Written by: Daniel McDonald
My affair with horror cinema began in the early 60’s with the solid base being the iconic B & W UNIVERSAL classics, introduced to me by my mom. I was six and we stayed up until midnight so I could watch the glorious 1941 masterpiece THE WOLFMAN from the safety of mommy’s lap. As I grew, so did my “addiction to horror movies” ….hmmmmm… (Thank God for the treasure trove of the after school TWILIGHT MOVIE or the weekend late night SIR GRAVES GHASTLY). My affair turned into a “serious engagement” with Hammer Studios’ classy, very provocative (at the time) reimaginings of Universal’s horror classics, and low budget AIP’s drive-in cash cows, such as I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, FRANKENSTEIN, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, BLOOD OF DRACULA and an abundant supply of “look at what we’ve done” radioactive poisoned beastie projects, THEM, TARANTULA, THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED etc. – minor projects produced by major studios such as UNIVERSAL INTERNATIONAL and WARNER BROTHERS. These were fathered by the iconic King Kong, the 1933 film that saved RKO Studio from bankruptcy and made me STUNNINGLY aware of the genius of stop motion master Willis O’Brian followed in the 1950s by stop motion magician Ray Harryhausen. The Black Scorpion, 1957, a low budget Warner Brothers film (O’Brian’s farewell project) was my personal favorite. I’m tellin’ you truly, when the Grandaddy Scorp showed up and began slaughtering the Scorp minions that we THOUGHT were the villains, I remember yelling “oh shit!”, which started the great “you’re too smart for that crap” debate between my mom and myself regarding horror films. The ‘60s were sort of a melting pot of various veins (yeah, I got it) of horror, as the public cinematic world was evolving and with the major effects of eclectic productions such as PSYCHO, THE HAUNTING , AIPS EDGAR ALLEN POE adaptations, the ultraviolent Italian giallo features, ROSEMARY’S BABY, FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, the continuing HAMMER horrors and many, many more.
Now onto the focus of this article, first and foremost let me say that this is in NO WAY a “BE ALL AND END ALL” examination of every film in the NATURE STRIKES BACK series that occurred mainly during the 1970s. These were unusual films that were fairly inexpensive to produce, attracted “name” performers whose careers were in serious decline and seemed to touch a nerve of fear regarding the effects on and abuse of our natural environment and the creatures who inhabit it. A “what if?” scenario regarding retaliation by various types of animals, referred to as the “When nature strikes back” cinematic era. What I am doing is an overview of some of the particularly high points (and even more fun, the LOW points) of the era when I was seeing at least 2 films per week, often from the rear tailgate of my pal Diane’s GRAN TORINO station wagon, backed into a double Drive In slot with lawn chairs, a full cooler, pillows and blankets (for when you were a bit more “PHARMACEUTICALLY FOGBOUND” than perhaps you intended to be). Sort of a mini AMERICAN GRAFFITI of the ‘70s cinema experience. So those of you with…uh…fangs bared and claws sharpened (yeah I got it) ready to tell me EVERY FILM that had any beastie involved…this is a feature story not a review, I know that there is much more information than what I’ve displayed here.
What is so interesting is, that since I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve realized how many folks saw (and REALLY enjoyed) so many of these “guilty pleasures.” Earlier this week someone posted the promotional poster for my personal favorite “piece of cheese”, AIPs 1972 mess-terpiece FROGS. I couldn’t believe how many people responded positively, not only about FROGS (although I really enjoyed seeing that big ole’ frog with a human hand coming out its mouth, and the tag line “Today the Pond, Tomorrow the World”, how can you NOT love that? (More on that a bit later) but today it’s about so many of these types of films that so many folks have hooked in their memories and more importantly – their hearts.
Back in 1963, Alfred Hitchcock released THE BIRDS, a visionary, stylish portrait of a small seaside town besieged by all types of our feathered friends, with a few moments of true horror (Jessica Tandy’s discovery of what’s left of a neighbor is pretty grisly for 1963), although it WAS a film from the man who gave us PSYCHO. The incredibly imaginative direction made even that horrible visual a cinematic victory. The film was a massive hit, but didn’t inspire any type of trend, I believe Hitchcock’s talent overshadowed the genre and no similar films immediately followed.
In 1971 an adaptation of a late ‘60s horror novel RATMAN’S NOTEBOOK was adapted by the small CINERAMA company into the film titled WILLARD. The story of a reclusive loner who befriends a group of rats that live in his Gothic home. Things in his life go badly, to the point that his rodent pets who he has trained, become a weapon that the title character uses (in a memorably creepy, violent for 1971 scene) to murder his overbearingly evil boss at work because he had killed Willard’s favorite rat-buddy, Socrates, leaving the evil Ben as the lead rat. Eventually things spiral out of control and Ben leads the army of rats to destroy their master. The film opened to fairly positive press and was a major box office success. The level of talent (Bruce Davidson was outstanding as Willard and Ernest Borgnine was appropriately evil as his boss) made this as much a character study as a horror film, but it was marketed strictly to the horror crowd and its success caused a contrived, by the numbers sequel, based on the evil rat BEN in 1972. Unfortunately the most memorable thing about that film was the lovely, completely inappropriate title ballad sung by a young Micheal Jackson.
But by ‘72 the race was on, as low budget, derivative, some unintentionally humorous casts of “never quite made it or no longer there stars” projects began hitting Grind houses, drive -ins and neighborhood movie houses with amazing financial returns – quickly produced schlock fest money makers. In addition to BEN, ‘72 brought us (in my opinion) one of the camp fest winners, the aforementioned FROGS starring Ray Milland, Sam Elliott and a cast of pretty much every type of swamp beastie you care to name. For the most part, actual live animals were used on location (no FX for those Artistes at AIP) plus some fairly rudimentary CGI, it was another serious money maker, ensuring some longevity in this trend. I was so enamored with FROGS I ended up seeing it 9 times on the big screen. When my mom found out I was going for an even 10, she put her foot down and forbid me to go. So of course later that week 2 friends and I cut school to see FROGS at a MATINEE. You wanna talk HORROR? Picture yourself sitting with your buddies having a great time. Then you look over your friends to see YOUR MOTHER storming down the aisle she rushes through the empty row behind us, grabs a handful of my hair, basically dragging me over my friends and walked me up the aisle, through the lobby and out the door having NEVER let go of my hair the whole time. AIP owes me 4 weeks of my life back, that’s how long I was grounded…..
We now go from the (comparably) sublime, to the definition of ridiculous. I remember sitting in the dark theater, seeing the MGM lion (unfortunately the only frightening animal involved in this project) and some familiar names and faces – Janet Leigh, Stuart Whitman, DeForest Kelly in what has become a camp classic. The laughable trailer, featured only allusions to what a Lepus was (Latin for rabbit) as did any promotional materials. MGM knew that a film trying to demonize giant bunny rabbits into killing machines, by using domestic rabbits filmed in slow motion on miniature sets with ketchup smeared on their cute little snouts for blood FX, was literally an impossible – noooo make that ridiculously misguided task.
Even worse, for close up “attacks”, actors in poorly shot, heavily edited scenes dressed in …bunny costumes were used. The fact that director William F. Claxton (a well-regarded action/western film and television director) didn’t realize the absolute WORST move he could make was to play this as a legitimate sci-fi horror film (even though test screenings were laughed off the screen). The film was decimated by critics, but actually turned a modest profit as the bottom half of drive -in double bills and is now considered one of the leading cult classics.
1973 seemed to be the year that the killer animals gave way to thinking man’s horror – The Exorcist, Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man. All considered artistic cinematic accomplishments. But still we have sexuality entering the scene with trash such as Invasion of the BeeGirls, the aptly titled Schlock, Blood of the Pigs, Crown International’s STANLEY a low budget man/snake love story concoction, echoing Willard with rattlesnakes replacing rats made in 72 released regionally in 73, lots of live snakes in this one are real. A scene where a couple in bed, are covered with snakes tossed at them by Anti-hero Chris Robinson was pretty damned creepy. By the way, Mr. Robinson was reportedly bitten twice by 2 different rattlesnakes during filming. STANLEY has a trailer that is so indicative of its time, viewing it now is both creepy and very funny. Most interesting is SSSSssss a Universal project directed by prolific television director Bernard J. Kowalski. The story of a mad doctor slowly turning his assistant into a man sized Python. FX by a neophyte Rick Baker and a hoard of LIVE, slithering co-stars as well as solid work by Strother Martin and a game Dirk Benedict took this B movie thriller up to a B+.
The 1973 box office smash that was THE EXORCIST and significant need to compete with British Christopher Lee (Hammer’s secret weapon) and the EVER growing violence and sexuality of Italian giallo caused American producers to (nothing new, Hollywood is notorious for this) look at the last big money maker, in this case, The EXORCIST and follow its formula…. only more graphic and cheaper.
So the market was filled to the brim, with films national or international, with some fair ranging down to are you F*****G kidding me Possession films of any kind… a bulldozer possessed by a demon? Awww c’mon! Talk about beating a dead horse, I saw The EXORCIST 7 times on the big screen because it was a terrific script developed with love, intelligence, passion and masterful technical skill vs. an “I’m gonna get you trucker” 90 minute John Deere commercial, welcome to the ANYTHING for a buck HORROR of 1974. Luckily we had classic horror explosions of talent and worthy products; THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, IT’S ALIVE, the sexually charged VAMPYRES and in my humble opinion, a film basically ignored when it was released, that has, with time become acknowledged as the true classic it really is BLACK CHRISTMAS. Bob A CHRISTMAS STORY Clark’s pre-HALLOWEEN “the killer is in the house”. Masterpiece remains one of the scariest, most stylish films I have ever seen. So much of the credit given to John Carpenter (who initially wanted to actually craft a sequel to BLACK CHRISTMAS before being encouraged to create his own masterpiece), actually should have gone to Mr. Clark.
There was one very unusual nature vs. man film released in ‘74. An (at the time) both visually challenging and rewarding Killer Ants oddity PHASE lV. Directed by renowned Creative Credit designer Saul Bass, again we have ants that, due to our interference become super intelligent eating machines. Many felt it was too highbrow for the “Beastie Crowd” and not the cup of tea for intellectuals.
But HERE IT COMES! The ANIMAL (fish) VS MAN film that was not only wonderfully made, it was scary as hell! Initially it seemed the Nature Strikes Back era was becoming a “been there, saw that” experience. We had David Cronenberg’s sex slug winner SHIVERS, but come summer ‘75 the world belonged to Universal Pictures’ JAWS. Directed by a young inexperienced director Steven Spielberg, adapted from the book it seemed everyone had or was reading by Peter Benchley. The film opened to excellent press, a record breaking box office tally and several Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. Also, it started the incredibly popular idea of making, promoting and selling the SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER. Of course that type of success reignited Hollywood’s faith in ANIMAL monster films.
1976 is one of my favorite cinematic decades, not only for horror, but for cinema itself. It seemed as if the world was “growing up”, but still wanted a good time at the movies.
The success of Jaws was certainly not lost on Hollywood’s radar, but as always what worked very well once (as the Jaws franchise demonstrated quite well) didn’t necessarily mean a long term reliable plan. There was the curiosity APE, that was basically ripping off KING KONG for a budget of 12.00 dollars. My response to this mess was “uh oh, someone left KING KONG in the dryer too long.” The Dino De Laurentis multi-million dollar remake almost looks good when comparing it with APE….I said ALMOST! The fact that Tobe Hooper decided to follow THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE with the killer crocodile in EATEN ALIVE left filmgoers scratching their heads at both the material and its poor execution. On the opposite end of the scale is Jeff Leiberman’s AIP delight. SQUIRM which YEPPERS you guessed it is about a Georgia town that is overrun with killer bloodworms – YEPPERS brings to mind killer bunny rabbits, right? Well what Mr. Lieberman did with this laughable story line is truly impressive. Great use of location, fine performances (the fact that the lead is a friend has nothing to do with that statement) inventive ways to make the massive amount of worms pretty damn creepy, and the creation (screamed out loud in the cinema) transformation (an honest to God worm monster that creeped me out) and resolution… it’s a tight atmospheric little film. Finally, the first of many films that was so derivative and contrived that I found 2 different reviews titled C L A W $ printed exactly that way. Columbia Pictures took quite a bit of heat for the deja-boo! quality GRIZZLY (which was made for 750 thousand dollars and had a box office gross of 40 million) promising more beasties coming our way.
While the world was STAYIN’ ALIVE in 1977 Hollywood actors were dying by the dozens from attacks of pretty much every type of beastie you can name. A visually striking but lacking in strong, original, believable narrative ORCA THE KILLER WHALE Is a Dino De Laurentis Paramount Picture that promised to “out-swim” JAWS, sank in both artistic and financial waters. THE PACK was a fairly well done pre-CUJO and its far superior Australian cousin from 2015. Abandoned house pets on a vacation island band together to terrorize the locals in this Warner Brothers thriller that (once again) turned a healthy profit on a minor investment. Bert I. Gordon’s EMPIRE OF THE ANTS brainchild of H.G. Wells tells the story of ANTS who feed on (what else, its AIP?) toxic waste and learn how to enslave humans to do their bidding. An actually well-made film KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, tells of a town under siege by large Tarantula like spiders who seem to have killer instincts. Very good use of actual insects as well as decent FX make this a nihilistic winner.
Finally a LIONS and TIGERS and BEARS….hell, bring in Noah’s Ark collection of animals of just about every type (including a beastly Leslie Neilson) group of folks on a mountain hike where the animals have become predators due to (what else?) human chemical poisoning. Not too scary, but it’s worth it to see Neilson turn Andrew Stevens into a cutie-pie shiskabob.
On we travel to 1978 the trend of WHEN NATURE STRIKES BACK seemed to have had its time. There are two films worth mentioning, each one for very different reasons. The first is what should have been the only sequel to JAWS, which we really didn’t need either, but it’s not a bad film and I’m giving Universal a financial without a shadow of a doubt. The oh so creatively named JAWS 2 was basically a technically well-made reselling of the first film minus Spielberg’ genius and good fortune, with the addition of attractive teenagers in peril and a higher percentage of violence – gotta hit that youth market, right?
If only Universal wasn’t completely blinded by the shiny gold coins of profit. The following 2 sequels were poorly executed and felt (and were) completely insulting and useless. On the other side of the coin, Joe Dante’s obviously tongue firmly in cheek PIRANHA was slapped with a cease and desist injunction by Universal, removed after Spielberg saw some completed footage and found it highly enjoyable – which it truly was.
Well Buckos here we go, the final year of my favorite decade. I’m not sure if it’s because of the fun colorful, easy on the brain topics of what I had seen, the fact that I was with totally cool and passionate friends with comparable feelings about horror, or the fact that I was almost always “Pharmaceutically Fogbound.” Onto 1979…there are two films I’d like to mention here. I’d grown up, had responsibilities, college classes to attend, bills to pay as did my horror cronies. So since we couldn’t find them on a double bill at a drive in, we took my friend’s yellow VW van, packed in (there was 8 of us) of course getting as “Pharmaceutically Fogbound” as possible, went to one movie house to see Arthur Hiller’s vampire Bat opus NIGHTWING, rushed back into Old Yellow, took care of business at another movie house 20 minutes away and prepared ourselves to watch the famous director John Frankenheimer’s film called PROPHECY the Monster movie. Weeell gang, while each film had substantial budgets, and cinema pros on both sides of the camera and even sequences that showed the promise they could (or should) deliver…they were 2 big honkin’ pieces of shit!! You know what? We had a blast, doing the whole audience reactionary thing. Whenever I find them, I make sure to watch them. Not because I think they’ll get any better with age (they won’t), but because they were 2 of the last films I saw as HORROR should be seen, with like-minded friends, having done whatever you need to get yourself “ready” and really enjoy the fuck of the experience….