Sunday, July 25, 2010

January 8, 2010: Five Classic Monster Movies for a Snowy Day

I don’t know where you are, but here in Jersey City, there’s a thin layer of snow on the ground. While this is hardly the product of some punishing blizzard, it’s still early in the season, and if the amount of snow we’ve gotten so far is any indication, this is going to be another snowy winter. That means there will be plenty of opportunities to watch some snowbound monster flicks.

Watching a film that captures the desolation of a snow-swathed landscape or the paranoia of being snowbound as a winter storm rages outside your window really heightens the horror of such a film. It’s like watching a haunted house flick in an actual haunted house. Here are five classic monster movies you might consider watching today or the next time your area gets the business end of a blizzard.

1. The Invisible Man (1932)

The first sound monster film to really take advantage of snowy landscapes is James Whale’s masterful adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man. Snow plays a rather practical role in the film: without it, the cops wouldn’t stand a chance of capturing a creature who can only be detected via his footprints, therefore there would be no sense of risk. And let’s face it: Whale wants us to identify with Claude Rains’s Dr. Griffin, who is simply bursting with malevolent mischievousness and nasty humor, not the dull cretins who would foil his diabolical plans to “rule the world…” to “rob and rage and kill!” Still, I’ve always wondered why Griffin doesn’t just die of the flu long before the end of the picture, since he spends so much time running around in the snow buck naked.

2. The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Released just a few months after The Curse of Frankenstein, Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman was only the second genuine monster movie produced by Hammer Studios. As such, it is quite a different beast from the colorful Gothic horror pictures for which the studio was best known, yet its minimalism and the bleakness of its Himalayan setting make it no less creepy. There is also a subtlety and poetry to The Abominable Snowman that is lacking in some of Hammer’s more lavish productions. Studio mainstay Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker play scientists on a quest to find the fabled snow creature, who has been leaving his size-18 footprints all over the surrounding area. While the creature is not among Hammer’s more expertly executed creations, the film provides one of the studio’s most intriguingly sensitive denouements.

3. The Shining (1980)

Stephen King was no fan of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but fans know that it is not only the greatest adaptation of King’s work, but it’s also the ultimate snowbound horror film. We can debate whether or not Jack Nicholson was the right choice to play a character who is supposed to go mad gradually, rather than come off like a wacko right out of the gate (which was King’s main gripe about the movie), but The Shining is still a masterpiece of palpable cabin fever. Notice how the snowy environment incrementally devolves from the picturesque-quality of the opening sequence, as Jack Torrance (Nicholson) and his little family head to the cursed Overlook Hotel, to the more blanched-out haze seen when son Danny (creepy Danny Lloyd) and wife Wendy (frantic Shelley Duvall) go for a pleasant walk in the hedge-maze to ultimate darkness and overwhelming nothingness when Torrance goes completely off his rocker and hunts his son through that maze at the picture’s climax. As is the case with a few other Kubrick films (2001, Eyes Wide Shut…), the environment is just as much of a character in the picture as any of the humans, and while The Overlook may be the most obvious environmental character in The Shining, the snow-laden world that surrounds it is an equally complex and terrifying entity.

4. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

Howard Hawks’s 1951 sci-fi monster picture The Thing From Another World is generally rated as one of the great films of its ilk, but I actually prefer John Carpenter’s 1982 remake in spite of my yen for all things really, really old. With its cast of grizzled, hard-drinking, tough-talking dudes, John Carpenter’s The Thing is as much a macho action movie as it is a monster picture, but a suffocating air of doom ensures that the picture’s true agenda is to horrify. The ostensible enemy in the film is a grotesquely metamorphosing alien that can take the shape of any living thing it sees, which exacerbates the trigger-happy paranoia of the research team quarantined at a station in Antarctica. However, the barren environment is just as formidable as the monster bumping off the men (and causing them to bump off each other). As the picture reaches its cynical, hopeless conclusion, that unforgiving tundra seems like it will be the beast that will wipe out humanity for good.

5. Gremlins (1984)

In contrast to the grim landscapes present in most of the other movies on this list, the environment in Joe Dante’s Gremlins is a winter wonderland straight out of a Courier and Ives print. Placing the demonic, havoc-raising gremlins in such a pleasantly bucolic location is fully in-step with the film’s ironic tone, and the Christmas setting provides plenty of opportunities for grotesque set-pieces: the gremlins going door-to-door to shriek shrill carols, a dog strung up in Christmas lights, the beasties swarming a hapless dude in a Santa suit, Phoebe Cates’s positively awful story about how her father croaked after jamming himself in his own chimney while playing Santa for his kids. And, lest we forget, Gizmo, the fluffy little thing responsible for much of this violent mayhem, was, itself, a Christmas gift.

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