Just when you thought that pile of death-dealing demons heaped up in the bargain bin at your local Kmart couldn’t get any higher … 2014 is turning out to be yet another year of monsters at the movies.
Last week, I, Frankenstein began showing at local cinemas and Godzilla is set to be let loose — yes, again — in a matter of weeks. Indeed, from studio executives seemingly determined to reboot the unbootable franchise, the corpse of Frankenstein is scheduled to be reanimated once again in 2015, this time as a frilly-shirted drama starring Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy.
The decades-worth of monster perennials put out by Hollywood currently includes Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters (2013), Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (2012), Van Helsing (2004), the Underworld series — including Underworld Evolution (2006), Underworld Rise of the Lycans (2009) and Underworld Awakening (2012) — not to mention the lengthy catalogue of creature features that made the zombie the number one monster of the GFC.
The great thing about popcorn films is that they rarely take themselves too seriously. They are manufactured from a reliable repertoire of vampires, werewolves, witch-hunters and monster-slayers, arranged — artistically or otherwise — within plots that are so labyrinthine that they border on laughable. The action is invariably set against a CGI-animated landscape where it is relentlessly black, overcast or raining, with lots of ritualistic pec flexing, and villains whose eyes reliably pop with menace.
Take the recently-released I, Frankenstein, which film critics internationally have been vying to rate as the worst movie of 2014 so far – worse even, they say, than Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, which would indeed make it one of the worst horror action movies ever made.
Then again, a thoroughly rotten rating often qualifies a film for cult status. It can mask the presence of a lively fan base, and a guaranteed economic afterlife as sequels and prequels are generated for the pay-on-demand video market.
These films are not made for the critics, and so artistry doesn’t count.
The Underworld series, for example, relentlessly defied the critics’ direst predictions, going on to net almost half a billion dollars worldwide.
There are more than 100 film adaptations of Frankenstein, including telemovies and DVDs. Of these, Boris Karloff’s classic rendition is by far the most enduring, having been rendered respectable by the portrayal of its director James Whale in the Oscar-winning God and Monsters (1998). Like the classic Hollywood B-grades, I Frankenstein’s producers were not content with the original story (though there is a hilarious “special thanks” to Mary Shelley at the end of the credits).
Instead, I, Frankenstein’s monster returns from the frozen north to find himself embroiled in an ancient war between suited-up Demons and CGI-animated Gargoyles, who spout quantities of Biblically-themed dialogue in hardboiled American accents.
Truthfully, the film shambles along at a corpse-like pace that will make it difficult for producers to recoup its US$65 million budget. It contains one bleakly comic scene featuring the Holy Water torture of demons dressed in Wall Street suits.
It also features a scene in which the demon king attempts to defy the laws of God and Nature by taking possession of an underground army of soulless souls in the manner of a recycled battery charger — with LED displays, flashing numbers — and this alone ought to guarantee the film cult status (up there with Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) or Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, in which aliens come to Earth to steal the go-go dancers).
One thing that is actually fascinating about the reboot is that it is one of the few attempts to establish a sympathetic context for the monster. Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein (1994) starring Robert De Niro was an innovation on the pop cultural canon. It discarded the flat-topped head and neck bolts for a fleshy-faced semblance of a human being.
Like Shelley’s original monster, Branagh’s monster was given the power of speech, though this did not prevent him from turning thoroughly evil and tearing out the still beating heart of Helena Bonham Carter.
But in this latest remaking of Frankenstein, the monster is no longer evil. He not only speaks (albeit gratingly), but also finds he has a soul. In a strange sense, this takes the franchise right back to the proletarian monster that featured in Shelley’s original 1815 version. Or, to translate it into contemporary Australian cant, we empathise with Frankenstein when he turns out to be a “bogan” with painted on scars.
Godzilla, due to be released on May 15, is a monster movie of a different stamp. Godzilla is pop culture’s grandest symbol of the nuclear apocalypse and director Gareth Edwards is demanding that his film be taken “very seriously”.
In the original Godzilla (1954) from Toho studios, the ancient mutant reptile was roused from the ocean floor and rendered radioactive by Japanese H-bomb tests. He promptly reduces Tokyo to rubble and ash in a series of spectacular scenes, but grows increasingly sympathetic as the rampage continues.
Godzilla ceases to be an enemy, and becomes a force of destiny.
For western audiences, the resonance of the original Godzilla tends to reside in the fact that the evil “them” it portrays was actually “us”. But there was another subtext available for post-second-world-war audiences — the suggestion that the hell wreaked by Godzilla was the spirit of Japanese aggression turned, like fate, against itself.
Searching for an allegory for the new Godzilla shouldn’t be too difficult with so many contemporary apocalyptic scenarios available. What is interesting is that the latest Godzilla will wreck havoc on the United States. Edwards has also confirmed that he will be a “good guy”. Hence, the political mythos that the film inhabits may indeed make the Godzilla “seriously” interesting viewing.
On old maps, cartographers inscribed uncharted regions with the legend, “Here Be Monsters”. The fanciful beasts inscribed below conjured up a powerful sense of the fear of the unknown.
But there are other kinds of monsters.
Monsters that burst across television screens in carnival moments – as horrifying or merely cheesy disruptions of everyday routine existence. Monsters have a startling capacity for revolt. Audiences derive pleasure from watching the havoc they wreak upon authority. They bring low what high culture has elevated and — for a fleeting moment, maybe — give us a sense of release from the things that repress us.
This sense of uplift is no doubt at least partly illusory. The culture industries capitalise heavily on these moments. It might be more accurate to argue that they repackage our fears and anxieties as monsters.
Then sell the spectacle of liberation back to us for A$19 a ticket.