I am not a big horror film fan. Quite the opposite, in fact I don’t think I have ever seen a horror film in a cinema. I genuinely do not see the appeal in having the shit scared out of me by a film, I would much rather be exhilarated or reduced to hysterics by one. But I am rather fond of a good creature feature. Those over the top pieces that occasionally transcend their B-movie roots and turn out to be something much more. I decided to check out three supposedly great ones from very different eras to see what they could offer.
The Wolf Man (1941) recently received the big-budget Hollywood remake treatment starring amongst others Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt. When the remake came out a number of retrospective reviews appeared on the original. The ones I read were in general not overly positive. Whilst not deriding the film outright they did state it had dated quite badly, was inferior to other creature features of the time and was basically quite average. Well, unsurprisingly for a film close to 70 years old, it has dated a lot. But that was the only thing that I agree with from these reviews. This movie was a very big, very happy surprise for me. Firstly, the central performance by Lon Chaney Jr in the role of Lawrence Talbot/Wolfman is one with few peers in film. His performance is towering, emotive and close to perfection. Physically he is a large, lumbering man but manages to convey everything from kind-hearted tenderness to lustful yearning to uncontrolled animalistic rage with ease.
The story opens with Lawrence returning to the family home. His brother has passed away and there is clearly a lot of tension between Lawrence and his father, resulting from Lawrence’s actions in the past. These tensions are put to bed early in the film allowing Lawrence seemingly to get on with the task of wooing the attractive Gwen from across the road, and focusing on his employment with his father. Things go downhill fast for him though – The lady across the road turns out to be engaged, he hears legends of a werewolf from numerous sources and in fighting off a wolf that is attacking a friend during a tense scene, he is bitten in the exchange. Suspicion is aroused when under examination his bite wounds appear not to exist, and an elderly gypsy man is found dead where he felled the wolf. Our hero Lawrence is now a fully fledged werewolf. Strangely for a Hollywood film there is very little hope for our hero. The only way for a werewolf to be killed is by a silver bullet (or being bashed to death with a silver implement). No alternative way out is offered for Lawrence and in the end he attempts to flee in order to protect those he loves, like Gwen and his father. The story is fantastic, simple yet dripping with emotion, conflict and tragedy. Narratively it does seem a little wonky. The first appearance of the Wolfman is not until two-thirds in. But the result of this is that when Lawrence does suffer this inescapable curse, the audience cares so much more.
Somewhat surprising for a creature feature, this is a very well made film. It is atmospheric with abundant shots of the forest, all shadows and slanting light. Director George Waggner renders some real tension in a number of scenes, notably the initial wolf attack and the excellent finale. Whilst the film is not at all scary for a modern audience, this finale does manage to shock. The final attack on Gwen is quite vicious and the fact the Wolfman is killed by his father is also somewhat ironic. It also manages to surprise, after a sense of inevitability has built up due to the doomed fate of the Wolfman. As mentioned earlier, the performance of Chaney Jr is truly special. He brings a wonderful humanity and vulnerability to this ‘monster’. Chaney Jr essentially nails two roles here. The out of control beast and perhaps even more brilliantly done, Lawrence in non-wolf form as he exhibits the descent of a man wracked by mental illness. The performances throughout the film are excellent, Claude Rains playing Chaney’s father Sir John Talbot is also excellent. A character whose motivations are at times uncertain and who develops a complex relationship with Chaney’s Lawrence. In the end though Rains is able to convey the father’s love that Sir John feels for his son, and exhibits in the ultimate way in the film’s finale. The big moment for any werewolf film is the ‘transformation’ scene. How do you go from wolf to man? Lacking the technology required for a full-frontal transformation as seen in a film such as An American Werewolf in London (1981), Waggner gets around this creatively. At the point of each transition he zooms into Chaney’s feet. Using primitive time-lapse photography the feet sprout extremely long hair. The camera retreats to a full shot of Chaney, now clad in the Yak hair trimmings of the Wolfman. It sounds pretty bad, but works excellently, with the feet sprouting hair a wonderful touch. If only this sort of creativity and lateral thinking was not exhibited more often today, rather than resorting to mindless CGI.
This film drew me right in and then blew me away. The core trial that the main character was going through felt very grounded and real, even though it had the fantastical trimming of the fact that he was turning into a werewolf. The acting was absolutely fantastic with Chaney’s one of the best performances ever committed to film. I also felt that this didn’t suffer from some of the corniness issues that plague other monster flicks of his vintage, not being afraid to ramp up the violence or deliver things the audience did not necessarily desire plot wise.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
David Cronenberg’s remake The Fly (1986) was the director’s breakout film and one which established his name in mainstream film circles. It tells the story of scientist Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum, who is developing a teleportation device, and his short-lived romance with the gorgeous “Particle Magazine” journalist Veronica Quaife played by Geena Davis. Brundle is fused genetically with a fly when one makes its way into one of the pods the first time that he attempts to teleport himself. This initial teleportation exposes some pretty cartoony special effects which really show the film’s 25 odd year age. The script exhibits some pretty snappy dialogue early on, which definitely brought a smile to my face. When Veronica is interviewing Seth on tape after an early failure (preserved for all time on Betamax) she repeatedly asks what he is thinking, to which he retorts “Fuck is what I’m thinking.” These early scenes also show some flashes of real gore. I didn’t find the film continually gory, but there were some gross out scenes sprinkled through. The first comes when Brundle’s teleportation device manage to turn a baboon literally inside out because it can’t handle the breakdown and reanimation of flesh. My personal favourite of these gory inserts in the film comes when Seth, on the prowl for a bedfellow who is willing to be teleported, challenges a man to an arm wrestle in a bar. He beats the thug comprehensively when he snaps his forearm, breaking the skin, which Cronenberg chooses to show unflinchingly. This scene also leads to the film’s most iconic line when Veronica warns the woman that Brundle has picked up to “be afraid, be very afraid.”
I didn’t find the central romance all that believable or well drawn. It would take a bit more convincing for me to believe that Davis’ smokin hot journalist would fall for Goldblum’s uber-geek that quickly. She essentially throws herself down and begs him to take her. It just doesn’t ring true. The immediate disintegration of their relationship following Seth’s teleportation is better handled though. Some of the film’s more chilling moments arrive here, with Seth trying to force Veronica into the telepod to undergo the same “purifying” that he has undergone. In his mind you are only half a person until you have undergone the procedure. Echoes of modern sentiments which promote the latest surgical procedure or drug to make you jump higher, fuck longer and look hotter. From here much of the film shows Brundle’s transformation into Brundlefly, or for those who haven’t seen the film, the fly aspect fused to Brundle begins to take precedence over the human one. Pretty soon Goldblum is unrecognisable under the layers of prosthetics he is covered in. These prosthetics, whilst impressive, are at times rather comical. Today these scenes would probably be done with CGI, who knows if that would be any better (we may all know soon, supposedly Cronenberg himself is planning a remake). Aspects throughout this period are touching. Veronica refuses to give up and is continually trying to help Seth. No matter how grotesque his appearance becomes, she does not shy away from him either physically or personally. This culminates in her giving him a reassuring hug after his gnarled ear falls off.
The three central performances are all good. Davis is bright and bubbly, and probably delivers the films standout performance. When her character becomes pregnant with Brundle’s child, Davis delivers one of the film’s more famous scenes when during a disturbing dream sequence she gives birth to a larva. Goldblum likewise is good with what he is given, although personally I found his character to be a bit of a cutout. He could have done with some more nuances, especially after undergoing his transformation. I recognise that he is meant to be losing some level of his sanity, but his treatment of Veronica straight after the incident doesn’t marry well with his behaviour beforehand, or the attempts by him to make peace with her later in the film. John Getz is also excellent as Stathis Borans although his character suffers from similar issues as Goldblum’s. Initially he is the sleazy, ex-boyfriend boss, breaking into Veronica’s apartment and stalking her. And Getz plays this character really well, I personally was cheering for his downfall. Then with a click of the script’s fingers he is Veronica’s shoulder to cry on, trying to help Brundle and trying to win the girl back, but with none of the sleaze he previously displayed. If you can get over his earlier actions, Stathis becomes a hero to cheer for in the film’s second half. He bravely enters Brundlefly’s den to rescue the kidnapped Veronica at the film’s conclusion.
I was expecting The Fly to occupy a similar philosophical space as The Wolf Man, the main character going through existential dread as he realises his inescapable fate, and attempts desperately to fight against it. But in reality this was a minor concern of the film, although it does come up when Brundle briefly begs for Veronica to help him. For the most part the more and more mentally unstable Seth is content with his newfound physical attributes and embraces them. One similarity between the films is the sexual overtones. In The Wolf Man Lawrence’s transformation into the Wolfman is preceded by his pursuit of Gwen, who is already engaged. Seth’s great power that he acquires following his experiment manifests itself as an insatiable sexual appetite. Much has been made of this film being a love story between Brundle and Veronica. Personally I think this is overstated. If anything I think the great love throughout the film (especially its second half) is the love and devotion Stathis has for Veronica. The film finishes with Seth attempting to carry out a Frankenstein-esque experiment to create the “ultimate family” by genetically fusing himself, Veronica and their unborn child together. These late attempts by Brundle to regain his ‘human-ness’ are quite interesting. For me, the whole film overall would have been a much better piece if there was more of this, rather than just trying to show of a succession of prosthetic masterpieces.
Whilst this is a good film, for me it never really rose to any towering heights and falls short of being a classic. But the performances are good; Goldblum as Seth Brundle, and Geena Davis is absolutely outstanding as Veronica Quaife, making you wish she was seen on screen more these days. With its lashings of gore, and innovative prosthetics you can see why this is a bit of a touchstone for 80s horror film, but it only stands up ok nowadays.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
The final stop on my chronological journey through the creature feature brought me to the South Korean film The Host (2006) directed by Bong Joon-Ho. This film made a pretty huge splash when it appeared, garnering a whole lot of critical acclaim and in addition making a whole lot of money, becoming the highest grossing South Korean film in history. So does it match the hype? Well early on it does. The highlight for me comes around the ten minute mark. In a fantastic and unconventional scene the monster is revealed. For starters, the boldness shown to reveal the focus of the film so early works brilliantly. Instead of giving us glimpses and shadows for an hour like many films would, this one hits you between the eyes with it straight away. Next, this scene happens slowly and in broad daylight. It is not cheap shock that is being aimed for. The amphibious being stretches out from the underside of the bridge it is clinging to and slowly drops itself in the bay. Whilst the attempt is not to shock, this initial glimpse of the creature does make the skin crawl. The amphibious being, whilst clearly fake but still looks exceptionally cool. And the violent rampage that follows, featuring gnarly tail whippings, shows us this is not a creature to be messed with. This is the best clip I could find of it (unfortunately it cuts off some of the brilliant initial slow reveal):
It is a shame that, at least in my opinion, the film does not hit these heights again. But then again most films, of this genre or otherwise, never manage to soar that high even once. In fact the film starts brilliantly. The scene preceding the one I have described above sees two fishermen fishing in the bay as ominous Jaws-esque music plays in the background. One fisherman catches a strange looking fish in a cup which he eventually lets go. The inference here is obviously that this strange looking fish goes on to become the film’s beast. This is only a little detail, but for some reason I love it. The fact that the creature could have been nipped in the bud before growing larger than a fish is a wonderful notion to ponder.
The story follows a single father trying to locate his only daughter after the monster takes her. The heart-wrenching scene where his daughter is taken is beautifully done, with no sound until the final, emphatic splash of the monster entering the water with her in its jaws. Along the way he and his dysfunctional family (father, sister, brother) are hindered by the Korean bureaucracy and the American military. The father figure is a strange choice for a horror movie hero. He clearly loves his daughter terribly and will do anything he can to make her proud, such as saving up all the coins he can steal from his father’s shop to buy her a new phone. His parenting attempts are also occasionally misguided, such as when he informs his daughter that its “time for a cold one” and cracks open a beer for her. As the film goes on we learn more about his backstory which explains a lot of these inadequacies and his tendency to fall asleep at pretty much any time. I found the characters of his brother and sister less endearing, and I am not sure that I was meant to. They acted horribly toward him, blaming him for the loss of his daughter and also acting as if she is more important to them, than to her father. This is definitely a B-movie though. Some of the acting (especially by a number of the American actors) is pretty woeful and at times the action scenes can be pretty average. Even worse are the occasional attempts at humour which fall ultra flat, see the man in the biohazard suit falling slipping over repeatedly for example. The film struggles when it gets too far away from the monster which is its real strength. The hospital scenes, whilst chilling, go on far too long. Something that is going for the film are the settings, especially the grimy, industrial sewers where the monster maintains it’s lair which really ramps up the atmosphere. Another standout scene takes place here where the girl tries to use the sleeping beast as a ramp but gets plucked out of the air by a tentacle.
There is much social commentary littered through this film of you’re into that kind of thing. There are plenty of anti-American pot shots and some interesting commentary on environmental issues. Some of it very heavy-handed, but equally some is nicely done. The first scene in which the monster is revealed sees the crowd on the bank rather than flee in terror, instead pelt it with rubbish. The monster is created through Americans dumping toxic chemicals and the role of the American military once they get involved is not portrayed in an overly positive manner. More interesting to me were the constant references to the notion of ‘seori’, where people steal out of necessity. How malicious is the monster really? It is not killing for fun, just to feed and stay alive. Not really any different a man stealing food to feed his family.
This is a film with some wonderful aspects, but I don’t think that it’s that much of an essential one. It is best when defying convention such as in the early sequences, and in not giving the audience the happy ending we are expecting. It does feel like it drags a bit though, and when away from the monster the B-acting and script can be a bit disappointing.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs