Monstober : Part 1

Why do we watch scary movies in October? Follow me, won’t you, on this wildly speculative evolutionary psychology theory, unreviewed by any peers and free of academic rigour. First, let’s unquestioningly accept my axiomatic assumption that scary movies are an outgrowth of scary stories, tied directly to millennia of oral tradition.

If you’re living in a proto-european farming village in the neolithic, October is a deceptively easy time. The death rate of your community is low all summer, when there’s lots of food for humans and lots of food for things that might eat humans. You’ve let your guard down a bit, and why not? you’ve earned it. The big work of the harvest is just over, and everyone has so much food, you might as well make a lantern out of a turnip. Who cares? You’ve got so many, and even in the neolithic nobody really likes them.

As the days get shorter, the elders start speaking of death, both myths of death as is it culturally understood, and also just stories of death in the community. The are people that you know, or at least have heard about. In these stories, winter will be well-represented. Starvation, cold, hungry predators, isolation; all kinds of hazards that you’ve sort of forgotten. October is a great time to start thinking about these things again. This is where we get all the holidays like the mortality-centric All Soul’s Night, or Samhain (which is partly about warding off evil for another six months, and partly about the ritual intimidation of haves by have-nots who might depend on communal resource redistribution in the cold winter. We call it trick or treating now). Yes, I’m suggesting there is (or was) evolutionary pressure that selects for individuals who enjoy spooky stories in autumn. This is a free doctoral thesis idea if you want it, because lord knows I’m not going to put the work in.

I personally experience this definitely real biological urge every October. My problem is that horror films are notoriously quite scary, what with the gore, jump scares, tension, and narrative universes that are casually indifferent to human life. That said, I love monster movies, which are sort of nominally horror movies but tend to be less cruel, more fun and accessible. An arbitrary distinction, for sure. Probably it’s because my ancestors were just very concerned about the ravenous beasts of winter, and they passed that on to me. 

Anyways, I watched a bunch of monster movies and now I’m going to talk about them

Spoilers, obvs. Not big ones but you should know.

Jaws, (1975)

If you’re looking for a film to take your mind off the covid pandemic, I do not recommend Jaws. In this film there is a serious public health danger, and officials in positions of power are credibly informed of it. A coalition of business owners exert their influence on the local authorities to downplay the risk so as to keep the economy open. They are successful, and innocent people die horrible, easily preventable deaths while the experts are ignored. After 2020, the most implausible part of this movie is the part where the government official publicly changes his mind and throws his full support behind public safety efforts. 

Jaws is often framed as the first modern blockbuster, which is strange to a modern perspective just because of how callous it is. There are no comic relief characters and only a handful of quips. The first onscreen deaths include dogs and children, and they’re usually immortal in movies like this. The heroes are all middle-aged and varying degrees of off-putting, nobody falls in love. It still works, though, and it’s refreshing to see blockbuster entertainment that only panders to your bloodlust.

The shark itself is sort of a perfect example of how special effects aren’t real. It doesn’t move like a shark or look like a shark, the attacks don’t really resemble real shark attacks. The real trick is that everyone acts sufficiently afraid of it, including the cinematographer. The movie creates a space where a terrifying monster would fit perfectly, and then stuffs it with a rubber shark, and do you know what? it’s 100% the right move.

Turns out the real monster is: devotion to the economy

The Host (괴물; Gwoemul), (2006)

There’s a monster in the Han river, haunting the sewers of Seoul, eating people whole and coughing up their bones like an owl. Outside of water, it can only move in extremely goofy ways: as a gawky biped with a lopsided run cycle, or by brachiating along the bottoms of bridges like a gymnast on monkey bars. Somehow it’s still scary. It’s big enough to overpower any human but small enough to hide in a city. It’s an exceptionally well-balanced monster for a very subtle monster movie. 

The Host is the story of a dysfunctional family squaring off against a corrupt and incompetent government. Also a monster is there. Not to undersell how excellent the monster stuff is, but the characters make this film absolutely shine. Some of the best stuff in this film is in tangents about Park Hae-il’s alcoholic former activist being sold out to the greed of everyday office workers by his former comrade, or Bae Doo-na’s struggles in her competitive archery career. 

You might be wondering what seo-ri, a Korean cultural practice similar to gleaning, has to do with a film where the government concocts a fake virus as a cover for the monster and then fails to manage the fake pandemic, but that’s sort of the wrong question. This is an almost sociological look at the monster as a disaster, and how disasters mobilize agents of power against the lower classes. It reminds me very much of Max Brooks’ book World War Z, where, except for the presence of reaminated corpses, you could be reading about any disaster in the late 20th century.

The real star performance, though, is Song Kang-ho as a concession stand operator and father with non-specific developmental issues. Other characters underestimate him for the entire film, but he persistently wriggles through the gap between expectation and reality to become a daring, clever and competent hero. By the end of the film, all of the subplots about the government, the military and the monster are deliberately left hanging, and the only thing that matters is his resolution. 

This movie gets the whole monster out on into a bright sunny day in the first 15 minutes. The scene where the heroes tool up and courageously explore the creepy sewers is condensed into a montage. The climax is a bit more conventional, but stands out even more so for it’s unusual antecedent scenes. The suspense doesn’t so much come from who’s gonna get eaten next, but from the genuinely unpredictable fates for our protagonists. It’s a real ride. No wonder the director ended up an Oscar-winner.

Turns out the real monster is: The military-industrial complex.

Jurassic Park (1994)

Everyone talks about how well the CGI has aged but, frankly, the puppets look better. They looked better in 1994, they look better now, and they look better than whatever weird puppets-painted-over-with-CGI Jurassic World uses. The legendary brachiosaur, the first fully CGI dinosaur we see, looks ok, but it’s not a patch on the animatronic t-rex pupil dilating or the breathing, anguished, sick triceratops that somehow tricked a bunch of people very recently*. This film might have stitched up stop-motion animation in blockbuster films, but there’s a reason that Stan Winston is still making monsters to this day.

You know what special effect I absolutely hate in this film? Which effect looks like it was constructed for a community theatre take on Tarzan? The trees. There are two scenes that take place in trees, in soundstage monstrosities of modelling paste on PVC pipes, festooned with plastic leaves, and each time they’re onscreen they make me roll my eyes. I understand that after bringing dinosaurs back to life there was no money left in the tree budget, but the thing about trees is that they actually exist. Like you can look out your window right now and see one. Every sighted human has a clear idea of what a tree is so you really shouldn’t splurge our suspension of disbelief by telling us “ok pretend these lumps of carved styrofoam are branches.”

To return to an earlier point, special effects aren’t real. I don’t just mean that dinosaurs aren’t real*, I mean that the best VFX in the world can’t save a bad film. Not to denigrate the incredible artistry and hard work of the VFX teams, but the actors are so fully committed to the film that you could make an edit where every dinosaur was just sock puppet (or kitten) composited in and it would matter very little. Sam Neil does a LOT of the heavy lifting in terms of selling the effects, just because he’s playing the grounded curmudgeonly character with a grumpy, stoic face. Sam Neil communicates that his character is afraid of dinosaurs before he knows that they’ve been resurrected as scientific abominations. The fact that they’re authentically scary and realized is just gravy.

Also, the production design of everything that is not a dinosaur doesn’t get nearly enough play. Shot in the part of Costa Rica that’s actually Hawaii, the locations are green and gorgeous, their wildness hemmed in at crucial junctions by Ken Adams-esque concrete brutalism. The indoor sets recall a 90s shopping mall designed by a Bond villain. The park’s installations look brand-new, but prematurely weathered, un suitable for the humid jungle, perhaps as a consequence of hasty construction. It’s neat to spot a theme baked into the set design.

What else is there to say about Jurassic Park? It’s great. For an indulgent fiesta of spectacle and imagination there’s a lot of economy to the filmmaking. It’s tight, it’s fun, it’s scary and it’s basically Frankenstein but with dinosaurs. Spielberg is good at movies, what do you want?

*It’s best not to think too hard about how adults might think that there are triceratops running around still. I try to be generous and remind myself that Narwhals and Roadrunners are both real animals.

**to be clear, the dinosaurs in the movie aren’t real. Real dinosaurs have feathers.

Turns out the real monster is: Corporate greed, science run amok.

Colossal (2016)

Probably the most magical-realist movie on this list, Colossal is about an alcoholic returning to her hometown in disgrace and falling into an unhealthy relationship. There’s also a magic playground that manifests a projection of her as a massive kaiju on the other side of the world. Astonishingly, the accidental destruction of downtown Seoul is actually resolved as well as possible by the second act. Instead, complications arise with a local dirtbag bartender who learns about the playground.

“‘Alcohol turns you into a monster’ except literal” seems desperately heavy-handed, but to the film’s credit, it doesn’t dwell on that at all, instead focusing on guilt and personal change. It risks using the destruction of korean lives as props for one woman’s recovery from alcoholism, but it’s clear from the tone that this is not a literal narrative. It’s not the most riveting drama or the most exciting monster action but it’s still a creative and well-observed take on the material. It also has Jason Sudeikis playing such well-concealed asshole that it makes me distrust him in other roles. I haven’t seen Ted Lasso yet, in case you’re wondering.

Turns out the real monster is: Abusive relationships

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

This is one of those movies that has been so fully assimilated into the constituent memes of cinema that it seems hardly necessary to actually watch it. We all know what happens, right? There’s a fish man, and scientists and a beautiful lady and then they fight?

Well, yes, but that doesn’t really do it justice. The gillman is this wonderful, soulful creature, innocent in the way of a wild animal, although yeah for sure he kills a bunch of people. There are colourful side characters, a beautiful swamp in the part of the Brazilian amazon that’s actually Florida, and absolutely stunning underwater camerawork.

No matter how well meaning the scientists are, we recognize the pressure that drives them as the engine of civilization. The intrusive, destructive ambitions of progress disrupt an ecosystem that has been stable since the devonian, with the desperate, piddly goals of either beating the Ruskies to space (somehow? Using fish-men? It’s not clear) or getting tenure. There’s some discourse over what a woman might be doing in the sciences. An entire crew of Brazillian labourers is killed and the scientists do not seem overly concerned. When Guillermo del Toro drew on this film as source material for 2019’s The Shape of Water, he really didn’t have a long walk to his humanist themes. 

The big difference, though, is that The Shape of Water is fully two hours long. Creature from the Black Lagoon gets there in 79 minutes, and a substantial portion of that is just thoughtful montages of humans, fish, and fish-men experiencing the freedom of swimming in pristine water. 

Turns out the real monster is: the cold war.

Coming up next: Uh, I’m still editing the next installment, but, Kaiju, certainly.

About Jesse Conlang

Jesse Conlang lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has trained squirrels to operate pens and pencils at his whim. You can probably tell that by the quality of the work.
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