Tag Archives: Robert Hood

Daikaiju and Mr. Hood

Interview conducted by Monster Awareness Month member, Mark S. Deniz

It has been my great privilege to not only have Robert Hood on the team for Monster Awareness Month but to be able to read some excellent articles by him too! Now, I get the added treat of being able to ask him some monstrous questions…

MONSTER!

 

1. I was going to ask you about where it all started Rob, but I think you answered that quite effectively in Where Monsters Dwell and so I’m going to focus more on the why. You’ve hinted at a few reasons in the articles for Monster Awareness Month but why are monsters such a passion for you?

That’s a difficult question, Mark, because so much of the “passion” comes from a place that’s pretty deeply buried in the subconscious.

I’d say there are two answers to it. One, the easiest, is historical. It’s a matter of opportunity. The fact is I loved monster comics from the first time I saw them, which was probably in the form of serialised strips featuring Turok, Son of Stone published in the newspaper. Turok was a native American who discovered a “lost world” and ended up fighting dinosaurs to survive.  I remember hunting through piles of old papers in the local dump, back when you were allowed to scavenge and the dumps weren’t simply acres of mashed-up refuse, to fill out back issues of the storyline. Later I got to buy the colour versions in comicbook format, published by Dell. Other monster comics, like Where Monsters Dwell, followed. When we got a TV (and we were the first on my block to have one as my father worked for a retail company that sold electrical and other household goods and bought what was at the time a big one on the basis of an employee discount), I discovered old monster and other SF/fantasy movies, becoming familiar with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein’s monster and the like — but mostly the absolute dross of US 1940s and 50s monster flicks — on such shows as the horror-host Deadly Earnest’s Aweful Movies. I loved them all, good and bad — and even then got irate when I realised that the films were censored, often to remove close-ups of the monster. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. The challenge became getting permission to stay up late, which was inevitably when the best films were on. I nagged a lot. Cinema played a lesser but significant role. In the early days, I didn’t get to go to the cinema much. But when I did, one of the most memorable was Harryhausen’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. That would have been in 1958, when I was 7. I spend weeks afterwards drawing pictures of the various monsters from memory. Again, the experience of seeing those impossible creatures on the screen was deeply awesome.

Occasionally I’d  get hold of a copy of a film magazine like Famous Monsters of Filmland and so was introduced to all the monsters from films I hadn’t seen — some of which, though I knew them well by sight, featuring in movies I didn’t get to experience for myself until decades later. One such was Godzilla. I so wanted to see the original version, but it wasn’t until SBS showed it — the original Japanese Gojira — in the 1990s that I managed to view it and REALLY became obsessed. (Remember, for most of my life there was no such thing as home video.) I didn’t see the Americanised version until later and I’m definitely glad I saw the “real” one first! Oddly, another late-viewed movie was the other great giant monster film, King Kong. Somehow, I never managed to see it on TV, though I always wanted to. It was a bit of an obsession. Then in the 70s the local flea-pit cinema showed a weird double bill consisting of Andy Warhol’s Heat and the original King Kong. I went to see Kong — and thus actually got to experience the film for the first time on a big screen. A great, indeed an awesome, moment! I could fully put myself in the place of the 1930s audience that was terrified and awed by those remarkable images moving on the screen. There’s nothing like it.

Reading over what I’ve written here it’s obvious, I think, that a central fascination in monsters for me is visual. Purely word-based monsters — introduced to me in horror fiction, short story anthologies like the Pan Book of Horror Stories series, the works of H.G. Wells, SF magazines like Galaxy and If, the copies of Dracula and Frankenstein that my mother bought me one day — came later. At first I simply loved the look of the monsters. They were something you never saw in reality. They were products of imagination. Pure products of the imagination, sometimes scary, sometimes exciting, always awesome. This in turn feeds into the concept of the Monster — the concept of not simply the non-human, but the inhuman. Monsters go beyond the natural into the world of the unnatural. I knew full well they didn’t exist in reality, even dinosaurs, but they did exist — vividly and purely — in the imagination. This brings us to the second answer to your question: the metaphysical and metaphorical power of the Monster.

It all becomes rationalisation after the fact from this point. My fascination for monsters (in fiction, of course) doesn’t spring from a childhood trauma as I didn’t really have one of any great significance. But Monsters clearly represent something that goes to the heart not just of Robert Hood, but of human nature in general. And that thing is, I think, imagination. Human imagination is possibly the strongest force that exists in the human world, one that drives our entire civilisation, motivates scientists and molds history. Some, such as mystic poet William Blake, saw imagination as the Divine in us. It is the primal creative force, the thing that makes us transcend the rational world — and so what must God be, he said, if not Human Imagination? As I got older and began to became a writer — a writer whose imagination was thoroughly immersed in monstrous imagery — I naturally wrote about monsters, not always, of course, but much of the time. As creatures of unrestrained imagination monsters were not only liberating and fascinating, but also powerful literary tools. Their imaginative nature makes them infinitely amenable to metaphorical interpretation. They are “living” containers of complex symbolic meaning. For me the most powerful art isn’t that which most closely re-creates the external realities of life, but that which offers an imaginative structure that allows the artist to explore aspects of life that don’t translate well into rational constructs. When, like Frankenstein’s creature, the Monster becomes a vessel for expressing the irrational and ineffable realities of existence, the result is often some of the most potent imagery that mankind has produced. The great monsters contain passion as well as thought. Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Godzilla, King Kong, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, dragons, rampant robots, the living dead: these are all so much more than fictional entertainments. Their real power comes from the complex meanings that they carry within their nature — and often that meaning is so contentious and hard to pin down adequately because it goes beyond the rational. Gods and monsters: in essence they are part of the same imaginative super-complex that makes us human.

2. You mentioned about your writing of monsters in the last answer and so I’m going to stay marginally within that and talk about our exciting giveaway in conjunction with this interview, and that is the Daikaiju books you’ve edited. As a writer and viewer of monsters, how did editing them (with Robin Pen) compare?

The excellent Dakaiju cover from Bob Eggleton

 

The idea to edit an anthology of giant monster stories came from my own enthusiasm to read fiction featuring giant monsters and a simultaneous inability to find any, or at least none that had been collected into a single dedicated volume. Certainly, as far as I could ascertain, up to that time no one had ever edited a collection of new giant monster stories as such. Dragons, yes, but not real kaiju. Agog! Press was keen on the idea and I asked Robin Pen if he was interested in being a co-editor. I did this for two reasons: firstly, because Robin and I had bonded over our mutual enthusiasm for daikaiju eiga even though we lived on separate sides of the continent, but secondly because I wanted an independent eye to confirm (or otherwise) my choices. Having him on board also meant that I felt I could submit a story of my own. I wrote one and sent it to Robin under a pseudonym. He approved of it, but in the end I didn’t include it in that first volume as I decided it wasn’t quite appropriate for editors of anthologies to include their own work, even if independently vetted. By the third volume though, I caved in to pressure and embraced the inappropriate nature of the whole thing by putting my story into what would be the last volume. Thematically, it summed up everything that the three books had been about, so it seemed like a reasonable enough decision.

In the beginning I wasn’t sure we’d get many submissions at all, let alone good ones. But I needed have worried. Stories flooded in from around the world — excellent, good, indifferent and bad. A lot of bad, but really not nearly as many as I expected. We could be very picky, and were. I also worked quite hard with a few authors when I came across stories that contained a unique idea that appealed to me but which needed lots of re-writing to get them up to peak effectiveness. Writers were invariably (well, almost invariably) willing to go along with me, sometimes re-writing more than once and putting up with having me mangle their prose. The result didn’t always get in anyway, but in one case at least the story did get in even though it was the author’s first professionally published story — and afterwards it sometimes got singled out for praise in reviews.

In the end we had a great collection of stories — a collection that really surprised people who were expecting verbal parodies of the daikaiju films that had inspired the book. There is a huge spread of tone, approach, narrative structure, theme and storyline in the 27 stories (plus two haiku and a film commentary piece) that made it in (and made the book over-sized in terms of optimum postage rates, I might add). One of them a faux film script about giant monsters making a giant monster film (which has since been made into an actual animated film). Even the artwork proved to be special. Out of the blue I got an email from multiple Hugo Award winner Bob Eggleton, offering to do a cover. “Bob,” I said, “we could never afford you.” “Doesn’t matter,” he replied, “I just really want to do it!” So we got ourselves an Eggleton cover for peanuts. I also gained a friend in US artist Todd Tennant, who illustrated the “film script” story. We’ve worked together on other projects since and Todd has recently finished a graphic novel, It Came from Beneath the Sea… Again!, for Bluewater Productions.

Such enthusiasm was the key to the Daikaiju! project. Robin and I were enthusiastic and so were the authors, who managed to mingle enthusiasm with sheer creative intelligence. As I say, the result surprised people, who hadn’t expected the theme to allow for so much inventiveness and literary nous. I was really pleased when Daikaiju! Giant Monster Tales won the 2006 Ditmar Award for Best Collection and stories from it were nominated for assorted awards. One story, a short and clever piece titled “Read It In the Headlines!” by Garth Nix, ended up in David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best Fantasy 6. And of course there were so many worthy stories left over that we eventually produced two more volumes, supplementing stories we had retained with specially commissioned additions. The first run of the first volume sold out quickly and Agog! did a second run. That has now sold out as well. Agog! Press subsequently made a deal with Prime Books for all three volumes to be published in the US. The Australian editions might be sold out, but the books are still available on Amazon — even in hardcover, no less. Unfortunately Todd’s internal illustration couldn’t be included in the US edition for logistic reasons, but the winner of the Monster Awareness Month competition will receive what is literally the last remaining spare copy of the Aussie edition — and that only turned up by chance when I found it at the back of a cupboard when I was moving offices at work!

So, did I answer your question, Mark? I’m not sure. I love writing stories and I love watching the giant monster movies — and I loved editing Daikaiju! Sure, the lengthy reading period we set drove me mad, and the editing was time-consuming and exhausting, but it was definitely worth the trouble. I still firmly believe that Daikaiju! is the best book of its kind ever.

3. My son, Maddoc, has been obsessing a little this weekend about a certain Gojira character after seeing a couple of clips from Godzilla tributes and the remake. I remember when we visited you a few years ago you had an entire glass cabinet full of Godzilla figures. When did your obsession with them begin and how is the collection looking at present?

As I’ve mentioned, though I knew about the Big G, I didn’t get to see any of the Godzilla films until the late 1990s, thanks to SBS (Australia’s Government-funded international TV network). It was the original Japanese version — and I loved it immediately. After that I sought out other G films, though at first all I could get hold of were the (mostly) very poorly edited and dubbed US versions — you know, the ones that most people in the West associate with bad Jap monster movies, albeit fun. A lot of them simply weren’t available. This led me to what has been dubbed my “Godzilla supplier” — a fan who produced good quality DVDs and provided dubbing also done by fans. I’m not a supporter of piracy, but he couldn’t have been in it for the money as his DVDs were very cheap — and anyway once the films became available commercially, I bought them again. In fact once they became commercially available he stopped selling them. Seeing them as they are supposed to be seen was a revelation — especially in the case of King Kong vs Godzilla — though that film still isn’t available anywhere (legitimately) in its original form. The version available on Amazon is the truly insulting US edit.

Anyway by the time I had all the G films in original Japanese versions with English subtitles (and a whole lot of other Japanese kaiju and SF/fantasy films to boot), my interest was fairly ingrained and I purchased some of the monster sculptures and models out of sheer fannish glee. Also out of an appreciation of their inherent beauty. The collection hasn’t grown much since you saw it — no room and they ARE expensive — but I still love looking at them. And so do visitors.

The one I REALLY wanted was a working model of Godzilla I saw in Chinatown in Sydney that was about two foot high, beautifully made and robotic. Yes, it had a supposed repertoire of 48 movements, with sounds effects and everything! But it also cost $3000. At the time we were considering buying a house — so the choice was between somewhere to live and a robotic Godzilla. Sensible logic pushed me toward the house. Pity really.

Room in the cabinet?

$3,000? Oh my! Well Maddoc has now switched from Godzilla to Rodan, so I’d better not be thinking of surprising him with gifts like that, especially with his fickle moods…

Rodan: The Samurai of the Skies

 

4. There’s something very exciting and fun about the Kaiju but what about a subject that you and Sharon Ring have been tackling regularly during this month, that of the man as monster?

In many ways, monsters are an incarnation of aspects of humanity that we are perhaps reluctant to admit to, but which horror fiction throws in our face and makes us embrace. Some of the greatest monsters make this explicit — such as Mr Hyde, and endless killers such as Hannibal Lector, Jack the Ripper (real but fictionalise) and even supernatural foes like Freddy Krueger.

Other monsters display the connection between man and monster more symbolically, in terms of human responsibility in creating them — Frankenstein’s monster is one such, but so is Godzilla, though in a different way. Many (if not all) kaiju and other giant monsters are products of human greed, ambition, folly… or are awakened by our careless actions — some deliberate, some unintentional. Such monsters become symbols of responsibility (or our failure to recognise it) as well as the negative consequences of our civilisation, our scientific striving to gain power over the environment or even simply our deepening understanding of the world and what makes it tick. In this latter aspect, they shouldn’t be understood as propaganda against the pursuit of science (as they are often portrayed). But they are a recognition that with increased power over nature and with greater understanding comes heightened risk, greater danger and deeper responsibility. After all, it was the gaining of hitherto forbidden knowledge that caused Adam and Eve to be driven from the idyllic safety of the Garden of Eden out into a world of death, violence, failure and striving. With ambition comes the potential for evil. With understanding comes the loss of innocence. That is the monster … and it is as human as it comes.

Then again, Forbidden Planet‘s monsters from the Id are a direct representation of the dangers we face from the repressed forces that dwell deep within us — dangers that will destroy us unless we face them, understand them. This is something that many monsters are made of. In essence, of course, the Monster is the Other — that which is not us, or which we choose to disown. Often it becomes a monster because we disown it, deny it, let it grow hateful and bitter. So if in one way monsters are a product of the striving for knowledge, they are also the result of ignorance and denial.
Malicious ghosts are most often the result of murder or injustice (another failure of responsibility), or tasks unfulfilled. Vampires are those aspects of humanity that feed on us, drain us of the ability to live, even though their own origins are human. Werewolves are the beast in us, the passions we can’t control. All these are related, but it’s not hard to see the human aspects of them all.

The mystic poet Blake saw monsters as the result of division and self-delusion, our denial of humanity. In the end, we can’t simply destroy them — because that gives them power over us and as the endless resurrections of Godzilla, Dracula, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees etc. illustrates, they just return stronger than ever. It’s recognition they want.

But it’s a complicated business, this monster-hunting, and what I’ve said barely scratches the surface in terms of the meaning of this particular product of our cultural imagination. You could write a book about them — and many people have. But that’s what’s great about them, what keeps us fascinated with them. They are the Other, yet they are Us. Whether we are conscious of doing it or not, monsters make us question our world and ourselves — and the love-hate relationship with have with them is part of the love-hate relationship we have with ourselves.
Mind you, sometimes, it’s enough that the monsters are simply fun!

Cover for Daikaiju 3 by the talented Nick Stathopoulos

5. What have been your highlights of the month, Rob?

Just thinking about all things Monster under the guidance of interested and well-informed folk has been a great pleasure. Reading the views of others — even if you disagree with particular statements and judgements — makes you query and refine you own point-of-view, and helps to remind you why you love the Big Ugly Brutes (the monsters, not the writers). In particular I enjoyed Sharon Ring’s perceptive and detailed examination of Clive Barker’s view of the Monster in his work — though of course there are many other entries that could be highlighted for praise. And being forced to write my own articles — and hence think about and delve into films (and, as it happened, comics) that I love is a wonderful impetus to both renewed enjoyment of them and inspiration for my own writing.

Godzilla and son

6. There have been 28 films showcased in the month too, and I think the team has given those coming along a good sense of the monster in film. Are there any other films you would recommend as a follow-up for those thoroughly caught up in the monster films?

As anyone who read my Ultraman article might have guessed, I’d suggest seeing some Ultraman — the original series if you must, but better for the uninitiated would be one of the recent movies. Ultraman (2004; dir. Kazuya Konaka) [aka Ultraman: The Next] would be ideal, and it is available on DVD in the West. While I’m on all things Japanese, I’d strongly advise people to seek out Shusuke Kaneko’s 1990s Gamera trilogy, especially the third — which I would rate as probably the best single daikaiju eiga ever:

  1. Gamera daikaiju kuchu kessen [trans. Gamera: Giant Monster Midair Showdown] (1995; dir. Shusuke Kaneko) [aka Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe (US, 1995; dir. Shusuke Kaneko and Matt Greenfield)]
  2. Gamera 2: Region shurai [trans. Gamera 2: Attack of Legion] (1996; dir. Shusuke Kaneko) [aka Gamera 2: Advent of Legion, Gamera 2: Assault of the Legion]
  3. Gamera 3: Iris kakusei (1999; dir. Shusuke Kaneko) [aka Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris and Gamera 3: The Awakening of Iris]

Also take a glance at the recently released Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone (Japan-2007; dir. Masayuki Yamaguchi, Kazuya Tsurumaki and Hideaki Anno), which is the first of four animated films remaking Hideaki Anno’s influential anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. It offers an intriguing, and quite unique, take on the Monster, from many angles. Check out my recent review here: http://roberthood.net/blog/index.php/2011/03/01/review-evangelion-1-11-you-are-not-alone/

Leaving giant monsters for a moment I’d add the superb Hammer version of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit [aka Five Million Years to Earth] (UK-1967; dir. Roy Ward Baker). Kneale had a unique approach to the monstrous that is at its peak in this film (and in the serial that originated it). Here, in a way that isn’t all that predictable, the Monsters are indeed us.

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

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Robert Hood

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

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


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

Dinner becomes more gruesome in the 1988 remake

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

Godfrey Cambridge gets consumed while watching the 1959 film on TV

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

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

Hedorah, aka the Smog Monster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlton Heston vs the ants

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

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

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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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The First Giant Monsters

Part 1: The Real Monsters

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Robert Hood

Once upon a time giant monsters were real. They existed as more than a construct of the imagination, belonging to a distant past that predated homo sapiens or its ancestors by several millennia. Yet their reality is verifiable at any natural history museum. Everyone knows of them, is familiar with their general nature, and can name a few at least, even though no one has seen one alive. Since evidence of them was first discovered these giant monsters have exhibited a strong cultural presence. It was English palaeontologist Richard Owen who, in 1842, named them “dinosaurs” or “terrible lizards”, thus in some sense “fixing” the cultural perception of them as reptilian and dragon-like.

Terrible Lizards!

Yet despite being “real” and known inhabitants of prehistory, the giant monsters known as “dinosaurs” underwent a sort of mythic transmogrification in the popular imagination, assuming a fictive life within it — thanks to several influential novels, numerous short stories and a plethora of films. In this imaginative world, dinosaurs are related to dragons, humanoid giants, Elder Gods and other supernatural giant fauna. But unlike such fantastical creatures, we can readily accept them as “fact” because we can see and touch and even find evidence of their reality for ourselves. Fossilised bones, reconstructed skeletons and a whole discipline of respectable scientific study tell us that it’s okay to believe in these particular über-beasts without feeling like an intellectual pariah. Dinosaurs are creatures that were, and hence are, almost universally acceptable, even though none of us have seen one alive. We don’t have to believe in dinosaurs any more than we have to “believe” in lions or elephants; they are simply de facto “real”.

Real, natural animals though they may be, we tend to think of them as monsters, monsters from an age of monsters. And we think of them as big. Very big. They fire our imaginations with their size and remoteness. In a literal sense they are the first giant monsters, delicately balanced between the natural and the unnatural in our imaginations. Though mythic giant creatures had long existed as part of all cultures (in the form of dragons and god-human mythical hybrids), it would be the newly discovered “scientific” giants that would most influence the giant-monster film genre that was born in the 20th century. The “reality” of dinosaurs gave them added appeal and lent their cinematic presence greater credibility. It ensured that, in the seductive, if illusory, reality of the motion picture, dinosaurs would provide the template for many of the giant monster superstars.

Of course, on screen they didn’t stay realistically imagined or even scientifically plausible for long.

But what is the essence of the “mythic” dinosaur? As a cultural icon the dinosaur exhibits three key aspects: they’re reptilian (though of course the real ones are not of the reptile family), they’re monstrous (despite being natural creatures) and they’re very big (even though the majority of them weren’t). The last is central as that’s what makes them seem monstrous — that and the perceived viciousness of predators such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex (recent research that suggests that T. Rex was, in fact, a scavenger notwithstanding). Unnatural size is fundamental to the cultural fascination that dinosaurs have provoked. Kids love them for their awesome size; adults feel the same way, though usually with an attitude of assumed nonchalance. It doesn’t matter that of the 500+ and steadily growing dinosaur species identified to date a large proportion are small — the smallest the size of a crow. The fact is, the ones we know well from fiction are gigantic.

King Kong vs T-Rex 1933

For example, though the name “Brontosaurus” has been declared a misnomer and the creature referred to is now known under the earlier designation “Apatosaurus” in scientific circles, the good old “thunder lizard” still holds a firm place in popular imagination as the iconically big dinosaur. Rightly or wrongly it remains one of the best known of them, along with T. Rex, Allosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and the Pterodactyl (which is technically a pterosaur and not a dinosaur at all). In the early silent film The Lost World (US-1925; dir. Harry O. Hoyt), a brontosaurus would become the first giant monster to rampage through a modern city, a moment in screen destruction that provided a sort of template for its descendents: King Kong (US-1933; dir. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack), The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (US-1953; dir. Eugene Lourie) and Gojira [aka Godzilla: King of the Monsters] (Japan-1954; dir. Ishiro Honda). These films form a developmental continuum and began a sub-genre that is still as lively as ever today.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: a dinosaur awakened by the Bomb

At a length of 70-90 feet (21-27 m), height of 10-15 feet (3-4.6 m) and weighing 33-38 tons, the Brontosaurus, a herbivore, has size as its leading cultural attribute. Yet it isn’t close to being the biggest of the dinosaurs. The tallest on record (as of this writing) is the Sauroposeidon, which, at 59 feet (18 m) high, could easily peer at you over the top of a multi-storey building. Similarly, the largest known carnivore is the Spinosaurus, at 50-60 feet (16-18 m) in length. Though these figures are estimates based on often minimal evidence and new dinosaurs are perpetually being added to the literature and re-evaluated by palaeontologists, one thing is certain: these creatures would have towered over a human being, had any humans existed during their reign on Earth.

Spinosaurus

Cinema lets us see that relationship in a dynamic way by fictionalising the context. The last mentioned giant above, the Spinosaurus, is the lead dinosaurian antagonist in Jurassic Park III (2001), where its size and viciousness are established early on, when it slays that more popular dino-carnivore icon, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, before taking on the human protagonists. Here the Spinosaurus is depicted as very monstrous indeed. It is, no doubt, the thought of such creatures appearing in direct contact with humans that makes us see them as monsters. The size relativities quite reasonably intimidate us — as do all those rather large teeth.

Spinosaurus attack

There is perhaps a complementary cathartic appeal inherent in imagining what creatures so large and so primeval might do if suddenly transported into our world from the distant past. In fact, the largest dinosaurs are big enough to do considerable trashing of cities, even if they are of the non-vicious kind — and city-trashing would be established early on in the history of cinema as a popular occupation for a giant monster to undertake. In their own world dinosaurs might have been natural creatures and scary the way lions and other predators are scary; in our world, out of their proper time and place, they are awesome and terrible wonders. In short, dinosaurs are fascinating animals seen from a scientific distance, but if we met one face-to-face it would be undeniably a monster.

Flammarion's Iguanadon

Consider this illustration of a monstrous Iguanadon in a cityscape, an image that appeared in Camille Flammarion’s Le Monde avant la creation de l’homme. Origines de la terre. Origines de la vie, a significant geological account of the beginnings of life published in 1886. Even in this early non-fictional context the imaginative lure of the dinosaur as an intruder in our world comes through clearly. It is a scene that would appear many times in giant monster films over the following century — though the monster doing the looming would become more and more fantastical, and in some instances considerably bigger. In terms of influence, though, it’s hard not to see Flammarion’s illustration in this scene from the seminal 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, whether it was intentional or not:

Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or Iguanadon?

As we shall explore in Part 2 of “The First Giant Monsters”, filmmakers and storytellers have generally taken one of several different narrative approaches to making dinosaurs get close-up and personal with modern humanity and human civilisation — and thus re-imagining them as genuine mythic “monsters”. The main narrative approaches draw on two early novels: Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

The Lost World 1925

TO BE CONTINUED

  • Image acknowledgement: the first image in this article is of robotic dinosaurs that were part of the Walking with Dinosaurs exhibition in 2009. Photo: [CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images]

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