Archive

teratology

20171202_104727Friday afternoon I left KC and headed south for what was supposed to be an overnight trip to visit the Ray Harryhausen exhibit at the Science Museum Oklahoma, on literally the day before the exhibit closed down. I was able to make the trip at all thanks to lots of help from my patient, affectionate, and extremely supportive wife. Up until that day, about the most strenuous excursion I had attempted since my surgery was a couple of trips to the movies (notwithstanding a couple of trips to the emergency room, which, while plenty strenuous, weren’t exactly voluntary).

I ended up overdoing it a bit at the museum, and what was supposed to be a one night trip turned into a two night one, but other than that I seem to have returned no worse for the wear than when I left. And I got to see the Harryhausen exhibit!

20171202_105835For those who may not know, Ray Harryhausen is one of my biggest inspirations, and, for my money, easily one of the greatest monster designers who ever lived. I own a book of his art and a book of behind-the-scenes stuff from his films, as well as just about every movie he ever worked on. My first novel was dedicated to him. So the opportunity to see some of the models and illustrations that had gone into five of his most famous films up close and in person was one that I didn’t want to miss, surgery or no surgery. (It is only thanks to Grace that I didn’t miss it, so she deserves another shout out here.)

 

It’s difficult to put into words what seeing these objects in person meant to me. Earlier this year, I got to go see the Guillermo del Toro exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and while the influence of GDT on my own work is probably more immediately obvious than the influence of Harryhausen, I would be extremely hard pressed to say which exhibit affected me more.

On the car ride back, Grace and I were discussing the exhibit, and I talked about the magic that is present in stop motion animation, especially that animation done by Ray Harryhausen. How much personality he was able to breathe into all of his creatures, how watching his films is like watching your toys come to life. And that magic was in the air everywhere at the exhibit, all of the models seeming like they were just one moment away from stirring into motion.

20171202_105421

In spite of the books I’ve read, documentaries I’ve seen, and commentary tracks I’ve listened to, I learned things at the exhibit that I didn’t already know. I learned how some of the armatures were cannibalized and repurposed for other creatures in other films, I learned about them strapping a bunch of stuntmen together in order to capture the motions of the Kali statue. I was already aware of Harryhausen’s own debt to the engravings of Gustave Dore, but I was happy to see that debt laid out in detail, and to see illustrations done by Harryhausen that obviously owed a heavy debt to Dore.20171202_105608

I know that I didn’t see most of Harryhausen’s other films until I was older, but I saw Clash of the Titans on TV when I was just a kid, and it had the same impact on me that Star Wars had on other people around my age. Seeing creatures like Harryhausen’s iconic take on Medusa or the Kraken in person was amazing beyond my ability to put into words.

Sadly, since the exhibit focused on Harryhausen’s fantasy films, I wasn’t able to see my very favorite of his creations–Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth–who may not exist in any significant form anyway, since his armature got reused on other creatures later on.

The rest of the Science Museum was pretty amazing as well, and I probably could have spent easily twice as much time there as I did, had I not run completely out of energy. As it was, I missed a lot of what it had to offer, but was able to see a planetarium show, check out an exhibit on Cabinets of Curiosities and an exhibit on shoes, and watch a live chemistry show where they made things explode. Grace even got to be a volunteer and hold an explosion in the palm of her hand!

20171202_104756 (2)

There’s so much more I could say about the trip, about the exhibit, about the museum, about Harryhausen, but I need to catch up on the things that I didn’t get done while I was away over the weekend, so I should probably wrap this up. I promised lots of pictures, some of which I’ve already been posting over on Instagram, but I’ll leave a few more in this post for those who weren’t able to make it out to the show themselves. Do yourself a favor, and if anything like this ever comes anywhere near you, make it a point to go. (And if you live within traveling distance of the Science Museum Oklahoma, go even though this exhibit is no longer showing. It’s worth it.)

20171202_111353

 

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the new Mummy yet. I’ll probably do so this weekend, because I have free tickets, but I doubt I would pay money for it. Here’s why:

It isn’t because the movie looks bad (though it kind of does, and the reviews certainly haven’t been kind). I’ve said before that if the trailers were exactly the same but when the title came up it said Mission: Impossible 6 instead then it would look fine, and I stand by that. No, the problem isn’t that Mummy: Impossible is an inherently bad approach to take to a film, it’s that it’s an inherently bad angle for Universal to take to launch their “Dark Universe” shared monster franchise.

I was talking with some writing friends about the new Tom Cruise-starring Mummy movie on Facebook messenger a few days ago, and Jeremy Tolbert posited that if he were in charge, the story would focus on “a group of kids who had a disturbing encounter with a series of monsters [in 1989]. After that, they dedicated their lives to being prepared to deal with future threats.” Not only does that sound like a better setup, it actually underscores the real problem with the 2017 reboot of The Mummy, which isn’t the dodgy CGI, the (apparently) lifeless characterizations, or the fact that it looks to be a goofy action movie that is largely lacking any horror to speak of.

The problem is that Universal doesn’t seem to understand what the actual value of its monster franchise is. But Monster Squad did, even while, not being financed by Universal, Monster Squad had to change all of its creatures just enough to avoid getting slapped with a cease and desist. The thing is, Universal doesn’t own the idea of a mummy, it doesn’t own Frankenstein, it doesn’t own Dracula. Which means that the biggest problem with this new Mummy movie, before you even get to whether or not it is any good on its own merits, is that any studio could have made it. It could just as easily have a Sony or a WB logo in front of it as the old, familiar Universal globe. And there’s the rub.

The value in Universal’s monster universe isn’t the monsters themselves, because, with the exception of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, they’re all public domain. The value is in the aesthetics of those original movies. That’s what Monster Squad got and this new “Dark Universe” brand doesn’t. Without those original movies, you’re just making an action film with a mummy in it, and anyone can do that.

Even the Brendan Fraser Mummy from 1999 (which, I’ll admit, I love) knew that, and pulled plot elements, names, and the occasional bit of imagery from the older Universal Mummy sequels (mostly). Hell, even the largely terrible shitshow that was Van Helsing was closer to the mark than this looks to be. How, exactly, you tap into that reservoir of old film aesthetics is up for some debate, but that you have to in order to mine anything valuable out of the intellectual property that Universal still owns seems like a no-brainer.

Or they could always just have the monsters go up against the gang from the Fast & Furious movies, preferably while driving monster-themed funny cars. That’d work, too.

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.]

$R7VKK9E

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.

tumblr_nuf5n7bxt81rrkahjo2_540

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 

jennifer-kent-babadook-2014-05-06-004

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!