Monday, April 23, 2012

Monsterology: Mutants

In this new feature on Psychobabble, we’ll be taking a look at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

You’re an animal. So’s your mom and your dad and your sister and all your friends. We humans like to think of ourselves as far removed from the animals we eat, shoo, experiment on, and patronize as pets. But though we may have opposable thumbs and cell phones, we are basically shaved apes with unwieldy brains. As Charles Darwin pointed out 150-odd years ago, we’re also mutants. We are the result of sudden biological jolts in unexpected directions, which is why most of us no longer live in trees or employ butt sniffing when choosing a mate (did prehistoric people actually do this? I like to think so). Despite war, genocide, environmental destruction, racism, sexism, homophobia, extreme narcissism, reality television, and Rick Santorum, we turned out pretty well. But a little tweak in the wrong direction and we could have been murderous men-fish with big webbed claws or underground-dwelling mole ladies. Terrifying to consider, eh? Perhaps that’s why mutants have been such reliable monsters since the dawn of Horror fiction.

H.G. Wells was one of the first artists to address such mutations, which he did in The Time Machine (1895). The writer sent his protagonist back to 802,701 A.D. where he meets two alternate early versions of his own species. Wells chiefly used the lazy Eloi and the brutish Morlocks as metaphors for the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, respectively, but he may not have conceived of these particular creatures had Darwin not made us aware of the strange side roads we walked on our journey toward humanity. The following year, Wells gave us a more explicit glimpse at our bestial past, but he did so without the trappings of revisionist history. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, the title doc is the maddest of modern scientists, conducting enforced evolution in a lab his hairy charges fear as the House of Pain. Wells intended his novel as a denunciation of one of “evolved” man’s great crimes, vivisection, yet it also functions as a raging criticism of the arrogance, cruelty, and whimsy of an evolution-crazed God. Moreau sees himself as The Creator, a noble entity who would erase the savagery of nature and replace it with the refinement of civilized humans. In actuality, he is an egomaniacal puppeteer and torturer, and like the God of Biblical fiction, his creations are ultimately destructive. Was Wells telling us we would have been better left grazing in the fields? Perhaps, and perhaps he wasn’t too far off the mark.

H.G. Wells later described The Island of Dr. Moreau as “rather painful” and “an exercise in youthful blasphemy,” yet it solidified a Horror archetype that had yet to take a shape of its own but may have always existed. What are werewolves and vampires if not mutants of sorts? Could they be supernatural suggestions of what might have been had humans evolved from wolves or bats instead of apes?

Such “what ifs?” gave us some of our most memorable monsters when Horror mutated from the printed page to the screen in the twentieth century. What if there was a direct missing link between us and that fish that crawled from the sea some 360 million years ago? Perhaps there might still be one of these creatures doing the backstroke in a black lagoon in the Amazon, mooning over a woman with whom he may have had a shot had he been fortunate enough to follow the same evolutionary path as the rest of us. As scientifically unlikely as it is, that fish/man missing link became one of Horror’s iconic monsters and a belated last hoorah for the golden age of Universal horror.
A true testament to natural selection, the Gill Man has withstood time better than the big-eyed mutants of the charmingly campy The Mole People, Universal’s less successful attempt to justify weird creatures with dicey science. Quite unlike evolutionary science, the “Hollow Earth Theory” had been roundly dismissed a century and a half before Virgil Vogel’s movie premiered in 1956. That didn’t stop phony-boloney scientist Frank C. Baxter from lecturing about mutant mole men running amok in the Earth’s core during the uproarious prologue:

Silly? Yes. But apparently not unworthy fodder for serious horror, as we learned almost fifty years later when Neil Marshall explored both the evolutionary undercurrent of vampires and the speculative hooey of mutant monsters dwelling under the Earth in the genuinely terrifying The Descent. Of course, the film’s claustrophobia-inducing scenes of spelunking are so scary that the mutant bat people are somewhat less overwhelming when they finally show up halfway through the picture.

In the interim, Horror and science fiction pondered strange mutations time and time again. In 1984, cult favorite C.H.U.D. took another dive below ground to visit with mole people of a different sort: urban homeless people mutated into monstrous cannibals by toxic waste. The classic 1963 novel and 1968 film The Planet of the Apes wondered what might result if apes continued evolving while retaining their signature ape flourishes while humans were relegated to lower-beast status. The three film adaptations of The Island of Dr. Moreau work as a devolutionary timeline, descending from the great (1933) to the good (1977) to the abysmal (1996) over time. Dagon, Stuart Gordon’s underrated 2001 adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, melds weird mutations and weirder religion with its Gill Man-esque creatures who worship a freaky fish god. Evolution and religion merge at last. The mutant continues to stalk our nightmares.

So before you go to bed tonight, thank your god—if you’re inclined to believe in such things—that you managed to make it to 2012 without gills or fangs or the need to take residence deep in the Earth. Better yet, toss The Creature from the Black Lagoon into the DVD player and thank Jack Arnold, H.G. Wells, Neil Marshall, and the rest for finding the riveting Horror in the strange-but-true science of evolution.

Essential Mutant Viewing:
Island of Lost Souls (1933)
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Revenge of the Creature (1955)
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
The Mole People (1956)
The Time Machine (1960)
The Planet of the Apes (1968)
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)
C.H.U.D. (1984)
Dagon (2001)
The Descent (2005)
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