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Posts Tagged ‘31 Monsters’

31 Monsters #11: The Monolith Monsters

October 11th, 2009 No comments

I don’t know that 1957’s The Monolith Monsters was a great film, but I’ve always found it oddly fascinating. Coming out at a time when sci-fi movie monsters came in perhaps four flavors–alien, robot, dinosaur and mutant–it served up a threat which remains unique to this day.

I believe that the first time I saw The Monolith Monsters was in grade school. Once a month or so, George Earle Elementary would offer an afterschool movie, dragging a 16mm film projector into the cafeteria and treating us to the likes of Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster or The Man Called Flintstone.

Strictly speaking, the Monolith Monsters weren’t monsters at all, but rather the remains of a crystalline meteorite with unusual properties. Exposed to water, they began to grow. They did this by absorbing all of the nearby silicon, which had the unfortunate side-effect of petrifying anyone unlucky enough to be in the area. For example, things quickly went south for the little girl who washed the “dirty” rock. (She got better.)

They may not have been monsters, but they were quite definitely monoliths. A rare desert thunderstorm catalyzed the meteor fragments, causing them to grow into towers hundreds of feet tall. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t been so prone to toppling…

The towers fell, shattered…and began to grow again. Pretty soon there was a horizontal avalanche rampaging across the landscape, thirsting for the lake or river that would have allowed to escape the relative containment of the desert and crush the entire nation in its rocky embrace.

Of course, science would eventually save the day. It was the ’50s, after all. But until then, audiences were treated to a singular monster menace.

31 Monsters #10: Vermithrax Pejorative

October 10th, 2009 No comments

The 1981 Disney/Paramount co-production Dragonslayer remains one of the great fantasy films, with arguably the best dragon ever captured on the big screen. Director Guillermo del Toro certainly wouldn’t argue that latter point, which means that he’s set himself quite a challenge in crafting Smaug for his upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit.

The first thing that was notable about Dragonslayer‘s creature was its full name: Vermithrax Pejorative. Trying saying it out loud. Verm-i-thrax Pe-jor-a-tive. Don’t you love the sound that makes? Allegedly, the Latin translates to “The Worm of Thrace Who Makes Things Worse.”

While there have been many film dragons, none has matched Vermithrax for being such a mother of a mover. The bat-winged beast screamed through the clouds like an F-16 fighter jet, blasting the landscape with its flamethrower breath.

Dragonslayer came near the end of the pre-CGI era of special effects, which made its groundbreaking advance in the art of stop-motion animation ironic in hindsight. In a few years, it would be rendered moot by ever-improving computer graphics.

One of the problems with traditional stop-motion–in which an articulated model is moved a fraction of a inch before the next frame of film is exposed–is that each moment is in perfect focus. A real-life moving object leaves a slightly blurred image on each film frame, so even the smoothest stop-motion animation has a strange, unrealistic quality.

For Vermithrax, animator Phil Tippett employed a technique he called “go motion,” which added computer-guided movements during each exposure to blur the image. The effect was startling, and helped make the dragon one of the most convincing movie monsters ever.

But perhaps the most unusual thing about Dragonslayer was its bleak depiction of a high-fantasy medieval setting. Keep in mind that while it was released in the U.S. by Paramount, it was a Disney co-production. Yet there were no singing animals or colorful dresses. The baby dragons weren’t cute, merchandisable critters, but foul slugs seen biting bloody chunks out of the corpse of the brave, young princess. That it wasn’t what the Disney audience expected is a vast understatement.

31 Monsters #9: Lovecraftian Horrors

October 9th, 2009 No comments

As I became aware of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, I found that I had a hard time getting past the names of his cosmic horrors. Really, you want me to be afraid of something called Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young?

After my initial childish glee, I began to take a closer look and found that some of his themes coincided with my own philosophy about the nature of reality. No, I don’t think that there are squid-like, alien gods waiting for their chance to descend upon humanity in an orgy of madness and death. But a central theme of what’s been dubbed “Lovecraftian” fiction is that humans are nothing special. We are not the first inhabitants of Earth by a long shot, nor will we be the last. We are insignificant specks in a unfathomably vast, uncaring universe.

But hey, that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun while it lasts! So here is my handy guide to determine whether you, the reader, are a Lovecraftian horror.

lovecraftflowchart

31 Monsters #8: Gozer the Gozerian

October 8th, 2009 No comments

Movie fans and creative types often decry the “suits” in Hollywood that water down the original concept of a project, but when it came to Ghostbusters, a little interference was a good thing. Dan Ackroyd’s original script was a futuristic tale which took its ghost exterminators on a whirlwind tour of time, space and other dimensions. Producer/director liked the basic idea, but felt the script was essentially unfilmable as written. He and Harold Ramis helped bring the story down to earth and, in my view, were largely responsible for its huge critical and financial success. Of course, an ad-libbing Bill Murray didn’t hurt at all.

Reconceptualizing the ‘Busters as down-on-their-luck professors starting their own business made them much more relatable. Yet it also allowed Ackroyd to fill their mouths with quasi-scientific babble and bizarre references to paranormal phenomena. Consider Murray’s classic retort, “Maybe now you’ll never slime a guy with a positron collider, huh?” Or Ramis’ claim, “I was present at an undersea, unexplained mass sponge migration.” How about this whopper of a speech by a demon-possessed Rick Moranis:

(Gozer) will come in one of the pre-chosen forms. During the rectification of the Vuldronaii, the traveler came as a large and moving Torb! Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the Meketrex Supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Sloar! Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar that day, I can tell you!

One thing that I enjoy about Ghostbusters is that even though the characters (especially Murray’s Peter Venkman) are flippant, the threat itself is serious. I remember that on my first viewing, I saw the otherworldly temple hidden atop a Manhattan skyscraper open up and thought, “This is actually kinda scary.”

The spooky plot was straight out of the H.P. Lovecraft playbook: a confluence of mystic forces threatened to open a gateway to the dimension in which lurked an ancient and terrible god.

The original conception of Gozer was a kindly-looking man (to be played by Paul Reubens) in a nondescript suit, but in the end they went with a somewhat androgynous  Slavic actress with burning red eyes and a bubble-wrap catsuit. This change gave Bill Murray the chance to deadpan “Nimble little minx, isn’t she?”

Just when the boys thought they’d “neutronized” the Sumerian deity, a booming, disembodied voice filled the air:

Subcreatures! Gozer the Gozerian, Gozer the Destructor, Volguus Zildrohar the Traveller has come! Choose and perish!

Gozer wanted them to choose its final, world-destroying form. The ‘Busters tried to clear their heads of random images, but too late: something “harmless” popped into the head of Ackroyd’s character, Ray Stantz.

Which, of course, set up one of the all-time greatest sight gags.

If you’ve only seen Ghostbusters on home video, you were cheated of the HUGE laughter that erupted from a fully-packed movie house when Stantz’ vision came stomping up the street.

It’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

Death was to come in the form of a jolly corporate mascot. And ancient, cosmic entities of evil would never be the same.

31 Monsters #7: Jerry Dandridge

October 7th, 2009 No comments

The first hint that Fright Night was not your typical scare fare was that it featured a vampire named Jerry. It was 1985, a few years before Jerry Seinfeld got his own sitcom, but long after Jerry the mouse emerged from his hole in the baseboard. That’s my way of saying that Jerry was not a name typically associated with bloodsucking undead.

Fright Night predated Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the original film) by seven years, making it an early example of mixing horror and humor in a suburban setting. It was a high-concept premise: a teenage boy named Charley learned that his new next-door neighbor was a vampire. Recruiting the host of the local TV spookfest (the eponymous “Fright Night”), he set out to vanquish the creature before his girlfriend became a permanent member of the night shift.

Chris Sarandon–ex-husband of Susan and later Princess Bride cast member–played Jerry Dandridge for all he was worth. Seductive, sardonic and evil with a capital EEEEE, he was far more than a match for a dorky teen and an aging ham actor.

Dandridge was devilish fun, eating apples to keep his fangs clean and mercilessly taunting poor Charley. In one memorable scene, the teen’s mom “introduced” him to the new neighbor…right in his very own living room. Charley already knew that Jerry was a vampire, and Jerry knew that Charley knew. What’s more, they both knew that, according to the undead rulebook, the bloodsucker had just been granted a permanent invitation to the boy’s house. In front of Charley’s oblivious mother, Jerry teasingly suggested, “Of course now that I’ve been made welcome I’ll probably drop by quite a bit…in fact…any time I feel like it…with your mother’s kind permission of course…”

Now it must be said that, this being 1985, Jerry Dandridge was a bit disco. His big seduction scene with Charley’s girlfriend Amy (played by Amanda Bearse, later a star of Married…With Children) occurred on a crowded dance floor. Thankfully the film avoided ironic references to “Staying Alive.”

In the final act, Charley and movie “vampire killer” Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell, playing an American analogue of Hammer Films star Peter Cushing) entered Dandridge’s house to play “Fright Night…for real.” Standing between them and Amy’s soul was one particularly nasty vampire, his “live-in carpenter” Billy (a Renfield/quasi-vamp) and Amy herself, monstrously transformed into an orthodontist’s worst nightmare.

Gah. I mean, really, gah.

It’s all tremendous fun, a scary, silly tribute to old-school horror with a knowing twist and excellent, pre-CGI effects. And, of course, Jerry Dandridge, smart-ass disco vampire.

31 Monsters #6: The Evil Spawn (aka Me!)

October 6th, 2009 No comments

During my year in Hollywood, I briefly fell in with filmmaker Fred Olen Ray. Still active today, he made a lengthy career out of made-for-home-video exploitation flicks. Thanks to Ray I spent a week in legendary Bronson Canyon alongside Robert Quarry, Robby the Robot and the “Re-Animator” himself, Jeffrey Combs, making the subterranean epic The Phantom Empire. And, in one of the greatest moments of my life, I was kissed on the cheek by Sybil Danning after I drove her home from the set in my clunker. (That’s right, Saint Exmin was in my car. Suck it, beyotches.)

All of which is beside the point, except that I like talking about it. (Especially the kiss.) Plus, it helps to explain how it was I found myself wearing the top only half of a giant insect suit.

Evil Spawn (aka Alien Within, Alive by Night and Deadly Sting) was a rip-off loving tribute to The Wasp Woman. Both were about aging beauties who used experimental formulas to regain their looks, only to turn into ravenous insects by night. (In other words, they were biopics of Megan Fox in the year 2029.)

The uncredited remake was headlined by Bobbie Bresee, who was for a few short years a horror movie “scream queen.” She was also the Playboy Bunny/trophy wife of radio historian Frank Bresee, whose primary contribution to our culture was the drinking board game Pass Out. I saw Bobbie’s big screen debut in Mausoleum while on a drive-in movie date, and first met her at a sci-fi convention in Los Angeles. She personalized her photo “Maybe some day we’ll work together! If you stay in film production.” Little did she know that about six months later I’d be in her bedroom holding a film clapboard in front of her face.

Fortunately, I didn't wind up in Forry Ackerman's bedroom.

After my stellar work on The Phantom Empire–which involved driving a motor home full of feces*–I was invited back to help out for a couple of days on Evil Spawn. Filming took place at Frank and Bobbie’s own house. And so it was that I found myself hovering over Bobbie’s bed, slating the film like no film had ever been slated before.

I found it tremendously off-putting. I was alongside an entire film crew, plus husband Frank. And we were in her actual bedroom, watching her perform actual simulated sex with some other dude. For modesty’s sake, Bobbie undressed under the bedclothes, except for that time when the sheets flipped up and Clapper Boy got a full view. Did I mention that Frank was there?

Later on, I learned that they needed to film a couple of pick-up shots of the titular fiend, and the guy who was normally in the suit wasn’t available. They said, “Hey, you’re the right size!” And so came my first and final appearance as a movie monster.

First we shot a scene in which Bobbie’s screen lover, standing near a sliding glass door, was speared through the chest with an insect claw. My friends, I was that claw. I crouched below the phony chest wearing the hand of the rubber suit and gesticulating madly as the fake blood rained down.

Then it was time for me to enter the belly of the beast. Since the Evil Spawn would never be seen from the waist down–this was the sort of film in which plenty of expenses were spared–there was only an upper half. It did at least have articulated antennae, and Bobbie herself ran the controls for those.

evilspawn02

According to the script, I was supposed to smash through the glass door, but in fact they simply slid it open and let me stumble through the drape. Internally, I thought of every monster I’d ever seen and tried to be my most menacing and horrific. We did several takes. Those drapes were thoroughly menaced, let me tell you.

It was the middle of the night by the time we wrapped, and even Southern California could get pretty chilly around New Year’s. A couple of days later, I caught a horrible cold.

It was at least another half year–after I’d moved back to the Midwest–that I finally got a chance to see my movie debut. It was then that I learned I’d been so good that they’d cut my breakthrough, drapery-shredding role down to about six frames of video. As Evil Spawn taught me, Hollywood fame can be a fickle mistress.

Here’s the entire sequence. Keep in mind that I’m not only the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it monster, I’m also the claw. I’m even the guy holding the “bug vision” lens in front of the camera!

*That’s a story for another day.

31 Monsters #5: The “Midnight” Monster

October 5th, 2009 No comments

Nigh-immortal and able to travel to any point in time and space, Doctor Who often exhibits a “been everywhere, seen that” attitude. Upon meeting the alien menace of the week, others may run and scream. But the Doctor excitedly identifies the slavering beast as a Variegated Ancephalapod from the planet Xextoid VII and points out ancephalapods are susceptible to mood lighting and glazed doughnuts. That tendency to be three steps ahead of the audience can be fun, but it can also rob the mystery and terror from a situation.

What made the 2008 Doctor Who episode “Midnight” deliciously frightening was that for once, the Doctor was completely in the dark. Up against a creature with no name and no face, living on a planet where it shouldn’t even have been able to exist, he had no answers and no defense.

The planet Midnight was a curious place: a resort world on which no known lifeform could last more than a few moments bathed in the “xtonic radiation” of its sun. Humans came to Midnight for brief glimpses of its unearthly crystalline beauty, but at all other times had to be completely shielded against the deadly rays.

While travelling cross-country to the Sapphire Waterfall, the Doctor’s tour bus had a technical problem. The pilots opened the cockpit shield just long enough to take a quick peek at the surroundings. Just as the door closed again, one of them thought he saw a dark shape running toward the bus. But nothing could live on Midnight, could it?

Something began banging on the outside of the windowless cabin, panicking the passengers. With a terrible crash, the cockpit was ripped free, instantly killing the pilots. Then, in the eerie calm that followed, a young woman with whom the Doctor had been chatting appeared to have become possessed by an alien intelligence, only capable of repeating the words of others.

As the Doctor attempted to get a handle on the situation, he noticed that the delay in the woman’s repetition was decreasing. Soon, she was speaking simultaneously. And then, as she began to focus solely on the Doctor’s words, the other passengers realized that she was speaking them ahead of him.

I don’t want to get any further into the details, as it’s an episode you really ought to check out for yourself. It’s the closest that Doctor Who has ever come to a Twilight Zone story, with the Doctor helpless against a busload of increasingly paranoid passengers and a malevolent, mysterious thing.

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31 Monsters #4: Space Slug

October 4th, 2009 No comments

It may very well have been the biggest monster ever, yet it was little more than a throwaway gag. For The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas needed two things: a place for Han Solo and Princess Leia to hide, and a reason for them to leave. Hello, space slug!

Fleeing the Imperial starfleet, our heroes parked their starship in an asteroid cave that turned out to be surprisingly moist. And squishy. And lined with teeth.

It wasn’t until the Millennium Falcon soared out of the mouth of the “collapsing” tunnel that the true nature of the temporary haven was revealed: it was the gullet of a gargantuan beast!

It’s no secret that I’ve always loved giant monsters, and so it was that back in 1980 I was absolutely fascinated by the space slug. According to Star Wars lore it was 900 meters in length, which meant it could gulp down Godzilla whole and still have room for Rodan and King Ghidorah.

I commemorated the scene that year via birthday cake. A puzzled local bakery was asked to reproduce my space slug sketch in frosting. Now that I think back on it, that was kinda odd.

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31 Monsters #3: Mothra

October 3rd, 2009 No comments

Mothra has long struck me as the most Japanese of Japanese monsters. What other culture would give us a city-destroying behemoth in the form of a massive moth?

Part of the first wave of Toho Studios’ colossal creatures, Mothra was unusual on several counts. A female in a male-dominated field, she usually assumed a protective role, coming into conflict with humans only when they threatened her egg or her native worshippers.

She was also killed with alarming frequency, dying on-screen in five of her film appearances. On three occasions, Mothra fluttered off this mortal coil midway through the story, only to be avenged by her offspring.

You may think that made Mothra a rather fragile monster, but don’t be fooled: Mothra could unleash lepidopteran whoop-ass. In her wormlike, larval form she spit sticky silk to entrap her opponents. As an adult, her wings generated hurricane-force winds and filled the air with poisonous scales. In later films she became an absurdly overpowered mystical creature capable of firing energy blasts, transforming into alternate forms (Aqua Mothra! Light Speed Mothra!) and even time travel. That’s right, Mothra travelled through time.

One can’t discuss Mothra without bringing up the two unnaturally tiny women who followed her around. In the original 1961 film they were presumably byproducts of the Pacific nuclear tests which ravaged their home, Infant Island. The wee priestesses shared a telepathic link with each other, as well as with the moth monster herself. One can only speculate as to the full nature of their relationship. (My guess: food source.) And woe to anyone who kidnapped them. Mothra did not take kindly to that, no sir.

Consider this: outside of cameos and stock footage reuse, Mothra was a major player in twelve movies, and the only giant Japanese monster outside of Godzilla and Gamera to headline her own series. Pretty good for a creature that can’t help being attracted to 60-watt light bulbs.

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31 Monsters #2: The Blob

October 2nd, 2009 No comments

The only monster, so far as I know, with a theme song by Burt Bacharach, The Blob is an alien jelly which came to earth via meteorite in the 1958 film of the same name. The low-budget independent flick gained notoriety mostly due to the involvement of a young Steve McQueen, who plays the stereotypical Teen to Whom the Authorities Won’t Listen.

The idea of an all-consuming, ever-growing mass didn’t originate here. Arch Oboler produced his infamous “Chicken Heart” radio drama–in which a scientific experiment created a grotesque glob which literally ate the world–all the way back in 1937, and I’ll bet he wasn’t the first either.

But The Blob was my first exposure, and I’ve always been freaked out by the thought of an indestructible, unstoppable horror that exists only to absorb and consume. As the song goes, “it creeps, and leaps, and glides, and slides across the floor, right through the door.” For much of my childhood, it was the Thing at the Foot of the Bed.

There was a little known sequel called Beware! The Blob, known mostly for being Larry Hagman’s sole big-screen directorial effort, aka “The Film That J.R. Shot.” The first time I saw this movie on late night TV I wound up “watching” most of it from an entirely different room. When a woman walked in on Godfrey Cambridge being devoured all the way up to his neck, I was outta there.

Truth is, however, I much prefer the 1988 remake by Chuck Russell with a screenplay cowritten by Frank Darabont, writer/director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. (The duo previously collaborated on the aforementioned Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, Dream Warriors.) In this one, the Blob was an out-of-control germ warfare project, and the teen heroes were caught between the globular menace and shadowy government conspirators. (I know what you’re thinking, but it pre-dated The X-Files by five years.)

In addition to much-improved special effects, the ’88 Blob was significantly more dangerous. Not only could it ooze through cracks like Blob Classic, but it could shoot out tendrils and even outrun a fleeing human.

Here’s the most memorable scene from the remake:

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