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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Animal Sanctuary: Not Cute. Some Fluffy.

On Christmas Eve, 1896, Georges Méliès created the horror film with ‘Le Manoir du diable’. Everything about early genre films was born here, the gothic castle, witches, Christianity overcoming Satan etc etc. It also touched on an issue that would become a staple of the horror genre in its later period, with it’s depiction of an animal, in this case a bat, turned into an evil, threatening force.

Whereas in early horror films the animal itself was not the threat, as with ‘Le Manoir du diable’ the threat comes once the bat has transformed into the legendary Mephistopheles of the ‘Faust’ tale. But as time progressed and the 50’s brought with it a wave of science-based disaster-horror films featuring giant scientific experiments gone wrong, it became apparent that the creatures of yore were no longer frightening to the majority of moviegoers.

Then came Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ in 1960 and it all changed. No longer was the ‘unbelievable’ scary for audiences. The fear of ‘us’ became the ultimate fear for audiences as cemented by George A. Romero’s legendary ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in 1968, and remains so to this day. There was also another milestone during this period from Hitchcock, ‘The Birds’ in 1963. Not only did we have to be afraid of those around us, but of other creatures: creatures as seemingly unthreatening as seagulls became potential harbingers of doom … and they wouldn’t be the last.

Since those menacing seagulls et al attacked, filmmakers have upped the anti from movie to movie. Exploitation cinema was also there to fill the audience’s desire for more animals running amok with a staggering variation of animals loosing their marbles, from 1972’s ‘Frogs’ from George McCowan; which sees a household being terrorised by not just the titular amphibians but also lizards, birds and more surreally butterflies! And who could forget William F. Claxton’s 1972 carnivorous killer rabbits epic ‘Night of the Lepus’?

Hell, the modern Hollywood blockbuster was born from this pandemic with Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ in 1975; changing the movie industry forever and shaping it into what we know it as today, cheers Steve! Of course the film industry are always keen to cash-in on success and ‘Jaws’ was no different. All kinds of fish have lost their marbles in filmland, such as killer whales in 1977’s ‘Orca’, octopus in the same years ‘Tentacles’ and barracudas in err… ‘Barracuda’ from Harry Kerwin in1978!

Now, it’s all good and well to find ‘inspiration’ in another movie, but certain filmmakers, well… certain Italian filmmakers, felt that imitation was indeed the sincerest form of hackery and actually ripped ‘Jaws’ off entirely. The father of the ‘Inglorious Basterds’ himself, Enzo G. Castellari was the first inline with 1980’s ‘Great White’ which managed to reframe from ‘referencing’ whole lines of dialogue and even managed to top ‘Jaws 2’ highlight set-piece, involving the shark attacking a helicopter. It was later ‘referenced’ itself by trash cinema icon Bruno Mattei in…

1995’s ‘Cruel Jaws’. Truly a film that needs seeing to be believed! Not only does it rip lines of dialogue straight from Spielberg’s blockbuster, but it also lifts actual footage from fellow rip-offs ‘Great White’ and Joe D’Amato’s lazy 1989 effort ‘Deep Blood’! It’ll never see the light of day in the UK or US, but it can be had for those willing to risk their sanity.

Marine life, Birds, rabbits, butterflies and lizards were just the tip of the iceberg though as audiences have been terrified by electrically juiced up bloodworms in Jeff Lieberman’s grossly effective 1976 outing ‘Squirm’. The same year also saw cult legend Christopher George fending off an 18-foot man-eating bear in, equally cult-worthy, William Girdler’s ‘Grizzly’.

George and Girdler re-teamed in 1977 for ‘Day of the Animals’ which sees the depleted O-zone layer causing a chemical shift in animal life. Animals such as mountain lions, black bears, German shepherds, and birds of prey all lose the plot. Also that year, William Shatner had to defend a small Arizonan town from thousands of hungry tarantulas in John "Bud" Cardos’ epic ‘Kingdom of Spiders’.

1978 saw the last worthwhile forays into the Nature Amok subgenre, with Joe Dante’s horror-comedy ‘Piranha’, capturing the absurdity of the genre to perfection while Australian, Colin Eggleston created a genre masterpiece with ‘Long Weekend’. His tale of a reckless couple whose selfish treatment of their surroundings catches up with them in the most frightening of ways remains an under-looked genre film to this day.

From there the subgenre dwindled with only a few worthwhile titles finding their way to the screen. Roger Corman produced 1979 effort ‘Up From the Depths’ from Charles B. Griffith is a guilty pleasured cheese-fest featuring a killer shark-like critter that will cause many a laugh. As will James Cameron’s (yes, him) ‘Piranha II: The Spawning’ from 1981. An Itlaian-American co-production starring the incomparable Lance Henriksen is as entertaining as it is improbably – flying Piranha?!

1982 saw James Herbert’s novel, ‘The Rats’ transferred into ‘Deadly Eyes’ by ‘Enter the Dragon’ and ‘Black Belt Jones’ director Robert Clouse. Giant killer rats, the produce of contaminated grain (!) go on a rampage in Canada. This Golden Harvest production would be one of the last guilty pleasures of the Nature Amok subgenre, that seemingly died out… until recently.

As re-make fever continues to fester in the horror community, Nature Amok titles have suffered the same fate as some of the horror genre staples like ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’, they’ve been… re-imagined, for a whole new generation. With the recent release of Alexandre Aja’s re-make of ‘Piranha’ scaring up big bucks at the box-office, maybe we’ll see more re-imaginings of these guilty pleasure?

But fret not hardened horror fans, original Nature Amok titles are still being produced, and just like the bygone era that birthed them; they remain as underappreciated now as they did then, Carter Smith’s 2008 shocker ‘The Ruins’ being one such title. There’s also Carlos Brooks 2010 feature ‘Burning Bright’ which is currently creating buzz within the horror community.

After nearly 50 years worth of cinematic animal madness, the genre is long overdue a fresh take and ‘Burning Bright’ is just that. Here we have an animal most people wouldn’t care to bump in to, a Bengal tiger, not only is it already known as a prestigious man-eater, but this tiger hasn’t been fed in days! Enter a caring sister and her autistic brother, locked in their waste-of-space step-fathers house which just happens to have been boarded up for an incoming hurricane, and unleash the tiger and watch the fun and games unfold.

Mashing the Nature Amok subgenre with the Home Invasion subgenre, made famous by the likes of Bob Clark’s 1974 seminal ‘Black Christmas’, Robert A Endelson’s 1977 grindhouse classic ‘Fight for your Life’ and Michele Heneke’s 1997 arthouse wonder ‘Funny Games’ is a bold and ingenious realisation. It’s also one that pays off and creates a truly original horror movie in a genre awash with re-imaginings and sequels.

Burning Bright’ has just been premiered at Filmfour’s celebrated Frightfest and makes its DVD debut courtesy of Momentum Pictures on September 6th.

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