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I recently got back from a trip to Atlanta for the first (annual?) Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, where I was one of a handful of panelists who talked about “The Weird Monster.” While the panel (and, indeed, all of the Symposium) is intended to show up as a part of The Outer Dark podcast sooner or later, I wanted to share a few thoughts that came about independent from but related to the panel.

For one thing, the discussion of the subject among the panelists began (as such things so often do) at the bar the night before the Symposium actually started, and continued throughout the weekend, ranging far and wide. On the flight to Atlanta and back, I started reading John Langan’s The Fisherman, and had I finished it then, I could certainly have brought it up as a modern novel that tackles the “weird monster.” (Not to mention a great contemporary example of the “weird novel,” which was the subject of another panel at the Symposium.)

As is often the case, however, while we talked about monsters in literature, many of our examples were drawn from movies. Because, while we have sometimes read the same books, we have almost all seen the same movies. Throughout the weekend, subjects returned with an almost uncanny regularity, including (probably because of the proximity of Alien: Covenenant) how angry we all still were at Ridley Scott’s Prometheus for being so unforgivably terrible (with the exception of a handful of dogged defenders).

One subject that came up a couple of times was Kong: Skull Island, which I had recently seen, and which we discussed, along with the whole backlog of Kong and Godzilla and other kaiju cinema through the lens of the weird monster. I’m not really here to regurgitate any of our theories on that, though no less a personage than Caitlin R. Kiernan has made a pretty good argument in the past for consideration of the original 1933 King Kong as a Lovecraftian tale.

One thing I didn’t get to talk much about, except with kaiju enthusiast and Symposium co-organizer Anya Martin on the car ride back to the airport, is a subject that I have been meaning to bring up in re: Skull Island, but that I wanted to wait until the movie had been in theatres for a few weeks so as to avoid spoilers. Still, fair warning, there will be a few in what follows, so heads up.

I liked Skull Island well enough (you can read my thoughts about it here), but one thing that really struck me about it is something that I haven’t seen anyone else talking about, though I’m sure they have. Kong: Skull Island was packed to the gills with monsters, and while those monsters may have varied somewhat in execution, I saw in most of them a sort of kinship with monsters from previous Kong and Godzilla movies. The big spider that shows up in Skull Island looks an awful lot like Godzilla’s sometime-nemesis Kumonga, while the scene of Kong fighting the squids or octopi could easily be a nod to the scene when Kong fights the giant octopus in King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Those are pretty minor, though. More significant are the skull crawlers. These bipedal lizard-like creatures are the main antagonists of Skull Island, the subterranean horrors that Kong’s presence helps protect the rest of the island from. Their design has received both praise and derision, depending on the person, but virtually everyone I’ve seen talk about them has discussed them as though they are a wholly new addition to the giant monster canon, but for me, at a glance, I saw something else entirely.

As anyone who is reading this probably knows, the first cut of the original 1933 King Kong contained a famous (and famously lost) sequence in which the protagonists fall into a “spider pit” and are attacked by all sorts of weird creatures. Over the years, a couple of shots that are supposedly from this sequence have surfaced, but the sequence itself remains one of the most famous pieces of lost film in history. When Peter Jackson remade King Kong in 2005, he not only added the “spider pit” sequence back into his narrative, he also “restored” a version of it using stop-motion animation and incorporating footage from the original film. (You can watch that here.)

Apart from Peter Jackson’s recreation, the closest we’re ever likely to come to actually seeing the original “spider pit” sequence from Kong is a cave sequence in the 1957 film The Black Scorpion, for which Willis O’Brien did the special effects. (You can watch a portion of that here.) According to rumor, the models used for the cave sequence in The Black Scorpion were repurposed models from the original “spider pit” sequence.

Dore Spider PitLike all of the original King Kong, the “spider pit” sequence was heavily influenced by the artwork of Gustave Dore. You can see some obvious “spider pit” seeds in a couple of Dore’s illustrations for Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso in particular. (There’s an entire thread devoted to Dore’s influence on the “spider pit” sequence that you can read here.) In Dore’s illustrations and Jackson’s recreation of the “spider pit” sequence, you’ll find odd lizard-like creatures that have only front legs, which transmutes, in The Black Scorpion, to a sort of giant worm with bifurcated tentacles mounted near its head. These bipedal lizards are, I would argue, at least potentially, perhaps subconsciously on the part of the monster designers, the ancestors of the skull crawlers from Kong: Skull Island.

This isn’t really an attempt at a defense of those critters. If they didn’t work for you on screen, chances are they still won’t, and I’ll be honest when I say that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about them, even now. (Their design seems at once boringly modern while at the same time oddly weirder than it needs to be; it took me a while to notice that they had eyes mounted behind the eye sockets of their skull-like heads.) But it was something that I noticed and (obviously) wanted to write like a thousand words about, so there you go.

[Edited: Thanks to Outer Dark host Scott Nicolay for reminding me that the weird bipedal lizard does, in fact, show up in the original King Kong, and that I hadn’t just hallucinated it there because I knew about all this other crap.]

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In the commentary track for Halloween, John Carpenter talks about people coming up to him and telling him how traumatized they were by the scene when Michael Myers is unmasked at the end of the movie. The irony, of course, being that under the mask is no monstrous makeup job, a la Jason, but simply actor Tony Moran. (Poor guy, traumatizing all those people with his relatively average-looking mug.)

Back in the days before we all had Halloween on Blu-ray, though, and could watch and re-watch it in high definition to our hearts’ content, that scene stuck with us, and in our memories we conjured an image of it that was true to our experience, while straying from the actual facts. This was a phenomenon with which, as a young horror fan, I was very familiar.

Most recently, I watched Creepshow again for the first time in quite a few years, and was reminded of my inaccurate recollections re: the monster from the segment “The Crate.” In my memories, we never see the monster clearly until his final kill, when he drags Adrienne Barbeau’s Billy into the crate.

Of course, that isn’t accurate at all. We get several really clear shots of the monster throughout the segment, including during those sequences. But in my imagination, the monster is mostly suggestion, just claws and fur and teeth and menace, only shown in clarity in those final comic book panel moments. And no matter how many times I learn otherwise, that’s how I’ll always remember it, just like those people who were traumatized by Michael’s unmasking will never be un-traumatized, no matter how many times they see that he’s just Tony Moran underneath.

(On a tangent: The monster from “The Crate” is actually a good representation of something that I harp on a lot when it comes to creating supernatural horror stories. The monster is scary because it eats people, absolutely. But what’s much scarier than that is the fact that it has survived in that crate under those stairs for more than a hundred years without eating anything.)

[This post originally appeared on my Patreon.]

Well, 2015 may have been the big year of high-number sequels in long-running franchises, but it bucked recent tradition in one major way: For the first time in a long time, the majority of movie monsters on screen this year were not in multi-million-dollar blockbuster tentpoles (Star Wars notwithstanding), but in modestly-budgeted, honest-to-Godzilla monster movies. So regardless, really, of the ultimate quality of any of those movies, that’s something to be thankful for. When you also factor in that a majority of the monsters on screen this year were also primarily practical effects, it really is downright jaw-dropping.

While most people are probably expecting the titular creature from It Follows to take the crown for 2015–and while there are, admittedly, few more intriguing loglines in recent memory than that movie’s central conceit–ultimately I found the execution of said monster, while frequently chilling, to be too uneven and, yes, maybe too metaphorical for it to take the top spot among movie monsters in a year that’s actually crowded with contenders.

Up until literally the month of December, I really thought The Hallow would walk away with the prize. While the film itself is of mixed quality, its woody/fungal monsters, brought to unsettling life principally via practical effects, would have dominated most any normal Year in Creatures. What I didn’t expect was to find a contender in an unlikely Hollywood epic in November. While the C.H.U.D.-alikes in Mockingjay Part 2 may not have been the most inventive monsters ever to hit cinema screens, their deployment was one of the most effective I have ever seen, full stop. It helps that they’re in easily one of the best movies that I saw in a theatre this year.

Ultimately, though, for all the best intentions and incredible critters in such a ridiculous quantity of movies, there was no real competition for the top honor, not after Krampus hit theatres in early December. While my feelings about the film itself may not have been as unanimous as I had hoped, there’s no denying the sheer quantity and bravura of its creatures. Krampus is a film that could easily have gotten away with having only the titular Christmas demon, along with maybe an evil toy or two. Instead, it crams the screen with monsters, from Demonic Toys-like demonic toys (though director Michael Dougherty claims never to have seen that dubious classic) to dark elves to “Yule goats” to Krampus himself, almost all of them brought to life primarily through puppetry and suit effects. Even the movie’s snowmen–which, spoilers, don’t actually do anything besides appear creepily in the front yard–are almost enough to count as additional monsters.

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Even if there weren’t any other monsters in the mix, though, Krampus himself would probably be enough to steal the show. With enormous, heavy hooves, a hunched back, and more sheer scale than you might imagine, it’s actually the little touches the make Krampus work, from the bells that jingle on the chains he wears to the slipping mask of an old man face that he ultimately displays. While the character may lack the personality of Sam from Trick ‘R Treat–Dougherty’s previous contribution to the horror canon–as a monster he’s hard to resist.

When you get right down to it, though, whatever you think of any of my picks here, the real winner in 2015 is us. We haven’t had a year this crammed full of movie monsters in actual monster movies in a long time, so whatever your particular poison, make sure you enjoy it while it lasts!

The Oscars are tonight. I don’t really care too much about them any year, and this year is no different, mostly because I haven’t seen the vast majority of the movies that are nominated for anything, so I can’t have much of an opinion either way. About the only category where I have a horse in the race is Best Animated Feature, where I’m hoping Big Hero 6 takes home the statue it so richly deserves, though I’m thinking that How to Train Your Dragon 2 will probably win it as an apology Oscar for snubbing its predecessor back in 2010.

I’m not here to talk about the Oscars, though. I’m here to talk about the year in movie monsters. I’m a little late with what will be my third annual Year in Creatures, but I honestly held off this long because I just kept thinking that there must have been more good monsters in movies in 2014 than I had yet seen, and that any moment I would stumble upon them, but as the Oscars are upon us and we’re now well into 2015, I think I’ve just got to acknowledge that 2014 wasn’t a very good year for movie monsters, and call it a day. (We can’t have a Pacific Rim every year, after all.)

This year followed the established pattern that the majority of screen creatures were not in horror or monster movies at all, but rather in big budget sci-fi, superhero, and fantasy spectacles. There were a few non-ghost monsters in lower budget horror films, but of those, few were especially memorable, and even the fantasy epics this year tended toward generic critters, with some exceptions coming in the form of the aliens from Edge of Tomorrow, the surprisingly decent MUTOs from the otherwise lackluster Godzilla, and, if they can truly count as creatures, the future Sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The only creature to really give this year’s winner a run for its money, though, was the breakout star of Guardians of the Galaxy, Groot. Who might have been monster of the year had it not been for…

The Babadook 

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While the film itself was one of the year’s better horror films, don’t get me wrong, it suffered a bit from overhype and a somewhat weak third act. But the titular monster stole the show, with its combination of silent movie aesthetics and a Pokemon-esque tendency to say its own name. (Particularly effective in a chilling phone call scene.)

Would the Babadook have been able to hold its own in a year with stronger monster representation? Who can say. All I know is, two months into 2015, it’s still my pick for last year’s Movie Monster of the Year.

Recently, I was invited by the extraordinarily talented and awesome Mike Bukowski to be one of a handful of authors participating in a special Nyarlathotep project at his website, Yog-Blogsoth. If you’ve never checked out Mike’s work before, you’re in for a treat, though I must warn you, much of it is not exactly safe for work. For some time now, he’s been drawing pretty much every creature that Lovecraft ever mentioned (over 400 of them now, I believe) and recently he went on a kick drawing various avatars of Nyarlathotep. To crown the project, he came up with the idea of inviting several contemporary authors to contribute their own original Nyarlathotep avatars, yours truly included. You can read a little more about the project here.

As you can see from that lineup, I’m in the company of some absolutely incredible authors here, and I’m honored to be included. I’m especially proud of my involvement in this project because I was able to help facilitate the inclusion of a few of the other authors, and getting cool people together to work on fantastic projects is maybe the best part about doing what I do.

For my contribution, which Mike dubbed the “most ridiculous,” a badge I will wear with great pride, I tried to design something that I thought Mike would enjoy drawing, and something that I’d love to see done in his inimitable style, and also something different than any of the other monsters I’d described in any of my stories. The result is probably the closest I’ve ever come to designing a Castlevania boss fight, so I’m pretty happy.

The excerpt describing the creature is from a story that hasn’t been written yet. Before Mike asked me to contribute to this, it wasn’t even an idea in my notebook, though now it certainly is. Inspired in part by The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, which I wrote about in my Vault of Secrets column recently, “The Cult of Headless Men” is definitely a story that you’ll see from me one of these days, it’s just a matter of getting the time to actually write it. (And yes, for readers familiar with “The Barghest” from Never Bet the Devil, I do just steal all my ideas from questionable old B movies.)

The first week of the Nyarlathotep project wrapped up today with a contribution from Molly Tanzer, and also featured Nyarlathoteps by Laird Barron, John Langan, and Victoria Dalpe. Keep an eye on the ‘blog, though, because next week will feature another batch, with Nyarlathoteps by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Phil Gelatt, Livia Llewellyn, Wilum Pugmire, and Gemma Files!

Recently I’ve become sort of addicted to these Funko blind box Horror Classics figures. The first one I got was Sam from Trick ‘r Treat, who I ordered from eBay because I absolutely had to have him, and I wasn’t willing to keep trying blind boxes until I got one. After I got him, I was showing him off to some friends and one of us referred to the line of figures as “slashers,” to which another friend replied, “Is Sam a slasher?”

That stopped us all in our tracks for a minute. The conversation moved on, but the question stuck with me. Because the answer, of course, is no, whatever he is, he’s not a slasher. But at the same time, he’s obviously related to them in some way. If he’s not the same species as the other figures in that set, then he is at least in the same family or genus. Which then, of course, led me to the question, “What family or genus is that, exactly?”

Looking over the figures in the set, you’ve got a wide variety of characters, but it’s obvious that there’s something connecting them all together. (For the purposes of this post, I’m ignoring the presence of Ash, maybe the one time in history that the protagonist in a horror film ever became more popular than the villain. Two if you count Pitch Black.) In trying to figure out what, I ended up going back to the oldest film in the set, Halloween. In that movie, Tommy Doyle sees Michael Myers standing outside and identifies him as “the boogeyman,” and I don’t think he’s wrong.

So yeah, what do all the villains in the Funko series have in common? They’re all the boogeyman. They’re functionally stripped of personhood, having become personas rather than people, rendered down to just a recognizable form (it’s telling that, in the script for Halloween, Michael Myers is simply referred to as “the Shape”) and a pathology. Almost all of them wear a mask of one kind or another, something that effectively erases their identity, that means that they could be anyone, or no one at all, the mask ripped away to reveal only a blankness. They’re impossible to reason with, because they don’t want anything that normal people want. They all have some kind of thematically-relevant “magic powers,” which are explained away in various ways, or sometimes not at all. (The guy from Scream, for example, has the “magic power” that he’s actually always more than one guy, allowing him to do things like be in two places at once.)

Perhaps most telling, though, is that pathology I mentioned. When reading up on the boogeyman before writing this, I came across the following line in the Wikipedia entry for same: “Bogeymen may target a specific mischief—for instance, a bogeyman that punishes children who suck their thumbs—or general misbehaviour, depending on what purpose needs serving.” Which, yeah, pretty much everyone on this list has their “thing.” With the slashers, of course, it’s generally the teenage “sin” trifecta of booze, drugs, and sex, but the others get more specialized. Hannibal Lecter kills people who are rude, Sam kills people who don’t respect the traditions of Halloween, Jigsaw (as represented here by Billy the Puppet) kills people who don’t cherish life enough, etc.

In a recent discussion about Manhunter and the Hannibal Lecter mythos in general over on my Facebook, fellow author Sean Demory introduced me to the term “murder wizard” to describe Lecter, which, yes, is perfect. That’s exactly Lecter’s species, right there. And in that discussion I said how werewolves and vampires in most modern fiction have ceased to be monsters in the usual sense, have become instead a kind of Tolkienesque fantasy race, the contemporary equivalent of elves and orcs, and I said that the modern monster was the magical serial killer, which is also not really a modern monster at all, is it, because that’s pretty much just the boogeyman.

So that’s my argument, then, for the taxonomic nomenclature of these figures. It’d probably take some more deducing to decide whether what we were dealing with was family or genus, but whatever it is, that’s the one: It was the boogeyman.

So here’s my last year-in-review-type-post for 2013, and my attempt at a second annual unofficial Best Movie Monster of the Year post (here’s last year’s). It’ll also be the second year in a row (out of two!) that I gave the award to a whole movie, rather than any one particular monster. So I’m obviously good at this, is what I’m saying.

Normally I’d try to play coy, and save the announcements for the end of the post, but really, nobody who’s been paying attention is going to be surprised about this year’s winner, so I may as well go ahead and say it. The winner by a margin so substantial that all other movies may as well be competing in a different category altogether: Pacific Rim

Yeah, shock, nobody is surprised. First of all, any year with a Guillermo del Toro movie in the running, the competition had better be pretty fierce for anything else to have a chance. And Pacific Rim is maybe del Toro’s monsteriest movie, a lover letter to kaiju films and giant robots that is every bit as inspired and meticulous as the best of his other films, though it comes from a much more bombastic portion of his vast and monster-loving heart.

I’ve already talked about why Pacific Rim was a great movie, and the kaiju themselves are a big piece of that particular puzzle. Wonderfully designed, and beautifully executed, they are some of the most awesome (in every sense of the word) and lovely monsters ever put on film. The fact that del Toro carefully designed them to move with the feel of a man in a suit, while also feeling completely real, just makes them all the better. But the biggest win for me is the gorgeous use of bioluminescence, making for some unexpectedly striking moments in an always striking film.

As has been the case for a few years now, the movie monster landscape in 2013 was dominated by movies that weren’t actually monster movies. These days the vast majority of blockbuster fare contains some manner of (more or less inspired) creature, while horror films tend to trade in more mundane threats. 2013 saw at least one truly phenomenal horror film, in the form of James Wan’s The Conjuring, but it didn’t really have much that could be called a monster, just ghosts and a very creepy doll (naturally).

Monsters made appearances in just about every movie with a sizable budget, many of which I’ve yet to see. From the second installment of the (inexplicable) Hobbit trilogy to the Thor sequel to the execrable Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, there were no shortage of creatures at the multiplexes this year. Surprisingly, some of the better monsters I saw were actually in the raunchy comedy This is the End, which featured demons that, while looking like bosses from Darksiders, still had enough character to rise above the majority of the blockbuster creatures thrown our way.

But Pacific Rim‘s biggest competition in the monster category ultimately came from the corner of a little film called Frankenstein’s Army, which deserves an honorary trophy for the fact that its inspired array of spookhouse creatures were all accomplished using practical effects. And if the movie itself serves mostly as a showcase for Nazi Frankenstein’s monsters complete with propeller heads and saw arms, well, there are certainly worse things to be.