Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Top 5 Science Run Amok Movies

Growing up in the 1970s, I had a healthy skepticism about the awesome power of science. I lived in a city in Texas that was, at the time, developing the B-1 stealth bomber at the nearby air force base. It’s common knowledge now, but obviously, no one knew anything about it at the time. They just had all of the elementary schools practice “disaster drills.” Yeah.

So, thanks to The Cold War and my fear of a Nuclear Holocaust, watching old monster movies from the fifties with mad scientists made perfect sense. Here’s what happens when you fully fund a guy for his research without doing your due diligence. Pretty soon, they are teleporting their own head onto insects and unleashing giant insects on an unsuspecting public. And for what, I ask you?

Science is still scary to people. Instead of irradiated mutants, we’re concerned about genetically-modified organisms. Science keeps trying (at least, in our fevered imaginations) to improve upon nature, and in doing so, usually bungs it up so badly that dinosaurs get loose in San Diego, or people come back to life as whackjob zombies, or any number of Worst Case Scenarios.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Top 5 Horror-Comedy Films

Humor and Fear look a lot alike, as far as the body reactions go. Laughter is an expression of surprise. So, too, is a scream. The difference? Watching Curly hit Moe with a shovel, and watching a cat jump out of a darkened recess in the space ship when everyone is looking for the alien. Those two scenarios are considered miles apart. But something really interesting happens when you start moving them closer together.

The Horror-Comedy movie (or, if you prefer, the Comedy-Horror movie) is one of those rare, fragile and delicate kinds of movies that is very tricky to pull off without tipping the scales one way or the other. It takes only a nudge to turn a comedic horror movie into parody, or worse, a self-referential meta-movie that becomes insider baseball. Likewise, if you’re not funny enough, the laughs will be more of the nervous variety than the knee-slapping kind. Not that there’s ever any real belly laughs in a Horror-Comedy movie. It’s more of a sensibility; not quite a slice-of-life motif, but the best of their kind manage to use a combination of setting and dialogue to keep you rooted in the story, rather than overwhelm you with gags. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

My Top 5 Creatures on the Loose Movies

It’s a tale as old as the movies itself. Man does something stupid, or brilliant, or brilliantly stupid, and finds/discovers/invents/stumbles across a monster, and then spends the rest of the movie trying not to get eaten.

I’m not talking about Japanese Kaiju movies, although they are certainly a part of the larger discussion (and, FYI, will get their own Top 5 List at a later date). I’m referring to the things that are larger than humans, but smaller than Godzilla. Or, optionally, man-sized, but far from man-like. The monster in question doesn’t have to be a giant animal; indeed, the best of this type of movie are monster that never were, or thought to have been myths, or just plain aliens.

There’s also a hunter versus hunted component to this kind of movie. Whatever is chasing us for food triggers these primal fears within us that we typically suppress. As a country that is mythically saturated by a fear of the unknown, the Other, the Outer Darkness, these movies are at their biggest and best the every thing our ancestors feared when they huddled in their cabins for warmth. Our cabins are way better now, with wi-fi and air conditioning, but the fear never really goes away. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

My Top 5 Favorite When Animals Attack Movies

Sometimes, the reasons for why movies scare us are not so complicated and tied up with our unconscious. Sometimes, it’s right out in the open, a “Duh!” moment for everyone to pick up on. One of our most deeply held convictions is the idea that we’re at the top of the food chain in every respect. Granted, there’s not much we can say about shark attacks, and other run-ins with wild animals, because usually, it’s our fault, right? 

What’s worse is when trusted domesticated animals turn on us. That’s a betrayal that cuts at the heart, as well as the throat. But let’s face it; when animals attack, it’s always a reminder that we’re not the kings of the world. We’re not in control of things, and you know, we never were. In fact, under the right circumstances, we’re nothing more than food...

This is where you cue the music for one of the many Bert I. Gordon giant insect films from the 1950s, or worse, one of the many “they used to be furry and cuddly, but now they are giant and horrible” movies from the 1970s. To call them formulaic B-movies is overstating the obvious. And while it’s tempting to load this category up with Giant Mutant Animals or Giant Mutant Insects, we’re going to shuffle those off to separate categories and focus on normal-sized animals that lose it for one reason or another, domestic or otherwise. It’s a much harder category to fill out, but the movies are better.

Friday, October 9, 2015

My Top 5 Mummy Movies

I’m including this category only for the sake of completeness; otherwise, it would have looked conspicuous by its absence. Mummies are my least favorite movie monster. I mean, I still like them and will watch them, but I’m always disappointed in the execution; I don’t think we’ve yet seen the Citizen Kane of Mummy movies. 

The problem with mummies is that we’ve moved past their cultural relevance. During the heyday, when Orientalism and Egyptology were in vogue, and new grave robbing—excuse me, archeological expeditions—yielded weekly finds in the newspapers, at a time when Egypt might as well have been Mars for all the common man knew, and these British plunderers were all too happy to ignore the warnings about disturbing the dead and cracking open tombs, well, sure, mummies were the shit.

Think about it: Empirical Britain, with its indulgent, institutionalized Colonialism, with its foot still on the neck of the British Raj in India, and now encroaching into Egypt to show the turban-wearing desert folk a thing or two about their five thousand year old culture. All too eager to overwrite Egyptian history through a British lens. What better way to punish these stiff-upper-lip-having, upper crust professors and their landed gentry friends than by having something from another culture’s history throttle the life out of them? The thing you pooh-poohed as being a silly superstition isn’t so silly when it’s crashing through your door, now, is it?

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My Top 5 Frankenstein Movies

Mary Shelly got the shaft, historically speaking. A smart, literate, talented writer and editor, on top of being the only woman in her peer group, and what is she best remembered for? Only the first science fiction novel, ever, and when it’s mentioned, trust me, it’s with much grousing and grumbling and caveats from the science fiction community.

Of course, I’m talking about Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, a decent piece of Victorian melodrama, written in 1818, that inadvertently grapples with the concept of the soul, what makes us human, and asks the question of whether or not science should meddle with the forces of nature. Heavy stuff for back in those days, don’tcha know. But those hard SF guys, the graybeards, over in the corner, will shake their heads, and say, “Well, sure, some of the ideas are there, but really...”

How do you top that kind of back-handed compliment, I wonder? Oh, I’ve got it! Make a movie out of an extremely successful stage play and overwrite all of the conceits and concepts of the novel into its most reductive form, and turn a brilliant allegory into a grotesque caricature that is parodied and copied ad infinitum, well into the 21st century. Talk about “No Respect.”