This week marks the release of what’s sure to be the masterpiece of 2010 (aside from Sharktopus, that is): Piranha 3D. To be fair, director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes) has a deft touch behind the camera, and the cast includes such horror greats as Richard Dreyfuss and Ving Rhames. Piranha 3D may be the only reason to slip those ridiculous glasses on your face this summer. It pays homage to its predecessors, but it’s also the first horror movie in awhile to deal with simple man vs. wild themes—which form some of the most interesting subgenres in film history.
Human beings are endlessly arrogant. We assume we reside firmly at the top of the food chain—that we have control of the natural world. For ages, movies have been hell-bent on toppling this structure, on putting our weaknesses and strengths on display for our collective gratification. The man vs. nature, man vs. man’s arrogance, and man vs. predator subgenres tend to blur together, and William Bibbiani, Dan Fields, and I (Julia Rhodes!) at The Fourth Wall bring you our favorites in this week’s Listicle.
The Ghost and the Darkness (dir. Stephen Hopkins, 1996)
When I mentioned this movie to a friend, the first thing he said was, “Ah, Val Kilmer back when it was good to be Val Kilmer.” This is certainly true (what happened to that guy?), but despite Kilmer and the Hollywoodization of a true story, it’s a fun watch. The Ghost and the Darkness tells the sensationalized true story of Col. John Patterson (Kilmer), an Irish engineer dispatched to darkest Africa in 1898 to build a railway bridge across the Tsavo River. Once Patterson arrives, a pair of man-eating lions begins to ravage the workers’ camp, killing men seemingly without fear, apparently for pleasure. After more than thirty deaths, Sir Robert Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson), head financier of the railroad, sends over Charles Remington (Michael Douglas), a “great American hunter” apparently unrelated to—but whose name is deliberately evocative of—the line of firearms. Remington appears with a tribe of Masai warriors in tow to fend off the man-eaters: he is the brash but civilized connection to the wilderness, and instills a necessary respect for the animal kingdom in Patterson.
In real life, the lions’ bones are on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. The film is based upon Patterson’s autobiographical book, and the man exaggerated his experiences like any good storyteller (and kept their skins as rugs on his floors for 25 years, nearly wearing them through). William Goldman’s script plays up the mystical, strange aspects of the killings. According to the screenplay, the lions, called The Ghost and The Darkness by natives, were thought to be the spirits of dead medicine men…or even demons. There’s that arrogance again: throughout history, man-eating animals take on distinctly human characteristics. In the movie, the lions make prolonged eye contact; they target Patterson (“I think they’re after you,” Remington says to him); they hunt deviously and manage to evade hunters for months through sheer, frightening intelligence. Luckily, the movie includes a number of great kill scenes—the lions and their computerized counterparts are truly formidable, horrific enemies, though there’s a lot of silly emphasis on the “evil demon” aspect of the animals. It’s one of the better, though very dramatic, man vs. predator movies made in the last few decades.
Grizzly Man (dir. Werner Herzog, 2005)
Grizzly Man documents the story of Timothy Treadwell, an ecologist who spent thirteen summers camping in Alaska among grizzly bears, filming himself and spiraling deeper into his own bizarre notions of humanity versus wild. Treadwell’s death made national news in 2003—he was eaten alive by the very bears he loved so much. In watching Treadwell’s videos, director Werner Herzog sees poetry in Treadwell’s increasingly insane rants, paranoia, loneliness, in the man’s disconnection from humanity and longing to be an animal. Herzog’s version of Treadwell’s story belongs almost equally to the filmmaker as it does the ecologist. (It’s okay, I’d love Werner Herzog to narrate my life story and occasionally insert personal asides.) Herzog connects with Treadwell, but recognizes a simple difference. “I believe in chaos, death, and murder,” says Herzog. Treadwell firmly believed he was protecting the bears; he thought their world was one of calm, quiet, loving grace. Treadwell (and more sadly, his girlfriend Amie Huegenard) learned this terrible lesson: nature is chaos, death, and murder.
Treadwell was a strange, possibly insane person. He strove for some sort of secondhand fame as a young person, and when he didn’t achieve it he became an alcoholic and drug addict. Once he discovered the bear cause, he stopped drinking and became a fanatic about them. He risked life and limb to live with these animals, and all the while treated them like big, bumbling human beings. “I love you,” he says to the bears as they stalk him from behind. “Excuse me!” he cries indignantly when one takes a swipe at him. Treadwell inserted himself so thoroughly into the bears’ lives that he was willing to interfere with nature. He saw himself as the bears’ savior, a Prince Valiant of sorts, protecting them from evil outsiders…when most of his filming took place on federally protected nature preserves.
Herzog, being a historically curious and sort of bizarre person whose fanaticism regards film and filmmaking, sees Treadwell as a “methodical” filmmaker. Some of the footage Treadwell captured is downright breathtaking. Scenes in which he lives and plays with beautiful arctic foxes, shots with nothing in them at all, and some of the footage he took simply of the bears, is beautiful. When Treadwell begins to slide deeper into his own paranoid fantasies, he turns the camera into a friend and confidante, a lens through which to absorb the insanity of the outside world—a technique also on display in the ultimate mockumentary, The Blair Witch Project. Herzog’s narration and Treadwell’s cinematography combined in Grizzly Man to make a movie that’s alternately bizarre, gorgeous, sweet, and sad.
Jaws (dir. Stephen Spielberg, 1975)
We couldn’t possibly write a blog based around Piranha 3D and not include Jaws. I mean, come on. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” is one of film’s most iconic lines. Everyone in the world recognizes John Williams’ rhythmic basso “shark attack” score. The original Piranha film (produced by B-movie legend Roger Corman and directed by Joe Dante in 1978) is a silly rip-off of Jaws, after all.
What I’d forgotten, going in for a rewatch of Jaws, is that it’s actually a really good movie. On Amity Island, the townsfolk are quite horrible; the soundtrack is full of ambient talking, marching band cacophony, screeching children, and boat horns. Where there’s complete and utter chaos above water, the lair of the shark is silent, simple, and beautifully deadly. (This chaos versus calm trope appears repeatedly in man versus predator films.) Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw play off each other masterfully, and the animal effects are nearly unparalleled. Jaws is suspenseful, horrific, and sometimes a little sweet and funny. A film nerd like me should remember that in future.
Outbreak (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 1995)
Outbreak narrowly passed the litmus test of man vs. predator films. One Mr. Dan Fields encouraged me to run with it, and I looked a second time and saw a lot of potential to illustrate that human arrogance upon which man vs. predator movies are based. Firstly, Outbreak isn’t particularly good (in fact, it’s even kind of bad). Secondly, it’s about a virus and not a man-eating predator…not exactly, anyway.
When Jimbo Scott (Patrick Dempsey long before he was McDreamy) escorts an adorable African monkey to America to sell on the black market, he also opens the door wide for a virus similar to Ebola and Lassa. When Brig. Gen. Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman), scientist Col. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), and Maj. Gen. Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) discover the virus, the three end up locked in a battle over the antivirus. To bomb a U.S. town in order to protect the U.S.’s biological weapon, or to save all the infected? That is the question. Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding, Jr. join the cast of veteran actors to make a movie that, somehow or other, ends up just being silly, albeit slightly terrifying.
Despite all the silly drama in the screenplay, the movie is really about a terrifying, flesh-eating, 100% deadly virus put smack dab in the middle of northern California due to Americans’ “ooh, cute!” sensibility. (This has happened too many times in recent history to write it off.) So, in spite of the fact that virus films form a whole other subgenre (one we’ll likely touch in a future Listicle), Outbreak features man’s arrogance vs. eventually-conquered predator in the form of a biological weapon carried by a seemingly innocuous monkey. What say you, Fourth Wall readers? Should Outbreak count in our man vs. wild Listicle?
Venom (dir. Piers Haggard, 1981)
Venom feels like it came out of one of those famous Hollywood development meetings:
“Okay, we’ve got this great little kidnapping thriller starring Oliver Reed, Susan George, and Klaus Kinski kidnapping Sterling Hayden’s grandson that turns into a hostage crisis with Nicol Williamson halfway through.”
“I don’t know, Reginald… I feel like it needs a little pizzazz. Something unexpected. Have you thought about adding a poisonous snake?”
“A… poisonous snake?”
“Yeah, you know, a really deadly, poisonous snake. Just wandering around, biting people when the audience gets bored. Did you ever think of that?”
“Nobody… ever… would have thought of that.”
“Until now, kid. Until now.”
“How the heck does a poisonous snake even get in the house?”
“I don’t know. There’s a mix-up at the post office or something. Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll be able to think of something a little less ridiculous before we start shooting.”
So Venom is a kidnapping/hostage crisis movie starring a black mamba (of Kill Bill fame) that got sent to the house because of a mix-up at the post office. (Yeah, they just stuck with that one.) It’s a weird, weird little film. But what a cast! Oliver Reed smolders, although the copious amounts of alcohol his “character” was drinking probably helped, and Klaus Kinski is at his creepy, murderous best. It’s a pretty good little crime film, but my heavens does the snake thing feel tacked on. And the sheer lunacy of the concept – being trapped in a house surrounded by cops with a kidnapped child and accomplices who’d just as soon shoot you as share the loot, not to mention that at any time you could get killed at random by a poisonous snake – makes for an unforgettable, if not exactly classy, potboiler. It’s not the best film on this Listicle, but it’s probably the best you haven’t seen.
Arachnophobia (dir. Frank Marshall, 1990)
Producer Frank Marshall (who brought us The Warriors, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Bourne Identity, just to name a few) made his directorial debut with Arachnophobia, one of those classic little movies that everyone loves but nobody ever seems to talk about any more. Like Venom, it revolves around a mix-up at the post office. A nice boy from the Midwest goes on an expedition in South America where he’s killed by the bite of an as yet undiscovered spider, the deadliest in the world, but when he’s shipped back home to America nobody notices that the spider also hitched a ride. Soon, that spider mates with a native species and lethal spider babies (not to be confused with the Sid Haig variety) terrorize the countryside.
Arachnophobia is an unusually good movie, which is to say that it is good in an unusual way. Blake Snyder, author of the Save The Cat series, made a point once of saying that Arachnophobia isn’t a particularly good “Monster In The House” movie, and he’s right. The house is an entire town, so claustrophobia isn’t an issue for most of the film. But to my mind, he never took into account how bold many of the creative decisions are here. This isn’t the story of a single monster with a specific goal of stalking a small group of people. In fact, throughout much of Arachnophobia the spiders are treated as a mysterious virus, causing unexplained deaths that only the new doctor (Jeff Daniels) can solve, but until the real cause of death is revealed he’s considered the prime suspect by most of his new neighbors, and after the spiders make their presence known he’s hindered by a debilitating bout of – you guessed it – arachnophobia. The actual “Monster In The House” trope Snyder was so fond of is relegated to the pulse-pounding climax which forces Daniels to overcome his fears in order to save his family from the nest of spiders terrorizing in his own home.
But of course the real star of Arachnophobia is the inimitable John Goodman as a local exterminator, confident, cocky and funny as hell, who due to extreme circumstances suddenly finds himself the most useful man in the world. Though hardly the typical action hero, Goodman proves himself up to the challenge and cements his position as one of cinema’s ultimate badasses, as indeed he does almost every day.
Team America: World Police (dir. Trey Parker, 2004)
Team America: World Police is another one of those instant classics that’s just a little too unusual to make it into your typical film school curriculum. What reportedly started as an admittedly goofy idea to remake The Day After Tomorrow with marionettes to emphasize the story’s utter ludicrousness quickly evolved into a parody of the whole Bruckheimer mold: A team of almost superhuman military specialists defend America by blowing up the rest of the world to the tune of “America, F*** Yeah!”
On the surface it’s a simple send-up of both American foreign policy and Michael Bay movies (there’s an entire musical number about how much Pearl Harbor sucked), but as usual with the “South Park” boys they end up taking a more moderate stance than anybody expected. Much of the anti-Bush target audience courted by the trailers walked away offended by Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s insistence that as destructive and egomaniacal as America can be, there are legitimate threats out there that don’t respond to logic, diplomacy or even understanding. It’s a little extreme, but when Hollywood celebrities churn out en masse in Team America to support North Korea, they end up ironically becoming enemies of freedom. The idea is a bit less offensive when you remember that Parker and Stone feel the same way about Team America, whose unerring belief in the Monroe Doctrine make them enemies of the world as well, although perhaps the lesser of two evils in the context of this particular narrative.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. We’re here to talk about the scene in which Team America has to fight off man-eating panthers. And since the Team Americans are smallish marionettes, someone had the brilliant idea to cast black housecats as their more bloodthirsty jungle brethren. “Aw, kitty!” is the only thing to say, even as they’re tearing out two-time Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn’s throat. “Aw, kitty” indeed…
Moby Dick (1956, directed by John Huston)
Herman Melville’s classic tale, famously interpreted by director John Huston and writer Ray Bradbury, invests the struggle of mankind and the natural world with massive philosophical and spiritual meaning. Wild-eyed crusader Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck, in a role he later admitted would have been better for Huston. Remember if you will his turn as the cold-blooded patriarch of Chinatown) will stop at nothing to rid the world of the fabled white whale which tore off his leg and distilled the poison in his soul.
The devil is somewhere in these details, but it is hard to sift him out. Ahab thinks the devil is in the whale. The crew think the devil is in Ahab. Meanwhile, Ahab’s relentless quest is sending an otherwise prosperous whaling voyage right down the tubes. In early scenes, Peck seems uncomfortable with such a drastic break in his familiar Atticus Finch brand of gentleness. However, by the journey’s end he is rages against the typhoon (literally!) with frightening power.
Huston’s crew captures the whaler’s life superbly, especially by the special effects standards of the 1950s. The early hunting scenes are just as thrilling and impressive as the later encounters with Moby Dick himself. What this movie lacks in perfect casting it more than repays in rich atmosphere. Once the white whale comes after its hunters, we have seen enough harpooning and blood-red water to understand why the beast might have an axe to grind. The scale and pace of the great whale hunt are mightily convincing, and the sight of the great white whale bearing down on boatloads of doomed sailors is a truly memorable one.
The following demonstrates Huston’s masterful staging and the suspense of hunting a foe that’s bigger than the boat you came to kill it in, without spoiling the payoff for those who want to watch the whole film.
The Birds (1963, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Anyone who has seen this film never looks the same way again at a crowd of birds gathered on a telephone line. Hitchcock’s eye for the bizarre and terrifying never took such exotic a turn before or after this film. An unsuspecting group of folks find themselves the victims of sudden, unprompted attacks by massive flocks of ordinary birds. Everything with feathers joins in the destruction, until the humans are hunkered down in whatever refuge they can find, with no idea where to go or what to do.
And these birds are not content to defile your lawn statues or build nests in your hair. They are mean, nasty, and violent. They are in it to kill, and rather gruesomely at that. Composer Bernard Herrmann, renowned for his mesmerizing scores for mant of Hitchcock’s films, carefully orchestrated a soundtrack principally made up of bird cries, which during the attacks builds to a deafening cacophony of flapping, screeching, and pecking.
However, one of the most chilling sequences of the film is not a violent encounter, but a carefully constructed portrait of grim aftermath. Jessica Tandy, as a rather tightly wound older lady, discovers the handiwork of the Birds in a scene that might put anyone over the edge. Something about the silence and lack of activity, as we piece together the horrific truth, makes it all the more frightening. The squeamish may want to skip this clip, but force yourself if you can.
In addition to the deadly incursions of nature, star Tippi Hedren must contend with the stress of a budding romance, coupled with her beau’s various family problems, plus the fact that as an outsider she suffers blame for the mysterious bird attacks by the town’s superstitious set. All in all a trying few days. Before long, everyone has turned on each other, as they do in any good strangers-trapped-together drama. The survivors will be the ones who learn to overcome their crippling anxiety and work together.
Unlike the whalers of Moby Dick, who get more than they bargained for but nonetheless sailed right into their predicament with eyes open, the human victims of The Birds never receive any clues as to why they should be persecuted by nature. The ambiguity lends itself to all manner of speculation, but ultimately they, and we, are left to wonder if it could have been prevented, and even if it can be suitably resolved.
Go out sometime and watch a bird, any bird, going about its daily business. Underlying their fascinating behavior and unique position in the natural order, they are a pretty creepy set of animals. Hitchcock seems to agree.
Cujo (1963, directed by Lewis Teague)
Based on one of Stephen King’s bleakest stories, Cujo twists the image of the family dog, the best friend, the great protector, into a monstrous menace. When the eponymous dog, a big hulking Saint Bernard, sticks his nose down the wrong rabbit hole and meets a rabid bat instead. Our plot is now rolling.
The story then introduces a great deal of family-style drama. Briefly, the Trenton household is falling apart, despite the ostensibly happy marriage of Donna (Dee Wallace!), her stressed-out but kind-heated husband, and their four-year-old firecracker of a son. Aside from a few worries about monsters in the closet, little Tad is a ray of sunshine in the otherwise depressing life of his parents.
When the family Pinto threatens to break down for good, Donna seeks out rural mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter). As bad luck would have it, Joe happens to own Cujo, by now a massive, rabid monster. With no one (alive) around to help, Donna and Tad are stranded in a car, outside, in the summertime, with gruesome death stalking the grounds and hurling itself against the car. This little boy is doomed to believe in monsters for the rest of his life.
Kudos to these two actors, one a veteran of horror and drama films, the other a fresh-faced little kid. Their chemistry is convincing and very sweet, making their ordeal all the more heartbreaking. These people react in a very convincing way to being trapped by a real-life monster. During the really nasty bits, they are scared to the point of total collapse, babbling and sobbing unintelligibly as they try vainly to comfort one another. That must be a difficult and exhausting state of mind to perform.
The overall movie is only decent, but the rendering of Cujo is an above-average exercise in movie terror. They make a sweet slobbery pooch into one scary doggie indeed. Not for viewing unless you are in the mood for something harrowing, but one of the better and more faithful Stephen King adaptations around.