Eco-Horror, Natural Horror, Animals Gone Rogue, Animals Invading the Human Sphere (thanks Jenn), unquestionably it’s a genre which goes by almost as many names as it has found inventive ways to turn pretty much any animal into nightmare fuel.
While you might be mistaken for assuming that this sub-genre came out of the hysteria of the 1950’s where cinema from the time can be seen reflecting the fear of communist invasion or nuclear testing aswell as its share of movies such as “The Giant Gilia Monster”, “They” or “Tarantula” as radiation turned everyday animals into monster sized versions of themselves giving an already paranoid public something else to worry about. However the roots of the sub-genre run suprisingly deep as back in 1905 H.G Wells gave us the first animal lead offensive with “Empire of the Ants” in which the more organised society of insects would replace man as the true rulers of earth, a vision later accompanied by Arthur Machen’s “The Terror: A Fantasy” in 1917 as everything from cows to Butterfly joined in the offensive against mankind.
While the early entries into the genre where largely b-movie fare the Alfred Hitchcock classic “The Birds” hinted that the genre could be capable of classier fare aswell as moments of genuine horror and suspense such as the classic scene of Tippi Hedren sitting out the school while an ever increasing flock (or perhaps more fittingly a murder) of crows gather on the childrens climbing frame behind her as she unwittingly enjoys a smoke. Hitchcock teasing out the impending chaos he soon intends to unleash. Hitchcock himself terrified of Birds perhaps tapping into his own fears to really nail the tone of the film which while perhaps light on actual gore and violence still remains one of his most effective films. However despite its success it didn’t as you would have expected spawn a host of imitators outside of the abysmal 1994 direct to TV sequel “The Birds 2: Land’s End” which had nothing to do with the original film with director Rick Rosenthal opting to be listed under Alan Smithee than be associated with it.
With the arrival of the 70’s the natural horror movies really gained a foothold while at the same time largely following the theme of someone being responsible for the animals striking back with “Willard” kicking the decade off as Bruce Davidson trained a pack of rats to attack his bullish boss played by Ernest Borgnine. This theme of bad people finding ever more inventive ways of pissing off the local wildlife population would continue throughout the decade as “Squirm” saw a town of scuzzy rednecks found their comeuppance via a mass of worms driven into a feeding frenzy via a downed powerline while the would be rapist Roger gets a face full of worms, returning later to holla the memorable line “Now you get to be the worm face!”.
While most of these titles would restrain themselves to one member of the animal kingdom there are of course a handful of titles which really ran with the idea of nature revolting such as “Frogs” which despite the title saw polluting industrialist Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) and his family finding their home under siege by the local frog population who somehow manage to not only recruit a variety of snakes, turtles, spiders, Alligators leeches and birds to their cause but also show a strange ability to recognise those not responsible for endangering their homeland. On a similar tact is the Ozploitation entry “Long Weekend” in which a hideous couple find themselves being targeted by nature itself which is shown as a constantly lurking presence looking to claim back the land stolen by man with director Colin Eggleston throwing in a number of nice touches such as the scream of ants being killed or a seemingly abandoned neighbouring camp shown being reclaimed by the surrounding forests. Equally noteworthy for throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at the screen but much later is the 1984 Italian production “Wild Beasts” which sees a zoo’s worth of animals being driven into an insane frenzy when PCP finds its way into the water supply. Far from subtle it does however contain numerous standout moments for its animal attacks including a woman having her head squashed by an Elephant while another takes out a jumbo jet and this isn’t even taking in an ending which seemingly belongs to another film entirely.
Unquestionably though the most inspirational title in the sub-genre is Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Jaws” which for those who have actually read Peter Benchley’s novel will be able to confirm is nothing like the books which focused more on the town’s residents than the killer shark which for the most part is more of a background threat. Spielberg instead turned the novel into perfect summer popcorn fare as the residents of Amity Island suddenly find themselves on the menu of a gigantic great white shark. Here the savagery of nature is boiled down to the fact that all the shark wants to do is “Eat, keep moving and make little sharks” the simplicity of the situation ensuring that the plot can move quickly while Spielberg through test screenings tweaked the film’s jump scares to perfection with the sight of a severed head popping out from a hole in a hull still making audiences jump after numerous viewings. Peter Benchley meanwhile would following the shark hunting frenzy which followed the release of the film dedicate his life to shark conservation while still finding time to in the novels which followed to find new horrors in the depth to scare us with as he followed up “Jaws” with the giant squid “Beast” and man-shark hybrid “Creature” both which would later show up as Made for TV movies.
With “Jaws” being such a monster hit, it was of little surprise that a wave of imitators would soon start flooding cinemas such as “Mako: Jaws of Death”, “Up From The Depths” and “Barracuda” many not coming close to Spielberg’s film which itself would be followed up three years by the arguably superior “Jaws 2” which also included a scene of a mauled Orca in what could be assumed was a nod to “Orca: The Killer Whale” which saw the titular whale taking out a shark with the dead orca of “Jaws 2” being seen perhaps as a way to re-establish exactly who was the number one predator. Equally of note is the Joe Dante directorial debut and Roger Corman backed “Piranha” which despite having a budget which only stretched to a few plastic fish and bubbling red water still proved to be strangely effective, while its sequel “Piranha 2: The Spawning” featuring flying Piranha is probably more noteworthy for providing the launch pad for James Cameron’s career even if Corman would fire him before the production completed.
By the late 70’s studios began to look to the woods for their next big thrill picking up the path paved by a spate of Bigfoot movies in the early 70’s with “Grizzly” promising “Fourteen feet of gut crunching terror” and while later ripped off by the less than stellar “Claws” and perhaps to an extent “The Prophecy” which gave us its mutant cousin. At the same time its sequel “Grizzly 2: The Predator” shot in 1983 was never completed with its unfinished working print often being rediscovered by cult film fans intrigued by what could have been. Director William Girdler’s keen to follow up the success of “Grizzly” would take a second crack at natural horror with “Day of the Animals” a film often cited as its sequel though would fail to find the same success.
The 80’s saw the the sub-genre enter into a decline in popularity with the few noteworthy titles such as “White Dog” and “Cujo” taking great lengths to disassociate themselves from the idea of nature in revolt almost as if their directors saw it as being a negative thing to even risk being included with the films which had come before no doubt due to the saturation of films the previous decade had produced. That being said the “Jaws” franchise saw a further two entries being added with the forgettable “Jaws 3D” and the truly nonsensical “Jaws: The Revenge” despite the series very clearly going quickly belly up. In the years which followed this final entry numerous rumoured came and went about a reboot aswell as a prequel focusing on the character of “Quint” all which never got out of the planning stage. However in 1995 cult favourite Bruno Mattei, the Italian director who’d previously given us his own version of “Terminator 2” with “Bruno Matei’s Terminator 2” which suprisingly ripped off “Aliens” than its name shake franchise. His fifth unofficial entry “Jaws 5: Cruel Jaws” not only inserting itself into a franchise but also more brazenly used footage from the franchise aswell as “Deep Blood” and “Great White”.
Outside of a handful of b-grade direct to DVD features the 90’s were still a barren landscape for natural horror until 1999, which not only proved to be the best movie year ever but also gave us two heavy hitters released almost back to back as we got the Giant croc romp “Lake Placid” aswell as giving us Samuel L. Jackson’s most memorable film moment in “Deep Blue Sea” as he joined a group of scientists attempting to escape from the genetically modified sharks they’d created. Sadly despite making shark movies scary again, the much mooted sequel which would see the sharks being placed into a flooded town never got past the pre-production stage. What these films did however would be to breathe new life into the seemingly forgotten genre as they embraced their b-movie hookiness and aimed to be nothing deeper than popcorn fodder for the summer release schedule.
By 00’s and the shame of the direct to DVD market suddenly vanishing as studios rushed offdirect to DVD sequels or the likes of “American Pie” and “Van Wilder”, this new market would be fully embraced by companies such as “The Asylum” who saw the natural horror movie as the perfect template to rush out films whose audience could easily be brought in on the strength of the animals being featured, outlandish titles such as “Snakes On A Train” or “Shark Swarm” and who could easily be created via bargain basement CGI for minimal costs while providing the “SyFy Channel” with plenty of filler for their schedule.
Despite the questionable quality of many of these productions they have unquestionably gained their following as can be seen by the fact that we now have four “Sharknado” movies. At the same time these studios finding constantly more outlandish premises to nail their films on such as “Sharktopus” and “ Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus” ensuring that the genre for the moment atleast is set to remain firmly in z-grade territory.
Starting Point – Five Natural Horror Essentials
Phase IV – Cosmic rays mysteriously cause ants to evolve and develop a hive mind, leading a pair of scientists to set up a lab to study the ants in the Arizona desert who threaten to take over the local area.
The sole film to be directed by Saul Bass the acclaimed designer of countless film posters and title sequences and a curiosity to say the least, as here he teams up with wildlife photographer Ken Middleham who previously handled the insect sequence for the documentary “The Hellstrom Chronicles” to create a truly unique film and not only because he was using real ants!
Pig Hunt – A group of friends on the hunt for a mythical three thousand pound boar known as “The Ripper” find more trouble than they could imagine and not only from the giant pig! True this might start of as a giant pig movie in the same spirit as “Razorback” but here we also get crazed rednecks, a pig worshiping cult and naked hippy chicks in what is a truly crazy ride of genre mashing goodness.
Orca: The Killer Whale – Sharing a plot almost as random as “Jaws: The Revenge” as Richard Harris’s sea captain finds himself being stalked by the angry mate of the Orca he accidently kills.
While perhaps another film in a long line of “Jaws” knock offs this is still an enjoyable effort and one which has more than a few memorable moments including Bo Derek having her leg torn off by the titular Orca, which proves as intimidating a foe as any shark, especially with all the attacks being largely true to nature than any kind of “Free Willy” style attacks.
Deep Rising –A film which Roger Ebert proclaimed should have been titled “Eat The Titanic” as a luxury cruise ship is targeted by a group of thieves only to soon find themselves on the dinner menu for a monstrous squid like creature who is represented for the most part by creeping tentacles before giving us it’s big reveal at the finale. This is a fun ride from start to finish while teasing out a sequel which sadly was never to be. However packed with colourful characters and more than few surprises even for the hardened horror fan this is well worth giving a look.
Alligator – A truly bonkers movie which sees a tiny pet alligator flushed down the toilet turning into a monstrous sewer dweller that soon makes its way to the surface to feast on the local population.
Taking numerous ques from “Jaws” including a scene in a pool scene which is essentially a reworking of a scene from the “Jaws” climax. This film is a blast once it gets going including a wedding massacre which is worth checking it out for alone.
Next Month: Ozploitation Time to head down under for some of the most wildest, sickest and downright strange films ever made…. Welcome to the world of Australian exploitation cinema !!
The genre which always existed lurking beneath the surface as it wormed its way in seemingly every sub-genre of cult cinema while bringing with it a very distinctive style of film making as reckless and visionary directors like Brian Trenchard Smith and George Miller showed a whole different and much wilder side to their homeland.
Tags: Cult Chops