Tag Archives: Cinemania

A Monster for Every Taste!

As many of my fellow filmmakers know, I’m not overfond of most horror films (apologies to Lonnie and my other filmmaking colleagues who love ’em). At the same time, I do love “creature features.” This is probably due to two reasons.

First, like many kids of my generation, I enjoyed the steady stream of good, bad, and less-than-spectacular kaiju films played endlessly on TV on Saturday afternoons. In our case, it was good ol’ WDCA, Channel 20 that educated us as to Godzilla and his many foes.

Second, my dad loved sharing all sorts of 50s monster movies he grew up with, including Ray Harryhausen classics such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and other seminal giant monster movies like Them!

And while I will happily check out just about any creature feature (hello, Mongolian Death Worm), it’s clear not all creature features are created equal.

In fact, I have to give my hat off to my dad for pointing out a critical difference most great creature features have over their unremarkable cousins: they make fighting the creature as interesting as discovering the creature — if not more so.

In the “meh” creature features, an undue importance is placed on the discovery of the creature. Characters can spend up to half the movie blundering about the ship, house, ancient temple, or whatever the setting is. Meanwhile, the viewer patiently waits for a solid reveal of the creature. For these underwhelming creature features, the main card up their sleeve is the monster itself. They know it… and so they stall playing that card as long as possible. After that, the only thing they can do to raise the stakes is have more gore, more peril, or possibly more monsters (which usually lead to more gore and more peril). The resulting stories seem invariably random and do not provide the characters little, if any, agency. (This is different from Godzilla or other kaiju moshing on plastic tanks, which is an esteemed tradition).

Contrast that approach to some of the great creature features I just mentioned.

In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, they

Spoiler Inside SelectShow

In Them!, there’s a series of hints leading up to the fact

Spoiler Inside SelectShow

In both these cases and others, it’s not only the discovery of the monster, but how to defeat the monster that’s interesting. Not only that, the humans’ efforts to defeat the monster have setbacks. People have incomplete knowledge and incomplete skills, just like in real life. We’re invested in how the characters can possibly win, not simply along for a monster mash ride. (And hint: it’s more exciting if the humans seem to be using what little knowledge they have rather than being complete idiots: I’m looking at you, DeepStar Six).

Now I know my dad isn’t the only one who’s come to this realization. Odds are, many a filmmaker has come to the same conclusion. And some of them have probably made some interesting creature features, dozens of which I have not yet seen.

So, it was with great delight that I discovered that Wikipedia, the modern analog to the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook, has an entire page exhaustively listing just about every creature feature ever made.

Now, technically, they’re defining these as “natural horror” films, but let’s be real: many of these creatures are pure fantasy with just the thinnest veneer of science. For example, the list includes both the presumably possible danger of the great white shark in Jaws along with the ridiculous titular monster of Dinoshark.

In some ways, that makes me love them more.

So dig in, fellow cinemaniacs. Whether you want to see a film with deadly tree monsters, killer sheep, or simply a shark loose in a supermarket, I guarantee you’ll find something.

Feel free to share your favorites in the comments.

The VHS Tapes We Left Behind

Growing up a cinemaniac, there are, quite naturally, a number of actors and directors and screenwriters I would like to meet. However, I daresay I would not shake the hand of any of them so vigorously as I would the hand of film historian and critic, Leonard Maltin.

Maltin’s indispensable and always entertaining movie guide was a fixture in our household. Not only did we get each annual edition, but we held on to the old ones, noting the films that were added and removed… and occasionally the edits to the various capsule reviews. Prior to the Internet, this was an invaluable resource for all sorts of films, including knowing whether they were available on VHS, DVD, or even laserdisc.

Time marches on, of course, and the guide bowed out in 2014, as the print reference guide just wasn’t the go-to reference for a generation raised on checking for info online. I made the switch too. So did Leonard Maltin: he’s found new ways to talk about films and introduce people to all sorts of cinema they might not otherwise learn about.

But it’s in that spirit of wistful remembrance that he writes about the energy put into various VHS movie collections… and how many of the offerings coming out on DVD or Blu-ray are not nearly as artful, comprehensive — or even exist!

I imagine many of us have a treasured film or series that has yet to make the leap to a more modern format.

Feel free to mention any collections of films you’d like to see break out of the “only available in VHS” in the comments.

Recommended Reading: Requiem for a Video Store

Reading a recent piece reflecting on the demise of video stores, specifically independent video stores, made me reflect on the demise of Video Vault, an indie film mainstay in Alexandria that supplied film fans for a generation. Mike Musgrove’s article in the Washington Post about the Vault’s closing gives one a good idea of the pressures that made it close.

That article is probably a good warm-up for the aforementioned piece on indie video stores. It’s a much more personal first-person recollection by Dennis Perkins in Vox about the last days of a Portland, Maine video store.

As much as I like Netflix (and I do), it is flawed in terms of its selection and it is lacking that curated experience you get from those enterprising humans. We see this again and again with libraries, game stores, comic shops and other locations of specialized interest. You can automate information, but knowledge and wise advice appear to be lost –or at best diluted– in the automation process.

At the same time, market forces being what they are, I don’t see any financial incentive for knowledge and wisdom. That’s one thing Perkins’ article touches on — though I don’t see a practical solution with how the economy is structured. I suppose the curated experience could be preserved in libraries with a whole new generation of reference librarians and knowledge workers, but alas, libraries themselves are not being invested in a way that makes me feel rosy about their future.