The Many Faces of the Creature Feature

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To investigate the origins of the horror film, it is necessary to discuss the German expressionism movement of the 1920s in films such as Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Der Golem. This time around a genre whose peak was the 1950s and 60s is up for discussion in the creature feature. There is one name that is instantly synonymous with the creature feature and that is Roger Corman. There will be no debate on his prolific output as he is a genre unto itself, much in the same way that Ed Wood was with “the bad movie”. Instead the three films this article will be focusing on are: Godzilla, THEM (!) and Night of the Living Dead.

For those that debate that the zombie film doesn’t feature under the canon of the creature I say this. It may definitely not be an easy argument to make now, but at the inception of the genre as we know it, through George Romero in the late 60s early 70s, the zombie film fit firmly into that formula. This was long before the destruction of this most conceptually terrifying monster through over-exposure and far away from the modern day oversaturation where movies are differentiated by the unnecessary. Colin was defined by its budget (made for £45) and Juan of the Dead (Cuban) & The Dead (African), for their respective countries of origin are pure expressions of the dishevelled state of the undead.

Them! (1954)

Credited as the first American film to use supersized monsters created through nuclear power, Gordon Douglas’ film is surprisingly high-brow compared to its more unashamedly B-Movie cousins. Following a spate of mysterious deaths in New-Mexico, the police along with a government sanctioned biologist (Expert in Myrmecology (the study of ants)) investigate a theory. Given the genre it occupies, this theory is correct there are massive ants. His worse fears have been confirmed, these massive ants are disseminating themselves around Northern America, and inevitably the concept of apocalypse is thrown around.

As is the case with the genre of the time, the effects have dated therefore to get anything from these films you have to turn off any potential cynicism. While not as bad as the “guy in a monster suit” model of monsters, it can be likened to a carnival float, giving the monsters a homey feel. Them places much more value in its contextual statements and subtexts that the fear value of the ant. The ants are always in the background other than a few exchanges in the beginning and the all too cleanly resolved finale. Playing in the foreground and echoed in the Host (2006), the concept of the creature feature is used as a vehicle to reflect the problems of society. The general tone of the subtext is one against the political and militaristic machinations of the time, to cover their own backsides at the expense of the general populous. There are scenes contrary to this which are far from subtle, for instance these are the final lines which are effectively delivered straight to the camera, talking to the viewer directly:

Robert Graham: Pat, if these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?
Dr. Patricia ‘Pat’ Medford: I don’t know.
Dr. Harold Medford: Nobody knows, Robert. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What will he eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.

 

Godzilla (1954)

Godzilla is a strange film for numerous reasons, not only because it was victim to one of the worst remakes in the age of the remake, but also because after his first film he evolved into something of a superhero, or god, fighting off all manner of creatures from King Kong, Mothra and Mecha Godzilla. The original 1954 film directed by Ishiro Honda and starring Kurosawa favourite Takashi Shimura was much closer to horror and the first Kaiju feature (monster movie, literal translation “strange beast”). Based on the ancient mythical sea beast, Gojira, the monster moves from his home on the seabed to eat all the fish depriving a small fishing island, he then moves onto towards mainland Japan and Tokyo destroying the city and killing thousands.

Following on from Them (!), this is another film where the appearance of the monster leaves a lot to be desired, if you cannot suspend disbelief you will not be able to appreciate this classic for what it truly is. At face value it is a simple man versus mythical beast scenario, however like many of the more significant products of the genre there is much more a social and political conscious at work in the subtextual level. After Godzilla has destroyed Tokyo bay he descends back into the sea with all that is left is death and destruction with a soundtrack backing of children singing in a choir, it is beautifully poignant. On a subtextual level, Honda’s film is a work of immense guilt over the Second World War and the nuclear legacy, making a plot point of power and the responsibility of creation through a horrific weapon referred to as “the oxygen destroyer”.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George Romero is a man who finds great value in the downfall of society through his work as a pioneer of the zombie genre and the Crazies. Zombies might have appeared in cinema before Romero’s influential work, the first film being White Zombie (1932) starring Bela Lugosi, which took the would be horror monster from its voodoo origins and framed the concept in a love story. Romero may have made 6 zombie films of decreasing importance, but the one which matters the most is Night of the Living Dead which set us the apocalyptic saga at its early beginnings when the zombie masses are just breaking out, when nobody knew what they were, the cinema going public or the characters. This leads to one of the innumerable siege based films where a small group of people find themselves in a small house with zombies amassing outside, which makes a massive feature out of paranoia and the lack of emotional stability.

Continuing the theme of this article, this is a film with many subtexts some intentional some not. Starting with the unintentional significance in that the lead character is a black man, despite the time it was made in, this is not a statement about the civil rights movement. Instead Duane Jones gave the best audition just as Ken Foree did some ten years later in Dawn of the Dead. Even so, this casting decision is a significant one in the long and arduous issue of racial equality in American cinema. More intentional was the comment on societal issues, in particular the reliance on broadcast media. The men and women who are besieged in this house always have a TV or radio for company to explain the situation, on the other side the media doesn’t sink below broadcasting inaccurate material just to prevent people from switching channel. Furthermore, let’s not neglect to mention that Night of the Living Dead has one of most well-known and iconic bleak endings in cinema.

These films might very well be loosely related via the ideal of the creature feature, a connection which the night of the living dead is loosely related to. Nevertheless there are two strains that connect these films thematically. The first of which is the nuclear agenda. Well nuclear in the loosest sense, to be more specific man-made materials that are of detriment to society and nature as used to create these monsters, whether it is through the nuclear bombing of unoccupied areas or the fallout of radiation bringing the dead back to life. Whether this is true for Romero’s film or it is just a theory to satiate the publics need for answers is never established, yet the inclusion of such a theory highlights the agenda against the (at the time) newest energy source.

A much more meaningful connection is that these films are narratively centred on the atrocities of man over the potential destruction that these monsters could inflict. It might be debatable as to whether you could call any of these films horror in the modern sense of the word. What is much more interesting than that though is through tracking the development of the genre, such works are interested in messages and subtexts within fantastical set-pieces, and then as the genre developed it became more focused on the gore and situational violence, a formula which still holds true today.

– Rob Simpson

 

1 Comment
  1. Bill Mesce says

    As you say, you kind of have to lean back and squint when it comes to the effects in a movie like THEM! and GODZILLA, but you still have to respect the execution. One of the things about THEM! that still works is its DRAGNET-like tone, playing it both straight and diligent in its detailed piece-by-piece putting together of the puzzle. And then that shoot-’em-up finale in the L.A. storm sewers is as cathartic and climax as you could want from a creature flick.
    I still enjoy it: the tight, low-key performances, the atmospheric locations, and an unhurried pace that builds to its big moments. You don’t see that kind of plot orchestration much anymore.

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