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The Best Post-Harryhausen Creature Features

by Dominic Corry, from Eating Movies, July 28 2011,

For someone who never directed a movie, Ray Harryhausen casts a long shadow over modern cinema. As the special effects guru behind eye-popping monster sequences in films such as Mysterious Island (1961); Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), among countless others, Harryhausen’s devotion to creating memorable creatures had a profound effect on the first film school generation of filmmakers (Spielberg, Lucas et al) who grew up dazzled by his movies.

The Harryhausen era is far behind us now, with his stop-motion stylings replaced by practical effects in the ’80s, and then by CGI in the ’90s, but his influence permeates. Since watching (and loving) Super 8, I’ve been thinking more and more about generational influences among filmmakers, so for this week’s blog I’m gonna talk about some of the best “Creature Features” to have been released since Harryhausen stopped making movies.

I’m not adhering to a strict definition of the term, which I am employing principally for its appealing retro-sounding quality. For the sake of this article, let’s say it means awesome movies in which cool monster(s) have a significant role to play.

To avoid covering oft-travelled ground, I am excluding films from the Star Wars; Alien; Predator and Jurassic Park series, as nobody needs to be alerted to their existence, although they mostly qualify in one way or another.

While he doesn’t quite incite the hatred of someone like Resident Evil director Paul W. S. Anderson, writer/director Stephen Sommers gets very little love from film fans. Probably best-known for 1999′s The Mummy re-boot (which I thought was fantastic, although the sequel sucked-balls) and 2009′s G.I. Joe movie (which I have a guilty pleasure soft-spot for), he made his name in the early ’90s with Disney-produced adaptations of Huckleberry Finn and The Jungle Book.

Their moderate success lead to his getting to write and direct what I’d like to believe was his dream project – a crazy action adventure monster movie called Deep Rising. The film was a flop upon its release in 1998 and went straight to video in NZ with a cover so crappy it looked like it should be starring Michael Paré or Jack Scalia.

But no, the lead is Hair star Treat Williams, fresh off his ever-so-slightly career rejuvenating role in 1995′s post-Pulp Fiction wannabe Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead. He plays a mercenary who finds himself stuck on an empty luxury liner in the middle of the Pacific with a bunch of blood-thirsty hijackers, played an amusingly diverse group of stalwart character actors. There’s a native American (Wes Studi); an African (Djimon Hounson); a Brit (Jason Flemyng); an Australian (Trevor Goddard) and…a Maori, played of course by Cliff Curtis.

Also onboard is a slimey cruise director (played by The Silence of the Lambs‘ memorably creepy warden Anthony Heald); a slinky jewel thief (a nascent Famke Janssen) and Williams’ whining assistant, essayed by recurrent Stephen Sommers player Kevin J. O’Connor.

Although they all have conflicting motivations for being there, nobody can work out what caused all the passengers to disappear. I guess I shouldn’t give it away here, as the film teases it out for quite a while, but discern what you will from the fact that it was originally titled “Tentacles”…

I love Deep Rising. A lot. It’s criminally underseen, and well-worth seeking out. If you like this sort of thing. Attacked at the time for being derivative of Aliens, it takes itself much less seriously than that criticism suggests, and has all sorts of gruesomely over-the-top set-pieces and shockingly violent death scenes. Not too mention one of the coolest movie monsters since Harryhausen’s day. The humour is alternately cheesy and black, but it works.

The ending tantalisingly sets up a sequel we are guaranteed never to see. Despite the atrocity that was Van Helsing, I would love to see Sommers take on a monster movie again.

Described upon it’s release time as “a B-movie with an A-budget”, Tremors (1988) was a moderate success that has grown into a full-blown cult classic, and deservedly-so.

A spirited Kevin Bacon and the great Fred Ward (Remo; Miami Blues – both worth watching) play a couple of handymen keen to escape their tiny Nevada town of Perfection. But on the day they finally gather the gumption to leave, their isolated community is beset by giant underground killer worms.

A knowing throwback to ’50s monster movies, Tremors has a much better script than the above quote promises. It’s characters are all beautifully drawn, and the film gets a lot of milage of their post-modern awareness, well before such devices were run into the ground. One awesome scene has the townsfolk becoming impatient with a visiting scientist when she can’t explain the worms’ origins.

The expansive desert settings recalls the ’50s movies that inspired it, and is utilised for a series of cool set-pieces.

Ward is at his grizzled best here, and Family Ties‘ hippy dad Michael Gross is great as a right-wing nutjob whose ardent militarism comes in handy when the town is under siege.

The film didn’t light up the box office, but proved an enduring succes on video, which resulted in a surprisingly good straight-to-video sequel featuring Ward and Gross, but not Bacon. Ward didn’t participate in a not-as-good third film, and Gross saw the franchise through to a Western prequel AND a short lived TV series.

Despite the diminishing returns of all the follow-ups, the original remains as fresh as ever, and marks a high-point in practical in-camera monster effects.

The 2002 horror comedy Eight Legged Freaks, directed by New Zealander Ellory Elkayem, very conciously attempted to evoke the same tone as Tremors, but alas, it failed.

Hollywood history buff and filmmaker John Landis’ reverence for Harryhausen informs his 1981 classic, An American Werewolf in London. The film combines genuine scares and consistent laughs with a degree of success rarely matched since.

Landis told creature make-up expert Rick Baker he wanted to show the werewolf transformation in full-lighting to differentiate from the dissolves and shadows that traditionally assisted in obscuring sub-par werewolfising. Baker stepped up with aplomb, resulting in one of the most memorable sequences in modern film history. The physical horror of transforming into a wolf has never been more painfully evoked, and again makes one nostalgiac for the era of air-bladders and practical make-up effects.

I love the glimpse of a plastic Mickey Mouse at 2:04. In the early 80s, John Landis was planning a remake of the 1954 classic The Creature From The Black Lagoon (in 3D!), which fell over at the last minute. We can only imagine how awesome that would’ve been.

One of the last gasps of the Harryhausen style of stop-motion creature effects came with the 1981 fantasy Dragonslayer. Industrial Light and Magic legend Phil Tippet helped develop a new style of stop-motion animation for the film called Go Motion, in which computer-controlled movements would occur as each frame of film was shot, so as to create the illusion of motion blur, which stop-motion was often criticised for lacking. It’s interesting to theorise how far these kind of pratical effects would’ve gone were it not for the introduction of CGI. Tippet managed to transition into the computer world however, and oversaw the fantastic alien monster CGI in Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 masterpiece Starship Troopers, itself a marvellous creature feature.

Dragonslayer is an interesting film but suprisingly grim and slow-moving for a Disney movie. There’s atmosphere to burn though, and it’s worth checking out for the dragon, which in addition to go-motion effects, was also portrayed with a large scale model.

The late ’80s saw a mini-trend of sci-fi movies set at the bottom of the ocean. James Cameron’s The Abyss is the best rememebered, but it’s B-movie brethren DeepStar Six and Leviathon, both contain noteworthy (practical) monsters and several inventively gruesome deaths.

1990′s Steven Spielberg-produced Arachnophobia holds up incredibly well, and must be one of the only creature features to feature actual creatures, as opposed to effects, playing the monsters. The spiders in question, in case anybody has forgotten, were sourced from little ol’ New Zealand.

Legendary indie auteur John Sayles (Lone Star; Matewan) famously wrote the script for Joe Dante’s Jaws-wannabe Piranha (1978), and lent it an unmistakable air of satire. Less remembered, but equally worth checking out, is 1980′s Alligator, to which Sayles also brought his subtle wit. Less witty, but also fun, is the more recent crocodile thriller Lake Placid, which I was thinking about while watching the trailer for the upcoming cheese-fest Shark Night 3D. I am looking forward to this movie.

2008′s Cloverfield was hugely hyped at the time, but seems to have been forgotten quite quickly. I loved it’s neo-Godzilla stylings, and has me hyped for a new Godzilla movie, to which Monsters director Gareth Edwards is attached. If nothing else, Cloverfield proved that the undying crappiness of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla can easily be left behind.

The 2007 South Korean film The Host is filled with the kind of craziness the South Koreans specialise in, but its monster moments are all awesome.

The Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont’s 2007 Stephen King adaptation The Mist has more than its fair share of faults, but remains a relentlessly interesting film with rad monsters that should be viewed by any genre fan.

Final creature feature shout-outs must also go to: awesome cheesy shark thriller Deep Blue Sea (1999); Peter Jackson’s hastilly dismissed King Kong remake (penis monsters yo!) and NONE of the SyFy or Asylum movies like Mega Python vs. Gateroid or Sharktopus. I really wish I could see these as modern-day equivalents of ’50s and ’60s era B-movies, but I think they’ll need a few decades worth of distance to achieve their true camp value.

To finish, I would also like to confess my undying affection for 1997′s revelling in it’s B-ness Anaconda, which inspired many a crappy straight-to-video rip-off (Python; Python 2; Boa Vs. Python. I could go on…).

Aren’t monster movies great? What are your favourite creature features? Also, why has there never been a decent Yeti/Abominable Snowman/Sasquatch movie? Can that exist please?