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Good Creature Features (2005-10): Weird Science

Hope Madden itcherA lot of creature features made their way to cinemas in the last half of the decade. From indie animal attacks like ‘Rogue,’ ‘Black Water’ and ‘The Breed’, to the big budget SciFi of ‘District 9,’ ‘Predator’ and ‘Cloverfield’, cinemas were a ruckus of creatures. ~ Hope Madden

They Come From Without and Within

It’s the two old SciFi standbys – lab work gone haywire and creatures from another world – that inform the creature features of this period in film. But there’s nothing run of the mill about this lot.

Yes, the movies here pay tribute to SciFi of yesteryear – some of them openly homaging what’s come before. But in every case, the modern spin on that old science is what sets the film apart.


Homaging Creature Features

‘The Host’ (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)

Korea’s sci-fi import ‘The Host’, which tells the tale of a giant mutant monster terrorizing Seoul, has all the thumbprints of the old Japanese Godzilla movies: military blunder, resultant angry monster, terrorized metropolis. Writer/director Joon-ho Bong updates the idea, and not solely with CGI.

The film opens in a military lab hospital in 2000. A clearly insane American doctor, repulsed by the dust coating formaldehyde bottles, orders a Korean subordinate to empty it all into the sink. Soon the contents of hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde find its way through the Korean sewer system and into the Han River. This event – allegedly based on fact – eventually leads, not surprisingly, to some pretty gamey drinking water. And also a 25-foot cross between Alien and a giant squid.

The monster exits the river one bright afternoon in 2006 to run amuck in a very impressive outdoor-chaos-and-bloodshed scene. A dimwitted food stand clerk witnesses his daughter’s abduction by the beast, and the stage is set.

What follows, rather than a military attack on the marauding monster, is actually one small, unhappy, bickering family’s quest to find and save the little girl. Their journey takes them to poorly organized quarantines, botched security check points, misguided military/Red Cross posts, and through Seoul’s sewer system, all leading to a climactic battle even more impressive than the earlier scene of afternoon chaos.

‘The Mist’ (Frank Darabont, 2007)

Frank Darabont really loves him some Stephen King, having adapted and directed the writer’s work almost exclusively for the duration of his career. While ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ may be Darabont’s most fondly remembered effort, ‘The Mist’ is an underappreciated creature feature.

David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son head to town for some groceries. Meanwhile, a tear in the space/time continuum (who’s to blame?) opens a doorway to alien monsters. David, his boy, and a dozen or so other shoppers all find themselves trapped inside this glass-fronted store waiting for either rescue or death.

Performances – especially Marcia Gay Harden’s – are wonderful. The FX look good, too, and let’s be honest, a full-on monster movie with weak FX is the lamest. The way Darabont frames the giants, in particular, gives the film a throwback quality to the old matinee creature features.

It’s the provocative ending that guarantees this one will sear itself into your memory. Though this is likely what kept ‘The Mist’ from gaining an audience in theaters, it is a brilliant and utterly devastating scene that elevates the film from great creature feature to great film.

‘Black Sheep’ (Jonathan King, 2006)

Graphic and gory horror comedy seems to be the Kiwi trademark, no doubt a product of the popularity of native Lord of the Gastro-Intestinal-Splatter-Fest-Laugh-Riot, Peter Jackson.

First time writer/director, Jonathan King, uses the isolation of a New Zealand sheep farm and the greedy evil of pharmaceutical research to create horror. He does it with a lot of humor and buckets full of blood. It works well.

Evil brother Angus (Peter Feeney) has bred some genetically superior sheep while smart but sheep-phobic brother Harry (Nathan Meister) has been away. But the new sheep bite (a recurring problem with bio-genetically altered farm animals). Victims turn into, well, were-sheep.

The result is an endearing, genuinely funny film. Cleverly written with performances strong enough to elevate it further, ‘Black Sheep’ offers an enjoyable way to watch a would-be lamb chop get its revenge.

‘Slither’ (James Gunn, 2006)

Writer/director James Gunn took the best parts of B-movie ‘Night of the Creeps’ and David Cronenberg’s ‘They Came from Within,’ mashing the pieces into the exquisitely funny, gross and terrifying ‘Slither.’

Starla (Elizabeth Banks) is having some marital problems. Her husband, Grant (the great horror actor Michael Rooker), is at the epicenter of an alien invasion. Smalltown sheriff, Bill Pardy (every nerd girls’ imaginary boyfriend, Nathan Fillion), tries to set things straight as a giant mucous ball, a balloon-like womb-woman, a squid monster, projectile vomit, zombies, and loads and loads of slugs keep the action really hopping.

Consistently funny, cleverly written, well-paced, tense and scary and gross – ‘Slither’ has it all. Watch it. Do it!

‘Splice’ (Vincenzo Natali, 2009)

‘Splice’ is one of those “going there” films. As in, ‘Oh, you’re going there? Yep, you went there’.

Scientists and lovers Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, with their oh-so-Frankensteiney names) are having great success creating genetic mutations, so they decide to secretly add human DNA to their lab mix. How do you think that works out for them?

Writer/director Vincenzo Natali really celebrates and evolves the Frankenstein panic, adding greed, apathy and familial dysfunction into Shelley’s hysteria around playing God. A script this over-the-top would crumble, were it not for Natali’s sly direction and his leads’ committed performances.

Both Body and Polley are talented actors and the film would have collapsed under its own ponderous lunacy without them. Luckily, both are entirely committed to their roles and the increasingly bizarre yet emotionally compelling narrative spinning around them and their burgeoning little family.

Beginning with one laboratory surprise, the film really takes off as a twisted, bloody, Oedipal mess. It’s marvellous.


Science Gets Funny

The next decade would see filmmakers infusing more humor into their monster movies, but the same themes of man’s insignificance in the face of nature – and the devastating consequences of playing God – don’t move a muscle.

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