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Geek Girl Navigating the World – Monsterama
I recently read and reviewed The Monster’s Corner edited by Christopher Golden for Bookspotcentral.com, and, on my own time, I’ve been reading through Dean Koontz’ Frankenstein series. While some might be inclined to suspect that this fascination with monsters is a new thing, upon a slight bit of reflection, I’ve come to realize that it actually isn’t.
My first real brush with any kind of monster movie, so to speak, came from my early love of dinosaurs. Yeah, I was a weird kid. From the moment that I learned the word paleontologist, that was pretty much what I was telling people that I wanted to be. I have not, in fact, stopped liking dinosaurs, nor have I entirely given up the idea of wanting to be a paleontologist, the major issue at play here is the fact that the type of paleontologist that I want to be hasn’t existed since the days of Marsh and Cope and their famed fossil wars. The problem is that I really like digging fossils, it doesn’t matter if they’re vertebrate, invertebrate, small, or large, when I find one, I’m thrilled beyond belief. I don’t, however, like writing about the fossils. Oddly enough, the love of writing has not translated to a love of scientific writing. Instead, I prefer writing about other things, especially when I have free rein to make things up whenever I want to so the story fits.
Still, I like dinosaurs and have since I was very, very small. This lead to friends and family members giving me presents that involved dinosaurs in some way, shape, or form. One of the very earliest creature-feature type movies that I ever got to see was “Planet of the Dinosaurs”. One of my aunts found it for me in a cheap movie bin somewhere shortly after we got our first VCR. This is probably not only one of the pivotal moments that fostered my love of old, bad sci-fi movies, it’s also probably where I started learning to love the bins of cheap movies found in random stores.
“Planet of the Dinosaurs” had terrible, stop motion dinosaurs from the Charles Knight school of dinosaur art. They were large and clumsy and dragged their tails. They were exceptionally stupid. However, they made up for that lack of brain with a viciousness largely unheard of in actual scientific circles. Even the herbivores in the thing were extremely blood thirsty. Sadly, the dinosaurs are, quite possibly, the best actors in the whole movie. The actual actors are stiffer than your average freeze-dried cod and aren’t helped at all by the dialog they’re expected to spout. However, it did feature dinosaurs and, because I was a bit of a twisted little starry-eyed sprocket, I couldn’t help rooting for them because they were, most certainly, smarter and more entertaining than their human counterpoints in the film. I still have the old VHS, and, sadly, it’s seen better days. I’ve watched that poor tape to pieces because, well, it’s terrific bad, old, totally dated sci-fi.
A couple of years later, I would receive a Christmas present from my piano teacher that would further cement my dedication to monster movies. The movie, placed into my little, eager hands, was none other than “The Lost Continent”. It was a black and white fifties-era classic starring Cesar Romero that features some of the most famous dinosaur stock footage of all time. Anyone who ever watched the “Muppet Babies” will fondly remember a black and white sequence of a brontosaurus-like dinosaur (yes, yes, I know, Brontosaurus don’t exist, it was a scientific inaccuracy because of someone losing their head, namely the dinosaur, but, since the movie is fiction, let’s stick with the totally fictional Brontosaurus for the purposes of this column). The Brontosaurus is staggering through the jungle as if it’s drunk its way through the entirety of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery with its neck waving back and forth as if it were made of a rubber hose. Since it, too, is a stop-motion animated creature, of course it didn’t really have any bones, but the simple fact of the matter is that Edward Nassour ignored everything people have known about physiology and comparative anatomy and just made a movie. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s just one of those things that makes the more observant of the starry-eyed little sprockets out in the world wonder why that dinosaur doesn’t have any bones in its neck.
For some weird reason, I had expected “The Lost Continent” to be a lot like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which I had actually read prior to receiving the film. Naturally, it wasn’t anything like the book, but I found myself far from disappointed. Unlike “Planet of the Dinosaurs”, the dialog and acting were a little bit better in “The Lost Continent.” I was still a few years out from discovering the joys of Cesar Romero playing the Joker on “Batman” and I didn’t know who any of the other actors in the movie were, either. Still, it was another one of those movies that I watched entirely too many times to count. It’s still in my video library, in its battered, cardboard VHS sleeve, right next to “Planet of the Dinosaurs.”
“Jaws” was my next official monster movie. It’s not only an American classic, it’s one of those movies that has transcended genre, and, in my opinion, perhaps the greatest monster movie of all time. “Jaws”, of course, fed on those primal human fears involving both the unknowable depths of the ocean and the perfectly ordinary alienness of sharks. Because I was a good little dinosaur devotee, I had also become fascinated with sharks. I had learned very early on that sharks were going to be the closest thing to a living dinosaur that I would probably ever encounter. The shark in “Jaws” had no truly remarkable attributes, other than its size. It was just a shark, doing what sharks do. And, at risk of seeming like a still more twisted starry-eyed little sprocket, I must admit, right up until the explosion, I was still kind of hoping the shark would actually win. In my own defense, when I saw that explosion and the subsequent geyser of blood and splattering shark pieces, I immediately went “Cool!” That may not actually be much of a defense. That might make things worse, now that I have admitted it.
Still, while there were many, many movies in my house while I was growing up, horror movies in general were not encouraged and monster movies of any type, especially if they might be considered scary, were not usually allowed into the house. My next encounter with monster movies would come the year that it was decided I was too old to go trick-or-treating. I, of course, was devastated. However, it marked the beginning of a new Halloween tradition that I have kept to this day. That fateful Halloween when I had to stay at home was the first time that I watched “Young Frankenstein.”
At that moment, I was a goner for monster movies. It had never occurred to my young, impressionable mind that a monster movie could be funny. There was much that even a very casual viewer of monster movies would know were well-loved and heavily trodden clichés in the genre and “Young Frankenstein” made fun of all of them. Peter Boyle is still my favorite Frankenstein’s monster, and Gene Wilder will, forever after, be my favorite Frankenstein. Or should that be spelled Fronckenstine?
Shortly thereafter, through the magic of my aunt and uncle’s cable TV service, I would discover the joys of TNT’s “Monstervision”, a regularly scheduled line-up of monster movies in the grand creature feature tradition. At this point, my teenaged self started to realize that I was probably a very odd little starry-eyed sprocket. My uncles and my dad were perfectly content to hang out and watch old, bad monster movies with me, making fun of them and giggling over the special effects. My mom and aunts really didn’t get it. Still, I avidly watched the parade of iguanas with cardboard sails visibly Scotch-taped to their backs waddle across the screen, along with features involving very disgruntled looking gila monsters, endless varieties of stop-motion mockeries of every conceivable member of the animal kingdom, and more than a few men wearing ridiculous suits. I just could not get enough. While the acting wasn’t usually very good, the stories served as a charming insight into the mindsets of the eras that produced those movies. Some of the ideas were actually quite innovative, regardless of when they were made, and held up well to the sense of cheesy fun that movies used to be a lot better at inspiring.
As I’ve grown, I have refused to relinquish that delight that my inner starry-eyed sprocket still takes in monsters. The cheap movie bins have changed from VHS to DVD and, I’m sure, will eventually make their way to Blu-ray for some of the more popular titles. As it is now, however, it’s almost a golden phase for finding very inexpensive DVD sets that will include such gems as “White Zombie” starring Bela Lugosi and “The Fatal Hour” with Boris Karloff. The transfers aren’t great, in fact, you’re going to have to be willing to deal with permanently preserved skips and scratches in the film, but if you miss the feel of watching a movie in an old-fashioned movie theater, where the film strip could break at any moment, then this will be as close to the next best thing as you can get, all with the added bonus of being able to eat a decent pizza while you watch and have a soda as big as your head in hand all for less than the price of your average large popcorn.
This joy in the less renowned and possibly best left forgotten films of a bygone era doesn’t mean that I disregard the classics. I’ve proudly acquired the classic Universal monster flicks, in not only the Legacy Collection format, but the 75th Anniversary discs, too. Why own two different versions of what, essentially, amounts to the same movie? It’s easy to explain, especially to all those geeks out there like me, who still regularly feed their inner starry-eyed sprocket with monster movie goodness. The 75th anniversary DVDs have better picture and sound quality, which means they delivered a better movie experience. And, if you’re geeks like me, you keep the Legacy collections because they collect all of the movies for each monster in one set, making them easier to find in your own movie library and helping you ensure that you’ve got the most complete collection you can amass. Also, the 75th Anniversary editions were only granted to three monsters, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and The Wolfman. All of the rest, like the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon weren’t given the all-star treatment.
There is still some fun to be had with modern monster movies. Certainly, the first two movies in the revamped Mummy franchise were fun to watch in all their campy, color-saturated glory. Arnold Vosloo was properly menacing as the evil Imhotep and it was a blast to watch. I’m less a fan of the gore saturated, ultimate evil splattery movies that seem to be too involved with special effects and shock to actually tell a story. My limits for really disgusting visual imagery were really tested by “John Carpenter’s The Thing”, you know, the one with Kurt Russell? While, ultimately, I do like the movie and rewatch it, I’m also very careful to do so after waiting at least an hour after eating and, most often on very bright, sunny summer days. I haven’t seen the remake, nor am I sure that I want to. I don’t think any modern CGI take on the scenes where fire is applied to the thing will top the makeup effects used in that version. I think “John Carpenter’s The Thing” will forever be the pinnacle by which I judge all intentionally stomach-churning visuals in a monster movie.
I think, with every monster movie, they can be as deep and philosophical or as mindlessly entertaining as you want them to be. They can certainly point out humanity’s flaws and prejudices in a way that’s largely unthreatening because it can always be dismissed as fiction. Monsters aren’t always as cut-and-dried as many movie antagonists, some fine examples are “No Such Thing” and “Edward Scissorhands.” It’s up to the viewer to decide what they take from any movie, and, more often than not, the monster and its portrayal usually tells more about the people who made the movie than the story itself.
As a storyteller and a writer of fiction, I return time and time again to the monsters that sparked my imagination in the first place. There’s still that inner starry-eyed sprocket that cringes a little and peers through wide-spaced fingers clapped over my eyes because I have to know what happens, if the monster is really a monster, if the good guys are really good guys, and how everything resolves in the end. It also seems, now, that I should really look into getting DVD copies of “Planet of the Dinosaurs” and “The Lost Continent” so I don’t have to live in fear of the video tapes getting ruined by average use.