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Good Creature Features (1975-80): From the Depths to Your Screen

Hope Madden itcherCreature features would become wildly popular again – more than they had been in decades – in the last half of the 1970s. Not since Godzilla had a monster from the deep made such a mark on movies. ~ Hope Madden

Darkness Above and Below

Whether the murky depths or the silence of space, the dark abyss fascinated filmmakers and moviegoers alike in the late Seventies. A couple films changed the course of movies. A few others were carbon copies of those legendary creature features. And then there were the bottom feeding rip offs – although those can be fun, too.

The point is, there’s something coming for you from the darkness. And it has teeth.


Profound Creature Features

‘Jaws’ (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Twentysomething Steven Spielberg’s game-changer boasts many things, among them one of the greatest threesomes in cinematic history. The interplay among grizzled sea captain Quint (Robert Shaw), wealthy young upstart marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and decent lawman/endearing everyman Brody (Roy Scheider) helps the film transcend horror to become simply a great movie.

Perhaps the first summer blockbuster, ‘Jaws’ inspired the desire to be scared silly. And in doing so it out-grossed all other movies of its time. You couldn’t deny you were seeing something amazing – no clichés, all adventure and thrills and shocking confidence from a young director announcing himself as a presence.

Spielberg achieved one of those rare cinematic feats: he bettered the source material. Though Peter Benchley’s nautical novel attracted droves of fans, Spielberg streamlined the text and surpassed its climax to craft a sleek terror tale.

It’s John Williams’ iconic score; it’s Bill Butler’s camera, capturing all the majesty and the terror, but never too much of the shark; it’s Spielberg’s cinematic eye. The film’s second pivotal threesome works, together with very fine performances, to mine for a primal terror of the unknown, of the natural order of predator and prey.

‘Jaws’ is the high water mark for creature features. And it’s possible it always will be.

‘Alien’ (Ridley Scott, 1979)

After a monster attaches itself to your face, it gestates inside you and then tears through your innards. Then it grows exponentially, hides a second set of teeth, and bleeds acid. How much cooler could this possibly be?

Compare that to the crew, and the competition seems unreasonably mismatched. The sunken-chested Harry Dean Stanton, the screechy Veronica Cartwright, the sinister Ian Holm, the mustachioed Tom Skerritt, even the mulleted Sigourney Weaver – they all seem doomed before we even get to know them.

Director Ridley Scott handled the film perfectly, emphasizing the tin can quality of the futuristic vessel. These people are simply not safe – they probably were in danger before bringing the afflicted John Hurt back on board. It’s dark in there, decaying and nasty – just like some moldy old mansion. The trick here is that these people- unlike the inhabitants of a haunted house – truly cannot go anywhere. Where would they go? They’re in space.

Much ado has been made, rightfully so, of the John Hurt Chest Explosion (we loved their early work, before they went commercial). But Scott’s lingering camera leaves unsettling impressions in far simpler ways, starting with the shot of all those eggs.

‘Shivers’ (David Cronenberg, 1975)

In an upscale Montreal high rise, an epidemic is breaking out. A scientist has created an aphrodisiac in the form of a big, nasty slug. That slug, though, spreads wantonness throughout the high rise and threatens to overrun the city with its lusty ways.

Not Cronenberg’s best film, but this is his first feature length horror and it announces not only his arrival on the genre scene, but it predicts so many of the films to come. The film obsesses over human sexuality, social mores, the physical form, physical violation and infestation, medical science, conspiracy, and free will. He’d revisit all of these preoccupations throughout his career, most obviously in his very next feature film, 1978’s ‘Rabid,’ which is weirdly similar in every way.

‘Shivers’ takes a zombie concept and uses it to pervert expectations (see what we did there?). They’re not here to eat your brains, after all. It’s the first film where Cronenberg marries ideas of the repugnant with the pleasurable, medical monstrosity with human body. It would be several years before his skill with performances (or maybe casting) matched his other directorial talents, but ‘Shivers’ is still a worthwhile, utterly bizarre pleasure.

‘Piranha’ (Joe Dante, 1978)

There is real charm in this 1978 creature feature. Sure, it’s a ‘Jaws’ rip off, but it’s hardly the worst. It was helmed by fledgling director Joe Dante, who’d go on to an under-appreciated career with ‘Gremlins,’ ‘The Howling,’ ‘The ‘Burbs,’ and a number of other impressive flicks.

The film boasts a script written by John Sayles. Utterly ridiculous characters come implausibly together to release, and then fight, a plague of genetically mutated carnivore fish. They are hungry and headed for a theme park – will the day be saved before the river runs red? (Spoiler: no.)
Characteristically, Dante avoids most of the trappings of true exploitation. The posters may showcase a nubile woman in deep-sea peril (well, river actually), but the film sidesteps most sexist genre clichés. Dante actually goes in for child slaughter instead. Interesting choice.

‘Humanoids from the Deep’ (Barbara Peeters, 1980)

Director Barbara Peeters doesn’t let her own gender get in the way of scenes of exploitation in this “Seamonsters are taking over our town” fable, because these fish-men aren’t just hungry. They’re horny. (There’s also a scene with a horny ventriloquist dummy, which isn’t so much politically incorrect as it is just wrong.)
Ann Turkel plays a weirdly fascinating scientist. She’s clearly implicated in the tomfoolery that created these monsters, but now she purports to be on the townspeople’s side. And yet, she’s content to take photos of young, molested women rather than coming to their aid. And she changes costume three times on a single investigative boat ride scene – in a move that’s positively Reba-esque.

Vic Morrow slums it up as a racist, drunken fisherman with mob mentality. Will he come to see the error in his ways? Will he realize the town would be better without the new cannery? Can he ever see that Johnny Eagle is as wise as he is handsome?
In a nutshell, the film is an incompetently directed sea monster rape fantasy with an ‘Alien’ ripoff ending. Which makes it, in its own way, impressively unique.


Change is Gonna Come

The Eighties approach, and with them a sea change in movies – how they’re distributed, how they’re marketed, and how best to package them for mass consumption. Plus, a random fixation on werewolves…

But what happened as the Seventies headed into the new decade – ‘Jaws’ and ‘Alien,’ in particular – will be felt across cinema for decades to come.

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