When Animals Attack, Then Eat You, Then Attack Again (October Horror #3)

[The author is examining horror movies and horror movie tropes and possibly horror movie-themed t-shirts and coffee mugs during the month of October. This is the fourth column in the series, even though it says #3 up in the title. Get over it.]

One of the backbone thematic questions horror movies ask is this: what would happen if nature had had enough of humans screwing things up and decided to sic its critters on us?

There was a trend in the 1970s and 1980s of making horror movies that were also ecological morality tales. On the surface, this doesn’t sound like it’d be a whole lot of fun. “Morality Tale” gives out much the same vibe as having the preacher over to talk to the kids about why they shouldn’t be looking at pornography on the internet.

However, when you combine the morality (“We’re screwing up the environment and should really do something to fix that”) with giant, mutated beavers, such as the much-bigger-and-angrier-than-a-normal-beaver one found in 1979’s “Prophecy,” then things get a lot more entertaining. Nothing like giant, mutant beavers menacing some campers to convince you that logging companies should be more careful about how much toxic waste they dump into the river. Heck, before I saw this movie, I didn’t even know that logging companies produced toxic waste. Deforestation, sure, but giant-mutant-killer-angry-really-nasty beavers? Nope.

Exploring a similar toxic waste theme is the Samuel Z. Arkoff “Frogs” (Still 1972 — we’ve gone over this in a previous column, quit bugging me about it). Our protagonist, Sam Elliott (in his first starring movie role — “Card Player #2 in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” doesn’t count), is on a canoe-about, taking evocative pictures of trash and other pollutants fouling up the river. He soon finds himself on an island owned by Mr. Let’s-Dump-Toxic-Waste-From-the-Plant-Straight-Into-the-River Man himself. While Sam tries to convince Mr. LDTWFtPSItR Man into changing his evil ways, members of the birthday party going on start being knocked off one-by-one by mutant, killer frogs. Well, actually, the frogs in the movie don’t do much more than hop around and croak ominously, but they ARE very ominous, and it’s obvious that they’re the masterminds goading the snakes and bugs and, erm, more snakes into doing the killing for them.

Anyway, lesson learned: don’t dump your toxic waste straight into the river, at least not without investing in a few frog spears first.

Human, it's what's for dinner

The frogs in the movie weren't quite big enough to eat you, but that didn't stop the filmmakers from giving it a go.

And if you thought you were safe just because you were surrounded by cute, hopefully-not-killer bunnies, well, watch out, buddy, because 1972’s “Night of the Lepus” (also called “Rabbits”) shows us that EVERYTHING in nature is out to get us. At least in “Night of the Lepus” there isn’t toxic waste dumping. In fact, the characters are trying to be ecologically friendly by dealing with a rabbit infestation not by spraying the fluffy little fellas with cyanide, but by messing up their breeding cycle with hormones. Ahh, hormones. Hilarity — and rabbits the size of dump trucks eating people — ensues.

Also, rabbit-wise, we don’t know for sure that “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”‘s (1974) viscious Rabbit of Caerbannog wasn’t created by some logger pouring poisonous log slurry into pristine natural springs.

And I have no idea what created the shark-toothed rabbit of 2010’s “Primal,” but there it was, all toothy and bitey and mean as a bunny scorned by his hormonally-neutered significant other.

What we see in these ecologically-minded horror narratives is a reflection of the fears of the time. Or at least a reflection of the fears we as a society and a species have that we may be, pardon my Midwestern, crapping in the same place we eat.

After the creation of the atom bomb in the 40s, we get a slew of mutant animal movies created by radiation. Even excluding the Godzilla (and other Giant Monster movies) of the Japanese, there was still plenty of radiation mayhem to go around. In “Them” (1954), it was giant ants. In the “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” it was a stop-action dinosaur (hey, dinosaurs are people … er, animals … too). It was a praying mantis in “The Deadly Mantis” (1954), and, well, the list goes on.

In the 70s, it was all about industry poisoning the environment, as we’ve already seen. Later, genetic manipulation takes the stage as the Meddling With Things That Should Not Be Meddled With trope. “Deep Blue Sea” (1999) is one of my favorites of these, what with its nearly-amphibious super-smart sharks and Samuel L. Jackson’s rousing Let’s-Work-Together-Here-People morale-boosting speech. But we can’t forget the genetically-tampered-with flying piranhas of 1981’s “Piranha II”. Mmm, flying piranhas.

Look out! Wardrobe malfunction!

Because regular piranha just aren't scary enough.

And, of course, there’s “Jurassic Park.” Dinosaurs re-created by taking DNA found in ancient mosquitos locked in amber and infusing it into frog eggs — the frogs finally get to have teeth and don’t have to depend on the snakes to do the wet work.

In the Oughts, nature started to do away with the intermediaries, too. In M. Night Shyamalan’s mess of a movie, “The Happening” its the very embodiment of nature — the plant life — that’s out to remove the plague of humanity from the surface of the planet, via a self-preservation-removing pheromone attack. Fortunately, Zooey Deschanel lives. Mmmm, Zooey Deschanel.

However, there was still plenty of genetic tampering going on. “Black Sheep” (2006 — not the 1996 Chris Farley movie) takes us to scenic New Zealand and to a sheep ranch where the sheep have acquired a taste for blood thanks to hormonal manipulation. Also, if they bite you and you don’t die, you turn into a, erm, sheepotaur. Or weresheep or something. 2005’s “Isolation” does much the same thing, but with cows. It’s also considerably scarier; although you might be more scared of the ickiness of farm life than of the small, Alien-like killer cow fetuses crawling about. I can’t advise eating anything, even popcorn, while watching the scene where the vet has her arm up to the elbow in this pregnant cow’s … well, best leave that to the late-night viewing.

Moving on. Now, in the Post-Oughts, barring zombies and possibly sparkly vampires, the trend of mutant monsters in horror seems to be moving away from radiation, genetic mutation, and DNA tampering to Things-Found-in-Places-We-Shouldn’t-Have-Gone. Mostly, the things found there are mutant or hyper-evolved humans, rather than groddy Stan Winston special-effects animals. That’s the case in the excellent spelunking-gone-bad movie “The Descent” (2005) and in the aforementioned “Primal,” as well. This may be because humans are easier to get along with as actors than animals are (Russell Crowe excepted, of course), or it may be because our fears are turning away from what nature is going to do to us when she gets peeved enough, since there’s not much we can do about that anymore, and more toward the depths to which humans can sink. Since many of these movies deal with going into caves or ancient ruins (“The Cave” (2005), “The Ruins” (2008)), they evoke a metaphor of us “descending” into the darkest places of our psyches.

Still, there is that shark-toothed rabbit in “Primal.” Maybe the beasties will be making a comeback.

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