© Rob Hill 2017


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DEBRIEF | Giant Killer Animal Season

14 Aug 2017

After watching 30 terrible movies in 20 days, what have I learnt? Don't do science on animals is undoubtedly the primary lesson.






In half these movies, disaster strikes when unethical, unlucky or incompetent scientists subject an animal to some sort of experimentation. Usually the objective is noble, with the challenge of world famine the most common motivation (Beginning of the End, Island Claws and others). Nevertheless, a critique of scientific hubris is at the heart of many of these movies, whether they know it or not. Scientists are consistently presented as single-minded, short-sighted and over-confident. The more expert they are, the more likely they are to be put in their place by the practical, down-to-earth layman who invariably saves the day. Although a corrupt scientist might be involved in the creation of a terrible beast (Food of the Gods II, The Killer Shrews), this is surprisingly unusual. 


 Beginning of the End



These movies invariably reserve their strongest condemnation for big business. Evil corporations are in some way responsible for the killer creatures in 12 of the 30 movies I watched. If a scientist is sympathetic, you can bet some sort of executive will undermine their carefully imposed security measures in a manner that leads to disaster (Tail Sting, Anaconda 3). If science isn't involved, perhaps the corporation's illegal corner-cutting on a pipeline project has awoken some ready-made prehistoric monster (Tentacles, Bugs). Failing that, the illegal dumping of hazardous waste is a sturdy backup plan for a lazy filmmaker looking to justify some sort of supersized monstrosity (Empire of the Ants, Alligator II: The Mutation). Apparently those dastardly corporations also have a penchant for catching (then taking to a built-up area and allowing to escape) giant prehistoric apes (The Mighty Peking Man, King Kong Escapes). 


 The Mighty Peking Man



Those are the two broad clichés at the heart of most of these movies: science + animals = bad, and all corporations are evil. But it seems almost anything can create abnormally large and viscous brutes. In Ticks it's alien blood, in Mosquito it's a special serum used to grow better weed, and in Food of the Gods it's magic gunge from beneath the Earth. The only thread that runs through pretty much every one of these 30 movies is 'The Mayor' character. Of all the stereotypes gifted to this sub-genre by the original Jaws movie, none are more ubiquitous than the disbelieving mayor and his precious 4th of July holiday weekend. There has to be a man (it's never a woman) in a position of authority who refuses to accept the danger posed by the giant killer animal. It will be him who neglects to close the beaches/cancel the party/send the children home early/stop the science, or sign off on whatever other obvious safety measure relies on his approval. He could be sinister, as with the property developer in Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, who doesn't care who dies as long as his investors aren't put off by a kerfuffle over a prehistoric shark. Or he could just be an idiot, like the warden in Grizzly who doesn't think the danger is serious enough to warrant him closing the park. Whatever the background, he will realise too late that he should have listened to that practical, down-to-earth layman who invariably saves the day.


"You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July." Jaws



What other common elements feature in Giant Killer Animal movies?


Almost all these things are named after the beast, in one way or another, with only a handful entirely ignoring its identity in the title. Some titles may vague (Them, Cruel Jaws), but almost all the titles are directly inspired by the animal itself.


There will probably be extensive slow motion shots of real animals. At some point someone decided that animals look bigger in slow motion. I guess it's meant to give them a weight they don't naturally possess. Whatever the reason, the standard way of making mammals in particular look big seems to be to film them in slow motion. 


The effects will be a joke. Rear projection, forced perspective, bad compositing and miniatures abound in these movies. What's notable is that there isn't much difference between the quality of effects from the 50s and those created more recently. The further up the ladder of quality you climb, the more we encounter better (and better executed) techniques. But bad rear projection is no less convincing than bad CGI.


 Moby Dick. That's a whale



If there isn't a practical, down-to-earth layman to save the day, it will be a practical, down-to-earth out of town expert. 


The finale is likely to take place at night. It's the best way to hide the crappy special effects in what will almost certainly be the one sequence in which the (usually shy) beast is a consistent presence.


Setting up a sequel. In nine of these 30 movies the final shot features either a hitherto unknown secondary big beast, perhaps hatching in the undergrowth near the site of the final confrontation, or some indication that the beast isn't actually dead. Sequel aspirations, as well as bloodlust, seem to be in the DNA of Giant Killer Animals.


Ecological themes are a constant presence. It's like shooting fish in a barrel. If you want to say something about nuclear proliferation, litter, deforestation, genetics, over population or a dozen other subjects, Giant Killer Animal Movies offer a sound, schlockily commercially viable format.  Moreover, through these movies we can chart the specific ecological concerns of the Western world at different points in our history. Giant Killer Animal movies of the 50s frequently use radioactivity as the catalyst for their plots; a result of the fears over the Cold War. The late 70s saw a plethora of killer bee movies that coincides with the US media's preoccupation with dangerous South American bees migrating north. Recently the ruling classes (politicians, the military, the corporate elite) are more likely to be to blame for any insidious schemes that result in giant animal death.


 The Curse of the Komodo




What are the most common Giant Killer Animals?


Based on the 50 bad Giant Killer Animal Movies I can remember having seen (30 for this season, 20 previously)... this is how the results come out:


Sharks: 8

Arachnids: 5

Alligators & Crocodiles: 4

Rats: 3

Apes: 3

Cockroaches: 3

Aquatic Animals (excluding sharks): 3

Bees: 2

Mosquitos: 2

Lizards: 2

Crabs: 2

Snakes: 2

Big Mammals (excluding cetaceans): 2

Small Mammals (excluding rats): 2

Birds: 2

Other: 4


Surprise surprise: the shark is the most common Giant Killer Animal in bad movies. You heard it here first.


(Criteria: the movie had to be bad; the animals had to be abnormally large; no dinosaurs; no Godzilla; no alien monsters; no human hybrids; no Sharknados.)


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