Tremors: It opens its mouth and from the worm come out more worms with mouths… A kid must have designed this!
Stan Winston saved the predator from being an orange thing interpreted by Van Damme
Resident Evil 6: What am I looking at? Is there a monster in there?
If you entered a workshop with H.R. Giger you could find marvellous horrors such as this.
The new Godzilla, fat and big: cool! His adversaries, on the other hand…
Víctor Navarro Remesal
What’s happened to monsters in movies? They’ve gone from ugly to, like Moe in The Simpsons, ugly-ugly. This might sound too solemn, but contemporary monsters are far from charismatic. I’m sorry, Super 8, Cloverfield: you tried to sell us, teenagers in our thirties, your super expensive action figures for our shelves, but we didn’t buy that. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but I won’t deny that 21st century monsters, in general (there are glorious exceptions such as The Host or Pacific Rim), aren’t memorable, aren’t iconic, don’t create any phobias. Let’s see why.
Recent Jurassic World makes a clever meta-commentary about the insensitiveness of the audience that we could take even further: with all possible resources at hand, a macro-industry has the opportunity to create the final dinosaur and throws it away by creating the dullest creature ever, a giant raptor with more teeth and spikes. The thing is so bad, that in order to render the movie more interesting they get the old T. Rex from two decades ago literally out of her cage.
Easy answers to why things might have turned out like that are that Hollywood doesn’t like new ideas and that CGI has brought about an indiscriminate aesthetic of excess. Both are true but need further development: on the one hand, the best creatures, except on rare occasions (Alien, Predator), have never been a mainstream thing. They’re usually born within unpretentious underground movies. How many critics took seriously The Blob, the ugly alien in It!, The Terror From Beyond Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon or the big worms in Tremors? Classic B movies are full of rubber and cardboard madness and that’s why we like them. Monsters are, after all, a joy to the imagination (more Troma than Jaws) and a childhood sublimation of anything sick. In our century we have remarkable instances of it in the margins, like Feast, Grabbers or Slither. The problem is that what’s marginal has lost its power to penetrate popular culture and impress the industry. Insane monstrosities are a niche thing.
On the other hand, some CGI-created creatures (new Godzilla, blind beasts in Pitch Black) are quite a marvel. If virtuality was the problem, then video games wouldn’t have surpassed cinema when it comes to the creation of icons like it’s already done: everything on them is digital, and still, there you have the series of scientific horrors of Resident Evil, the fleshy phantoms of Silent Hill, the mutilation terrors of Dead Space or the successful zombie reformulation of The Last of Us.
The problem, thus, is not technique itself but its abuse. The good thing about a handmade creature is that it needs to be carefully designed and built step by step. There’s time to make its image better and better until something unique is achieved. With the new production processes, things are done because they can be done, and creators abuse CGI’s possibilities of constant retouching (“we can fix this in post-production”), recycling and even complete substitution if something goes wrong. Bigger, noisier, uglier, because we can: it’s happened with Jurassic World and also with The Thing‘s remake or with Resident Evil 6. Their creatures lack a silhouette, a centre of visual attention, dominant elements; they’re just a bunch of flesh and teeth that seek to occupy the screen with a badly-devised horror vacui.
Lately we’re escaping this a bit thanks to the old belief that the less you see the monster, the scarier it becomes. Indeed, it’s true that it works better if it’s merely suggested and we’re left to complete it ourselves, but without a good visual and sound design (monsters are a howl before they are an image), hiding the monster is a downer. Was it truly necessary to play things down with Godzilla so much, Gareth Edwards? It’s a daikaiju, a giant monster, and daikaijus are pure celebratory joy, pure childish excess and adult catharsis. They represent nature out of control and, as such, our own smallness. A tsunami can’t be hidden. Excess doesn’t only last while on screen: The Last of Us’ clickers still haunt me any time I see them, whereas I never miss the fat bat in Cloverfield.
Excess goes against some of the principles that make a great monster, because it makes it too much image but devoid of concept, and a great monster always attacks our minds first. It’s an image and an idea. A great creature needs to appear as something alien to our reality and, at the same time, seem plausible (even Lovecraft’s nightmares are impossible to imagine, they’re mere presence). The monster needs to be an aberration, but also have something in common with us, with our world; its biology and physiology need to be believable. We have to know when exactly things went wrong and when the sleep of reason produced them. And, above all, a good old creature has to surpass our reality while it refers to the terrors already present in it.
A monster that doesn’t offer a commentary on human condition is but an action figure. Terry Gilliam says that a good story has to contain an exact balance between fantasy and reality; we could say the same about a good monster. Many creatures created nowadays conceptually fail because they forget what I’m going to call the Buddhist Theory of the Monster: in Buddhism, suffering comes from the three elephants in the room we never want to talk about, old age, sickness and death. Monsters we never forget about are the ones able to crystalize the terror we feel for those three concepts: I think about Cronenberg’s fly, Giger’s alien (isn’t sex death’s sticky reversal?), the dismembering, deformity and twisted Eros in Silent Hill 2, the tumours of The Last of Us, that arctic thing substituting us, those parasite crabs in Half-life that cancel us and steal our identities. The best monster isn’t an incarnation of evil (that’s the job of psychokillers and the like), but of suffering. The best monsters take our fear of suffering and encapsulate it in an iconic and recognizable visual design for us to place on our shelves and look, everyday, at the truly ugly (and not ugly-ugly) side to life.
The Last of Us: Zombies with horrible face tumours: death and sickness are chasing us.
Cloverfield: Not even the world’s best statue compensates this lack of charisma.
Godzilla beating up a mutant carnivorous plant. All in order.
Tod Browning would approve of this kind of Buddhist ghost in Silent Hill 4: The Room.