Scary stories: Monsters vs. Creatures

Okay, so last October, I committed myself to what I've taken to calling a month-long Scare-A-Thon. It was an interesting experience, and watching that many scary, creepy, and sometimes disgusting movies all in a row wasn't necessarily the most fun I've had.

This year, I'd still like to cover a number of Halloween themed movies, but I'm going to take a slightly different tack. I've chosen three monster movie franchises (or two and a half depending on how you count them) and, throughout the month, I plan to cover each movie individually in production order.

These movie series are:

  • Alien
  • Predator
  • Alien vs. Predator

Mainly I've chosen these series because they are very well known and can be used to illustrate quite a variety of approaches to the stories they tell.

As part of my attempt, I've decided to start with a discussion of monster movies themselves. Last year I talked about scary movies in general. But monster movies are both a subset and a disconnected genre entirely.

They're also rather fascinating to me.

(I'll just state right now that this hub has several spoilers for many movies.)

What makes a monster monstrous?

What exactly is a monster? I'm not talking about the dictionary definition, though it's helpful. I'm talking from a story-telling standpoint.

For a reader or watcher of monster stories, what exactly is it that makes a creature or person a monster?

You can decide your own definition if you want. I can't stop you. And maybe the distinction doesn't really matter all that much, but I actually find it kind of fascinating to think about.

First off, in general, we should all be able to agree that being a "monster" seems to imply some level of danger. Mostly it's physical danger, but it could just as well be a more psychological danger.

But is a lion a monster?

In most cases, we would probably not use the term "monster" to describe a lion, though we all know that even the "tame" ones are still quite dangerous.

The big difference? We know and understand lions. You may not have personally seen or dealt with one, but you can look up on the interpedia and get scads of information regarding hunting habits, typical habitats and what to do if you see one in the wild. (I believe "Be somewhere else" is probably at the top of the advice list.)

So a lack of familiarity with the creature could easily be seen as a part of what makes an animal a monster.

But I would actually refer to Jaws as a monster movie.

Sharks, like lions, are pretty well known to us. They've been around for at least the past thirty years. (I can't remember anything any further back so I'm not sure beyond that.) You can check online and find plenty to understand how sharks act and live. So how does Jaws overcome this familiarity to become a monster movie?

Because we don't understand this particular shark.

It's not a typical shark and it isn't acting like one. This brings uncertainty and unfamiliarity back into the mix.

Dot dot dot

But lack of familiarity doesn't automatically make it a monster.

ET is not a monster but the aliens from War of the Worlds are. Jar Jar Binks is a monstrosity, not a monster. There are tons of alien movies where the question is asked whether these visitors are friends or not. How that question is answered may help determine whether the monster label is appropriate.

But the aliens from Mars Attacks don't exactly feel like monsters. They're dangerous. They're unusual. They're unfamiliar to us. But they're also intelligent and a bit ridiculous.

You could call them monsters, but it feels a bit off.

Then there are shows like Farscape where every episode introduces a new unfamiliar, completely alien creature who may or may not be dangerous. Yet, for the most part, even the dangerous ones aren't so much monsters as enemies.

Does a monster have to be a creature?

Now, obviously when a question is asked like that, you know what they're getting at. So let's just make our point, shall we?

First off, there's the zombie. Technically zombies are no longer human and can now be called a creature. A common tactic, in fact, for scaring an audience, is to take something familiar and tweak it to something else. Zombies fit that bill quite nicely.

But have you noticed the trend in modern films to try to come up with a pseudo-science explanation to explain how these people became zombies? Usually (as in Resident Evil) it's some kind of virus. This actually makes the zombie feel less terrifying to me in some ways.

I'm not generally a fan of zombies, but when I watched the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead (I've been meaning to get around to the original) it was quite eery and effective. My mind kept trying to understand where these creatures came from. What had happened to them and how anyone could make sure it never happened to themselves. The lack of answers was quite terrifying.

Resident Evil, on the other hand, while fun to experience, doesn't scare me like that. It's mostly a high-octane action flick with cool special effects and people who are acting like zombies.

But what about more human characters?

Would you call Hannibal Lecter a monster?

I mean from a story telling perspective.

We understand humans. We even have loads of books to understand killers, serial killers, mental abnormalities that might make one lose all respect for life, all kinds of things that go into what makes Hannibal what he is.

But we don't have any special insight specifically into his mind. We don't know what he's thinking or specifically how he thinks. You may be able to use psychobabble to explain his actions after the fact, but you can never predict what someone like that will do next.

So monsters can be mindless killing machines like Jaws, or intelligent, motivated humans like Hannibal. They are usually dangerous, but often need something more to actually push them into that "monster" status.

But what about Frankenstein's monster? I'm talking about the one in the 1931 movie with Boris Karloff. The one that has defined how everyone pictures the monster for over 80 years.

Sure, he's called a monster, but what exactly is he?

He's dangerous, but not malicious. He's unknown, but innocent. He's the form of man without his rational thought. Is he truly a monster or simply an unknown quantity?

There are arguments both ways.

So what's your point?

Here's the point I'm trying to get at.

Name a popular movie monster that doesn't have at least two movies to their name. I'm sure there's some, but as I write this, I'm coming up blank.

Maybe the Cloverfield monster, but that's only been out since 2008 and there's reported to be a sequel in the works with release date TBA.

So popular movie monsters would appear to breed franchises.

But if a key element of monsters is unfamiliarity, I think the franchise mentality actually works against the monster movie.

In many ways, Alien has become the prototypical monster movie franchise. The first one came out in 1979 and scared the pants off of the audience. Then in 1986, James Cameron came out with Aliens, but since we'd already seen how the alien hides and hunts, Cameron gave us a swarm of them, and added the unknown element of the Queen.

Then 1992's Alien 3 came out and went back to the one-alien-hiding-in-the-shadows format of the first movie, and while moments work and they can startle us and make us jump, the true dread wasn't as strong as before.

Then Alien Ressurection came out and added the bizarre to the aliens and we got a shot of an albino climbing out of a gelatin medicine ball. Again, they could startle us, they could gross us out, but it just wasn't as scary. We know these aliens better than we did the first time and, while still dangerous, they don't send our minds reeling the way they once did.

Granted, movies 3 and 4 of that series had other problems of their own that didn't exactly help, but the alien creature itself was slowly becoming, from a storytelling standpoint, less of a "monster" and more of a "dangerous creature".

But the worst offender would have to be Tremors.

The first one is okay. Not the best monster movie, but a monster movie nonetheless.

Then the second movie comes out and shows us a new step in the life cycle of the Grabboids of the first movie. A new, two legged creature that can chase you above ground and see your body heat: the Shrieker.

The third movie saw those same shriekers metamorphose into a creature that can fly by launching itself with an explosive blast from behind like bombardier beetles on steroids.

In the fourth installment we get to see baby, infant, and juvenile grabboids attack a town taken out of Back to the Future 3. With that, we've pretty much come full circle and have now seen the entire life-cycle of these creatures.

And they're no longer monster movies. They can be fun if you're in the right mood. The series as a whole seems to know they're more about fun than scares, which is fine.

And every time they add a new element to the life cycle, we're left wondering what to expect and a little afraid of what it could be. But only for a little while.

They've simply become something other than monsters.

At the end of the third movie, we even find that the town has learned to live with one of the grabboids as a permanent resident. They actually found it preferable to dealing with a young business twerp who wanted to start developing in the valley.

In that instance, which one are we to assume is the monster?

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