Friday, April 29, 2011

Top 13: When Nature Attacks...the 70s!

Back in the 70s, when Steven Speilberg's JAWS became such a huge mega-hit, every studio, both large and small, scrambled to find their own take on the 'when nature attacks' success story. It brought the international filmmakers out of the woodwork, in an effort to take advantage of US movie going audiences, fans eager for more natural gore.
Some of the movies which hit the drive-in screens in that decade had their own successes, but for the most part, they were pale comparisons when staked against Speilberg's "JAWS",a movie that basically re-defined the horror genre. And this copy cat filmmaking continued into the 80s and into the 90s, and in some ways, you can eevn see the movie's influence in today's 'nature strikes back' sub-genre of films.
Some of the movies were fairly decent viewing (and hopefully, we've included quite a few titles on our list), but there a few lousy ones as well.
Don't make the mistake that JAWS was the only influential film of that period. By no means can we discount the impact of Alfred Hitchcock's "THE BIRDS" (1963), a movie which almost single-handedly created a sub-genre of horror films. There were such films as "Tintorera" (1978), "Up From the Depths" (1979) and "Rattlers (1976), but these were the bottom of the barrel of the ripoffs one could catch at the local drive-in or walk-in theater during these exploitation years. Below, you'll find our picks for the 70s best of the 'nature strikes back' sub genre of films. Of course, this isn't the most definitive of lists, because there are some personal choices that may not align with most peoples' choices. But I guarantee you'll appreciate the films on the list for what they mean to the genre. So enjoy, Horrorheads. We won't see this sort of list ever again.

13. Willard (1971)

The original rat as menace movie, which started it's own mini-sub-genre of horror and sci-fi films. Rats are nasty, disease carrying little monsters, which men have feared since the 13th century, when The Black Plague, carried by rats, wiped out about a 1/3 of the world's population. Willard goes for sympathy first and then turns the rats loose on poor Ernest Borgnine and others for some flesh rending fun.

12. The Swarm (1978)

Yes, this is when the whole Killer Bees thing became part of American's greatest fears, thanks to media driven fear campaign, something that got a rehash around 2000 or so. No one did disaster films like Irwin Allen, and this "based on scientific fact" movie was right up his alley. Back in the 70s, Allan had a sure fire method for his own brand of big budget filmmaking, which was to throw as much money and as many stars as he could at the screen to make up for things like an actual story or narrative logic. Those were the days...

11. Squirm (1976)

Ah, Squirm...this move became an almost overnight cult classic. But how could any movie about flesh eating mutant earthworms not become such? This is one of the greatest underrated directors in the genre, Jeff Leiberman, the same man responsible for such horror classics as "Blue Sunshine" (1978) and "Just Before Dawn" (1981)--one of my personal favorites. This has a great ambient feel to it, even during the attack sequences. But you'll never forgt "worm face".

10. Prophecy (1979)

Made in one of the best years for the genre in cinema history, this is an anamoly in the genre because it was made by a director who wasn't identified with horror, John Frankenheimer. Critics hated it, but horror fans still think this is one of the better 'nature strikes back' films. Seems chemicals released in the sacred waters of an Indian Reservation have created a god-like beast which stalks the woods and kills anything it comes across. I really love this movie.

9. Piranha (1978)

John Sayles: screenwriter...Joe Dante:director...Roger Corman: producer/ can you go wrong with this team? Flesh eating killer fish are altered by evil scientists and accidentally released into a summer camp's waterway, and let the human munching begin! This is a tongue-in-cheek sort of film, but still has enough gore and drama to keep you feeling like there's menace in this great genre classic. No one is safe, not even little kids. Definitely not women in bathing suits. The recent remake was fun stuff, but the original can't be beaten.

8. Phase IV (1974)

One of the first killer ant movies that came out of the 70s and early 80s, and one of the strangest horror films you'll ever see, with a decidely new age sense to it. Directed by famous title man Saul Bass (the same man responsible for much of the strange feel of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)), this is a movie that crosses the supernatural and into the super-science-natural. An incredible visual treat, it is a must-see for Horrorheads. These ants are definitely smarter than us and deadlier.

7. Long Weekend (1978)

Another cult classic film, this time from Australia, this movie has an undercurrent of menace from beginning to finish, as two careless polluting assholes out for a weekend in the woods pretty much treat the world like their garbage can, but pay the ultimate price for their lack of concern with the world we all must share. Everything comes together to first terrorize and then destroy the interlopers.

6. Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

Starring Captain Kirk, himself, this is one of the lost classics of the 'nature strikes back' sub-genre (alongside his Star Trek partner Kelley DeForest's "Night of the Lepus" from 1972) which tells the story of a small town being overrun by a mutant strain of aggressive man-eating Tarantulas. There are some chilling visuals in this low budget film, and it will remain with you for many years.

5. Killer Grizzly (1976)

Directed by the late great Wlliam Girdler, this is his finest moment on film. Yes, it's pretty much a direct ripoff of "Jaws", but he puts his own stamp on this movie about a giant prehistoric man-eating bear which comes down into a natural preserve to kill campers. It has gore and nude flesh and three of the great exploitation male leads in one film, Christopher George, Andrew Prine and Richard Jaeckel. It's a classic.

4. Jaws (1975)

This is the mother of the whole sub-genre, one of the highest grossing movies of all time. If you've been in a cave for the last 35 years, then maybe you don't the story of a small coastal town being menaced by a giant man-eating Great White Shark. Again, like rats and spiders, this is an animal that culls up atavistic terror in most people. Spielberg knows that and uses his shark sparringly, let's the audience scare themselves before sending his three Moby Dick comrades into the sea to battle the great beast. This has a great explosive ending. Literally.

3. Frogs (1972)

Slow moving for some, but still filled with some great moments of horror, this includes a whole cast of B-name actors and actresses being killed by trees, quicksand, alligators, swamps and various poisonous animals, in retaliation against the unwanted human encrouchment into their natural world. The final moments of Ray Milland being overwhelmed by the titular creatures is still a stunning visual.

2. Food of the Gods (1976)

Hokey as hell, cheesy even, but there are some great little Bert I. Gordon touches. He was a director known for going really BIG in his films, his 50s films especially (The Amazing Collosal Man, for instance), and he jumped into the 70s with this movie, which was supposedly based on H.G. Wells story of the same name. It wasn't very much. But that's fine. This is still a great little exploitation flick, ith a cast of some of the great cheesy actors and actresses of the decade. You will see giant chickens, rats, wasps...and much more...and they pretty much just want to eat us.

1. Empire of the Ants (1977)

The next year, Bert I. Gordon made another foray into Wells' work with this movie set in the Southern USA, where radioactively mutated ants grow to enormous size and begin to make slaves of humans, using them to collect sugar for their dinner. Starring more B actors and actresses, you will get many moments of scene chewing, none of which are done by the giant telepathic ants. Still, this is a movie which could have only come from the tail end of horror's great decade of exploitation.

--Nickolas Cook