Thursday, October 24, 2013

Monsterology: Animals

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

We domesticate them and keep them as pets. We anthropomorphize them in cartoons and on breakfast cereal boxes. We post pictures of them looking cute with captions reading “I haz a cheezeburgerzz!!” on  Facebook (and by “We,” I mean “idiots”). But give them half a chance, and all those adorable puppies and kitties and baboons will tear off your face and the faces of everyone you love. At the very least, they may pee on your bed. That’s because animals are wild. They are unpredictable. And under certain circumstances, they can be dead scary. Imagine a gorilla so large he keeps an entire isle under a spell of terror and has the power and determination to devastate an entire major metropolis. Imagine a great white shark great enough to actually home in on a boatload of humans and realize, “It’s them or me.” Imagine all birds of all feathers suddenly waging war against humankind with the mindless determination of a million cruise missiles. Well, you do not have to imagine any of these things: they’ve already been imagined by writers and filmmakers who’ve understood the nightmare potential of all things that fly, crawl, climb, swim, and stalk.

Long before Merian C. Cooper unleashed the mighty Kong on Manhattan or Daphne du Maurier sicced her birds on Cornwall, monstrous animals were wreaking havoc in human minds. Norse legend told of the horrible Kraken, not a massive man-fish like the one in Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans, but a humongous squid or octopus. In Greek myth, a three-headed hellhound named Cerberus guards the gates of the Underworld. While a wild imagination is necessary to conjure the farthest-out mythological creatures—griffins and gorgons and bhutas (a sort of vampiric cloud of mist from India)—the origins of these demon animals require stubbier leaps of logic. Scandinavian sailors who’d spotted very real giant squids, possibly in seas marked on maps with the foreboding “Here be monsters,” or anyone who’s ever been bitten by a dog might easily conceive of creatures like the Kraken or Cerberus in their nightmares. The very real possibility of the animals with which we coexist taking a chunk out of us or dragging us down to the depths of the ocean is scarier than any phony boloney vampire or ghost. As metaphors for the wilder (or more evil) side of our incompletely evolved human natures, or the destructive wildness of nature itself, animals have served terrifying purposes in an array of fictions: Melville’s Moby Dick, Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Wells’s The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth. Such creatures have found a natural place in the cinema era (each of the aforementioned novels and stories have been adapted for the screen, and most have been adapted multiple times).

Release the Kraken.

Oddly enough, the most regularly monsterized animal may be the gentle gorilla. In the 1840’s, Europeans got their first close-up glimpse of one of these creatures when an expedition to Africa returned with a stuffed gorilla. Ignorant of these beasts’ true natures, they saw only an abomination of the human form: massive, hairy, large-toothed, clearly more powerful than any man. To someone who’d previously known nothing of the gorilla, it looked more monster than animal. In his book Monsters in the Movies, John Landis writes of how this discovery almost instantly led to a terrified obsession with the gorilla, with Paul du Chailu publishing the violent and alarmist Stories of the Gorilla Country in 1867 and Emmanuel Frémiet completing his sculpture Gorilla Carrying off a Woman in 1887. Disturbingly, both works suggest interspecies rape, emphasizing humankind’s dim terror of all things new and misunderstood.

This terror would reach gigantic proportions in 1933 when explorer Merian C. Cooper exploited such ignorance with his masterpiece King Kong. This was not the first time a gorilla was portrayed on screen as a monstrous menace with a yen for human women. There’d already been intimations of such unnatural pairings in Alfred Santell’s 1927 horror-comedy The Gorilla, in which the animal turns out to be a guy in a monkey suit, and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, in which naked women are tied to stakes and attacked by a gorilla in an arena (the scene was cut in the post-code era). King Kong is different both for blowing up the gorilla to the size of a brownstone and for hinting at the animal’s humanity. In actuality, Kong’s sympathetic nature is really only evident in the way the human characters react to him in the film’s final moments, when Carl Denham diagnoses “It wasn’t the airplanes… it was Beauty killed the Beast.” The line is immortal, but it is also deceptive. Denham’s mournful tones suggest guilt over Kong’s death, even though he places the blame on poor beauty Ann Darrow when it was Denham’s fault alone for dragging Kong out of the wilderness and into the “civilization” where he dies. That mournfulness has also caused many filmgoers to remember Kong being kinder than he really is. The original Kong is not the sweetheart of Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake— a very good film, but hardly a horror movie. Cooper’s Kong terrorizes and stomps on the Skull Island natives, protects Ann from an onslaught of dinosaurs only so he can sexually violate her in private, pulls a woman from her bed and casually drops her to her death when he realizes she is not the blond he’s looking for, and wrecks a subway full of innocent commuters. Fay Wray’s Ann never falls in love with the creature as Naomi Watts’s does. The first King Kong was a bad dude, even if we can understand how being kidnapped to a weird new environment to be put on display for a bunch of slack-jawed assholes in pearls and tuxes would rile anyone’s righteous rage. The message of King Kong is less “giant apes need love too” and more “don’t fuck with nature or nature will fuck with you.”

Pictured with Fay Wray, Merian C. Cooper was born 120 years ago today.  

This wise message drives the most powerful monstrous animal movies from Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls, in which a herd of manimals turn against the mad scientist who created them, to Chris Kentis’s Open Water, in which a couple of yuppies trespass on the wild ocean for fun and end up getting eaten by sharks. These films make the message unmistakably clear. In films such as The Birds and Jaws, we don’t understand why the animals are attacking us, making the message more nihilistic and the effect much more terrifying. Hitchcock’s adaptation of du Maurier’s novelette of the same name is obviously intended to work on a metaphorical level, but the film leaves the precise metaphor up to the viewer. Are the birds reflective of an ecosystem abused by humankind for far too long? Is it an avian revolution? Or are the birds more symbolic of the main characters’ messy psyches, their confusion and hostility? Are they meant to indicate that sexual feelings disrupt normality, as they often seemed to in Hitchcock’s personal life? The story goes that this was particularly true in relation to Birds star Tippi Hedren, with whom he was allegedly obsessed.

Unbeknownst to Tippi Hedren, Hitchcock actually sicced actual birds on her for five days straight in the climactic scene of The Birds.

The ending of The Birds is often read as a statement of nihilism, the humans meekly surrendering to the triumphant birds. But for nature it is a more hopeful conclusion. The people realize the damage they’ve done and slink off to leave the world to the animals; they leave in deference to nature instead of fighting against it or trying to conquer it or fuck it—or each other— up more than they already have. As for Hitchcock’s own interpretation of his open-to-multiple-interpretations film, he said he intended it as an meditation on the dangers of “complacency,” of how our own petty concerns and problems can be instantly disrupted by events over which we have no control, such as the recent Cuban Missile Crisis and environmental disasters.

Jaws seems less concerned with metaphor and psychology, as is Steven Spielberg’s way (Peter Benchley’s original novel is even more simplistic), but his refusal to suggest a reason for the shark’s attacks other than “it’s hungry” allows the scares to work on a purely visceral level. The shark’s intelligence—its ability to track Captain Quint’s ship and launch seemingly plotted assaults on it—makes it less animal and more monster, a creature normally ruled by instinct and nothing else suddenly evolving unnatural levels of reason and cunning.

Spielberg gets what's coming to him.

Other films have been more explicit about the human causes of monstrous animals. The giant animal epidemic of the 1950s had causes in nuclear bomb tests (Them!, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Attack of the Crab Monsters), atomic food additives (Tarantula), and the space program (Monster from Green Hell). While disastrous scientific accidents continued to occur in the seventies (The Food of the Gods, Empire of the Ants), abnormal animals continued to mutate with the times. Amid the decade’s growing ecological consciousness, pollution may send them on the attack (The Bees). They were consciously corrupted for military purposes during (The Day of the Dolphin) and following (Piranha) the Vietnam War. Some were trained to kill as an implied protest against a dehumanizing office culture (Willard). However, as more realistic human serial killer films stalked to the fore during the seventies, the killer animal’s association with schlocky monster movies became tough to ignore. In 1983, Lewis Teague gave the monster animal film one of its final serious treatments when he adapted Stephen King’s Cujo, the story of a sweet St. Bernard that becomes not-so-sweet after getting nipped by a rabid vampire bat. 20 years later, Open Water proved an unusually elegant and anomalously realistic example of nature’s revenge. Otherwise, the genre gave in to parody once and for all, winking at us with Alligator (1980), Arachnophobia (1990), Lake Placid (1999), and Snakes on a Plane (2006).

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