Sunday, November 09, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #5: Nature’s Revenge

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. And by most accounts nature is a woman.

The nature’s revenge story doesn’t really get a whole lot of mileage under the horror banner these days. Back in the day of the b-movie creature feature it was much more prevalent a theme. Some classics like “Them” have emerged from the concept, but more often nature’s revenge pics have gone the schlock route, ala “Godzilla” or “Night of the Lepus”. While I’ll certainly consider titles like these for future Horrorfests, most of these movies lean more toward sci-fi than they do horror.

What might seem more horrific than being attacked by mutant giant animals animals? Being attacked by real ones. Large cats are real giant predators and have been the subject of more than a couple films. The last popular one that comes to memory would be the Michael Douglas/Val Kilmer starrer “The Ghost and the Darkness”. Recently “Prey”, by South African auteur Darrell James Roodt, was not deemed theater worthy in America by its studio and went directly to DVD.

Although Roodt has directed such important South African films as “Sarafina!”, “Cry, the Beloved Country”, Academy Award nominated as the first ever Zulu language feature film “Yesterday”, and the upcoming “Zimbabwe”; “Prey” may not have even deserved a DVD release. I’m not sure what would attract such an important director to such dreck as this. It was certainly the worst movie I saw this Horrorfest.

There were moments during this movie where I did experience some of that thrill of horror/suspense I’ve spoke of before. But most of the suspense comes from the characters’ inability to unlock a door. The last time I looked lions still didn’t have opposable thumbs, so I don’t know why they kept locking the doors to begin with. Oh, I forgot to even explain what the movie was about. It doesn’t matter; you won’t want to see it anyway. This one makes the critically maligned “The Ghost and the Darkness” look like Bergman. I should just move on to the next movie in the theme.

So let’s go back to giant mutated animals. One of the classic stories in this subgenre would be H.G. Wells’ “The Food of the Gods”. Made into a feature film in 1976 by writer/director Bert I. Gordon, the movie caught the wave of a resurgence in popularity of the nature’s revenge pictures from the cold war era thanks to the Saturday matinee creature features that were playing every Saturday afternoon on television. Gordon specialized in these types of special effects heavy creature features, directing such shlock as H.G. Wells’ “Empire of the Ants”, “Village of the Giants” and “Earth vs. the Spider”.

“The Food of the Gods” really isn’t much better than “Prey”, but it is a whole lot more fun. Some old coots have discovered a spring bubbling up some concoction that allows animals to grow to giant sizes, but when the wrong animals star feeding on it, it doesn’t seem like such a great thing anymore. The acting is terrible. The writing is worse. And the special effects are like some sort of joke. They are surprisingly clean. It is hard to see the strings, but they’re the kind where you have real rats crawling around obviously miniature sets with real people filmed to look smaller than the rats superimposed on the sets.

In the last twenty years filmmakers have become slightly savvier in the way they present such preposterous ideas. One who has a subtler hand than the previous two directors discussed here is a former classmate of mine and first-time director of this spring’s horror adaptation of the novel “The Ruins”. Smith boldly chooses to depict a people-devouring plant created mostly with CGI almost entirely in daylight scenes.

This blood craving plant slowly devours American tourists at an off-the-beaten-path Mayan temple ruin. The successes of this story comes from the fact that Smith and his screenwriter—“The Ruins” novelist Scott B. Smith—make their tale about the characters, rather than the man-eating plant. And they don’t ever turn the plant into a monster. It remains a plant. It works on its prey slowly, as a plant would. This isn’t a masterpiece in any sense, but it has escaped the shlock that permeates the stories where nature attacks.

Now, many people are accusing M. Night Shyamalan of shlock direction in his films of late. I’ve never seen such universal prejudice against a director’s work based on some sort of expectation that he will repeat his former work. He has also been accused of repeating himself, when in reality he covers a completely different issue with each new film. I think the biggest problem audiences have with his new movie “The Happening” is that it is an “issue” film.

Originally titled “The Green Effect”, Shyamalan’s “The Happening” depicts the results of a biological event where plants along the most populated area of the United States begin to produce a chemical that affects people’s judgment centers. Too much was made of the film’s ‘R’ rating, and audiences were expecting some sort of slasher-style gore fest. The film earns its mature rating with its utterly disturbing depiction of people committing suicide en masse. But Shyamalan wisely uses classic thriller tactics of keeping most of the horror off screen, so it is up to the audience to use their imaginations. How else do you get an audience to yell at characters to run away from the wind? By engaging the audience’s brains in the horror process you require them to connect more to what they are witnessing.

But if there is one thing American audiences don’t appreciate, especially in their horror flicks lately, it’s the engagement of their brains in their entertainment. This is possibly why the end of this film has been derided by so many. But like the end of “War of the Worlds” there is a greater point to be made beyond the survival of the main characters. The real horror of a story like “The Happening” is how insignificant human influence is to our ultimate fate in our world. In the big picture we are merely specks of dust in a vast landscape that is indifferent to our presence here. So we had better respect our world and realize our ultimate place within it. This is the most important lesson of the nature’s revenge story.


Alan Bacchus said...

Check out Saul Bass' PHASE IV - A flawed film, but one of the most interesting of this subgenre

Andrew D. Wells said...

I've heard of it, and I'll add it to next year's list. I noticed your redux on The Happening (have yet to read it since I didn't want to influence my own view of the film) and was disappointed to see you go back on your minority approval of it. I thought it was his best film since Unbreakable. I had more humor in it than I've ever seen Shyamalan put into a story and it had me trying to help the characters outrun the wind of all things. "Get inside!" It worked for me. Maybe, I'll have to give it a second look in four months.