My recent acquisition of several CDs from the US label Monstrous Movie Music has meant that for the last month or so Probert Towers has resonated to classic themes from The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Alligator People, Them!, Tarantula and others. The recordings are absolutely splendid and have also provided a movie music enthusiast like myself with an insight into how these films were scored, often using more than one composer’s efforts (the line-up for Creature From the Black Lagoon includes Herman Stein, Henry Mancini, Hans Salter, and Milton Rosen). No wonder there’s just a credit for Joseph Gershenson’s ‘Music Supervision’ on many of these films.
Of course, listening to the music has made me want to revisit the pictures themselves, a collection of movies made mostly around the mid-1950s, often combining the ‘When Nature Attacks’ motif with mad scientists who, by this time, had discovered atomic and nuclear power as a way of creating ridiculously outsized monsters ostensibly for a good reason but probably because they were a bit bored one Sunday afternoon.
Do you feel lucky, punk?
In Tarantula, Leo G Carroll is trying to find a way to solve the world’s food shortages. Quite why creating a giant poisonous spider is meant to help things I have no idea, and neither does he, or if he does he’s not telling. After creating a massive guinea pig and shooting up his research associate colleague with the same growth hormone causing the worst case of acromegaly ever (that’s the onset of excessive secretion of growth hormone during adulthood), said colleague drops dead but not before smashing up the lab and giving Leo a dose of his own medicine. The very big box Leo keeps his food-shortage-solving-massive-spider in gets broken too, and before the tarantula can shout “I’m free! Free to eat cows and terrorise the landscape!” it’s scuttled out into the desert where it grows to absolutely massive size but still remains mysteriously unseen by anyone except people who are just about to die. Perhaps it’s really, really good at blending in with the landscape. It all ends badly for the spider, of course, but we could have told it that as the man flying the aeroplane that’s going to bomb the shit out of it in true subtle US military style is none other than Clint Eastwood, still many years away from Western fame and paying the bills by appearing in stuff like this. There are some massive explosions, star John Agar gets to say something like “Well thank goodness that’s all over” and the end title comes up before we’ve even had a chance to wonder if perhaps Leo’s giant guinea pig might still be out there somewhere.
Most of these movies were made by Universal but Them! was an MGM production. This time there’s no mad scientist, unless Nuclear Energy itself is the villain as massive ants terrorise the desert but manage to remain unseen until later on in the film when they can make a dramatic entrance. Maybe Leo G Carroll showed his tarantula this film and it learned a few pointers. The effects in Tarantula are by the ever-reliable Clifford Stine and on a recent rewatch hold up remarkably well even today, mainly because he used a real spider against real locations and kept the photography dark. Them! goes the giant model route, and those giant models scared me silly when I first saw them at the tender age of five. Sadly the giant ants don’t hold up quite so well today but they’re still a lot of fun. I think Tarantula is consistently the better film as Them! has quite a slump in the middle before gearing up for its storm drain climax, but don’t let that put you off watching either of these – they’re deservedly classics and still miles better than much of what is about today.
Modern monster horror movies
So what does today’s horror genre have to offer in the way of giant monsters? Surprisingly the genre has seen something of a resurgence in recent years, with far and away the best probably being Cloverfield, which cleverly inverts the traditional plot structure of the 1950s pictures to concentrate on a couple of the people who are the subject of all the rampaging, rather than staying with the scientists and military in their nice safe bunker as they view the devastation from afar. The use of the found footage sub-genre helps to give the movie an immediacy it wouldn’t otherwise have, while at the same time calling into question quite why someone would keep filming if their friends were being attacked by hideous inexplicable nasties.
Cloverfield is an example of a good modern giant monster movie. MegaShark vs Giant Octopus, starring Debbie Gibson as a scientist, is not, and neither is its follow-up, MegaPiranha, in which ex-teen popstar Tiffany takes on the academic duties vacated by her ex-songstress colleague. In fact, like many movie sub-genres, Cloverfield forms the apex of a pyramid that very quickly descends into utter rubbish. Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles used the alien invasion theme to provide lots of giant monster mayhem but ultimately watching them in the cinema I got the feeling they didn’t really deserve to be there, and I think the films probably knew it, too. In fact more than anything those two films are pure Grade Z drive-in fodder and would probably have been more at home being projected on some streaked and collapsing outdoor screen in the middle of Texas than a Bristol multiplex. For those who prefer their modern monster rubbish straight from the DVD box a quick search reveals that enough people obviously watched the two ‘Mega’ pictures above to create an entire sub-sub-sub genre. Do we really need MegaPython vs Gatoroid? That one stars Debbie Gibson, obviously enticed back to make one more feature, although her co-star from the original managed to go one better and got his own glamorous holiday-themed picture in MegaShark in Malibu. Let’s hope he had a nice time there – I don’t think I’m going to watch that one to find out. After that he obviously became more popular (or less expensive) than Ms Gibson as last year MegaShark vs Crocosaurus was released. In the grand tradition of House of Frankenstein and Destroy All Monsters will we soon be seeing MegaShark vs Gatoroid vs Crocosaurus vs MegaPiranha vs Debbie Gibson? I’d pay money to see that. I think.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
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