Famous Monsters

In one of my earliest memories – this would have been sometime before I was in third grade – I’m sitting on the living room floor, eating a hamburger and watching The Fly on network TV. Not the relatively benign 1958 version with Vincent Price and David Hedison, either. The incredibly gross David Cronenberg one with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis.

In the memory, my mom comes in during some particularly gruesome, gloppy sequence and asks me how I can eat while I watch that, to which I just kind of shrug. Here’s the relevance of this memory: It was my first exposure a certain, generally much older, kind of monster movie.

I’ve said many times in various places that I was born too late to be a true Monster Kid. The days when the Shock Theater package were showing on TV were before my time. When I was a kid, though, we got a channel that showed monster movies on Saturday mornings. Not the classics. No Frankenstein or Dracula, but rather stuff like Squirm and The Food of the GodsWillard and the occasional Godzilla flick.

From my school library, I checked out copies of those Crestwood House monster series books, which were my introduction to the old monster movies of the ’30s, ’40s, and even into the ’50s. I pored over those books, imagining the films that would go with those evocative black-and-white photos. It was my only exposure to those old movies for years, until I was in college.

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This is all a long preamble to the following: Like all kinds of movies, the monster movie qua monster movie has undergone transformations over the years.  As Dario Argento once said, “Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing.”

And monsters, specifically, are uniquely immune to solid definitions. A monster, by its nature, by the very etymology, is an aberration, a breach of the rules.

Also, like all kinds of movies, the monster movie has always been been more than one thing. There is its most simple definition: a movie that has a monster or monsters in it. But then there is also the monster movie as a form, which, I would argue, has transitioned through at least two major shapes over the years.

The “classic” monster movie, as popularized by the Universal monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, The MummyThe Wolf Man, on up through Creature from the Black Lagoon, is a film in which the monster is generally both protagonist and antagonist.

The movie follows the monster and those who are in the monster’s life (or “life”) rather than (or in addition to, or as much as) its victims. The monster, whether by its nature or through hubris, is a figure both tragic and sinister. This is as true of King Kong as it is of Frankenstein.

The second major formulation of the monster movie is one popularized by the “atomic panic” movies of the 1950s – the big bug movies like Them! or Tarantula, early kaiju films like Godzilla, and even alien invasion films like It Came from Outer Space or The Blob.

In this formulation, the monster is often a growing and existential threat. Maybe it will literally wipe out life if it continues to expand, such as in The Thing, or maybe it is a threat to free will and identity, such as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or, hey, The Thing.

The thrust of this form of film is an attempt to stop the monster, usually with some kind of ticking clock where if it isn’t stopped before a certain point it will expand beyond our ability to stop it. In The Thing, this is keeping the monster contained in Antarctica, for instance.

The monster in this form is not generally a tragic figure. With the occasional exception of alien invaders, it cannot (or will not) usually communicate with humans. It is a force of nature, or an animal. In The Monolith Monsters, the eponymous monsters were literally inanimate rocks.

The “big bug” movies of the ’50s, as their informal name implies, often featured normal animals (usually but not exclusively bugs) grown to an enormous size. In the wake of the success of Jaws, these huge animals were often replaced by normal animals simply run amok for whatever reason.

Whatever particular shape they take, the creatures in these movies tend away from the anthropomorphic, in nature if not in form.

From the ’50s on, this second formulation became, in most cases, the default for the monster movie qua monster movie. Even Hammer’s Gothic chillers, which remade the Universal classics for a new generation, sometimes (though by no means exclusively) rendered their creatures more mute and implacable than tragic.

To bring this back around to where I started, one of the things that makes David Cronenberg’s Fly so striking is that it’s that original kind of monster movie.

The 1958 version was too, of course, and it’s far from the only movie from the ’80s that is, but it was unusual enough for its time, and, probably more importantly for this discussion, was my first introduction to that style of movie, the monster movie’s first major form.

Sure, I was probably aware of the plots of Frankenstein or King Kong by the time I saw The Fly, but I had never seen them. Had never seen the pathos of the monster displayed onscreen so eloquently.

I’ve watched it many times since. I’ve also watched the original, and all of its sequel. I’ve experienced all of the original Universal classics, and their silent film predecessors. But watching the David Cronenberg version on Blu-ray today made me think about all of this, so I wrote it down here.

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