Source note: the image of Cthulhu Rising comes from regeneratormag.com, though the artist is unknown.
  • My review of In the Mouth of Madness that appears in this article was first published on my website.

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Reveling in Absurdity: The Monsters of Ultraman

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Robert Hood

You haven’t experienced the world of monsters until you’ve watched at least one Ultraman series.

Ultraman is a Japanese-produced SF/monster franchise that is only marginally known in the West (in particular to otaku — as obsessive fans are called in Japan — and others interested in tokusatsu, or Japanese special effects television programs and movies), but which rivals Godzilla in terms of consistent, ongoing production, high ratings and home-grown box-office success.

Ultraman Mebius fights Gesura

So Who Is Ultraman?

Ultraman (aka Urutoraman) is a superhero/giant monster (kaiju) hybrid that began life as a TV series in 1967 and has been revisited more-or-less without pause ever since — as a string of successful TV shows and related cinema-release films, and in the form of live stage events. The latest manifestation is a movie celebrating the 45th anniversary of Ultraman: Urutoraman Zero The Movie Chou Kessen! Beriaru Ginga Teikoku [lit. Ultraman Zero The Movie: Super Decisive Battle! Belial’s Galactic Empire] (2010; dir. Yuichi Abe) — showing that the Japanese never stint on descriptive titles!

The first Ultraman TV series — 39 episodes that aired between 17 July 1966 and 9 April 1967 — was dubbed and aired in the US and elsewhere, as were one or two other series and films (such as 1996/97’s Ultraman Tiga and the movie Ultraman: The Next from 2004). Mostly though, neither the shows nor movies make it to the West, even via DVD. One, Ultraman: Towards the Future (aka Ultraman Great) was made in Australia with a mixed Japanese/Australian crew, and starred Aussie actors such as Gus Mercurio and Gia Carides — yet it was never shown here, though overseas DVD versions now exist.

From Ultraman: The Next (2004)

Created by special-effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya (who was the man behind all the early Godzilla/Gojira SFX work and most of Toho’s live-action SF and monster movies) and the company he set up for the purpose, Ultraman is a 40-metre tall (or more) humanoid giant from “The Land of Light” in the distant Nebula M78, who manifests through a human “host” and displays a wide range of powers, including flight, a multitude of ray weapons, telekinetic abilities and energy/matter manipulation skills.

Each new series sees the introduction of a new Ultraman (such as Ultra Seven, Ultraman Zoffy, Ultraman Jack, Ultraman Tiga, Ultraman Cosmos, Ultraman Mebius etc.), for Ultraman comes from a large altruistic “family” willing to defend people against monsters anywhere in the universe (though particularly focusing on Earth). Classed as “children’s” or at least “family-oriented” entertainment, each new series varies the basic tropes slightly and often changes the tone of the franchise. One of the Ultramen, Zearth, starred in two short films during the mid-1990s that were comedic in nature, even slapstick, and 2004’s Ultraman Nexus was part of a re-conceptualising of the franchise that resulted in a series that was dark, adult and complex — SF-monster-noir, as it were. This one thrilled and excited otaku like me but rated badly on Saturday morning children’s television in Japan (where network programmers failed to notice that the show wasn’t suited to that particular demographic). Subsequent Ultraman TV shows pulled back into the colourful, “family viewing” sphere and took a somewhat retro, if utterly self-aware, stance. Recent cinema releases, however, have become action-packed, violent and surreal, appealing to teen and young-adult audiences as well as older fans. They are set largely in the depths of space and on alien planets — and garnish their traditional suitmation SFX techniques with heavy doses of CGI.

Monsters from Ultra Galaxy
Monsters from Ultra Galaxy: Giant Monster Battle (2007)

Sometimes the Ultramen come together to fight armies of Evil Beings, as in Daikessen! Cho Urutora Hachi Urutora Kyodai [lit. Decisive Battle! The Eight Super Ultra Brothers] (2008; dir. Takeshi Yagi). There are recurrent baddies — both sentient aliens and rampant monsters. Yet, in Ultraman Cosmos from 2001/2002 Tsuburaya Productions decided to take a different tack — this Ultraman was a kinder, gentler Ultraman, forcing in some sense a re-defining of the idea of strength. Cosmos and his human host (Musashi, played by Takayasu Sugiura) took the view that the monsters occupy a legitimate place in the scheme of things. The world is theirs as much as humanity’s, and the struggle for the humans therefore becomes one of finding a way of avoiding the inevitable destruction the kaiju cause without actually killing or badly injuring them. This creates internal conflict and puts the Earth Defense Force at odds with members of the country’s more traditional military units. There are inevitable and tragic failures. In the course of its lengthy run, the show managed to examine the many implications of this theme, including the ethical dilemma inherent in self-defense, that is, how do you resist violence without resorting to violence, and in what circumstances is it simply unavoidable?

Mebius and the Ultra Brothers
Mebius and the Ultra Brothers

Over the years, in fact, the mythology behind Ultraman and his family has become increasingly complex. I won’t even attempt to list all the Ultramen or their variations, or to catalogue the monsters — that would require an encyclopedic effort that isn’t appropriate here. Check out a lot of them in the painting by Toshio Okazaki below — click on it to enlarge.

The Monsters of the Ultraverse

Weird to begin with, the monsters of the Ultraverse have become some of the most bizarre you can imagine. One by one (or even in groups) they stomp into view: gigantic mutant reptiles of all kinds (the most common), sky-filling venomous blobs, huge deformed snails that shoot laser beams from their eye-stalks, multi-headed insectivorous freaks, gargantuan bovine thingamajigs, vast eye-monsters on thin wobbly legs (with cat-tails and a malicious meow, would you believe?), elephantine chimaeras, malformed mega-scorpions with death rays in their stingers — the parade of monstrous absurdities is endless.

Alien Baltan II

But why — and why has the franchise survived for so long while being so essentially formulaic?

Episode 29 of the 2005 Ultraman Max series asks this very question in this form: “Why Do Monsters Keep Appearing?”

Over the total span of the Ultra series and movies, various approaches to answering it have been offered. Some are much what we’d expect, harkening back to themes common from other daikaiju eiga, plot elements such as nuclear mutation, environmental pollution and alien invasion. After reaching an advanced level of development (so one argument goes), humanity must face trial by monsters, where the monsters are metaphors for the problems caused by technology and an expanding population. Other answers are much more self-referential and even more metaphysical. In the course of the above mentioned Ultraman Max episode we are offered the following:

  • A metaphorical view: kaiju and their destructive nature are a function of Japan’s unique geographical instability. They represent the fear of earthquakes.
  • An existentialist view: the monsters simply exist and that’s all there is to it. There’s no use questioning their existence. They are a fact of nature.
  • A sociological view: kaiju have been imagined since ancient times and have become a core component of the Japanese psyche.
  • A metaphysical view: kaiju are an image of great power and have fired the imaginations of so many people since childhood (a time in which personal power is at a low point) that monsters have been manifested via the gestalt human psyche into (the show’s) reality.
  • In short, the show says, there may not be one answer.

Yet the narrative structure of Ultraman Max episode 29 itself offers its own answer by referencing early Ultraman shows via cameo appearances by the original cast members and the use of monsters from those early shows. The monsters keep appearing, it suggests, because that’s what Ultraman is about: a big costumed hero from space, in league with a bunch of human defenders, fighting big multi-formed monsters from under the Earth, from outer space, from other dimensions — or at any rate from somewhere. This show is a variant of the daikaiju eiga, or giant monster film, sub-genre of Japanese fantasy cinema, and without the monsters (or, more correctly, kaiju) there is no Ultraman. So of course the monsters must appear. They don’t have a choice.

Ultraman Taro vs Birdon (from August Ragone’s blog The Good, the Bad, and Godzilla)

But more than that the monsters are what viewers want, and they’ve wanted them with undying (if occasionally fluctuating) enthusiasm for 45 years. They are colourful and they are fun to watch and to imagine. We love Ultraman’s monsters. Keep giving them to us! they cry.

There is one other aspect to mention: A ritualistic view, as it were, the ritual of the monster appearing week after week, of Ultraman fighting it and of all the details and variants of plot in-between. It’s not just repetition, you see. Repetition merely recreates the same structures through lack of imagination on the part of creators, with little essential variation and no real commitment. Ritual follows archetypal base patterns in order to express meaning — and to encourage meditation on that meaning — through the performance of certain symbolic actions. It embraces the audience, makes them feel comfortable, while offering a foundation upon which the creative imagination of its creators can build a rich, entertaining structure of variations on the theme. That’s a major purpose that Ultraman’s Monsters serve.

Kemlar
King Pandon

Of course, all this self-referential rationalistion suggests a sort of adult sensibility at odds with the show’s main demographic — children. But that’s one of the appeals of Ultraman. As with shows such as the long-running British SF/fantasy series Dr Who, Ultraman appeals to children on a base level while maintaining enough story appeal and variable sophistication of concept to keep adults interested as well. As a generalisation, it seems to me that the Japanese are rather good at this; they’ve certainly mastered it in their anime. They expertly tap the child in the adult and are able to exploit that inner child’s hunger for the incredible. This means the show rarely plumbs the very darkest depths of human nature (though it touches on it at times) and through most of its history has moderated violence with cartoon-like absurdity. By in fact reveling in absurdity, it succeeds in creating a metaphorical structure that is unique, energetic and thoroughly entertaining for all ages.


Some References:

  • August Ragone, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, Chronicle Books, 2007. An excellent book on the man who invented it all.
  • Ultrafanz.blogspot: Heaps of information and you can even view whole episodes here.
  • Wikipedia entry: Check under the specific names of Ultra characters as well.
  • Searching on ScifiJapan will also give you some excellent information.
  • The large painting by Toshio Okazaki was published in Shōgakukan’s 1979 edition of Ultra Kaiju (Shōgakukan Nyūmon Hyakka Series #97).

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The First Giant Monsters: Part 3

Giant Monster vs Giant Monster

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Robert Hood

Though it was the rampaging brontosaurus of Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (US-1925) — along with the use of stop-motion animation to bring the dinosaurs to life — that would most significantly influence following giant monster films (see “The First Giant Monsters Part 1 and Part 2”), Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), did introduce key elements into the nascent “lost world” film template, elements that even the 1925 The Lost World film adopted. One was the whole idea of prehistoric “survivors” in a lost world. Another significant and spectacular trope, however, is the monster battle, as depicted in a scene from the novel where the main characters witness a plesiosaur and an ichthyosaur fighting in the stormy waters of the Central Sea, as depicted below in these illustrations by Édouard Riou that appeared in the 1867 edition of the novel.

Watching the monsters fight: illustration by Édouard Riou from the 1867 edition of "Journey to the Center of the Earth"

Scrag fight in the Central Sea: illustration by Édouard Riou from the 1867 edition of "Journey to the Center of the Earth"

The inhuman savagery of titans clashing had already appeared in scientific illustrations of the prehistoric world before its first depiction on film. By the 1880s the image had become a commonplace of the way the world of the dinosaurs was imagined, as illustrated by the following confrontation (also by Riou) from Flammarion’s Le Monde avant la creation de l’homme.

Dinosaurs fighting: an illustration by Riou from from Flammarion's "Le Monde avant la creation de l'homme"

Caught at the edges of such a scenario all the tiny humans can do is stand back and watch as the monsters slug it out. It’s a powerful image, but also a useful one for special effects artists struggling to integrate humans into their cinematic prehistoric world without the whole thing getting too technically complex and too expensive, especially before the invention of digital imaging. The audience watching the film could join with and relate to the human characters watching the battle of the giants while everyone kept their distance. The whole thing therefore became very immediate — though the separation from the action meant that the effect could be achieved more easily. It would be used often as the years went by.

Godzilla squares off with King Kong in "King Kong vs Godzilla" 1962

Godzilla teams up with Mothra to take on the space monster Ghidrah in "Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster" 1965

From the 1925 Lost World, through 1933’s King Kong and into later “lost-world” films such as Lost Continent (1951), The Land Unknown (1957), Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959), At the Earth’s Core (1976) and Jurassic Park III (2001), prehistoric monsters have fought it out in titanic struggles for the amusement of human onlookers. The Japanese daikaiju eiga [giant monster film] sub-genre, while moving out of lost worlds into the landscape of modern cities, would turn such conflict into a tradition, epic wrestling matches between gigantic monsters becoming a central motif of these films. This would even be reflected in the titles of many of them: King Kong vs Godzilla, Godzilla vs Megalon, Gamera vs Gaos, Gamera vs Viras, War of the Gargantua, Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah, Godzilla vs the Smog Monster and Godzilla vs Biollante.

In Japanese daikaiju eiga, in fact, there are often multiple monsters fighting Godzilla or each other. A good example is Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001; dir. Shusuke Kaneko) — or even more to the point, the last official Godzilla film (until 2012’s US reboot) Godzilla: Final Wars (2004; dir. Ryuhei Kitamura), which, like the 1969 Destroy All Monsters, featured nearly a dozen of Toho’s monsters facing off against the Big G, all under the control of alien invaders. Monsters fighting … and trashing cities in the process: it’s what audiences want to see. And like cinema audiences, the films’ protagonists frequently spend a lot of screen time watching as the titanic monsters do their thing.

The monster prehistoric shark from "Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus" tries to eat the Golden Gate Bridge

The whole giant monster versus giant monster thing was taken up — to great internet enthusiasm — by current exploitation film studio, The Asylum, in their prehistoric-shark monster mash, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus (US-2009; dir. Ace Hannah). Though less than classic, and suffering from budgetry bulimia, the film had a nice tongue-in-cheek ambiance and several outrageously effective giant monster scenes, and proved very popular. It has even spawned a sequel, Mega Shark vs Crocosaurus (US-2010; dir. Christopher Ray), not to mention the soon-to-be released Mega Python vs Gatoroid (US-2011; dir. Mary Lambert).

Even King Kong creator Willis O’Brien had clearly seen this as a trend with potential many decades ago. In the 1960s he conceived a script that he called “King Kong vs Frankenstein”, a planned second “sequel” to his original 1933 film. It was never made, though in the end, as “King Kong vs Prometheus”, it was sold to Toho Studios in Japan, who re-conceived the project as Kingu Kongu tai Gojira [King Kong vs Godzilla] (1962) — and then again, sans Kong, as Furankenshutain tai chitei kaiju Baragon [Frankenstein vs the Subterranean Monster Baragon] (1965).

Below is a conceptual sketch O’Brien made for the film, illustrating city-based confrontation between the two humanoid titans.

Conceptual art by Willis O'Brien for his unmade Kong sequel "King Kong vs Frankenstein"

A pity that one was never made for real, eh? It may have been a more worthy sequel to the 1933 King Kong than the charming, but decidedly minor, Son of Kong (US-1933; dir. Ernest B. Schoedsack).

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The First Giant Monsters: Part 2

Part 2: Out of Time, Out of Place

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Robert Hood

In the history of cinema, dinosaurs have mostly been seen as monsters, and giant ones at that, despite having a reality as “natural” creatures (see “The First Giant Monsters Part 1”). But monsters are only monsters in relation to humanity — and humanity and dinosaurs were never historically co-existent. So on film how do the two get together?

The Beast from 20 000 Fathoms

"The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms", prehistoric monster destroying New York City, 1953

Despite the bronto-rampage in the climax of the film that arguably started it all, 1925’s The Lost World, very rarely do cinematic dinosaurs as such appear in our cities. Full-on urban assault is generally left to later nuclear-spawned saurian mutants such as Godzilla (though there are significant exceptions, not the least of which is the fictional Rhedosaur of 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which is in fact awakened from his lengthy sleep under the ice, and irradiated, by a nuclear blast). Instead dino-films tend to put dinosaurs in the same timeframe as humans in various other ways.

Some dino-films simply violate known chronologies and pretend that dinosaurs and homo sapiens were, at some point, contemporaries. Films such as One Million B.C. (US-1940; dir. Hal Roach and Hal Roach Jr.) and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (UK-1970; dir. Val Guest) supposedly depict prehistoric times but allow “cavemen” (who generally bear little onscreen resemblance to early hominids) and dinosaurs to co-exist — a synchronicity that never happened in reality.

One Million B.C.

Man and dinosaur living together in "One Million B.C." 1940

This form of fantasy descends from early silent novelty films designed to showcase the “tricks” of the new, developing media, such as D.W. Griffith’s 1912-13 Brute Force [aka The Primitive Man/Prehistoric Days], Willis O’Brien’s 1915 five-minute short The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, and his ten-minute R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. (1917). In due course, taking the idea only slightly more seriously and adding something vaguely resembling characterisation and a plot, we get Raquel Welch in a fur bikini being menaced by a triceratops, an allosaurus, a giant turtle and a pterodactyl (in Hammer’s 1966 prehistoric-tribe remake One Million Years B.C., dir. Don Chaffey) — all except Raquel skilfully animated by Willis O’Brien’s successor, Ray Harryhausen.

One Million Years B.C
More commonly, however, dino-films that depict dinosaurs co-existing with humanity follow the famous dino-novels of Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle by locating the prehistoric enclaves in contemporary times but in places distant from humanity, lost in obscure corners (or depths) of the globe.

Following the first discovery and identification of dinosaurs in the mid 19th century — and given the massive interest they provoked — it’s hardly surprising that they began to appear in fiction. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) was the first significant work to bring man and prehistoric beasts together in the contemporary world, albeit far from, indeed deep below, human civilisation — a “lost world”, as it were, entered through Freudian caverns of great psychological (and paleontological) significance (see Allen A. Debus’ books on the development of the idea of the dinosaur, as referenced at the end).

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The idea that the Earth is hollow wasn’t a new one when Verne wrote his novel, but filling the hollow with remnants of the prehistoric past was reasonably innovative — though of course not a great stretch. Fossils are associated with caverns and being buried deep in the ground, and real-world interaction with the prehistoric past is associated with geological excavation. Later Edgar Rice Burroughs would also invent a subterranean world existing at the centre of the Earth, this one called Pellucidar. Along with human “civilisations”, it too would be the home of saurian monsters, and Burroughs’ most famous character, Tarzan, would be an occasional visitor. At the Earth’s Core (UK/US-1976; dir. Kevin Connor) brought this particular subterranean slice of anomalous prehistory to the screen.

Oddly, though Verne’s novel would be first made into a short film in 1909 (Voyage au Centre de la Terre), it wasn’t given the full treatment until the big budget 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth (dir. Henry Levin), starring Pat Boone, James Mason and Arlene Dahl. This film sticks to the book in its essentials, though there are more land “dinosaurs” in evidence than in the book — played by ordinary lizards with frills and horns pasted onto them and photographically enlarged. The dorsel fans are suggestive of the Dimetrodon, which is fair enough as the Dimetrodon was a Pelycosaur (a lizard-like animal) rather than a dinosaur, dating from the earlier Permian period. Though only about 11.5 feet (3.5 m) long, the Dimetrodon was a dominant carnivore of the period and at least sported the side-oriented “lizard legs” of modern reptiles (unlike dinosaurs, whose skeletal remains show them to have had a straight beneath-the-torso bone structure), making the enlarged lizards a reasonable SFX choice.

Dimetrodon

Dimetrodon from "Journey to the Center of the Earth", 1959

A few other versions of Verne’s novel would be made over the decades, though none as successfully as this one. Generally Verne’s novel serves only as a conceptual starting point for these films; the most recent, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (US-2008; dir. Eric Brevig), undertaken with tongue-in-cheek bravado by Brendan Fraser, is no exception.

After Journey to the Centre of the Earth came other stories of prehistoric enclaves in the modern world, though the most significant would prove to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912). This novel included many of the most iconic dinosaurs; Verne’s marine giants, his Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs, are technically — like Pterodactyls and other Pterosaurs — not part of the Superorder Dinosauria, even though they may be referred to as “dinosaurs” informally. Other than these, Verne’s novel does not refer to any of the culturally dominant dinosaurs and includes mammals such as the Mastodon. Of course in the realm of popular culture it is somewhat precious to argue about what constitutes a dinosaur and what doesn’t. Later so-called dinosaurs on film would bear much less relationship to “real” dinosaurs than those of the early cinema (until the technical advances of Jurassic Park brought back a passion for scientific accuracy, at any rate). And once they started to mutate, all bets were off. By then, the “dinosaur” had become a totally fictional construct, absorbed into the cultural imagination of the 20th century. In this context, the term “dinosaur” meant less “of the scientific genus Dinosauria” and more “giant prehistoric lizard” — in which case violation of scientific accuracy had become irrelevant.

The Lost World

Lizard as dinosaur from "The Lost World", 1960

The Lost World of Conan Doyle’s novel was not subterranean, but atop a vast plateau in the unexplored upper reaches of the Amazon.

“What is there?” [Roxton] would cry, pointing to the north. “Wood and marsh and unpenetrated jungle. Who knows what it may shelter? And there to the south? A wilderness of swampy forests, where no white man has ever been. The unknown is up against us on every side. Outside the narrow lines of the rivers what does anyone know? Who will say what is possible in such a country? (from The Lost World)

This was a common enough appeal when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first Professor Challenger novel. It spoke to ordinary geographical possibility of a kind that is less conceivable these days, when there are few places on Earth left, outside the ocean’s profoundest depths, that humanity hasn’t explored, colonized and even trashed. Eventually more elaborate means of hiding a “lost” reality would need to be invented — via temporal displacement, space travel, spatial rifts, or military conspiracy. But for the moment, distance was enough. During the first decade or so of giant monster films, the mystery of distance and the darkness of the unknown places of the Earth — the fascination of a world that was still untamed and imaginatively fertile — would provide the starting point for bringing Man and Giant Monster together.

The novel of The Lost World is the story of an irascible scientist, the appropriately named Professor George Edward Challenger, whose claims of a “lost world” in the Brazilian jungles — one inhabited by survivors from prehistoric times — provokes much scorn and the eventual formation of an expedition to once-and-for-all establish his credibility. The story is told by a journalist, Edward Malone, who goes along for the ride largely to prove himself adventurous and worthy of his somewhat self-centred and trivial Gladys’ attention. The expedition reaches the vast plateau deep in the jungle and is confronted by pterodactyls, dinosaurs, primeval subhumans, chasms, caves and volcanic tar pits — not to forget the treachery of some of their own party. After initially being trapped on the plateau and after much adventure, they escape and return to England with a specimen that proves their story of a prehistoric enclave, to much renown.

The Lost World
The first film of Conan Doyle’s novel, The Lost World (US-1925; dir. Harry O. Hoyt) followed what is now a commonplace tradition of Hollywood adaptation: it changed things. In the novel, the loud, obnoxious and brilliant Professor Challenger — concerned to prove his veracity — brings back a pterodactyl egg that hatches and thus silences his critics and academic opponents. For the purposes of cinema, where the narrative requires greater melodrama, this wasn’t enough. Instead, Challenger (played by a loudly eccentric Wallace Beery) and his comrades fortuitously capture a fully grown brontosaurus and arrange (thanks to a few vague statements and a convenient cut) to get it back to London. Once there, it escapes from its confinement and goes on a rampage through the streets. Crowds flee screaming, the authorities fire at it in vain, it treads on cars, smashes buildings and assorted landmarks, and in the end plunges into the Thames when London Bridge collapses under its weight. The populace watch as it disappears out to sea. There is an iconic, even ironic, moment in the final scene when the brontosaurus turns to examine a ship in the background, as though contemplating whether to adopt the more aggressive stance that later sea-borne monsters would take — but instead decides against it and simply swims on, leaving ship-sinking to Godzilla and his mates.

Lost World at Sea

The Lost World 1925: "Should I trash that ship?"

This whole bronto-sequence would provide a template for future giant monster films, starting with King Kong: the monster brought to civilization by human machinations (usually as a result of hubris or greed) and thence let loose to cause havoc. Here it provides a climactic finish to the film, which is more centrally focused on the lost world itself; in King Kong it would become the centre of the narrative, with so much symbolic resonance that commentators are still finding new ways to define its underlying fascination.

The Land that Time Forgot

Other lost worlds would follow from Verne’s and Conan Doyle’s: King Kong’s prehistoric survivals on unexplored islands (such as in Unknown Island, 1948, and assorted versions of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Land That Time Forgot), deep within impenetrable jungles (Lost Continent, 1951), in remote valleys (The Land Unknown, 1957), in post-apocalyptic futures (A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, 1990) and of course on other worlds (King Dinosaur, 1955; Planet of Dinosaurs, 1978). Eventually time travel would give contemporary humanity access to the prehistoric world across time (Journey to the Center of Time, 1967; A Sound of Thunder, 2005) or quantum physics and temporal-spatial anomalies would allow access, either deliberate or accidental (for example, the TV series “Primeval”, 2006-2011).

Nymphoi Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell
And Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1993) series would allow modern man to interact with the prehistoric lost world by re-creating ancient life via genetic cloning. Here, in Spielberg’s 1993 film of Crichton’s novel — and even more particularly in the sequel, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park — the “lost world” of the dino-cinema becomes, not without a certain irony, a high-tech amusement park for irresponsible businessmen and the curious public.

Jurassic Park

Do dinosaurs and fun parks go together? "Jurassic Park" 1993

  • Reference: Allen A. Debus, Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction (McFarland, 2006) and earlier Paleoimagery: The Evolution of Dinosaurs in Art (McFarland, 2002, with Diane E. Debus)

Next: Giant Monster vs Giant Monster

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Frankenstein: Man and Monster

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Robert Hood

boris01

Boris Karloff as the creature

It’s one of the more famous misconceptions of our cultural zeitgeist that “Frankenstein” is the name of the monster. In fact, of course, Victor Frankenstein is the scientist who created the monster. The monster itself had no name. It was simply known as “the Creature”.

However, as we shall see, the misconception is not completely clueless. There is a symbiotic relationship between creator and created that the cultural phenomenon that is Frankenstein epitomizes at all levels.

The story of Frankenstein and his Creature was the work of Mary Wollstoncraft Godwin, by late 1816 the wife of quintessential romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Earlier that year Mary Godwin, Shelley, Lord Byron, Dr John William Polidori and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont spent the summer at Lake Geneva. Stormy weather and the boredom of isolation led to an amusement by which each would (theoretically) write a supernatural tale with which to scare the company. Only two fulfilled their role in the pact; Polidori wrote The Vampyre and Mary produced Frankenstein; or, A Modern Prometheus (as it would be known when her tale grew into a novel and was published in 1818). The story of that notorious summer has been filmed several times. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) includes a sequence referencing it, while Ken Russell’s typically eccentric Gothic (1986) gives it full attention, as do several others.

Later, Mary Shelley described a dream she claimed was the inspiration for the story:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world (introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel).

This theme — of the scientist who usurps God’s prerogative as creator and is punished for it when his “unnatural creation” turns on him — is the one that is most frequently attached to the Frankenstein tale: know your place in the divine scheme or else. However, this is, in many ways, an over-simplification, emphasized in the second edition of the novel through various additions to the text. Originally, the horrors caused by the Creature could more correctly be attributed not to the hubris of Frankenstein’s success in creating life, but rather to his failure to take responsibility for his work. After all, it is after he is overcome with horror and rejects the Creature that it truly becomes a monster and vows revenge upon him.

The story was filmed early, as Frankenstein, in 1910, directed by J. Searle Dawley (view it here: http://www.archive.org/details/Frankenstein_628). An extremely popular stage adaptation was the inspiration for the most famous movie version, James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). In this, which remains an effective piece of cinema and an undoubted classic, it is Boris Karloff’s subtle and emotional performance as the monster that stays in the memory. Continually the dialogue tells us that it is the attempt to usurp God’s role that is the problem, but we see the desperate loneliness and despair on Karloff’s heavily made-up face and empathise with the monster as it seeks revenge on the one who made and then rejected it.

Boris-Karloff-in-Frankens-007

Boris Karloff, Frankenstein 1931

So successful was this film that it inspired Universal Studios to produce a whole run of Frankenstein films. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) followed, again directed by Whale. Most commentators consider this the greater of the two — in fact, one of the great movies of American cinema. Subsequent films in the “series” offer diminishing returns. They are: Son of Frankenstein (US-1939; dir. Rowland V. Lee); Ghost of Frankenstein (US-1942; dir. Erle C. Kenton); Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (US-1943; dir. Roy William Neill); House of Frankenstein (US-1944; dir. Eric C. Kenton); and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (US-1948; dir. Charles Barton). The last of these represents the beginning of the end of the second great period of horror cinema, as the multiple-monster mash-up approach (in itself a desperate move to redress falling audience numbers) gave way to treating the monsters as objects of humour rather than horror. It should be said, however, that this particular film still works remarkably well, with its canny blend of comedy and horror.

poster1-abbott-costello

Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein

In these Universal Frankenstein films, the consistent element is the monster — firstly played by Karloff and then less successfully by others, including Bela Lugosi (who, in a fit of ego-driven miscalculation, had refused the role first up on the grounds that the monster had no dialogue, only grunts), Lon Chaney Jr and Glenn Strange. The impact of the “interfering with God/nature will destroy us” theme was gradually lost to the demands of franchising as the story became increasingly clichéd, though the generic scifi monster films of the 1950s readily took the theme to heart.

In the late 1950s when Hammer films started their successful foray into cinematic horror — and in the process dragged the whole horror film industry out of the doldrums – the story they started with was Frankenstein. At this point the focus moved away from the monster. As they couldn’t obtain permission from Universal to use the now-iconic make-up design of the famous Karloff version, Hammer were forced to concentrate on the good doctor himself (played by Peter Cushing) rather than on his creation. The Doctor therefore becomes the monster.

cushing-as-frankenstein

Peter Cushing as Frankenstein

The director of the series was Terence Fisher (on all but the third), and his Frankenstein films, taken as a whole, represent my favourite variant on the novel. The films are: Curse of Frankenstein (1957); Revenge of Frankenstein (1958); The Evil of Frankenstein (1964); Frankenstein Created Woman (1967); Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969); and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974). Without Fisher’s input The Evil of Frankenstein feels like a ring-in, though as directed by Fisher’s cinematographer Freddie Francis it is competent enough. Hammer also made another Frankenstein film, The Horror of Frankenstein, in 1970 (directed by Jimmy Sangster), but it is a darkly humorous variant that is not related to Fisher’s “series” at all.

Generally, it’s Hammer’s Dracula films that get the kudos, but in my opinion, the Frankenstein films are Fisher’s greatest achievement, particularly when taken as a sequence rather than as individual works. There is a definite development that takes place, with Dr Frankenstein himself as the central protagonist/antagonist. His love-him/hate-him character is developed as the series progresses — with the relative moralities being explored and themes of class structure and responsibility high on the agenda. Often Cushing’s Dr Frankenstein is seen as a man out of his time, misunderstood and hounded by the ignorant, and conservative, scientific community. He is up against a particular (and failing) social ethos – a class system based on aristocratic privilege – that is fighting for its life, though what he offers in return is an utterly pragmatic and amoral power structure that is equally self-serving and in the end self-destructive: he represents the modern scientific worldview that replaces the old feudal one. In one of the films he even becomes his own creation! It is all fairly dark.

The last film (Monster from Hell) was finished mere weeks before the director’s death and really does represent a pessimistic view. The fact that it is set in an asylum and that the only sympathetic characters are a young deaf-mute woman who is gang-raped by the inmates and exploitatively destroyed, and the monster, who helps her and is literally torn to bits by the mob, says heaps about what Fisher felt as regards the moral possibilities inherent in the modern world.

At any rate, these films were the beginnings of the modern horror film and set the basis for what was to come.

There was a rush of great (and greatly bad) exploitation horror films based on Frankenstein in the 1970s and 1980s — often Italian. One of the best is Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), directed by Paul Morrissey according to the credits, through really it was Italian exploitation master Antonio Margheriti who did the deed. Filmed in 3D, no less, it’s real “liver-in-your-lap” stuff (as one critic described it), and totally immoral.

There have also been assorted rather bizarre variants featuring the Frankenstein character, with Frankenstein and/or his Creature in the old West, such as Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (US-1966; dir. William Beaudine), and I Was A Teenage Frankenstein (US-1959; dir. Herbert L. Strock), which uses the monster as a metaphor for socially conditioned teenage acne … um, make that angst … and its attendant traumas, and lots of others, right up to the present. I have to mention Frankenhooker (US-1990; dir. Frank Henenlotter), in which a young man whose girlfriend has been killed by a lawn mower, scavenges bits from hookers — who die through ingestion of a sort of explosive form of cocaine – in order to re-build her, and ends up creating a Frankenstein monster with a strong sexual appetite and street-walker clothes (as well as stitches). Another oddity is Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, which started life in 1984 as a short animated film about a boy and his re-constructed dog and is currently in production as a full-length film, due in 2012.

frankenhooker-03

Frankenhooker

Like these, many films don’t actually remake the earlier films or offer versions of the novel, so much as riff on the most iconic elements of them. The Monster Squad (US-1987; dir. Fred Dekker), for example, a entertaining horror-comedy pastiche from the 1980s, re-envisioned all the universal monsters (including the Creature from the Black Lagoon) — in a film in which the monster teams up with a gang of kids to defeat Dracula’s world-conquering ambitions. Van Helsing (US-2004; dir. Stephen Sommers) does something similar, though a lot less successfully.

One of the most bizarre referencings of Frankenstein is in Frankenstein Conquers the World (Japan-1965) by Godzilla director Ishirô Honda) [aka Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon] and its sequel, War of the Gargantuas (Japan-1966) [aka Furankenshutain no kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira] (also by Honda). These are daikaiju eiga, Japanese giant monster films. The premise is this: A Nazi ship carries the still-beating heart of the monster to Hiroshima for study toward the end of the War, just before the Bomb is dropped. In the ruins, post-Bomb, the heart is eaten by a scavenging vagrant kid, who subsequently gets bigger and bigger and escapes into the backwoods. Eventually he grows to the size of Godzilla (thanks to all that mutagenic radiation) but retains his passing resemblance to Frankenstein’s monster. Fantastic!

frank-conquers-world

Frankenstein Conquers the World

One Dr Who episode directly draws upon the Frankenstein story, The Brain of Morbius. In this Tom Baker story, a renegade Time Lord scientist is building himself a new body from the corpses of unfortunate space travellers who happen upon his planet. The four-part story is very gothic and very dark, with a definite Hammer horror vibe. It was “banned” from being screened on Australian television during the show’s ordinary, children’s time-slot.

Homages to Frankenstein are often homages to the 1931 Frankenstein film rather than to the story itself. Mel Brooke’s Young Frankenstein (1974) is essential viewing for its referencing and loving parody of the Universal film tradition of Frankenstein, while TV series such as X-Files and more recently Fringe are willing enough to pay their dues. The X-Files episode, “Postmodern Prometheus”, filmed in lovely black-and-white, is a thorough tribute to the Universal film tradition, but also (as the title suggests) explores some of the novel’s moral/ethical issues.

Several TV mini-series/telemovies have attempted to extend the book itself. One of the best is Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), which concentrates on the doppelgänger aspect of the tale (you know, the monster is the doctor or a reflection thereof). Another is The House of Frankenstein (1993), which takes a sort of modern corporate slant – Frankenstein meets Dallas, as it were. Dean Koontz recently tried to get a Frankenstein series going, but failed and turned his proposal into an often decent book series instead.

And there’s always The Rocky Horror Picture Show: “In just seven days I’m gonna make you a man”…

Direct remakes and direct references to Frankenstein abound even to the present, though that doesn’t really encompass the totality of its influence. Science fiction films that depict robots, cyborgs or mutants turning against their creators — or which deal with themes of scientific responsibility — often carry more than a passing resemblance to Frankenstein. The Colossus of New York (US-1958; dir. Eugène Lourié), in which a scientist moves his friend’s mind into the body of a huge robot in order that his knowledge should not be lost, is a prime example. But to list even the most significant would keep us here all day. Enough that in an age where real scientific research can earn the epithet “Frankenscience”, the Frankenstein story still carries not just cultural importance but also a warning that the central issues of the story are more vital than ever.

colossus-NY

The Colossus of New York

Frankenstein forces us to ask the question: are our creations inevitably monsters or are the negative consequences of positive research a reflection of our own failure to take proper responsibility for its development? After all, who in the end is the real monster, Frankenstein or his creation?

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Where Monsters Dwell

Monster Awareness Month: Introduction by Robert Hood

Where Monsters Dwell

Those who have known me longest (such as my mother) reckon I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with monsters since I crawled from the womb slathering and growling and demanding pocket money so I could pick up the latest issue of Where Monsters Dwell from the newsagent. [I exaggerate, of course. The first issue of Where Monsters Dwell came out in 1970. In 1951, when I was born, I could only have demanded the latest Superman comic — either that or  something like House of Mystery.]

As a kid, I‘d whittle monsters from random scraps of wood (badly) and draw pictures of them from movies and such, in the days before more sophisticated methods of copyright violation were available. Watching monster movies has been a lifelong occupation, in fact, ever since – at about age 6 — I ran away from home (and hid out in the shed down the backyard) because my parents wouldn’t let me stay up late to catch The Creature from the Black Lagoon on our “big” black-and-white TV. It was a heinous violation of my rights and clearly indicative of a prejudice against monsters!

In high school, along with all the serious stuff like Crime and Punishment and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I read War of the Worlds (and nearly everything else, SF or not, that H.G. Wells ever wrote), Frankenstein, Dracula, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Edgar Rice Burroughs books, all the Pan Books of Horror Stories, and magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. Everything I wrote for my English teachers featured fantastical elements and monsters. One year I even decorated all my exercise books (which we were forced to cover in brown paper in those days) with pictures of the classic Universal monsters, tastefully drawn in black ink.

Later I wrote a love song about monsters, a song that was performed by a band I was in at the time – and sung by me. I have the tapes to prove it (no, it never appeared on vinyl, let alone on CD). In the lyrics, the monsters become symbols of the narrator’s lovelorn despair and desire for revenge. Here are the lyrics, for your edification:

 

NOT QUITE ALONE

1.  A triffid’s trapped me in the house
It’s rooted in the lawn;
A vampire came to me last night
And left me pale and wan;
A wingless dragon stole my car,
I can’t go anywhere;
Though something’s oozing through the door,
You left me, you don’t care.

Monsters haunt my bedroom,
Ghosts infect the hall,
And in the roaring fire
I hear Godzilla’s call;
I’m gnawed on like an ogre’s bone
And goblins fill my head
With sea-snakes and the hydras
That crawl around my bed.

Chorus: You left me, life’s turned bitter
And ghosts around me moan,
It’s all because you left me
Alone
Not quite alone
Not quite alone
Not quite alone

You left me all right, but not quite alone.

 

2.  A werewolf’s in my mirror,
He used to be a friend,
His mournful howling promises
To send me ’round the bend;
I’d like to find Medusa
To turn my heart to stone —
I know you must have seen her,
‘Cause you left me all alone.

Monsters haunt my bedroom,
Their roars disturb the peace;
Sleep is quite impossible
The torments never cease.
I know there’s demons still to come
I hear their gnashing teeth,
But I can’t burn my bridges,
‘Cause Trolls wait underneath.

REPEAT CHORUS

 

3.  My house breathes heavily because
A succubus excites it;
King Kong, who’s looking for Faye Wray,
Has found a snake and fights it;
My house is falling ’round my ears,
The ceilings crack and crumble,
While gremlins tinker in the works
And make my plumbing rumble.

Monsters haunt my bedroom
A griffin snarls and gripes,
A minotaur is lurking
Somewhere in the pipes.
I’m plagued by Sphinx’s riddles,
A zombie on the prowl,
Banshees shrieking endlessly
And manticores that howl.

Chorus: You left me, and a Raven
Has whispered ‘Nevermore!’
So now I’ll send my Furies
to you

to your door
to your door
to your door

Watch out! I’ll send my monsters to your door.
Watch out! I’ll send my monsters to your door.

Watch out!
I’ll send my monsters . . .
to your . . .
door . . . [maniacal laughter]

And of course I’ve now written many published stories featuring monsters of various kinds, from ghosts, zombies and evil dolls to nanotech human-robot hybrids and giant Godzilla-like behemoths.

So what is a monster? The OED defines a monster as “a mythical creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms, and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance. Later, more generally: any imaginary creature that is large, ugly, and frightening.” In fact the word comes from the Latin mōnstrum meaning a portent, a prodigy, a marvel — and was originally applied to disfigured humans, especially those who deviated genetically from the “norm” (as in carnival “freaks”). We stare at them in wonder because they are different. Yet they are human as well. It seems unnatural.

On the other hand, the portent part of the definition conveys the idea that a monster can be a warning against spiritual corruption, its monstrosity a physical reflection of moral deviance (not necessarily in the individual but in society itself). When humanity does the wrong thing, monstrosity results. The dead return as vengeful corpses to right wrongs perpetrated against them, the Rhedosaur and other more mutated monsters are awakened and/or created via the unethical use of science, Frankenstein’s creature is born as a violation of God’s creative prerogative, greed and vanity bring King Kong to New York where the great ape goes on a rampage, traveling the length of the Amazon River and interfering with the age-old creature that lives there may release the Black Lagoon’s oldest inhabitant upon us, etc. In all these cases, monsters are reflections on our behaviour. They are, in that sense, about us.

As a deviation from the natural order of things, though, monstrosity is rather subjective. Is a sentient reptilian alien with four arms a monster? Not necessarily. Perhaps it is if we bring it to Earth and it goes on a killing spree. But on Barsoom it might be a comrade. Sometimes rejection or mistreatment is what turns a creature into a monster. Other times it’s just a plain, straight-out, ill-tempered menace.

As a writer I continue to love monsters. Their metaphorical use is endless, they offer the possibility of amazing stories, they can frighten, fill us with awe and wonder, provoke thought and offer the most imaginative fun you can have without actually injecting illegal substances.

What are they? They are the Other.

Where do they dwell? In us.

Embrace them. They won’t bite your head off.

[maniacal laughter]

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Filed under Article, Monster Awareness Month, Promo