WE DON’T WATCH TV in our house. Oh, we have a television, but it’s not hooked up to cable and neither Berni nor I remember where or how to find the few local channels available locally. But we do get a lot of use out of our DVD player, watching lots of movies and television series. One recent title that I watched in the middle of a sleepless night was 10 Cloverfield Lane.
It’s a decent movie with a little psychosexual tension that kept me guessing as to where things would lead. Unfortunately, it eventually ended with a whimper due to a problem shared my many similar movie-makers.
If you haven’t seen these movies, then stop reading right here right now!
I am gong to discuss three movies: 10 Cloverfield Lane and its predecessor Cloverfield—both made under the guise of being science fiction—and a ‘monster movie’ called Dog Soldiers.
So, it’s SPOILER ALERT time: if you haven’t seen these movies, or if one of your enthusiastic but inconsiderate friends hasn’t already told you about them, then stop reading right here!
You have been warned …
How old did we have to be to realize that Godzilla was an actor in a (bad) rubber suit? 8? 10? I must have liked them as a kid because, well, I was a kid. But my memories of liking them are long gone—and I just remember always thinking they were dumb. The ‘monster’ above couldn’t frighten the residents of Sesame Street—or the audience that watches them.
These are low-budget, genre movies
Each of these movies is a ‘genre movie’: Dog Soldiers is classified as action-horror, while the Cloverfield movies are considered science fiction—at least to modern movie-makers and fans they are considered science fiction. For those of us who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s reading science fiction in magazines and books while watching ‘monster movies’ at Saturday matinees, these could also be labeled ‘monster movies.’ 1
Each of these three movies has a good script, good directing, good acting, and relatively good production qualities—especially given their budgets. The combined cost for making all three movies was a little more than $40,000,000. This is a minuscule amount at a time when the bill for making an expected blockbusters can often surpass $100,000,000.
The problem with these movies is simple: they sacrificed genuine suspense and terror for gimmicky horror.
Let me explain …
Monster, schmonster! Director Neil Marshall ruined a reasonably taut action film that could have left viewers imagination all shook up wondering what did the soldiers see—instead those viewers saw some skinny guys in tight suits with something they stole out of a University of Washington locker.
In Dog Soldiers, a group of British Army regulars are dropped into the Scottish highlands for a training mission and encounter a larger group of werewolves. The problem is that the monsters are fairly hokey (small budgets tend to do that) and ruin the otherwise suspenseful action of the story!
It was a bloody better movie when we didn’t see the actors in their werewolf suits!
Had Neil Marshall elected not to depict the werewolves at all—that is, no monsters in a monster movie—and simply shown the viewer the responses of the humans to the monsters that they are seeing and fighting, this might have become a very special movie.
Of course, that would have created a potentially bigger problem: how do you sell a monster-movie-without-monsters to the audience that pays to see low-budget monster movies? That audience tends to be younger males who like creepy creatures in their monster movies, regardless of their hokiness.
Nonetheless, if Pathé or one of the producers backed the director into editing a creatureless version of the movie, it might appeal to a different—and potentially larger—audience.
When the head from the Statue of Liberty skidded to a halt miles from its shoulders, viewers were left to wonder, “How in hell did THAT happen?!!?” Instead of allowing our imaginations to run wild, director Matt Reeves decided to show us instead and gave us an explanation that had a lot in common with Japanese monster movies of the ’50s.
Writer: Drew Goddard
Producer: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
Director: Matt Reeves
Actors: Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman
Box Office: $170,000,000
Cloverfield is a 2008 movie that begins at a party in an apartment in New York City that is disrupted by an explosion and a power outage. The movie follows six people fleeing through the chaos of the city, not knowing the cause of the chaos. The gimmick is that the entire movie was ‘found’: the cameraman starts filming at the party and doesn’t stop as the chaos and terror of the story unfolds.
Shot with a handheld camera, the dizzying run through the streets and buildings and the ignorance of the cause of what appears to be Armageddon make the first half of the movie gripping.
What is happening to New York?
The people in the story don’t know; they just have to keep running for safety.
The audience doesn’t know—they just have to watch and wonder.
Then the cause is shown: a GI-BLOODY-GANTIC monster that might as well have been from a ’50s Japanese effects shop for all its terror-dampening effect on the movie
And it just doesn’t fit the rest of the movie!
For a good part of the beginning of this movie, the possibility exists that a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has been kidnapped and is being held prisoner by potential a rapist, sadist, or murderer (John Goodman). The tension and suspense provided by the captive’s confusion, fear, and expectations of her captor’s behavior and the relatively calm demeanor of her captor and his expectations of her behavior is the best part of the movie.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Writers: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stucken, Damien Chazelle
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Lindsey Weber
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Actors: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr
Box Office: $100,000,000
10 Cloverfield Lane is the second film in the Cloverfield franchise. The film was developed from a script titled The Cellar, but under production by Bad Robot, it was turned into a spiritual successor of the 2008 film Cloverfield. The film follows a young woman who, after a car crash, wakes up in an underground bunker with two men who insist that an event has left the surface of Earth uninhabitable.
The film is presented in a third-person narrative, in contrast to its predecessor’s found-footage style.
Other humans appear at the shelter’s door wanting in, bolstering Goodman’s story that something horrendous has happened.
Since the title of the movie is 10 Cloverfield Lane, it is tied loosely into the first Cloverfield movie. And since that one was about an alien invasion, so then does this one have to be about non-human trespassers.
So, while there is a nice amount of suspense built up waiting to find out what the problem is on the outside, it dissipated—not released cathartically—when the heroine breaks free and has to outrun yet another creature from another Hollywood special effects department.
And it just doesn’t fit the rest of the movie!
It can de done: The Haunting is one of the scariest, creepiest ghost/scary movies ever made, and there’s not a monster nor a ghost to be seen. In fact, you’ll never know what was real and what was imagination. At least that’s true for the 1963 original by Robert Wise; the 1999 remake is dreck.
Monster movies without monsters
Each of the three movies above are worth watching—specially of you’re a fan of scary monster films. But each could have been a better movie without a single contribution from the monster specialists in their special effects department. In each, the supposedly scary monster dilutes the impact of the terror or suspense or anticipation that the script and the acting sets up.
They were betters movies when we had to imagine our own monsters!
Finding out that their monsters were Godzilla’s kissin’ cousins was a bringdown.
FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page was cropped from the poster for the Dog Soldiers movie. The artwork for the poster is very effective, making the movie look scarier than it is. (PS: If I was handy with manipulating images, I would have altered the shadow on the featured image to resemble Godzilla instead of a werewolf.)
1 A genre movie “follows some or all of the conventions of a particular genre, whether or not it was intentional when the movie was produced” (Wikipedia). The Wiki editors lists more than 200 genres or sub-genres, which seems beyond excessive.
2 Weirdly, in Wikipedia’s entry on Neil Marshall, Dog Soldiers is referred to as a “horror-comedy film.”
3 Dog Soldiers did not have a theatrical release in the US but heading directly to the Sci Fi Channel.