For Love of Monsters

Of the main Universal lineup, the creature from the Black Lagoon has been the monster least frequently re-adapted in other movies. We’ve seen plenty of variations of Dracula, to say nothing of the countless other vampire movies out there. Frankenstein gets reborn every few years, and homages to him and the Bride are commonplace. The mummy has been successfully (and unsuccessfully) remade. The wolf-man also got a remake and has a whole pack of other werewolf movies to keep him company. The gill-person has been paid far less tribute, with a few notable exceptions like Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies.

Given that Guillermo Del Toro – an avowed fan of the Universal monsters – was the director of those two movies, it’s quite appropriate that he should give us the definitive modern take on the creature in 2017’s The Shape of Water. He may also have made the final successful reinterpretation of a Universal icon.

The basic premise of the movie is well-known: woman falls in love with a creature who is a clear take on the creature from the Black Lagoon. The slightly longer version is that a team of people on the edges of society band together to protect each other and the creature from the real monster, a walking incarnation of toxic white American masculinity. In the mid-century U.S. society, dominated as it is by company men and the nuclear (white) family, our human heroes are a woman who can’t speak, an older gay man fighting for professional relevance, a black woman relegated to janitorial work, and a Russian spy who’s too good-hearted for his field.

The lines are cleanly drawn. Good characters are clearly good, evil characters are clearly evil, and the creator’s viewpoint is never in doubt. This is not a story of tortured antiheroes or moral complexity.

Of course, one doesn’t watch a Del Toro movie for narrative ambiguity. No, one watches a Del Toro movie for two things: visual splendor and a clearly active imagination. In both of those respects, the movie is a clear success.

The creature’s design is a triumph. Del Toro’s insistence on using practical effects keeps him grounded and real in a way too many computer-generated beings aren’t. Frequent Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones brings the creature to life with his trademark ease, including a few moments of collaborative homage where Jones’s performance and Del Toro’s shooting call back to the original denizen of the Black Lagoon. (For example, the way the creature’s hand reaches out of the water and settles one finger at a time seems a direct shout-out to similar moments in the original.)

The rest of the movie is gorgeous, too, as one expects of Del Toro. Color sets tone, draws attention, and reinforces character. The camera’s attention and movement keep the audience stimulated, seeing the expected in unexpected ways or adding the fairy-tale-esque sensation common to many of the director’s more personal projects like Pan’s Labyrinth. Tributes to movies of the past exist in big and small ways, including the movie theater under our protagonist’s apartment (big), the way her apartment itself is shot (small), and the bold injection of a black-and-white song-and-dance number daydream sequence (very, very big).

In other words, The Shape of Water is in conversation with cinematic history, and the discussion spans genres and eras. This particular combination of big-R Romantic sensibility with B-movie aesthetic touches and children’s-story morality is exactly the kind of thing one expects from Del Toro.

If anything, that is the movie’s biggest weakness. We are never not aware that we are watching Del Toro play out his personal interests on the screen. For those who share his interests and delight in the way he combines them (as I do), that makes the movie a delicious treat. What it doesn’t have is the same emotional intensity as Pan’s Labyrinth, which remains Del Toro’s best work to date. For those who aren’t down with Del Toro’s genre mash-up and love notes to the silver screen, I would imagine the movie is rather less successful.

In its clear moral stance, it’s clear what this movie’s answers to the monstrous questions are. Both the man and the monster at the center of Frankenstein contain various shades of monstrosity, as do the characters around them, which raises the questions of what makes someone a monster and who the real monster is in the story. By contrast, the societal Others of The Shape of Water are largely virtuous (with occasional moments of anxiety or trepidation), whereas the villain of the piece is wholly monstrous. In other words, while the visual language of the movie is fantastic, it isn’t as satisfying a monster story simply because the questions barely even warrant being asked.

The end result is a movie that does give us an undeniably effective reinterpretation of the creature from the Black Lagoon, rendering future movies that attempt the same less likely to meet it bar. Just like the 1999 The Mummy gave us a movie so good that future mummy movies were unlikely to live up to it, The Shape of Water can be seen as closing the book on the creature from the Black Lagoon. Given that few, if any, Dracula or Frankenstein movies have matched the originals and that the werewolf story has been so effectively told in movies like An American Werewolf in London and Ginger Snaps, I would argue that 2017 marks the end of good reimaginings of the Universal icons for the foreseeable future.

Are there great monster stories yet to tell? There most certainly are! For the time being, though, I wouldn’t expect a film based on any the classic Universal monsters to be better than the movies we already have. I’ll be happy to be proved wrong, but I don’t think I will be anytime soon.

The last stop in our tour, then, will be a full-on monster mash with non-canon takes on Drac, Frankenstein, the wolf-man, the mummy, and the gill-man: 1987’s The Monster Squad.

Advertisements

Crossing the Threshold

The last of the popularly recognizable Universal monsters, the titular Creature from the Black Lagoon swims across the threshold between two eras separated by one of the most transformative inventions of humankind. While the rest of the Universal crew have their roots in literature and folklore, mostly from Victorian Britain, the amphibian is simultaneously yet another version of the exotic Other and an avatar of Atomic Age cinema. For as much as the creature is associated with the rest of the Universal pantheon (or panmonstron?), its literary roots are closer to the pulp fiction of the ‘20s and ‘30s than Victoriana, and its countenance is at least as similar to the B-movie monsters of the ‘50s and ‘60s as it is to anything portrayed by Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, or Lon Chaney, Jr. in the ‘30s or ‘40s.

The plot is straightforward enough: a group of scientists, aided by a boat crewed by locals, heads to the Black Lagoon in Brazil in search of any fossils or other finds that match up with an amphibious claw found not far away, only to be tormented by a living example of the species. The body count rises, the creature covets and eventually kidnaps the one woman in the group, and the surviving men must confront the creature and find a way to escape. Along the way, we’re treated to a visually fantastic movie, featuring lots of underwater work and some – to continue deploying a word I’ve already overused – iconic monster design.

Like The Mummy or The Wolf Man, this movie can’t be traced back to a pre-existing story. However, the Victorian era did feature mummy stories and werewolf tales that could serve as inspirations for their respective movies. Very little in that era would lend itself to an archaic, bipedal fish-thing in the neighborhood of the Amazon, although the theme of explorers finding more than they expected certainly has parallels in the works of Jules Verne, among others.

Verne’s stories would be followed by the pulp tales of Lester Dent, Walter Gibson, and others, who gave us Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Avenger, the Spider, and other adventurers. The mysterious Amazon, and of Central and South America generally, provided a frequent source of material. Creature from the Black Lagoon would fit comfortably into this storytelling tradition, moreso than the Gothic and romantic moods of its predecessors at Universal.

In addition, the U.S.A.’s use of two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II and ushering in the Cold War, would end up influencing film across the world for decades. While Japan would give us Godzilla and the rest of the mega-monster kaiju, American theaters would be treated to a seemingly endless succession of nuclear-generated monsters. Some of these would be humanoid – see The Beast of Yucca Flats and any number of similar creatures portrayed by the likes of Tor Johnson – and others, like the giant ants of Them!, decidedly less so. As the Atomic Age grew to incorporate the Space Age, alien visitors from other worlds would join the party.

The rubber-suited variations from these movies share an aesthetic heritage with the amphibian, who debuted roughly nine years after the bombing of Hiroshima. The image of a humanoid monster holding a woman while a rugged hero-type strives to save her is an archetype of the era, and one which Creature from the Black Lagoon enacts as well as the best of them. The only thing setting the amphibian apart from the rest of the ‘50s B-crew is their origin as a Devonian leftover rather than a mutated byproduct of fission.

In this, the creature is more like Dracula or Imhotep, a woman-craving Other from somewhere outside western Europe. Whether eastern Europe, Egypt, or South America, one common idea across these movies is the threat outsiders pose to white, English-speaking women. Unlike any of the other Universal Six, however, the amphibian has no apparent human heritage. Its existence is not the product of a curse or mad science. Instead, it is something older than humanity, something which has been lurking in the dark wilderness.

And still, like the best of the monsters, there is something sympathetic about the amphibian. It did not ask to be disturbed, nor does it understand what rules it is trespassing when it first engages with humanity. Once humans as a group are revealed to be a threat, the creature does what it thinks is necessary to defend itself, while also showing discernment in its treatment of the interlopers. Its fascination with Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) produces tenderness, while the toxic Mark Williams (Richard Denning) earns its wrath. One can see parallels between Frankenstein’s creation, especially in the first movie, and the amphibian.

(A note: Throughout this post, I am referring to the eponymous creature as “the amphibian” rather than the more common “gill-man.” While the creators likely intended the creature to be read as male and its feelings toward Kay as romantic or sexual, nothing in the movie demands such a reading. As such, I find an interesting exercise in imagining additional variations on the story where the creature is female or of an entirely different sex or gender and/or where its/her/his interest in Kay is platonic. Those interested in a strictly male romantic/sexual reading are invited to return in a few days for the post on The Shape of Water.)

One other narrative hallmark of most Universal monster movies to which this movie falls prey is the reductionist treatment of non-western Europeans and the working class, as the boat’s local crew are for the most part ill-served by the story and their largely one-note depictions. One can see variations on this all the way back to the played-for-laughs working class characters of Dracula, the peasantry of Frankenstein and Bride, and of course most Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and African characters in The Mummy and Roma characters in The Wolf Man.

At the end of our tour of the major Universal monsters, this is also a good time to dwell on the advances in movie-making between Dracula and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Fewer than 25 year separate a movie that was still learning how to take advantage of sound (even to the point of wariness about the use of music) from a movie originally released in 3-D with extensive use of music, practical effects, and underwater photography. Whatever common or problematic narrative patterns the movie might fall back on, it remains a tour de force of innovative production.

Thus do we conclude an exploration of the main canon of Universal monster movies. There are certainly other, less well-recognized films and derivative sequels in the mix, many of which are worthy of revisiting in their own rights. They, however, are out of scope for this project.

Our final pairing will be, as already mentioned, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Before Halloween, I’ll also tackle at least one monster mash-up movie in The Monster Squad. I may also try to sneak in another Penny Dreadful recap or two, as well as a reflection on some less successful mash-up movies like LXG: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing. Tell then, just keep swimming monster fans!

The Terror of Adolescence

Ginger Snaps (2000) is the first movie covered so far that actually qualifies as a modern horror movie. For as creepy as Count Orlock was in Nosferatu, and for as paradigm-setting as the Universal monsters are, they fall short of being scary by our contemporary (perhaps somewhat desensitized) standards. This movie, however, kicks off unsettling, ramps continuously upward, and closes with an adrenaline-fueled climax.

This is also the first movie to give us girls and women as viewpoint characters. The closest we’ve gotten until now would be Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn Carnahan in the 1999 The Mummy remake. Other than that, we get a few scenes in the original The Mummy, the end of Ex Machina, and (debatably) a few pieces of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

(This is within the realm of film. Penny Dreadful has given plenty of viewpoint time to women, especially in its second season. Even that show is not as girl-and-woman-cented as Ginger Snaps, though.)

The story’s primary duo are the Fitzgerald sisters, Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and the eponymous Ginger (Katharine Isabelle). Both in high school, they actively resist the idea of growing up, preferring instead to stage elaborate tableaux depicting one or both of them as dead. This all changes when the creature that’s been killing dogs in the neighborhood attacks them one night, scratching Ginger.

Much of the movie follows Ginger’s gradual descent into lycanthropy, which just so happens to mimic many of the elements of puberty. Brigitte grows increasingly distressed and seeks a cure for her sister’s condition, turning to local drug dealer Sam (Kris Lemche) as well as Pamela (Mimi Rogers), the girls’ mother. The casualty list grows, eventually shifting from canine victims to human, and the movie culminates with a showdown between the sisters, Ginger having fully converted to wolf form.

Like the best of the Universal monster movies, Ginger Snaps uses its monster as a metaphor. Unlike the dual-nature-of-man metaphor of The Wolf Man (which, as I’ve already discussed, is just as ably if not better represented by any of a number of interpretations of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Ginger Snaps steers into the change/metamorphosis/transformation aspects of lycanthropy.

Adolescence is an unsettling time for many people as their bodies change and feelings heighten. If one contemplates being changed against one’s will into a hungry animal, driven by unfamiliar urges, the distinctions between that experience and puberty appear to be more a matter of degree than of kind. Add in the long-standing folkloric connection of lunar cycles with both werewolves and menses and you’ve got the recipe for a monster story centered on a teenage girl. (Those who prefer their werewolf-as-female-puberty stories in prose form are encouraged to seek out Suzy McKee Charnas’s 1989 story, “Boobs.”)

Nowadays, the female werewolf story, often with themes similar to those of Ginger Snaps, is familiar to regular consumers of lycanthropiana. From Once Upon a Time to Bitten to Being Human to Trick ‘r’ Treat to others, the idea has been played out in several variations. What most stories like this have in common, though, is that they follow in the wake of Ginger Snaps. The most notable version of this story to precede Ginger Snaps is probably the weirder and decidedly less well-known – although still interesting! – The Company of Wolves.

What I think sets Ginger Snaps apart from the many other variations on this idea is how much the story revolves around Brigitte. Often, we see werewolf stories focus on the werewolf and how the condition affects them. We rarely see as much attention paid to how the people who love them respond. The puberty metaphor intersects well with this narrative choice, with Brigitte’s confusion, frustration, and desire to cure her sister mimicking in an exaggerated way how younger siblings can feel when they watch their older siblings change physically and develop new interests. The aching sense of loss, the knowledge that things can’t really go back to the way they were before…these are poignant, human notes that really resonate. Rarely do monster movies spend this much time on the anguish of those who love the monster (nor would that approach work for some monsters).

From a visual production perspective, Ginger Snaps works heavily with make-up, puppetry, and practical effects, which distinguishes it from the largely CGI screen werewolves that have followed. This remains an area where the immediacy of practical effects gives the monster a greater sense of threat than its computer-animated descendants.

Across several dimensions, Ginger Snaps succeeds as a monster-horror movie. It is one of a small number of effective werewolf movies, and it is certainly more effective in nearly all respects than Universal’s The Wolf Man.

Next up, we jump in the water with our final Universal monster: The Creature from the Black Lagoon!

The Not-So-Versatile Predator: The Wolf Man

If the classic movies covered so far constitute Phase I of the Universal cinematic monster-verse, The Wolf Man kicks off Phase 2. Made in 1941, this film gave Universal a new monster who would go on to unite several of their franchises during subsequent crossover pictures. In true Hollywood fashion, it also relied on at least three distinct horror legacies to bolster its street cred while launching something new.

Pedigree and legacy aside, The Wolf Man’s title character is also a monster unlike any of the characters yet seen in Dracula, The Mummy, or either of the Frankenstein movies. This opens up new opportunities for story-telling, and the movie explores the most obvious ones in ways that future movies would go on to rehash in increasingly less interesting ways.

Without further ado, let’s head to the moors and talk about some spoilers!

[SPOILERS, SUCH AS THEY ARE, FOLLOW]

Continue reading “The Not-So-Versatile Predator: The Wolf Man”

Sex, Monsters, and Today’s Frankenstein

Finding a companion film to The Bride of Frankenstein for this blog was a little tricky. While there have been plenty of Dracula, Frankenstein, mummy, and werewolf movies over the years, plus two different Guillermo del Toro takes on Black-Lagoon-esque gill-men, the pickings are slimmer when it comes to Bride.

Sure, there are homages to Elsa Lanchester’s hairstyle in the already-discussed Rocky Horror Picture Show and the to-be-discussed Young Frankenstein, to stick with just movies that are part of this blog’s work. There’s also an upcoming remake planned for Universal’s Dark Universe, assuming those plans are still on track. But the Bride’s story turns out to be rarely revisited in the context of monster movies.

The best place to look was outside of the horror genre. If I hadn’t already taken a trip to pre-Dracula Germany with Nosferatu, I might have written about Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction masterpiece Metropolis, which is chock full of tropes that would surface again and again in later horror and sci-fi movies, including that of the woman animated by technology. I considered going to the ‘80s and watching John Hughes’ Weird Science. Ultimately, though, I settled on a more recent movie about two men and the manmade woman in the lab: Alex Garland’s 2014 Ex Machina.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Continue reading “Sex, Monsters, and Today’s Frankenstein”

Back to the Slab

Bride of Frankenstein Poster

Four years after Frankenstein was a runaway hit, Universal brought us the first major monster movie sequel. The Bride of Frankenstein is one of those rare sequels that’s better than its original (which was already damn good). It reunited Boris Karloff’s Creature with Colin Clive’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein under the skilled direction of James Whale. We also get a few new characters and some fascinating themes and motifs.

Gods and Devils

Of all the characters in The Bride of Frankenstein, the most monstrous is obvious: Dr. Pretorius. While Dr. Frankenstein regrets his past experiments, Pretorius revels in his. He delights in showing off his homunculi, explaining with glee the role he’s assigned to each. That he’s styled the one that resembles himself as the Devil is not the most subtle foreshadowing.

Continue reading “Back to the Slab”

The Art of Resurrection

The 1932 The Mummy is, by most metrics, the weakest of the iconic Universal pantheon of monster movies. There are certainly other Universal monster movies that are worse, but of The Big Ones – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf-Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon – it’s The Mummy that struggles the most. The structure is in many ways derivative of Dracula, the monster’s memorable appearance gets barely any screen time, and the movie’s strengths aren’t enough to outshine its problematic weaknesses.

In other words, of the core Universal canon, it’s the one most suited to a remake.

Continue reading “The Art of Resurrection”