Monthly Genre Recommendations – May – When Animals Attack!

 Monthly Genre Recommendations – May – When Animals Attack!

Introduction by Anarchy Jones

When I asked the Nerds to come up with their picks for this month’s genre, there were a few unexpected selections. I realized that the genre description of “When Animals Attack” has a different meaning to everyone. Some obvious ones are mentioned below, and some not-so obvious, but there were a few movies that didn’t make the list that deserve to be pointed out. For me, this genre is epitomized by the films that take footage of real animals, footage that was probably initially shot for documentaries or science films, and splice them in to a film where humans are being attacked by these animals. Or sometimes the animals will be shot specifically for the film, but they are harmless creatures so the actors and the film editors really have their work cut out for them to create fear and horror.

This “nature on the rampage,” “eco-horror,” or “nature strikes back” subgenre really took hold in the ’70s, and three of my favorite entries are Kingdom of the Spiders, Frogs and Squirm. In Kingdom of the Spiders, William Shatner plays Rack Hansen, a rural veterinarian in Arizona. Heavy use of pesticides have caused local tarantula colonies to attack the animals, and then the people. The movie has this incredible ending where the remaining survivors, who have barricaded themselves in a building to escape from the spiders, pry off one of the boards on a window and find themselves encased in a giant web. The camera pulls back and the entire town is covered in webs.

Frogs is interesting because despite the title, the movie has all kinds of reptiles and insects that attack a rich family on their country estate. A young Sam Elliott (sans mustache) joins the family after his canoe tips over while taking photographs of local animals, and helps them realize that the animals are after revenge for all the pollution in the area. This movie’s great because you never really see how people die; there are a lot of close-ups of frog faces and lizards licking their lips, then the actors start screaming and writhing on the floor, and eventually there’s a pile of amphibians or other creatures chilling on a body.

Squirm is a whole other beast, and if you are squeamish about worms then this movie will definitely get under your skin. And that’s actually what happens. A storm causes power lines to fall to the ground and a huge surge of electricity brings up a huge horde of worms. These worms are angry, and hungry, and kill people by burrowing into their skin. One of the many great things about this movie is all the close-ups of worms opening their mouths and sound clips of screaming and growling. This movie also happens to include makeup by Rick Baker, and even though it’s some of his earliest work, it’s still outstanding. Squirm was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but they edited out some of the best scenes so I’d recommend catching the full version.

Some other honorable mentions that should not be missed are Night of the Lepus (1972 film about giant, mutant, carnivorous rabbits), The Birds (the Alfred Hitchcock classic from 1963), Them! (1954 film about giant irradiated ants), The Giant Gila Monster (1959 film that includes hot rods and a live gila monster attacking miniature sets), and The Food of the Gods (1976 film about giant chickens, giant rats, giant wasps, and more). Some more recent entries in the genre that are also fun to watch are Arachnophobia (1990), The Ghost and the Darkness (Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer vs. lions in Africa, 1996), and the gem Anaconda (1997) featuring J-Lo, Ice Cube, Jon Voight, Owen Wilson, and Eric Stoltz.

Whether you like your animals supersized from radiation, blood-thirsty from pesticides, or just straight-up hungry for flesh, there’s a movie out there for it. As you can see from the movies listed here and the recommendations below, there are varying degrees of quality, yet they are all enjoyable. You may fear an animal already, or you may fear some after having watched one of these films. We live our lives at the top of the food chain, and the thought of that changing, the thought of being threatened by any of the hordes of creatures who surround us, is a scary thought indeed.

Cujo (1983)

Recommended by: Bobby D.

There is no “When Animals Attack” movie that comes to mind before Cujo. If there was ever a movie that defined the genre to the very T, it is Cujo. Of course, we cannot forget it was adapted from the famous (or infamous) Stephen King novel only two years after its original drunken completion. King has said on several occasions that he does not even recall writing the novel as he was going through a phase of heavy drinking at the time. Knowing that and the fact that the movie was probably one of the closest renditions to an original Stephen King novel I have ever seen makes it that much sweeter.

The story revolves around Donna (Dee Wallace) and Tad Trenton (Danny Pintauro). They’ve run into some recent car troubles and they need a mechanic. When they drive to the home of Joe Camber (Ed Lauter), local mechanic, they find that Joe’s St. Bernard, Cujo, has contracted a pretty bad case of the sniffles, or in this case, rabies. Joe and his poor neighbor have already succumbed to the beast in a pretty horrific way and now Donna has to protect her 4-year-old son by enclosing themselves in their car in the middle of the hot summer. I would have just screamed at the TV for them to turn on the AC but as it turns out, the alternator was shot upon their arrival. Aw, the irony hurts so good.

What I love about it is definitely the ominous music playing throughout the film. If you weren’t being reminded of the sheer hell they are in by the slow music, you’re on the edge of your seat from the utter silence of the more scarier scenes. The concept just keeps it simple; dogs can be scary as hell. A barking, drooling, creature of hate and murderous intent can bring your fear to the next level, and it does in Cujo. It’s just one of those movies that reminds us why we grasp our cell phones so tightly. It reminds us just how scary everyday life can be. Because, at any moment, you could be attacked by a rabid dog and have to risk your life to protect your rather young offspring. Beware people.

If nothing else, you can use watching the movie as an excuse to challenge yourself on King trivia. There are several hints at other novels and movies by Stephen King in Cujo, not to mention the fact that it is set in King’s notorious Castle Rock. You can even watch a few of his other movies that poke reference at our favorite attack dog. One of my all time favorite thrillers is The Tommyknockers. That movie has a scary-looking pup named Cujo who almost sinks his teeth into the Sheriff. The Easter eggs don’t stop there, though. You just have to search for them.

This movie has major re-watchability and it will always be held as a classic “When Animals Attack” genre film in my eyes. So for that, Cujo is my genre pick of the month and I give it a full 5 out of 5 Nerdskulls. Check out the trailer if you’ve never seen it:

The Grey (2012)

Recommended by: Peter

In recent years we’ve seen Liam Neeson reinvent himself as an absolute badass in movies like Taken and Unknown. The Grey is the latest movie in that line and this time he’s fighting wolves in Alaska.

Neeson plays John Ottway, a security worker at an oil-drilling facility in a remote part of Alaska, whose job it is to shoot wolves that threaten the drilling operations. He’s a troubled man and almost uses his hunting rifle to commit suicide after his last day of work. He doesn’t go through with it though, and joins his coworkers on the plane headed home, which then violently crashes somewhere in the middle of nowhere (if flying makes you as uncomfortable as it does me, this scene will definitely shake you up a bit). The survivors spend the night at the crash site and are soon attacked by wolves, and a few of the men are killed. The group concludes that staying and waiting for help isn’t an option, so they head south through the cold wilderness in the hopes of finding their way back to civilization.

What I really liked about this movie is that unlike most “man vs. animal” movies, it wasn’t a scenario wherein for some stupid reason, the animals go crazy, invade cities and randomly kill people. It’s the humans that, albeit unintentionally, invade the wolves’ territory. The wolves just respond like wolves would in that situation. For the story this means the characters are faced with nature itself, not some evil adversary. The wolves’ constant presence, as a part of the surroundings in which the characters find themselves, makes the situation much more real and terrifying than a standard campy supersized spider movie.

The atmosphere is really well done; the movie also has a bit of an existential layer to it. The situation Neeson’s character finds himself in forces him to face his inner demons, and as the story progresses a cathartic process takes place in which Ottway comes to terms with life and the concept of death. This sounds a bit corny and pretentious but Neeson does a great job of portraying this mental journey and I thought it was very believable. This little bit of extra depth in the story, combined with the raw and gritty style really made the movie for me. I give it 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls.

Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus (2009)

Recommended by: Lance M. Goolsby

Studios usually choose between two options for releasing their films. Some plan on large screen releases, and others make their films for the direct to video market. The Asylum is one of the companies that caters to the DTV (Direct to Video) market, and they use it pretty well. The Asylum movies are typically knock-offs, or “mockbusters,” of larger blockbuster films seen in theaters, such as Transmorphers (their answer to Transformers), Snakes on a Train (answer to Snakes on a Plane), Titanic II (I don’t really need to say which this is based on, do I?) and this year we will also see the film http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2175927/ (the answer for Battleship).

They tend to do well in the video market, mainly by confusing customers enough to buy their films, and their rental market is actually pretty good. ITunes offers almost all of The Asylum films for rent or purchase online. If there is one thing at the heart of The Asylum that they love to make, it’s monster/disaster movies, typically involving giant animals, like Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, Mega Piranha and Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus. These films mostly premier on SyFy, though The Asylum released perhaps their most popular film in the theatre. In fact, the trailer for Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus prompted massive pre-orders for the DVD, and a video of one of the scenes made it onto YouTube, where almost overnight the clip had earned almost two million views.

Critics were divided on this film; some considered unwatchable and clumsy, yet others hailed it’s absurdity and hokiness. Somehow I found myself renting and watching this campy, badly acted movie with special effects from a Commodore 64 and starring Lorenzo Lamas and Deborah Gibson (yes, ’80s pop sensation Debbie Gibson is the title character Emma MacNeil). I watched it not just once, but twice. Now any of these films can be enjoyed as long as you follow one simple rule: Never, ever, and I mean NEVER go into them thinking you are going to be seeing anything other than a modern version of an Ed Wood film, or one of the Saturday Double Features from RKO in the ’50s.

Overall, not the greatest film, but with a couple beers, and a bucket of popcorn, definitely worth 3 out of 5 Nerdskulls, and that is being generous. Yet I still do recommend it as it is fun to watch if you know what you are getting into. As proof, instead of the normal trailer, I am including here for you to watch the clip from the film showing the airplane getting eaten by a shark.

Orca (1977)

Recommended by: Seraph

Back in the seventies, Jaws was a Hollywood game-changer. It essentially created what we now know of as the summer blockbuster season. At the time it was the highest-grossing film in history. So of course it inspired several sequels, as well as dozens of imitators. Dino De Laurentiis, after seeing Jaws, called up Italian writer/producer Luciano Vincenzoni (who famously collaborated with Sergio Leone on such films as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and For A Few Dollars More, among others), and asked him to “find a fish tougher and more terrible than the great white.” There is obviously only one creature that could fit this criteria, the Killer Whale. Add Michael Anderson, director of Logan’s Run and Around the World in Eighty Days, and actors Richard Harris and the mysterious beauty Charlotte Rampling, and you have a film with some serious credentials.

Orca does seem to owe its creation to Jaws, which is ironic because it was the endless comparisons to Jaws that doomed it to commercial failure. Had it come out before Jaws it probably would have been fairly successful because it is actually quite a good film. And for me that is saying a lot because I don’t typically like films from the seventies (with a few notable exceptions). They tend to lull me to sleep with their slow pacing and endless dialogue, not to mention their mostly awful soundtracks. Admittedly the soundtrack to Orca is no John Williams, not even close. But coming in at just over 90 minutes the film is paced well and has a great story.

Orca opens by introducing us to two killer whales playing in the open water together. We later learn that they are mates, and that killer whales mate for life. Rachel Bedford (Rampling) is studying the whales off the coast of Canada. While she is SCUBA diving she sees a great white shark which is being pursued for capture by Captain Nolan (Harris) in order to sell to an aquarium. Bedford’s partner gets thrown overboard by the wake of the fishing boat and subsequently targeted by the shark. However, one of the killer whales comes to the rescue and kills the shark thereby rescuing the scientist. With the shark gone, Nolan gets the idea to attempt to capture one of the killer whales instead. He succeeds, but it turns out that the female he captures is pregnant, and she miscarries once he has her on the ship. This is when things get really interesting. In an epic anthropomorphizing of the whales, the male killer whale, who sees this all happen, cries out in sorrow and anger at the loss of his mate and child. Nolan, who immediately feels guilty for what he has done, decides to cut the female loose after the male attacks the boat. But it’s too late; the female is dead and the male killer whale has vowed vengeance against the captain and crew.

So on the face of it I can understand the comparisons to Jaws. But really the story does not resemble Jaws at all beyond the fact that it centers around a giant fish that can, and does, kill humans. Jaws was simply a man-eating monster that had to be destroyed. In Orca, the whales were minding their own business until being attacked, unprovoked, by opportunistic human beings. So immediately my sympathy lies with the whales. Fortunately the story was not as simple as this. The consequences of Nolan’s actions were also felt by a nearby fishing village. The male killer whale seemed to be scaring off all the fish while waiting to wreak his vengeance on Nolan, so the captain is pressured into killing the male in order to save the village livelihood. But the captain, consumed with guilt for what he’s done, really just wants forgiveness from the whale. Obviously this isn’t going to happen so Nolan goes back out on the water to lure the whale away from the village. They end up in glacier-infested water and the final fight takes place on said glaciers after Nolan’s ship has been sunk. I won’t tell you who dies or how, but I will say that everyone pretty much gets what they deserve (at least according to the morality put forth by the filmmaker).

Harris seemed to be channeling his best Captain Ahab and his performance very much carries the film. Apparently he insisted on doing all his own stunts and very nearly died several times (at least, according to the internet), so he has my eternal respect. Rampling’s character acts very much as a guide in the story, both to Nolan and to the audience. She’s chronicling the fate of a man doomed by one poor decision, although upon further inspection it would seem that all his decisions prior to this one inevitably brought him here, so in effect this film is about his karma (if you wanna’ get esoteric about it). This idea of karma is personified in the character of Umilak, played by Will Sampson of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Umilak explains to Nolan the significance of the whale’s behavior, how his ancestors honored the whales, and how ultimately the effects on the village will be blamed on Nolan. He seems to understand Nolan’s conundrum better than anyone and even volunteers to accompany the captain on his mission confront the whale.

I hope that I get a chance to see a 35mm print of this film one of these days, possibly at the Alamo Drafthouse’s Terror Tuesday (hint hint). A large screen is necessary to really appreciate the underwater cinematography, which, for the time period, was really quite beautiful. The reason I’m giving this 3.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls instead of four, however, is because of the soundtrack. If there was one thing I could think of to improve this film it would be that. But don’t let that keep you away; Orca is a seriously fun movie and definitely in the top ten of all “When Animals Attack” films. For me it’s just behind King Kong (both the 1935 and 2005 versions) and Jaws itself. Watch the trailer:

Jaws (1975)

Recommended by: Rainbolt

Any movie that I saw when I was a young kid that kept me from entering the water until I was way into adulthood is a movie that deserves some revisiting. Jaws was a movie that not only scared me, it scarred me for life, along with an entire generation. My fear of sharks didn’t exist until I saw this movie. I knew my sister was never the same after this either, and I think it made me cry to watch her scream with terror, pure 100% child terror.

Steven Spielberg, cast and crew still say making this film was a nightmare. Problems with the mechanical shark caused the film to go over budget and way over schedule. But the end result was worth it. There has never been anything like Jaws and there never will be. It was the film that kicked off the summer blockbuster in the summer of 1975 and would stop me from frolicking on beaches for at least 15 years after seeing it the first time. What made it worse was I lived in Southern California, in a beach town. Talk about avoiding the big elephant in the room. I know it sounds silly but I didn’t even want to get into pools after this movie for a long time. I still have problems with going into deep water at the beach because of this movie.

Who could have guessed that the story of a seaside town attacked by a giant shark would be the basis for one of the most loved, respected and successful movies of all time? This is one of those rare cases where the movie is just as good as, if not better than, the book (yes, Jaws was based on a book by the same name from Peter Benchley). Pure fright, excitement, laughs, great characters and amazing acting all contributed to make a masterpiece, along with fluid direction and a now infamous score. You know you have sung it once/twice since you started reading this review. Duuun dun duuun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun BOM BOM dun dun dun dun dun dun doo dedoo doo dedoo dede doo dede doo dededoo!!!

This is one movie that will always stand the test of time because it’s a horror movie that’s based in reality. This could really happen. On average, there are 16 shark attacks per year in the United States with one fatality every two years. In 1975 fear did not stop Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), Icthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and a Captain Ahab-style shark fisherman called Quint (Robert Shaw) from trying to hunt and kill the biggest shark any of them had ever seen. If somehow you haven’t seen this movie, put it in your queue or find it on DVD/blu-ray. It will always be a 5 out of 5 Nerdskull movie in my eyes, in my mind, and in my fears. Enjoy the trailer:

Alligator (1980)

Recommended by: Roman

It’s no surprise that Jaws spawned many imitators, but perhaps one of the most blatant retreads was that of Alligator. The basic premise is an alligator gets flushed down the toilet in Chicago. In the sewer, it feeds on discarded animal carcasses infused with growth hormones, and eventually grows big enough to need larger food, say, human-sized food. Enter a police officer, a reptile expert, and a big-game hunter. This film, directed by Lewis Teague and scripted by John Sayles, followed the same formula as its predecessor, yet was generally well-received by critics who applauded the film’s ability to satirize the genre while still being entertaining and offering great performances by the lead actors. It’s no surprise that Sayles was able to write a witty, tongue-in-cheek script, considering some of his work on other projects (like the original Piranha). We recently uncovered (wink wink) a letter from Sayles to director Lewis Teague, seemingly accompanying the first script draft for Alligator, and have included it here for your reading pleasure:

Dear Lewis,

It is not very often that you are afforded the opportunity to write a letter in both the form of gratitude and an apology. Now you, my kind sir, find yourself in the most fortunate position of being the happy recipient of such a letter.

First of all I would like to offer my sincerest “thank you” for offering me the opportunity to work on Alligator. Despite the deep gut laugh that followed your initial proposition that we remake Jaws with an alligator, this was truly one of the most entertaining projects of what I hope to be a long career.

Hence my apology. Despite my enjoyment in putting together this piece, you have to understand that having began my career with Joe Dante’s Piranha, I was afraid that I would be the screenwriter forever typecast to write killer animal movies. Yesterday it was piranhas. Today it’s alligators. Tomorrow it could be killer frogs for all I know. I’m a Hemingway guy for Christ’s sake!

Back to the matter of the enclosed script. As a show of good faith I have enclosed a list of the elements of the original Jaws script that were most important to you.

1.) Brody = David. The guy is obsessed but a little more controlled than Roy Scheider. I was thinking Robert Forster considering how much fun he was on the Lady in Red set, but I’ll leave that up to you.

2.) Quint = Brock. I re-imagined this guy as a big game hunter. He’s not around for long but he should really shine. For this to work we’re going to need someone that is almost alien. Henry Silva? Let me know if this works for you.

3.) Hooper = Marisa. I don’t want to take anything away from Richard Dreyfuss in his portrayal of Hooper. He’s a fine young actor. He’s just not hot. I got to thinking about the possibilities open to us should we turn our scientific expert into a red-headed scientific sexpot. You know, the kind we only see in the movies. Stage right, enter: Marisa.

4.) As for the ending of Jaws, it was perfect. So, rather than mess with perfection, let’s just blow the alligator up. It worked for Steven. It can work for us. If Steven bitches, I’ll just take that much longer on this little alien film he has me scripting. Who says passive aggressive doesn’t pay?

There are plenty more similarities that follow, but I will leave those for you to find, Mr. Teague. I don’t want to take all the fun.

Just know that working with you has, temporarily at least, helped me find great comfort in this genre world I unsuspectingly have found myself in. Corman himself used to say that I had real talent for this, but then again I don’t think he ever expected Return of the Secaucus Seven. Then again, he might be proud. His only complaint with Secaucus Seven was that it needed “more tiddy.” My new film has an entire SPACESHIP modeled after the perfectly formed bosom. Who knows, I may have found my niche.

Again, Lewis, thank you. And let the rewrites begin!

Yours truly,
John Sayles”

****The contents of this letter may or may not have really existed****

Lastly, we offer to you the trailer:

Anarchy Jones