Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Top 13: "Waterlogged" Horror Films of All Time

(list compiled by The Black Glove Magazine staff)
Written by Nickolas Cook

When I came up with the idea for this month’s Top 13 list, I felt a little uncertain that anyone would dig these movies as much as me.

I think it was a natural enough fear, because not everyone was lucky enough to have been born in 1969. I grew up at the perfect time to have seen just about every single one of these movies by the time I was a teenager.

First off, I was a kid when exploitation films were being handled by larger studios, and were beginning to get larger budgets and more famous name stars in them. And that was mainly because of one of the movies on our list, Steven Spielberg’s “JAWS”.

His movie, which was essentially an homage to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and those old 1950s monster movies. Back in the 1950s, came the first cycle of giant sea creature monster movies, during Mr. Spielberg’s own childhood. He never forgot those films and set out to make his own version, which was evident to anyone who’d grown up during the 50s, a time when drive-ins were crawling with every imaginable radioactive creature the studios could come up with to entertain and frighten their teenage audiences. On any given weekend, you could be terrorized by giant killer spiders, grasshoppers, rats and most importantly those giant killer monsters from the oceans deep.

By the time the second killer monster cycle of the 1970s had come around to TV and theaters, this little Horrorhead was lucky enough to be there when television broadcast companies were beginning to show the old classics on weekends to compete with the new releases which were hitting the drive-ins every weekend. I was around nine or ten years old when the local cable companies began to show their weekend “creature feature” style flicks. Back then, Saturday and/or Sunday afternoons were my chance to see all of the classic 1950s and 1960s horror/sci-fi movies listed below. Then, at night, I got to see the new releases at the local drive-ins.

These films were made to make money, but they were also doing what good old Steven Spielberg had done before them with his blockbuster shark flick, and that was paying homage to that first cycle of the 50s and 60s.

But what you got with the new releases was a whole new moviemaking aesthetic, one filled with much more graphic violence, gore and sex, which was made possible by the success of “JAWS”, and because of the growing success of the “grindhouse” exploitation movies, which had been made up to that time almost exclusively by smaller studios. But after the success of “Jaws”, the big studios weren’t about to be left behind, and they jumped on the bloody bandwagon, and began putting out their own gory, upscale versions of these cheap films.

Again, because of “Jaws”, we started to see more and more rip-offs of the “killer shark” sub-genre, especially from Spanish and Italian studios. That wasn’t anything new, of course. We usually saw this happen with anything that made money in the U.S. theaters, be it westerns, zombie flicks, crime dramas, etc., etc. (NOTE: We do not see this anymore, because the Italian and Spanish studios no longer attempt to copycat American cinema…something which should be a huge indicator as to how badly we make movies these days, folks). So throughout the 70s and 80s, we saw such boring, half-baked gorefest killer shark flicks as “Great White” (aka LA MORT AU LARGE, THE LAST SHARK, L' ULTIMO SQUALO (1980)), “Tintorera: Killer Shark” (1977) and “Killer Fish” (1979), which was a weird movie which mixed the “killer shark” with that other mainstay of the late 70s deep sea horror, the “killer octopus/squid”, so we got a mutated lab created monster with huge teeth and lots of squishy tentacles attacking people on boats and swimmers.

And those films are just a few that came out after the huge success of “Jaws”. Believe me, there was a sea full of them, distributed first to drive-ins and theaters, and then after the video revolution hit, into every mom and pop video store they could find. They came from just about every European studio which had the money to make one and send it our way for our eager horror audiences.

I mentioned that there was another deep sea killer which found favor in many of our horror movies from the 50s and 60s, and later, during the 2nd cycle of such movies, we found them again in the 70s and 80s. That’s right, the giant killer octopus and/or killer squid. They seemed to be everywhere, but the most famous one is from Italy and appears on our list below, so I won’t give a blow by blow for them.

It was during the 50s we saw the giant radioactive dinosaur come to the screen, and that mainly because of the success of another import, this time from Japan: 1954’s “Godzilla” (aka Gojira). It, of course, appears on the list below, as do just about every giant dinosaur monster flick from the 50s. It should be recognized that lovable radioactive fire-breathing monster from the ocean depths is still the most filmed character in all of cinema, with something like 40 plus films in which he appears over the last 60 odd years.

In 1989, out of nowhere, we had several deep sea horror films from big studios hit theaters. We got movies like “Leviathan” (the only one from that odd time in American genre cinema to appear on the list), “DeepStar Six” (1989), and a movie which wasn’t quite horror, but had some of those elements, James Cameron’s huge budget, CGI heavy, “The Abyss” (1989). It was undoubtedly the reason for all the subsequent deep sea horror films it followed, as the big studios scrambled to make money off the sub-genre before Cameron could do so. His release, which would revolutionize CGI special effects, was well known industry news; everyone knew when he expected to release his movie, so they “jumped the shark”, so to speak, and pushed their own films in before his. And while it’s true his movie would be the last of that cycle to hit the screen in the summer of 1989, he still managed to make more than ten times what the others did, combined.

And let’s not forget one more killer water creature which came upon us at the drive-ins, during the 1970s/80s--this time not from the ocean, but from rivers and swamps around the world. Again, these man eating monsters came to us from small cheap European studios. Yes, I’m talking about the “killer man-eating alligators and crocodiles” sub-genre. They may not have been giants, but they sure as hell loved to eat us. We saw a river’s worth of them swarm our theaters in the late 70s and early 80s. Most of them weren’t as exciting as the one and only film from that sub-genre to appear on our list below. But what they might be missing in the story or acting department, they made up for with over-the-top gore and lots of sex.

Oddly enough, the mutant sea creatures, the killer sharks, man-eating gators and crocs all found us again in the 1990s, and they all still appear from time to time up to present day, in such films as “Deep Rising” (1998), “Deep Blue Sea” (1999), “Red Water” (2003), “Lake Placid” (1999) and “Crocodile” (2000)—-and their many and varied sequels which followed. We even saw another weird swarm of sub-genre releases hit the theaters in 2007, as more giant alligators and killer crocodiles fought it out in theaters and DVD with the release of “Rogue” (2007), “Primeval” (2007) and “Black Water” (2007).
We’re even going to see the sharks again, and this time a whole bunch of them and in 3-D (of course), with this coming month’s release of “Shark Night: 3-D” (2011).

It’s small wonder we keep seeing the sharks and the alligators and crocodiles filling our horror screens. After all, those are for-real horrors that we hear about attacking people all around the world, all the time. It’s easy enough to understand why we have such a primordial terror of them, isn’t it? Especially when one considers they probably munched on our ancestors much more frequently not too long ago.

I probably left out some titles, and I’m sure I’ll get emails from Horrorheads screaming I’ve left off their own favorites from this great little sub-genre of horror, but I think I’ve hit the major points of interest, and given everyone a little historical context, as well.

The list below is in alphabetical order only, and is not intended to convey one film is more important than another by its numerical order. If that were true, “Jaws” would easily be at number one…I think anyone lucky (or unlucky) enough to have seen it back in 1975 would agree that it’s the undisputed champ of all these deep sea terror films.

So, without further ado, enjoy this month’s Top 13.

13. Tentacles (1977)

This movie has a hell of topnotch cast, including Henry Fonda and Shelley Winters, but no one came to see them; they were there for the giant killer octopus…or is it a squid? And you might very well ask that; I’m not sure the producers were sure either. In any case, this is one of those low budget Italian flicks that they just don’t make anymore, filled with bad dubbing, less than special SPFX, and a lot of boring exposition about a giant octopus attacking residents of a small coastal town (sound familiar?). But this movie really does work on certain levels that even modern films of this sort fall way short. There’s some great cinematography and underwater work that stands out.

12. Piranha (1978)

We’ve seen this John Sayles scripted/ Joe Dante directed darkly humorous horror movie on out lists before. But that’s okay, because it’s a damned great little movie. Very entertaining and with a great B-movie cast working hard to convince us of a mutated school of killer super piranhas attacking a river full of unsuspecting summer campers. Hey, any movie with the ever-gorgeous Barbara Steele cannot be all bad.

11. Orca: The Killer Whale (1977)

This is probably one of the few movies on this list in which you’re cheering for the killer creature. When hunter Richard Harris “accidentally” kills the male killer whale’s pregnant mate, the whale follows his sorry ass around and takes some well deserved revenge on him and his loved ones. This has some great camera work and the special effects are better than average, as is the acting and script. What makes it work is the fact that the producers used real whales.

10. Leviathan (1989)

The only 1989 “deep sea monster” movie to make it on the list. It was easy enough to bypass “DeepStar Six” because most of it was subpar, but this one is actually pretty well made and is suspenseful enough to stand up to multiple viewings. The cast is better than most and the sense of claustrophobia is played against the audience’s comfort level. The special effects—the monster—ooze and slither enough to make you feel sticky all over. Surely, this had to be a huge hit in Japan, right? This tells the story of a deep sea science crew running across a deliberately sunken Russian submarine, which contains some very bad Vodka and some leftover biology experiments that didn’t work out so great.

9. Jaws (1975)

If you don’t know this one by now, then where have you been? Small coastal town is attacked by a man-eating shark; town sheriff, a visiting shark expert and a curmudgeon old timer shark hunter set out to destroy the shark. What Spielberg was able to do with less than six minutes of the shark on screen is nothing short of genius filmmaking. Again, this is the movie which started it all and made possible just about every animal on the loose movie that has followed since its release. Producers are still trying to capture that lightning in a bottle that Universal did back in the 70sn with this movie. Good luck…

8. It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

This is the original giant octopus on the loose movie, starring Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue and Donald Curtis as a trio of military/science experts out to stop this stop motion monster from eating the entire Eastern Seaboard. Ray Harryhausen’s special effects makes this movie work…even if the producers were too cheap to give the damn thing all its tentacles. Go ahead, count ‘em. It doesn’t matte, though. This is a classic of the genre for a reason. Pure fun.

7. Humanoids From the Deep (aka Monster) (1980)

It’s amazing how many people love this gory little monster on the loose movie. Starring Doug McClure and Vic Morrow as local fishermen who find themselves in a battle with mutated salmon who have grown legs and decide to breed with the local women (in some rather graphic scenes, by the way), and Anne Turkel as the stiff necked lady scientist who is responsible for the mutation, upriver at the new big money canning factory, this is a hell of a fun little movie. You’ve got some great gore and creature effects that you just don’t find in modern films and the acting is done well enough that you suspect the actors might even believe in these rather Innsmouth looking monstrosities. One wonders if producer Roger Corman gave Lovecraft’s estate a nice fat check for this surprise drive-in success?

I saw this one when I was a kid and it’s always been one of my favorite drive-in memories. Hell, I’m watching it right now, folks. Just writing about it made me want to watch it again. That’s how great this movie is. The mutants’ night attack on the town fair, where they rip and rape their way through the terrified populace, until the townspeople band together and start beating the holy hell out of the monsters with boards and sticks, is one of the great moments in 80s horror, in my opinion.

And that last scene, where the young girl gives birth to a very Giger “Alien” looking baby is worth the price of admission, Horrorheads!

6. Godzilla (1954)

The original radioactive dinosaur on the loose movie. Godzilla is more than a monster, he is an institution. The movie was directed by one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers, Ishirō Honda, and had Raymond Burr added in later so that it would appeal to American audiences. Personally, I prefer the original Japanese version, but there is a certain charm to all those clumsily placed shots of the Burr stand-in to make it seem like he’s been in the whole movie. Seamless, it ain’t. But this is a classic horror movie, not least of which it has a strong anti-nuclear war message, in that Godzilla is the metaphorical destroyer of Hiroshima, as he stomps the city flat and kills thousands of terrified, fleeing Asians.

5. The Giant Behemoth (1959)

This is probable the movie on the list that is least likely to seem like it fits in with the rest earlier classics. That’s okay. Some people dig this one; some don’t. The special effects are basically a puppet monster in water, with a lot of sound effects and light explosions to help it along, even though Willis O’Brien handled the bulk of them. It’s another radioactive monster come to the surface to kill and maim innocent fishermen, this time off the coast of Cornwall, England. Gene Evans and assorted scientists set out to kill the beast using a radioactive torpedo to keep from spilling its toxic bodily fluids into the ocean. This is also probably the only conservation minded film on the list.

4. The Flesh Eaters (1964)

No...this isn't a zombie movie, so don't be fooled by the title. But it most definitely is the strangest movie on the list, no doubt. It tells the story of a group of assorted shipwreck survivors who find themselves washed ashore on an island populated by a strange German scientist and his deadly flesh eating microbe experiments gone awry. There are some great gore effects for a pre-1970/pre-exploitation film, even if the acting is a little stiff. There’s a sense of isolation and doom which runs through the film which makes for a fun little movie watching experience.

(NOTE: Writer/editor, and valued staff member, Bill Breedlove is responsible for this one, and thank God, he remembered it, because, even though I love this one, I had forgotten all about it in the wake of all the shark, squid and scaly mutant monster movies that populate this sub-genre. So thanks, Bill!)

3. Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

And this one has appeared on several list as well, but when you have a film that’s this classic, and has yet to be topped, you can’t be too surprised when it shows up multiple times. If you still don’t know the story: it’s about a team of scientists who set off down the Amazon to uncover the skeletal remains of the link between fish and man, but find themselves in a war to survive against the living monster itself. This has some of the greatest special effects of the 50s, a full body monster suit, built for the movie, complete with its own respiration system. Universal knew this was going to be a big one for them and spared no expense. It was even released in 3-D!

Directed by the great Jack Arnold, the man responsible for some of the great classic of the 50s and 60s, this also stars a cast of some of the genre’s most well known faces from that era, including Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, and Whit Bissell. If you haven’t seen it, then you are not a true Horrorhead.

2. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

This is the original American radioactive dinosaur on the loose movie, and helped inspire the entire catalogue of such films to follow in the 50s and 60s. When a military exploded nuclear bomb in the Artic Circle awakens a frozen beast trapped in the ice, it’s up to a trio of earnest scientists to find the beast and destroy it before its infected blood can cause an epidemic for the entire human race. Based on Ray Bradbury’s classic short story of a lost dinosaur in love, “The Fog Horn”, this is filled with some of the greatest stop motion animation of special effects wizard Harryhausen’s career.

1. Alligator (1980)

The only “killer alligator/crocodile” film to make our list, this is another classic of the 80s scripted by John Sayles (with more of his black humor) and directed by Lewis Teague. Starring Robert Forster as a Chicago cop who loses his partner to the killer gator, named Ramon, in the sewers beneath the city while searching for another missing man, and Henry Silva as the Great White Hunter who goes after the beast and finds he’s bitten off more than he can chew, this was a surprise hit back in 1980. Seems a lab has been dumping its illegal experiments—dead dogs—into the sewers, where the alligator has been munching on the leftovers. The growth hormones cause the gator to grow to an astounding 36 feet of man-eating monstrosity.

Of course, I grew up in the Florida wetlands, so a 36-foot alligator didn’t seem all that implausible to me.

The animatronic effects were the highlight of the film, and it had some of the most expensive, well constructed machinery of its time. The gator looks menacing enough as it shambles through downtown, munching on anything that gets in its way, even finding time to snack on a little boy in a swimming pool in a quiet suburban neighborhood.

Again, in Florida, this sort of stuff happens all the time where I grew up.

--Nickolas Cook