Sunday 16 June 2019

Paul Whitington: Why monsters in film aren't always the bad guys

 

Beast of burden: King Kong in the original 1933 film
Beast of burden: King Kong in the original 1933 film
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Godzilla's up to his old tricks in a new film called King of the Monsters. It's a sequel to the 2014 reboot, Godzilla, in which the big guy emerged from the Pacific to become an unlikely saviour when San Francisco was attacked by giant insects. The collateral damage to the monster's battle was enormous, and in this follow-up, a plot is afoot to destroy Godzilla until it emerges that he may be humanity's only hope as a plague of giant, ancient beasts emerge from hibernation.

It's noisy, unsubtle, CGI-heavy stuff, and not all that easy to watch. But monster movies don't need to be dumb, and are often surprisingly sophisticated allegories, as Godzilla himself has proved. He first appeared in a 1954 Japanese film of the same name, a classic of its kind which was in fact an impassioned response to the terrors of the nuclear age. Gojira, to give him his proper Japanese name, was an ancient beast disturbed from its slumber by undersea hydrogen-bomb testing, which energised it but did not improve its mood. In scenes intended by director Ishirō Honda to echo the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gojira emerges from the waves to lay waste to towns and villages before turning his attention to Tokyo.

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The original Godzilla was a fantastic film, ingeniously made with handmade effects and offering a powerful rebuke to nuclear age mankind: people were wrecking the planet, earnest contemporary critics argued, and Gojira, Earth's furious ambassador, was striking back. I reckon he's more of a loner myself, a touchy apex predator who'll brook no opposition, but about one thing there's no doubt - he's one of the truly great film monsters.

Movie monsters can be neatly divided into two categories: monsters with a heart, who feel deep down all wronged and misunderstood, like Frankenstein or King Kong, or the ones like Godzilla, who just don't give a f***.

King of the Monsters is the 35th Godzilla film, and though it goes further than most in attempting to portray Gojira as a kind of Green Party-voting eco-warrior, you look into those giant eyes and you realise there's no one much at home.

Boris Karloff's Frankenstein was easier to relate to. He starred as 'The Monster' in three Universal horror films in the 1930s: the first two, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, are masterpieces. Directed by James Whale, they infused Mary Shelley's original early 19th century story with modernist designs and an expressionist aesthetic.

The villain of these films was not the creature itself but the megalomaniac scientist who had invented him. With his giant shoes, lurching walk, flat head and unflattering neck bolt, Karloff's monster was a tragic figure, who wanted to be loved but was always getting the wrong end of the stick.

In Frankenstein (1931), he befriends a young girl who's throwing flowers into a lake and watching them float: wanting to join in, he picks her up and throws her in as well. She sank, and a torch-wielding mob of peasants sought revenge.

One's heart went out, too, to the Phantom of the Opera, a deformed loner who lived beneath Paris's Palais Garnier and spied on the artists and patrons using a series of hidden tunnels. A lonely outcast, he fell hopelessly in love with a young singer, and sent threatening letters to the management to further her career.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's tinny musical adaptation you'll all be familiar with, but the scariest, most touching Phantom was Lon Chaney's 1925 silent version: Chaney used paint, wires and false teeth to turn his face into a nightmarish skeletal rictus, but his haunted eyes were heartbreaking.

Even scarier was the vampire in FW Murnau's 1922 German expressionist classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Forget about the suave ladykillers played by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee in later Dracula films based on Bram Stoker's story, the creature in Nosferatu is pale, twisted, bird-like, and looks like something that just crawled out from under a stone. He shuns the light and creeps noiselessly up on his sleeping victims.

As we've seen with Godzilla, the 1950s was a great time for movie monsters, as anxieties about the bomb and communism found vivid expression in some surprisingly inventive horror films. Fear of rapid and unstoppable scientific advances underlay The Fly, Kurt Neumann's 1958 B-movie in which a Canadian scientist begins changing into a hideous hybrid after a botched experiment.

In Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the monster was us. When the residents of a small Californian town begin acting strangely, a doctor discovers that alien spores are growing exact replicas of people and replacing them. It was a truly unsettling idea, and the film reflected the mad paranoia of McCarthyism, which was then reaching its height.

If a movie monster has the power to put an entire generation off sea-swimming, it must be something special. Steven Spielberg loathed the three mechanical sharks he was lumbered with on the set of Jaws: they broke down so often that he decided to mostly suggest the presence of the shark instead of showing it, using mood and that famous John Williams score.

This ingenious approach became the film's great strength, and proved that sometimes the scariest monsters of all are the ones you can't see.

In Alien (1979), Ridley Scott showed us titillating snatches of his monster - a claw here, an eye there, and those ever-slavering multi-jaws - before revealing the ghastly goblin-like predator in all its glory late on. It was scary, not to be reasoned with, and so was the Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth, a child-eating monster with eyes in its hands that may have been a metaphor for General Franco. And though the Candyman films were not exactly masterpieces, the idea of a baying ghost that will appear if you look in a mirror and say his name five times kind of stuck with me.

My favourite movie monster, though, would have to be Kong, the much-maligned 50-foot gorilla who isn't really a monster at all. He's the Cyrano de Bergerac of film monsters, a beast more sinned against than sinning who died atop the Empire State for the love of a woman and has since made more comebacks than Frank Sinatra. In fact he'll be going up against our friend Godzilla in a new film next year.

I know who I'm up for.

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