Monday, 24 February 2014

Creature Features: The history of real animals in horror films

I'm coming for you

In the news this week, a new crazy monster film is getting tons of press with the release of it's trailer. Beaver Zombies! Yes - Zombeaver the movie. Other than the furry beaver jokes, the internet media is happily slapping its tail over this horror film about undead beavers looking for furry vengeance against some campers. Using animals as instruments of horror and death in film - either creating real fear or laughter or both - is not a new concept as we all know: Who has not seen Jaws?

The first horror films made used the supernatural to create fear. The Lumiere brothers in 1895 used dancing skeletons in their spooky tales. Georges Melies created the first horror film we have evidence of in 1896 with a normal assortment of traditional fairy tale characters, devils and ghosts. This continued through to the talkies era of the 1930s with Frankenstein and Dracula. Through the 1930s and 40s, humans morphing into animals became a common trope. Films like the Wolfman and Cat People scared  audiences with makeup and early special effects.

King Kong (1933) was one of the first animal as perpetrator horror films, the giant ape made surreal. The real influx of animal based horror films came after World War Two. Many have argued that escapist film began because people wanted to escape the real horror story of war. Giant animals and bugs continued their creature feature prominence with THEM and The Wasp Woman. Evil squids then came onto the scene in 1955 with It Came From Beneath the Sea, and in the same year more arachnids with Tarantula. The scary animal and bug fetish culminated in The Fly in 1958.

How am I going to go to the bathroom...oh that's how flies do it
The reasons are covered well in many other sources - the atomic age made mutant animals cool. Nature was terrifying, and nature unbound by normal rules as science let it go mad was even more scary to the audiences of the time. So the release of more films with mutated animals, carnivorous insects, and normally harmless animals that turn on the humans continued. One of the best is Attack of the Crab Monster (1957) which John Tebbutt highlights in his great article for FFWD. I wonder though if they truly thought this was scary or just a bit of fun.

One 1960s horror film with really terrifying animals stands out - The Birds from 1963. The real terror of Tippi Hendren and the cast is felt in every scene with the blood-seeking birds. No other film before captured how innocent and beautiful birds could peck someone to death on screen. I dare you to watch this clip and laugh. Unless you like birds trying to kill you.

Why are we so fascinated and horrified over animals in horror films? One theory is that it's an ingrained fear in humans that have kept us alive - animals were trying to kill us for dinner as one of the many slow moving primates on this planet for ages. As mentioned earlier, Jaws in 1975 scared the bed-wetting pants off most people and still does, because none of us still want to be alive while being eaten.

I'm just fulfilling a evolutionary role here buddy.
We all know of many films that take themselves seriously to terrify the audience but end up being laughable. Most film experts blame Jaws for this, as the nature run amok film genre became a bankable idea to many. They rushed out to make their films only to realize they had no money and no idea on how to do anything. One example is Orca (1977), where a killer whale eats a whole Canadian fishing village, and you are rooting more for the Orca. The filmmakers really wanted to scare you with some seriously bloody scenes but end up making a comedy/weird ass film instead.

Excuse me sir, but have you seen your dog anywhere?
It was not until the 1990s that animals trying to eat you was made intentionally funny. Arachnophobia (1990) was one of the first animal as death-bringers comedy horror films. In the film, recently discovered spiders run amok in a small American town, with no intention except to make you laugh as they squeak and sigh along to killing people. The key part is these are not mutants, they are just real spiders fighting for their survival. (If you take their side.) The film was a huge success making over $54 million in its first release. It continued with the worms in Tremors (1990), and the classic Eight Legged Freaks of 2002. The list goes on with Slither, Snakes On A Plane and many more. So as we all wait for the release of the zombie beavers, I wonder if this will create more interest in killer animals again, both in horror and in humour?

Oh yes it did. God damn squirrels.

Sources and Further Reading:

FilmmakerIQ - a brilliant site on all things film, the best one of all of these!

Horror Film History - A decade by decade guide

Natural Horror Films - a long list of films by wikipedia

Best Horror Films - Wired's recommendations, with no animal films making it

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