The Case For Horror Films, Part 1: Creature/Monster Films
Delving deeper into why monster films are a staple of the horror genre
Before the 1930s, there was no such thing as a “horror” film.
There were suspense films or drama films with “horror” elements, but the genre itself did not exist. In the 1920s, the genre started to emerge with the releases of German expressionist films, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Golem (1915). These films were highly stylized with horrific characters, settings and stories. Through these German films, the heart of the horror genre began to beat. The German expressionist movement heavily influenced future filmmakers who yearned to make movies that scared its audiences.
In 1931, two massive successes cemented the idea that audiences enjoyed being scared. On February 12th, 1931, Dracula premiered to huge fanfare. Newspapers reported that some audience members fainted in their seats from fright. The studio behind the film — Universal Pictures — took a major gamble on Dracula. It was the first film released where the elements of the supernatural were not downplayed or featured any comic relief. This film was meant to scare; it proved successful.
On November 21, 1931, Universal Pictures released Frankenstein, which equalled the praise of Dracula. Though the company released successful “monster” movies in the 1920s, Frankenstein and Dracula captured audiences’ imaginations unlike anything up to that point. Throughout the next couple of decades the studio would release iconic “monster” films, such as: The Mummy (1932), and Murders of the Rue (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933). Today these collection of films are known as the “Universal Monster” films — and propelled the horror genre to a profitable and cinematic genre.
If we are to break down on how the horror genre should be looked at seriously by filmgoers, “monster” films are a great place to start. The creatures that star and scare audiences in these films are as iconic as the Hollywood film stars of any era. This sub-genre of horror films is “Horror 101”. The stories — no matter how complex — in “monster” films strike fear for any film audience: humans being chased/attacked by something much more vicious and barbaric than a human.
However, before diving into the great “monster” films, the definition of a monster should be clear. To me, a monster is something more inhuman than human. The monsters can resemble humans, but they lack the mercy and compassion of a normal human being. Monsters are typically cruel and destructive. They may come from our own towns and cities or outer space.
With that said, let us dive into my favorite monster films and see what makes them great.
Bride of Frankenstein, 1935
Sorry, The Godfather: Part II.
The greatest sequel of all time belongs to James Whale. Four years after the incredibly successful Frankenstein, Universal believed the world needed more stories of Frankenstein. Well, they were right. The Bride of Frankenstein continued the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation — known as “The Monster” and played by horror icon Boris Karloff.
The sequel delved further into the morals of bringing the dead back to life. Dr. Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive, reprieving his role from the first film) is asked to help Dr. Pretorius (played by Ernest Thesiger) to create G0d-like characters. After the tribulations that followed creating “The Monster”, Frankenstein gives up on his scientific endeavors. He is persuaded by Pretorius and threats from “The Monster” to create a mate — a bride. The duo are successful, but “The Bride” rejects “The Monster” — creating chaos.
The Frankenstein films work because as inhuman and volatile as “The Monster” is portrayed, this sequel does try to bring human elements to the creatures in this film. We are meant to feel for the character, which is guided perfectly by Karloff’s performance. Monster films in the future will try to emulate the humanizing connection the audience has with the monster of the film. Some are more successful than others — none more successful than this film.
When it comes to the reveal of “The Bride”, audiences are in similar anticipation as the first film. We are anxious to see how the two monsters will react with one another, because the film has built this connection between us and the monster. When the bride rejects him, we are hurt and terrified as the monster becomes angered and destroys everything in his sight. Though the attempt is to humanize these creations, the results end with destruction. Audiences are left with almost no hope that creations like the monster can really be successful.
This film’s strength is its characters. There is as much good as there is evil in each of the characters. What elevates The Bride of Frankenstein to a classic is the strength of the writing and plot, as well as the horrific setting and themes. A high death count does not equate to a scarier film. As The Bride of Frankenstein proves the horror can come from the morals of strong characters are at horrific to begin with — as they believe they can rise the dead.
The Blob, 1958
Like just about everything over the years, horror films evolved. Instead of creatures coming back from the dead or scientifically created by a mad scientist, the 1950s saw the creatures come from elsewhere.
The Blob was released in the heyday of monster films. Many were considered a B-movie (a low-budget, commercial film) and featured B-movie stars, direction and production that we enjoy today as campy fun. The Blob started out with B-movie status. However, once the film was released, it was moved to feature film status. The production is very much cheesy fun, and the reception stemming from this film is incredibly torn — some loathe; some enjoy greatly.
I recognize what it is — a cheap B-movie — but there are qualities to The Blob that make the film stand out.
The film takes place in the 1940s, where Steve Andrews (played by Steve McQueen in his film debut) and his girlfriend are enjoying a night out at lover’s lane. An old man soon discovers a meteorite has fallen near the teenagers, and, after poking it with a stick, witnesses a oozing blob pour out of the cracked rock. Some blob material attaches to his hand — a painful experience — and Steve hits him with his car. They take the old man to town, where the blob soon grows and terrorizes the neighborhood.
The Blob is one of many famous creature films where the creature comes form outer space. In the 1940s and 1950s, alien invasions were everywhere in the horror genre. What makes the blob — as a creature — so horrific is the blankness of this creature. There are no distinguishing features; it is not humanoid in any way. Audiences immediately are horrified because of this unknown substance that begins consuming humans and everything around it. The blob grows and no one knows how to stop it — or slow it down. Not only is it seemingly unstoppable, the blob looks gross. Its red gooey exterior kind of looks like strawberry jelly.
The film ends on a cliffhanger that brings a more horrific punch to today’s audiences than those in 1958. Frozen in the arctic, the question is asked if this is the last we will see of the blob. Steve Andrews replies, “Yeah, as long as the Arctic stays cold.” That is followed by “The End”, which transforms into a question mark. With the polar ice caps melting on incredibly horrifying speed, will we soon release the blob back into society?
The Blob is an example of having the perfect creature. In terms of technique, The Blob is not cinema’s finest efforts. But, the film was not trying to be that. Those behind the production knew that, and concerted their efforts in making a memorable and horrific creature film. That is the greatest success of The Blob.
Jeepers Creepers, 2001
There are two horror films I saw as a kid that absolutely terrified me, Jeepers Creepers is one of them. We have entered the modern creature films, where the creatures are more sinister and horrific. Gone are the days where the creatures are ambiguous or attempted to have some morals. The creatures from the horror films of the 1990s and 2000s are relentless and gruesome. Higher body counts are what matters to these creatures.
For many of the horror films that fall into that category, the films seem uninspired. The plot is predictable and the characters/creatures fall into a banal existence. Jeepers Creepers is an exception.
Trish and Darry (played by Gina Philips and Justin Long) are siblings. They are driving back from college in a rural area. They drive past a deserted church where they see a figure dumping bodies from an old, beat-up truck down a chute. They are pursued by the truck, but after a few shocking moments, the truck drives off. The two teens are paranoid and go back to investigate. They soon find this figure is stashing bodies in an underground lair — and they have become the next targets.
The imagery and make up of the Creeper is truly top notch horror. With limited characteristics (this film’s sequel delved more into the Creeper’s past and how he moves about), we see him as a brute force against anything that comes in his way. In the chase scene at the beginning of the film, the Creeper uses his big truck to try to drive the teens off the road. He does not succeed, but his tenacity to kill is horrifying. He shows no mercy toward any victim, distancing himself from a human mindset. The Creeper kills to regenerate; he’s made up of the skins of his victims. That is all that is human about him.
Beside how the Creeper moves and operates, the setting and filmmaking is adds to the horrific nature of this film. The film looks scary. There is a late summer vibe to the film, where the heat and sweaty nature of the day oozes from the picture. There some iconic shots that are incredibly well directed. The chase scene is well-known, but, right before the teens are chased, they spot the Creeper sending bodies down a chute. We squint to see what and who this is — not really getting a great look — but what we can make out sends a cold shiver down our spines.
The killings in this film are ruthless and gross. Yet they work, and perfectly capture what the Creeper can do. The Creeper is a great mix of human (physical) and inhuman (everything else) about him. He is the perfect creature to terrorize the film’s characters and any viewer. It takes a full on battle to defeat the Creeper, an awesome climax to a successful horror film. To add a completely chilling vibe, the film co-opts the namesake song, which is played with an incredibly horrific image at the end. It’s sure to give you nightmares. The classic song may be sweet enough to sing along to, but used here, it is equally as chilling.
There are tons of fabulous creature horror films to discuss. Jaws. The Thing. Tremors. I could write for weeks on end about all the different creature films. However, these three are the ones I singled out, because they work as cinematic films and will scare the crap out of you. If you have not already, check out all three of these films.
Check back next week where I dig deeper into the slasher genre.