For as long as I can remember, creature features have been my favourite genre within horror movies.
It was Jaws that started it for me. As a very young child it terrified me so much I didn’t actually learn to swim until I was 33 years old. It was the very first summer blockbuster and although it was not the first creature feature by any means, it did write the blueprint for many great ones to come. It taught us that nature is a bell-end and that mankind can win if it’s willing to blow shit up.
A characteristic of Jaws that the rest of my beloved films don’t share is the massive mainstream success. Creature features often fly under the radar of cinema goers and most are straight to rental. Many of their actors have gone on to have massive careers, though I fear these films may not have been a contributing factor.
The turning point for creature features was the implementation of CGI. All of a sudden the cost of adding the occasional T-rex to a film was greatly reduced. I firmly believe the parts of Jurassic Park with the animatronic T-rex are better than the CGI bits. It was this film after all, that really opened the eyes of directors to the scope of what computers could do. However, instead of asking “could we?” they should have asked “should we?”
Now, there are great examples of CGI in the genre, with films such as Deep Rising and Lake Placid coming to mind, and then there are some truly awful ones. Any given Anaconda movie for example. One channel has however made its life’s work the ceaseless churn of as many of these CGI monstrosities as is humanly possible, The SYFY Channel.
They seem to have a new film out every week involving actors you were certain were dead and an increasing list of unlikely creature mashups. We’ve all seen Sharktopus and Piranhaconda but what no-one seems to have realised is where they stole this idea from. It’s the fucking Wuzzles.
Rhinokey, Mooseal, and Bumblelion would be spinning in their tiny graves if they saw what had become of the Wuzzles legacy.
The effects in these movies are just terrible, involving a skill level on par with making your ZX Spectrum draw a square. They seem to have embraced this terribleness and positively run with it. Each new film has to be in some way bigger or more stupid than the last. How do you top Two-Headed Shark Attack? Three-Headed Shark Attack, obviously. As cheap as these films are to make, the sheer volume they produce must cost a fortune. It would be cheaper to just have Dean Cain’s face etched onto the moon with a laser.
Luckily for us fans of practical effects there seems to be somewhat of a resurgence with upcoming releases such as the new Lance Henriksen movie Harbinger Down featuring The Thing-esque creature effects.
Instead of just bemoaning the advent of CGI I thought I would share with you my favourite three creature features made without a computer in sight. These are not highbrow masterpieces of cinema but rather enjoyable blobs of escapism. If you haven’t seen them watch them right away.
I will always remember going to the local video shop one Saturday afternoon and discovering the first film on my list, Tremors. In the years before the advent of CGI you had to find a way to do the effects practically and within a much tighter budget than today. How about putting your bad guy underground? Make it so that you only really have to see snake-like tongue appendages when it strikes. Hey presto, you have a Graboid.
By creating a totally new type of creature, they made life easier for themselves. You have no frame of reference to say whether it is realistic or not. Being underground for large portions of the action sequences meant that they merely had to drag something under the surface of the sand to emulate its travel. The exact same principal as Jaws with the fin and the cello.
Fred Ward and a pre-EE Kevin Bacon are great leads but it’s the bizarre casting of Michael Gross (the dad from Family Ties) as the gun-mad survivalist Burt Gummer, that really makes the film. Who didn’t want to go dynamite fishing after watching this? The film also sparked the worldwide resurgence in pole-vaulting, bringing it back to the olympics and into schools everywhere (I have not verified these facts but I’m sure they are true).
As previously mentioned, this was all achieved with practical effects, not a single computer was harmed in the making of this film. You won’t see a 30 foot foam dinosaur worm in the Hobbit and if you did it would be voiced by Ben Kingsley and have a shitty backstory involving dwarves or something.
Next on my list is a werewolf offering from Neil Marshall, the fantastic Dog Soldiers. British squaddies hunted by werewolves, what’s not to love? It borrows generously from other genre big guns; Aliens, Predator, and the aforementioned Jaws, but adds a brilliantly British sense of humour to the mix.
Using Spielberg’s tactic of keeping your antagonist off screen till the final showdown meant that CGI was unnecessary and the werewolf effects are relatively basic. This works brilliantly though, helped along by some inspired gore.
If you haven’t seen it, imagine everything that’s wrong with the werewolves in Underworld… it’s the opposite of that. Even the setting works to its advantage. Rural Scotland is not supposed to be scary but this film makes it feel savage and oppressive. Like urban Scotland.
The real surprise for me was the script. It’s genuinely funny throughout, with a great performance from Sean Pertwee in particular. They even manage a homage to Pulp Fiction and a Matrix joke. Everything from the talk round the campfire to the preparations for the final attack are perfectly paced and naturally delivered. If more films featured a werewolf siege, I would go to the cinema more often. Fact.
Two of the main cast members Kevin McKidd and Liam Cunningham have gone on to star in some of the biggest programs on TV, Grey’s Anatomy and Game Of Thrones respectively. I, however, will always remember Kevin as the youngest priest lost in Ireland’s largest lingerie department. This is surely the highlight of his career.
What’s scarier than sharks and Graboids combined? Aliens? Bears? Alien bears? No, the answer is spiders! Big spiders. Not giant spiders mind, Eight Legged Freaks was a bit shit. I’m talking about Arachnophobia, the best spider film of the 90s.
Arachnophobia took practical effects to the next level by featuring real spiders. Even the large spider at the end is a bird eating spider with glued on leg extensions! This amuses me mostly for the thought of a special effects guy explaining to his wife that today he put stilts on a spider.
It’s the little spiders though that are the truly nasty ones. They used hundreds of them to scare the hell out of audiences and created the job of ‘spider wrangler’. It saddens me to think of the poor guy, so excited that he’s the first of his kind, blissfully unaware that he would never work again.
As if masses of spiders weren’t enough, the film also features a massive John Goodman. He plays a lovable exterminator, a role seldom seen in films nowadays due to its murdery vibe. It’s a great role and almost enough to make us forget about his next comic turn in King Ralph.
Add in Jeff Daniels and a soupçon of Julian Sands and you have a recipe for the perfect B movie cast. Interesting fact, you can still get Julian Sands to appear in any given film for about $150.
Though Arachnophobia did quite well in cinemas it was still a B movie creature feature at heart. It doesn’t take itself seriously for a second and neither should you. But that isn’t the point of these types of movie. They are pure escapism and at the very least, terrible survival guides.
These are just three of my favourites, there are loads of great films of this ilk out there. Starting in the 50s with the likes of Tarantula and Gila Monster through to the 70s classics like Snowbeast. Honorary mentions also go to the 80s gems Deepstar Six, Piranha, and Leviathan, all of which are worthy of your time and popcorn.
Go now switch off the part of your brain that thinks The King’s Speech was a good idea and lose yourself in a world where a slightly bigger than normal spider can nearly kill a man with a rack of wine.
For more cult movie madness and slightly wayward film analysis, check out our movie features section including these horror movies you missed because you’re too high-brow.