Tag Archives: Monsters

Marvel Monsters

Written by reviewer Jeff Owens

One of the common threads I’ve noticed running through the articles and reviews during Monster Awareness Month is that of childhood memories. The love we develop for our monsters at an early age is something that seems to stick with us throughout our lives, more so than other passing interests. It’s a blinding love with the miraculous ability to transform our memories into something far different than would be revealed if there realities were exposed today.

I’m guessing that 10-years old is a reasonable average age where lifelong impressions are made. Indeed, in the years including and surrounding 1973, I was regularly spending time with my monsters in four ways. First, I was reading my bible, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Second, I was going to bed early on Friday nights, and then waking up at midnight to watch Universal monster classics with local late-night horror host, Count Gregor. Third, my parents were taking me to the drive-in theater to see the latest Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein sequels. Finally, I was following monthly adventures of my favorite monster characters courtesy of Marvel Comics and their sister imprint, Curtis Magazines.

It is the childhood memory of this final activity that I wish to share today; specifically, a memory of a magazine called The Legion of Monsters. In this instance, my memory does not stray too far from the reality: the cover of issue number one does indeed feature Frankenstein’s monster and a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like monster walking through a swamp while Dracula stands on shore, raising his arms to the lightning-filled night sky.

The title of this magazine, as well as the cover art, might indicate that it contained stories about some kind of monster team-up, iconic figures working together. In actuality, it was just an anthology, one of many black and whites being published during the early to mid-1970s, free from the Comics Code restrictions on violence and bloodletting to which their color counterparts were subject. This particular issue (Vol. 1, No. 1) included a standalone tale starring Frankenstein’s monster, the latest chapter of the comic adapatation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the origin of the Creature from the Black Lagoon-like monster, Manphibian. (A true superhero-like team-up would later appear in Marvel Premiere #28, when Ghost Rider, Morbius, Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing joined forces to battle a mystical being, Starseed.)

It would be easy to explore many tangents within a topic as broad as “The Marvel Monsters”, but let’s take a step back and focus on the basics. How in the world was Marvel Comics able to take classic icons like Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf, a mummy, a zombie and, yes, a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like monster and translate them into comic book characters that exist in the same universe as Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four?

Within the Marvel Universe, Frankenstein’s monster first appeared in September of 1953 in Menace #7, which was actually published by Atlas Comics, an imprint that would later become Marvel. It was a one-issue appearance and only five pages long, but it was written by comic book legend Stan Lee. A robot replica appeared in 1963 in Uncanny X-Men #40 and the actual monster appeared in a flashback in Silver Surfer #7 in 1969, but the character first gained significance with his own title published in January of 1973. Technically known as Frankenstein, the cover logo for the first five issues read The Monster of Frankenstein and for the remainder of its 18-issue run, Frankenstein’s Monster.

The first four issues contained a re-telling of the original Mary Shelley novel, the next seven continued his adventures through the 1890s, and the final seven revived him in modern times after being placed in suspended animation. It was a long road getting him there, but you have to admire Marvel’s editor-in-chief, Roy Thomas, and his master plan for integrating a classic literary icon, albeit one in public domain, into the current universe of costumed superheroes. Indeed, throughout the 70s he guest-starred in Giant-Size Avengers #3, The Avengers #131-132, Marvel Team-Up #36-37, Iron Man #101-102 and Thor #282.

Simultaneously, Frankenstein’s monster regularly appeared in Marvel’s magazine, Monsters Unleashed, an anthology also featuring Man-Thing and Werewolf by Night, as well as guest-starring in the magazine, Dracula Lives. It is in these magazines that I think the character is most memorable. Regardless of the number of movie versions of the Frankenstein story, the original Karloff version remains the definitive one. Therefore, even though the Marvel character purposely does not resemble Karloff, his black and white adventures more closely resemble the mood and tone of the classic Universal movie.

Although it’s debatable that bringing Frankenstein’s monster into the 20th century was a “good” idea, there’s no doubt that doing it was a lot of fun. For example, look at “The Monster and the Masque” from Legion of Monsters #1. In this story, written by Doug Moench with art by Val Mayerik, Dan Adkins and Pablo Marcos, the monster, now in current time (1975), follows a “princess” into an old mansion outside the city. It turns out he has wandered into a masquerade ball where its inebriated guests pay little attention to someone they assume is wearing an elaborate costume.

This story also makes perfectly clear where the character comes from within Marvel continuity. This is Mary Shelley’s literary creation as much as it is Dr. Frankenstein’s. The monster exists in a world much like our own, where “we” are aware of the novel “Frankenstein” and all its subsequent adaptations. However, little do we know that the monster actually exists. To demonstrate this point, at the masquerade ball, a man in a werewolf costume “attacks” the monster, who proceeds to give him the smackdown. The man responds, “Say… that was real good… just the way Karloff woulda done it.” It’s a multi-level wink to both the original character and the iconic representation, as well as an attempt to keep the story grounded in the reality of the Marvel Universe.

The other classic monster icons that Marvel incorporated into its universe are a little different in that they are not adapted characters like Frankenstein’s monster. There are no fundamental literary works from which to draw a werewolf, mummy or zombie. Neither is Werewolf by Night Larry Talbot from The Wolf Man (or Leon Corledo from Curse of the Werewolf) nor is The Living Mummy Imhotep from The Mummy nor is Manphibian The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Therefore, Marvel had to create its own characters who could assume the roles of these other monster icons.

In terms of publishing longevity, Marvel’s most successful attempt to do just that was Werewolf by Night, created by Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog. Jack Russell (yes, as in Jack Russell Terrier) was first seen in Marvel Spotlight #2-4 in February of 1972 as he became aware of his inherited lycanthropy. His own title began seven months later and ran for 34 issues. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Jack Russell, aka Werewolf by Night, crossed over into various superhero titles and black and white magazines. However, while some of the other monster icons later suffered from periods of dormancy, Werewolf by Night maintained a more consistent presence.

Since he was a completely original character, Marvel must have had more freedom to develop his story. Indeed, Jack Russell’s history seems to become more convoluted with each subsequent appearance. That, along with the fact that Russell is only a part-time monster, probably widens the range of possible stories and increases our human identification with the character.

A lesser known monster icon in the Marvel Universe, yet one that I think was used in interesting ways, is that of N’Kantu, The Living Mummy, created by Stever Gerber and Rich Buckler. N’Kantu was first seen in Supernatural Thrillers #5 in August of 1973. He never received his own title; however, he remained the featured character of Supernatural Thrillers for the remainder of its 15-issue run and, like the other characters we’ve been discussing, guest-starred in other comic and magazine titles.

The origin of The Living Mummy is not that different from the standard tale, with the exception that N’Kantu originally came from Africa (his tribe was captured and taken to Egypt as slaves). Cursed by an evil priest, N’Kantu was mummified, only to be awakened 3,000 years later to rampage through Cairo. Renedered unconscious at the end of his rampage, N’Kantu was transported to a New York City museum where he could be integrated into the heart of the Marvel Universe.

Since zombies are usually a collective monster, Marvel was quite clever in introducing this icon into its universe through the character of Simon Garth. Garth was created by Stan Lee and first appeared in Atlas Comics’ Menace #5 in July of 1953. In modern continuity, Garth was revived by Roy Thomas and Steve Gerber as the star of the black and white magazine, Tales of the Zombie. Unlike the other characters we’ve been discussing, this one did not cross over to any other titles during the 70s.

Victim of a voodoo cult’s human sacrifice, Simon Garth’s corpse was mystically transformed into a zombie. Controlled by those who possess an amulet, Garth nevertheless retained his soul, which added a new twist to the term “tortured hero”. His virtual disappearance from the Marvel Universe after the mid-70s may be due to the fact that Garth was peacefully laid to rest in Tales of the Zombie #9 in January of 1975.

And what of Manphibian? I speak lightly of him because he had no other comic appearances in the next 30 years following Legion of Monsters #1. But I’d like to present him as an example of missed opportunity. Sure, he probably resembled too closely Marvel’s other monster creation, Man-Thing; however, he was of different origins entirely. He was extraterrestrial, unearthed over 1,000 years later while digging for oil. (Man-Thing was of human origin: science gone wrong.) With the ongoing question of our dependence on foreign oil, as well as the ecological disaster of exploding offshore oil wells, could Manphibian be any more relevant? Let’s hope for a reboot!

The Marvel Universe has always been firmly grounded in reality. For example, most of their stories take place in real places, actual cities such as New York City, rather than fictional ones such as Metropolis or Gotham City. Being a stickler for continuity, I appreciate the effort spent to logically bring icons I love, like Frankenstein’s monster, werewolf, mummy and zombie into a modern reality. And if Frankenstein’s monster should from time to time team-up with Iron Man or Thor, that’s awesome, because in a reality where Iron Man, Thor and Frankenstein’s monster coexist, why wouldn’t that happen?

Any way you look at it, the early to mid-70s was a special era. The proliferation of monsters in all media was unique, particularly in comic books and black and white magazines. For a pre-teen during this time, a Marvel Universe that included my favorite monsters– the very monsters we’ve been appreciating this month – was an alternate reality to which I was a frequent visitor. I cannot imagine a time when I’d rather have been a kid. I am grateful not only to have experienced it, but also to be able to look back on it today with such fondness.

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Barker’s Monsters – Part Two

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Sharon Ring

Clive Barker’s next outing as a director was with the movie Nightbreed (1990), based on his novella, Cabal. In Hellraiser Barker had loaded the film with morally ambiguous characters, getting them to commit monstrous acts but leaving the viewer with nagging doubts about just who was the real monster in the film. With Nightbreed there was no ambiguity: Barker knew exactly where he wanted us to place our sympathy; with the creatures living under the cemetery at Midian, the Nightbreed.

Working with the make-up and effects team who had brought Frank Cotton and the Cenobites to the screen in Hellraiser, Barker created a spectacular grotesquerie for the inhabitants of Midian. This was imagination unleashed, with Barker and his team enjoying the process of creating these characters so much that they continued to come up with new ideas and creatures right through the film shoot.

Shuna Sassi

 

When the film’s protagonist, Boone, arrives for the first time at Midian we’re left in no doubt that he is viewed as an undesirable, a natural. He’s not wanted and is, as a natural, considered by one of Midian’s residents to be nothing more than meat. Boone has journeyed to the cemetery in the hope of finding somewhere he can belong, with people who will accept him for the killer he believes himself to be. To discover he has no place here, among this most dispossessed of communities and more, to find out he is not even a murderer, places him between two worlds. Shunned by the world of monsters, hunted by the world outside Midian, Boone’s death at the cemetery gates comes hot on the heels of his rejection by the Nightbreed.

Though the shots which kill Boone are fired by police officers, the man behind Boone’s death is his psychiatrist, Dr Decker (played by David Cronenberg). Decker is a serial killer who has been grooming Boone to take responsibility for the murders he has committed. The life he leads in the public eye is of a charming and sophisticated doctor, concerned for his patient and attempting to bring Boone to justice with no further bloodshed. Behind this façade is Decker’s other personality, one which comes fully to life when he dons a mask to commit his crimes, Ol’ Button Face.

Decker’s rage at the world leads him to kill indiscriminately, slaughtering entire families in his desire to rid the world of those he believes have no right to exist, “I’ve cleaned up a lot of breeders. Families like cesspools: filth making filth making filth.” Although Decker is the real monster in this film there are plenty of other characters who fit the role of monster quite neatly. The lynch mob mentality of the local police and the brutal condemnation of Boone as an abomination at the hands of a priest set them apart as the modern embodiment of what the Nightbreed have had to deal with throughout their existence. The world is conditioned to trust what it knows, the institutions of civil society such as the medical profession, the police, the priesthood: it’s also conditioned to revile and destroy that which is not known or which doesn’t fit the norm, hence the Nightbreed’s withdrawal into a subterranean sanctuary of its own making.

 

Dr Philip K. Decker / Ol' Button Face

As an aside, in the novella, the priest, Ashbery, was actually a transvestite being blackmailed by the local police chief, Eigerman. The studio was adamant that this be changed and so Ashbery became an alcoholic, as this was deemed more acceptable to US cinema audiences. It proves the point somewhat that we condemn what doesn’t fit our idea of what makes for a normal person and refuse to allow it in our society. Alcoholism is just fine because “everybody loves a drunk” but to depict a priest with a penchant for wearing ladies’ lingerie was a step too far in a film containing a crazed serial killer?

In the short documentary, Raising Hell, Barker says Nightbreed was “a very troubled movie even though it’s a movie I actually kind of like.” I couldn’t agree more. It is deeply flawed but, for all its imperfections, it ties in beautifully with Barker’s innate ability to make us take a fresh look at the mythology of monsters. You can’t help but think of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) when you watch this film: the deep-seated capacity for cruelty demonstrated by humanity in the face of what it deems undesirable and unwanted runs riot through the movie and it is plain to see that Barker wants to evoke project a similar atmosphere in Nightbreed.

“In the Thirties you felt sympathy for King Kong and the Frankenstein monster, but there haven’t been many movies like King Kong and Freaks and Bride Of Frankenstein lately. There’s no trace of that earlier, much richer tradition and that’s what the inhabitants of Midian represent.”

So, we began with Hellraiser and the issue of just who is the monster here. The Cenobites, Frank and Julia all took on the monster moniker to some extent but their monstrosity was questioned at every turn in the narrative leading us to contemplate the boundaries between love, death and the limits of human experience. In Nightbreed Barker took his audience a step further, showing us a darker side of ourselves as a species as opposed to the individual cruelties of Frank and Julia. The history of the human race teems with persecution and genocide: what we cannot tame or neuter we will always seek to destroy.

In part three I’ll be talking about Candyman and the politics of transformation.

[With thanks to Phil and Sarah Stokes. Quotes in this article from Clive Barker can be found on their website.]

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The Thing – review

Written by author, James Willetts

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Between 1980 and 1982 John Carpenter made three films which have stood apart as his greatest. ‘The Fog’, ‘Escape From New York’, and ‘The Thing’ are a perfect run of films, perhaps equalled only by the infamous McTiernan run of ‘Predator’, ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Hunt for Red October’.

‘The Thing’ is itself considered to be the first in an unconnected apocalypse trilogy, along with ‘Prince of Darkness’ and ‘In the Mouth of Madness’.

A remake of the 1951 film, ‘The Thing from Another World’, and influenced by equal parts Alien and Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains of Madness’ Carpenter used the snowbound setting and unusual enemy to create one of the greatest base under siege scenarios in movie history.

The plot is engagingly simple. A group of researchers in the Antarctic are confronted by an alien creature which takes on the form of those it kills. Introduced into the camp through the body of a dog it swiftly begins to replace them. With communication and transport gone the rapidly dwindling survivors have to work out how to stop an enemy who could be any one of them.

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The best horror films all have simple themes; there’s something out there that isn’t like us and it’s coming to get you. From ‘Alien’, to Zombie films the set up of something outside that wants in works every time. ‘The Thing’ is no different, existing as a near perfect example of this trope.

That in itself is a pretty common theme in alien films. Just think of all those other classic invasion movies; ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, ‘Village of the Damned’ and even ‘They Live’ all have an undercurrent of suspicion and paranoia that comes not just from the fact that an invasion is underway but that it is so covert.*

Many of these films hold themes of Communist designs on America, the fear of Fifth Columnists and enemies within. The idea that your neighbour might not be who you think he is, that the monsters outside may already be in the home adds a layer of real world paranoia.

But ‘The Thing’ is not your typical alien invasion movie. ‘The Thing’ has no long term plot to rule the world, no doomsday weapons or space fleet. There are no humanly obvious reasons for it. It is an alien in the truest sense of the word; a virus or a parasite, infiltrating and replacing those around it until it takes control.

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But for all that, it’s still a remake by the guy who gave us ‘Ghosts of Mars’ and ‘Vampires’ – why should you care about this film?

Well, firstly, it’s got a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. Yes, that Ennio Morricone. It’s not as flashy as some of his other work, but it’s pretty good, and it works for the suspenseful, paranoid workings of a movie about a shape shifting alien.

Then there’s a central performance by Kurt Russell, in a role previously turned down by Jeff Bridges. From an introduction that sees him pour his drink into the computer he’s playing chess against, to the moment when he picks up a flamethrower and starts to try and burn back the monstrous abomination in their midst he brings life to a character who carries the movie.

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It’s famous for the panning it got on release – two weeks after ‘E.T’, the same week as ‘Blade Runner’, both of which it suffered in comparison to.

However ‘The Thing’ is probably most well known for its ground-breaking special effects, in particular the incredible prosthetic and model work from Rob Bottin, who also worked on ‘Se7en’, ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Total Recall’. The various transformations that the alien goes through were all designed to keep the audience guessing. In fact it was deemed so shocking that distributors were advised to only play it in screens near the toilets – just in case viewers needed to flee the cinema.**

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In fact, much like ‘The Fly’, this is a film which is best viewed to marvel at just what could be done with prosthetics, models and a lot of imagination. The plot is fairly basic, and the real meat of the story comes from working out just who is still alive and human.

The common complaint about ‘The Thing’ is how slow it is, and it’s a fair comment. Whilst not overly long it doesn’t exactly fly by, being more concerned with a slow build up of tension followed by a shock, a reveal and another build up. It’s not as though the outcome is unexpected; the few survivors clinging on as the alien attempts to oust them. The very end, leaving questions unanswered is neither the happy ending that most cinema goers crave, nor the out and out failure that might warrant a sequel.

But perhaps the real reason to watch ‘The Thing’ is this; for all its flaws it still stand as one of the most inventive, original and disturbing films about those things outside the door, and what to do when they replace your neighbours.

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*More recent examples of alien infiltration can be seen in ‘The Invasion’ and ‘The Faculty’. A subversion can be found in ‘V’, where everyone is aware that ‘aliens walk amongst us’ but not that they are hostile, and ‘District 9’ where the aliens are amongst us but apart from us, thanks to their obviously inhuman look.

**This is in all probability an urban myth – but it’s a good one!

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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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Jurassic Park – review

Reviewed by author, Mark West

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Cast:

Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Joseph Mazello, Ariana Richards

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by David Koepp & Michael Crichton (based on his novel)

121 minutes, PG, 1993

aspect ratio – 1.85 : 1

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I first picked up Michael Crichton’s novel “Jurassic Park” in 1991, based on the fact that I’d enjoyed his memoir ‘Travels’, I liked dinosaurs and the cover proclaimed that it was soon to be “a major film from Steven Spielberg”. I really enjoyed the book – though some of the science got speed-read – but couldn’t figure out how Spielberg was going to realise any of what I’d just read. Two years later I found out, as my wife & I went to the old cinema in Wellingborough (it’s not there now – as Malcolm says at one point, it’s become extinct) to see it.

The film opens in the dark, as a container holding an unseen Velociraptor (effectively the film’s bad guys and called Raptor by everyone), is lowered to the ground. After a mistake, a worker is attacked and killed and the scene grabs the attention immediately. Advised by his lawyer, it’s agreed that John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), a billionaire, needs to have his new venture – Jurassic Park – signed off by some experts. Hammond invites palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and paleobotanist Dr Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) – dangling the carrot of funding their Montana dig for the next three years – along with Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a mathematician who specialises in chaos theory. The group are flown to Isla Nublar, near Costa Rica, where Hammond’s futuristic theme park is set up, populated with dinosaurs cloned from DNA found in fossilised mosquitoes that have been preserved in amber.

Jurassic-Park

At the visitor centre, after a quick tour (and an animated film that gets out a lot of exposition which slowed the book down – a clever cinematic device there, on the part of Spielberg and Koepp), the group meets up with Hammond’s grandchildren – Tim (Joseph Mazello), a dinosaur nut and Lexi (Ariana Richards), a would-be hacker – and sets off on a tour. Meanwhile, greedy computer expert Nedry (Wayne Knight) has set up the parks systems to fail, to enable him to steal some DNA to sell to a rival company.

After separating when the group comes across an ill Triceratops, Grant, Malcolm, Gennero and the children are at the T-Rex paddock when the power fails completely. The T-Rex attacks the tour cars, killing the lawyer and injuring Malcolm but Grant and the children manage to escape. Ellie and the game warden Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck) manage to find Ian and then try to reset the power, discovering on the way that the Raptors are now free. The power is re-set, but Muldoon is killed and Sattler injured. Grant and the children head for the visitor’s centre and whilst he goes to find the others, they end up trapped in the kitchen with two Raptors. They manage to escape, find Grant and Sattler but are cornered in the entrance hall by the Raptors. Somehow, the T-Rex is also there and the group escape, as the dinosaurs fight it out.

As they drive away from the centre, with Hammond and Malcolm, Grant says he won’t be able to endorse the park. Hammond agrees.

This is a superbly well-made film, as you’d expect from Spielberg (still in his bright lights and smoke phase, the bleached-out look he now uses with Janusz Kaminski nowhere in sight) and pretty much everyone – in front of and behind the camera – acquits themselves well.

The actors do solid work in roles where, by necessity, they often take second place to the spectacle. Sam Neill is rugged and capable (have you ever seen him put in a bad performance?) and Laura Dern gives Sattler more depth than the script seems willing to (when Malcolm demonstrates chaos theory by putting water on her hand, she says “Alan, look at this” excitedly, as if they’d just discovered alien life). The children are fantastic and always believable, with Ariana Richards going from scaredy-cat big sister (at the T-Rex paddock) to no-nonsense brother protector (in the kitchen with the Raptors) and Joseph Mazzello is a real treat as the smart-alec kid, who’s read Grant’s book and has views of his own. He also gets some great lines and delivers the funniest ones (“well, we’re back in the car!”) with great timing. Jeff Goldblum clearly has the most fun, with his rock star mathematician and cool dialogue, but his usual quirky actor-ly tricks seem a bit out of place. Richard Attenborough ranges from cuddly to cold, his accent sliding occasionally and Samuel L Jackson does very little, apart from smoke cigarettes down to the filter. Bob Peck is terrific, a gruff man who knows what he’s doing and his was the only death where I thought it would’ve been nice for him to have made it to the end. Wayne Knight has one major set-piece (in the rain and mud) so didn’t particularly register and Martin Ferrero makes the most of his lawyer’s sliminess (especially his reaction to the T-Rex).

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We're gonna need a bigger boat

The writing is very good, combining enough science jargon dialogue to make you think it could be real (leaving the really complicated stuff to the introductory cartoon) with some great interplay between characters (particularly Malcolm and Grant, when they’re in the tour car alone) and some nice, funny lines.

The direction, as one would expect, is virtually faultless and it’s perhaps nice that Spielberg made this before everything became handheld. He makes full use of the locations – be they Hawaii (standing in for the island) or the sets – and its always clear what’s going on. He does indulge in a few of his trademarks – bright lights behind people, dollies into people’s faces, kids in peril – but they all serve the story. As for the action sequences – well, he delivers each and every major set piece and all of them are gripping. The T-Rex paddock is perhaps the most famous of these, rain-slicked and terrifying, but the Nedry death-scene is well handled, as is the brilliant kitchen sequence.

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As I said in my “Creature From The Black Lagoon” review, a ‘monster movie’ lives or dies by the quality of its stars and this delivers completely. Stan Winston built the full-size animatronic creatures and Phil Tippett (stop motion genius) was going to do the full-body dinosaurs, using his go-motion technique. Dennis Muren was also on hand, representing ILM, who were due to do all the compositing. But Muren had other ideas and, using the technology they’d developed for Terminator 2, showed Spielberg a test film of a gallimimus herd running across a field followed by a T-Rex. Spielberg was so impressed, he scrapped the go-motion idea (though Tippett and his crew animated the CGI dinosaurs using models) and so set in motion a tremendous leap forward in film-making (or, depending on your view of the increasingly poor CGI in many films these days, a sideways-at-best step), opening up a whole new palette of possibilities. The thing I found, bearing in mind this film is eighteen years old, is how good the dinosaurs looked. Critics often sneer that they’re in soft focus or the dark and rain and therefore can’t be seen clearly, but I’d disagree – the shot where Grant and Sattler see the Brachiosaurous eating leaves from a tree is superbly realised.

Further proving the quality of the workmanship on display, the blend between Winston’s live-action dinosaurs and ILM’s is incredible and it’s sometimes difficult to tell which one you’re looking at. Having seen the film at the cinema when it first came out, I think that’s a major part of the success – and this was a tremendously successful film – and a major reason why this should be seen as a landmark film. The latex and pixels blending works, these people cared about what they were doing, they wanted it to be right.

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Having said all that, the film does have its flaws. The characters, as I mentioned, do tend to play second fiddle to the creatures (who are probably only on-screen for about 20 minutes or so) and sometimes logic appears to take a back seat. As an example of the latter, the T-Rex paddock attack is foreshadowed by the vibrations every character feels, as the dinosaurs lumbers over to them. Yet at the climax, the T-Rex manages not only to get into the building (how did it fit through those doors?), but also creep along on wooden floors and not be noticed until it’s literally right on top of the Raptors. But these are niggles – as you watch the film, you’re rattled along at such a pace, gazing at the spectacle, that these moans seem almost obnoxious.

Jurassic Park won Oscars for Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. It also picked up a BAFTA for Best Special Visual Effects.

The film was followed by two sequels – The Lost World in 1997 (and if you’re looking for logic plot holes, how about a T-Rex sailing a ship?) and the Joe Johnston directed Jurassic Park 3* in 2001.

This is a great film, pacy and scary and wonderous and I highly recommend it.

*[Editor’s note] There is to be a Jurassic Park IV, also directed by Joe Johnston. Rumours abound that the dinosaurs in this version will be taught to wield guns, although Johnston has denied this.

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Jurassic Park – review

Written by author, James Willetts

Every film fan has one. That perfect film that if you had to choose one, would be your favourite. Doesn’t matter how often you say you couldn’t ever choose, that you have too many favourites, that you need to write a list. Not matter how often you say it, it’s not true. There’s always that one film.

Every film fan has them. Those perfect moments in a film when it just connects. Maybe it’s a perfectly written line, or an all too human facial expression, or just something that you’ve never seen anything like before, but this film has just blown your mind.

Every film fan has one. Those perfect cinematic experiences which elevate a good film to great. They’re not even anything to do with the film itself, it’s just because of when you saw it, or who with, or where. That film, those memories, will always have an attached meaning for you. They’ve transcended cinema. They’re part of you.

For me all those things describe one thing. Jurassic Park.

Sure, the opening to Star Wars IV: A New Hope had a bigger impact on me. Without that shot of the rebel blockade runner fleeing the Star Destroyer I would never have fallen in love with cinema.

And my perfect cinema experience is still Pan’s Labyrinth, sandwiched between a man who reeked of the sea and a woman who kept telling me what the Spanish words actually meant.

And all the others; staying up to watch Hercules in New York and Shark Attack 3 in hysterics, The Host and Rocky Balboa as a hangover cure.

All of these and more have had a profound impact on me, in ways that I can’t really put into words.

But above and beyond all of those, sits Jurassic Park.

Better than Star Wars?

And it can all be boiled down, I suppose, if it has to be, to a single shot. A single moment which, for me at least, is truly perfect. A moment that sums up everything that Jurassic Park as a film, that all films maybe, can be.

There’s so much there, though, so much more than that one scene. Spielberg often comes under fire for his sweetness, his inability to let a movie end without a happy ending. It can often feel jarring, even insulting, for a movie like War of the Worlds or AI to end in such a way, ignoring what has gone before, trying to tie everything up neatly. When it works though, it raises his films to greatness. His best films: E.T., Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade, all contain the happy ending.

They are all, when it comes down to it, childlike movies. They are movies that seem filled with a childlike wonder at everything around them. It sometimes feels as though there are two Spielbergs. There is one who sees the world around him as it is, the one who makes Schindler’s List and Munich. But then there’s the one who makes Hook.

I think the reason that Spielberg is so well regarded is because he is the first filmmaker that anyone can recognise. That might seem like a self-defining trait, we recognise him because we know him. I mean it like this though. Before we understand the idea of Directors, or Producers, we know that there are some films that are made by certain people, defined by them in a way that there role in the actual film has little to do with.

All art contains the fingerprints of its creator. A Tim Burton film could never be mistaken as anything but. You can tell when Zach Snyder made something.

And before you knew who Spielberg was, you knew his films.

Those films that I mentioned are identifiable as his from the moment they start. The credit for at least part of that has to be laid at the door of John Williams, whose scores for Spielberg’s films have the same feel of instant recognition.

Certainly Williams lifts Jurassic Park. The main theme is instantly recognisable, a wistful and beautiful tune utterly in keeping with the backdrop of Isla Nublar. Where his theme for Superman and Indiana Jones was bombastic, joy filled and overblown, Jurassic Park is not about the people. Their triumphs and tragedies, whilst the meat of the plot, are secondary to the central idea of the film.

When it comes down to it, this is a classic Monster movie. A scientist, not mad but certainly eccentric, creates life. And just as in Frankenstein he is unable to control it. This theme, of man creating his own downfall, is one that runs throughout many horror films. From The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, via The Invisible Man and on to The Fly the idea of science gone wrong persists.

And as for the monsters themselves; boy are they good. Whilst the T-Rex is the obvious choice, it’s the raptors who emerge from the film as the real monsters. From their initial set up on the raptors are introduced and pitched to perfection, the xenomorphs of the dinosaur world. Smart, vicious and lethal they quickly establish themselves as the ultimate in predators.

It is only right therefore that the most celebratory moments of the film come from those times when we see the real stars, the Dinosaurs themselves.

As John Hammond’s greatest creation becomes his greatest enemy, his pride and near sightedness proves his downfall. That the body count is so low is testament not to the lightness of the proceedings but the light touch that Spielberg puts to what is essentially a horror film for children.

Gone are the dark shocks of Jaws. Gone the brooding, menacing score. In their place a lush, verdant setting and scares that thrill more than disturb.

For every dinosaur obsessed child, this was a film crafted for them. A film which celebrated that love.

When you see the Gallimimus run, or the raptors hunt you see every game that every child with a dinosaur toy has ever played. The T-Rex smashing a car over the edge of a cliff, or crashing through a wall to eat a lawyer. These are simple pleasures.

Testament to that is the care and attention that went into making the dinosaurs as realistic as possible. This is the last great film where the model and computer work are seamless. For a film made in 1993 those special effects still work. At 17 years old the film remains one of the greatest works of CGI ever made. No other film from that age stands up to similar scrutiny.

If the dinosaurs are the real stars it should not be forgotten that the cast is exceptional. Even the two child actors who are so grating now were, at the time, a joy to watch. To a 9 year old, the inclusion of a young boy with knowledge of dinosaurs that surpassed a palaeontologist was great.

And all of that culminates in what is for me that single perfect moment. A moment that is scripted to perfection. As Williams’ score unfolds, we see for the first time a Brachiosaur. And we see two people who have spent their whole lives dreaming of a time they thought long past seeing it alive in front of them.

The perfect moment?

That moment, that dream come true, that shot of the Brachiosaur, stretching out. The pair of them geeking out over it. I can’t watch that without doing the same.

Somehow, that scene just works. That for me is magical. If anyone asks me to point out a single shot, to show just what can be done with a film it’s this I point them to.

That’s my perfect scene in my perfect film. The one that makes you fall in love with the monsters.

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Tremors – review

Written by author, Ruth Merriam

“Be advised there are two more, repeat, two more motherhumpers.”

It was with both eagerness and wariness that I considered my offer to review Tremors. I’d seen it when it was released in 1990 and loved it, and I’d managed to catch it a few times on TV . . . but it had been at least a decade since my last viewing of it. Would it hold up after the intervening years and the introduction of so many other horror-comedies?

Oh yes. Yes it did. Pardon me while I gush.

Within the first two minutes of the film I was in love all over again. This isn’t really a monster movie; it’s a buddy film. In this case, the buddies just happen to be two mostly useless and easy-going handymen, Earl and Valentine (played by Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon, respectively), who decide they’ve finally had enough of living in the thriving metropolis of Perfection, Nevada (population 14).

Most of their decisions involve a game of rock-paper-scissors.

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Most of their decisions are poor ones. These are anti-heroes if ever we saw them.

They don’t get very far. We get a little taste earlier in the film that something is going on when a geology grad student, Rhonda (played by Finn Carter), asks them about unusual seismograph readings. When they happen upon one of the townsfolk up in a power line tower (most sincerely dead), then find another situation that doesn’t make any sense, they know something is very, very wrong.

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Valentine muses,

“What the sh*t?”

Indeed.

But let me tell you why I love this movie since I’m failing miserably at trying to write up a synopsis. Perhaps it’s because I’ve driven through this kind of high desert countryside and it really is that empty and wide open and little settlements really are that isolated. Maybe it’s because I’ve known guys just like Earl and Val.

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Maybe it’s because the dialogue is crisp and natural, the ensemble energy is great, the effects are good without being overly or gratuitously gory, or because there are a few genuine jump-in-your-seat moments.

Yeah, I could see myself scrambling up a rock while a giant subterranean worm tried to eat me.

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Earl, Val, and Rhonda hit the rocks.

All of the action in the film takes place in this valley. With only a few exceptions (short screen time = wormfood), the characters are the townspeople. This is a small community of misfits and it would have been easy to have made them stereotypes or oddballs for the sake of oddity. No, you get what you’d expect out here in the backside of nowhere: an assortment of people just living life on their own terms and relying on each other. Even the conspiracy theory survivalists are utterly believable.

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“Broke into the wrong goddam rec room, didn’t you, you bastard?”

I know people like this, people who have small personal arsenals, who discuss the merits of various bullet types like you’d discuss the weather. This is why the film works – it’s believable. None of the characters are closet geniuses or covert operatives. No one is a former Special Ops officer, a whiz kid, or a specialist at anything at all. The characters are people you can imagine having met and the monsters in their midst don’t turn any of them into superheroes.

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They’re just working out a way to kill off the worms and get out of the valley. I guess you just never know if this kind thing is lurking under your feet along with the scorpions and snakes.

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So . . . yeah. I love this film. I’m right there with them while they’re quibbling and scrambling onto the roofs and I share their elation when they figure out how to kill the worms.

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Colours really are more vibrant in the desert!

Did I mention romance? Humorous dialogue that just *works*? Good cinematography? Well framed shots? Great model work? A big dose of fun to go along with the few thrills? A really great cast? All there.

Some movies you watch again and again because they’re cheesy or just plain awful. We call those “popcorn movies.” Some movies you watch again and again because of nostalgia or sentimental reasons. This movie I’ll watch again because it’s just so damned likable. In fact, I’m going to watch it again tonight with my husband since he’s never seen it.

I think I’ll make the bacon-flavoured popcorn to go along with it. Hold the cheese.

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