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.

Many of the animal attack movies, like The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) are fine movies indeed, except that they aren’t horror films, not really. I mean, I love Lake Placid (1999) for the entertaining romp that it is, but it ain’t scary. Not one little bit. It’s not even creepy. So these movies were chosen for creep and scare value above all other things.

5. Willard (1971)
Bruce Davison is one of those actors you recognize because he’s been in everything from political thrillers to X-Men movies, from TV dads to TV murder suspects. And to think, he got his first big break with a low-key movie about a young outcast and his pet rats. Willard was based on the book Ratman’s Notebooks, by Stephen Gilbert, and while it’s not quite the nail-biter that the novel is, the success of Willard and the weird sequel, Ben (1972) ushered in a wave of animal attack movies in the 1970’s, even as Michael Jackon was winning awards for his song “Ben,” written specifically for the soundtrack. This movie was also remade in 2003 featuring Crispin Glover in the title role. Not bad for a movie with a bunch of trained rats in it.

I say that flippantly, because if you’re bothered by rats, or do the old-fashioned table jump and shriek, then this movie will put you into shock. Misfit Willard bonds with his animal friends, and they in turn decide to help him out socially, professionally, and finally, personally, as they become his righteous right hand in the act of revenge. The fear factor increases exponentially with the sequel, but Willard really takes a deep dive into the psychology of the loner, the outcast, and its themes are similar to those explored in  Stephen King’s Carrie, first published in 1974, with the film appearing in 1976.

Like all great monster makers, they eventually turn against their creations, and so when we get to the sequel, Ben, it’s about the big boss rat who lived, rather than Willard, who didn’t fare so well. It’s hard to get the 1970-ness off of Willard, but the pair of films are a great double feature and a good warm-up for the rest of the movies on this list.

4. Monkey Shines (1988)
This one-off from George A. Romero (no zombies!) is an overlooked gem, both in his body of work and also as it pertains to simian-based horror movies. Despite that, there are certain themes in Romero’s work that shine forth, such as man interfering with the natural order of things, the ethicality of experimenting on intelligent brains, and the fear of paralysis or being unable to control your body. All of this is worked up into a watchable stew that is somewhat less than the Murder in the Rue Morgue but much more than a Killer Couple romance.

Our “hero” is a former athlete, now a quadriplegic, forced to adjust to life in the wheelchair. He’s gifted a service animal—a monkey named Ella—that has been trained to help Alan with his daily living. She’s extremely smart, but that’s partially because she’s been experimented on by the unscrupulous scientist seeking to improve human functionality. He doesn’t count, however, on Ella’s attachment to Alan, and by the same token, Alan finds a disturbing connection with his monkey. If there’s a real sympathetic character in the movie, it’s the monkey who didn’t ask for any of this. Everyone else ranges from unlikeable to downright ugly.

Romero’s at the top of his game in 1988, and this movie is a catalog of his greatest hits and tricks for building suspense, providing psychological as well as physical scares, and even some gore for good measure. You might not want to watch it more than once, but it’s good enough to seek out, if you haven’t seen it before.

3. Razorback (1984)
Australia gets it done in ways we just can’t. Whether it’s gun control, dark beer, or Mad Max movies, you have to hand it to our mates from Down Under. That would include their plucky, punchy film industry, and this little overlooked shriekfest from the blood-soaked 1980s.

Join us on the outback as our intrepid band of regular people battle a giant-sized razorback hog. That’s it. That’s the movie. I know, simple and brilliant, right?

Well, there’s a little more than that. It’s cleverly filmed, and everyone does a great job of reacting to the giant hog head. Pigs are fast and mean, and so there’s no reason to think a bull-sized pig wouldn’t be faster and meaner than ever. We buy it because we know this.

Special effects? Come on, it’s an 80s flick. Didn’t I just say there’s a pig’s head for the actors to react to? But the tension is good, and there are even a few jump scares. A diamond in the rough, to be sure.

2. Cujo (1983)
Boy, this one really bothers me. I didn’t like it when it first came out, and now I hate it as a dog owner. The idea that the family pet could turn on you is a lot more scary in the Internet Age, when the same “Stray Dog Kills Old Person” story can be forwarded around and around, so that you can literally see it a dozen times in a week, and if you’re not paying attention, you might think that there’s packs of stray dogs killing innocent people.

Nevertheless, this movie stars Dee Wallace, the most understated Scream Queen to ever bear the title, and her creepy little kid, and we have to care about them even as the family’s Saint Bernard succumbs to a case of good old fashioned rabies. The idea being, according to Stephen King, that anything can be a monster in the right circumstances. So we see big, loveable Cujo turn into this ginormous, ugly, rabid thing.

I still felt sorry for the dog. It wasn’t his fault. But I still wanted someone to do something during the attack scenes. That conflict is part of what makes this movie so intense for me. The scene where Cujo is trying to tear the car apart to get at the mother and child is a relentless, harrowing thing. Don’t watch this movie if you’re sensitive to animal violence.

1. The Birds (1963)
Cliché’ choice for number one? Pfft. You better recognize, fool. There’s a reason why we call some movies “classics” and directors like Hitchcock “genius.” By the time this movie was made, there had been ten years’ worth of animal attacks movies, some giant and mutated, others not so much. Hitchcock had a clutch of bad examples to work with, and it’s because of the bad movies that this one is so good.

For starters, Hitchcock never tells you why this is happening. It’s just suddenly a going concern. Also, he never lets you off the hook. When the movie ends, it just...ends. There’s no resolution, save for the idea that the story is far from over. That’s really effective.

I know the special effects at the time were pretty good, but now they are as dated as anything else. It doesn’t make the movie any less effective, however, because of the performances he gets from his actors. Birds are pretty creepy to begin with, and the images in The Birds are so iconic, we still shudder to this very day when we see a bunch of grackles perched on a telephone wire. That’s why this movie is number one with no apologies.

This is one small part of a much larger series of articles, the entirety of which are listed below. Enjoy!

My Top 5 Mummy Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Frankenstein Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Creatures from the Deep Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology movies
My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

1 comment:

Taranaich said...

There's a surprising number of films When Animals Attack which I really enjoy (you could obviously also include the likes of Jaws, too.)

An obscure one I like is Phase IV, the only film from title legend Saul Bass, which is a pretty weird & compelling ant horror film. from 1986 is Link, a sort of anthropological horror with killer chimps (which you *might* be interested in, not sure where a gorilla like yourself stands on chimpanzees).