Back before Al Gore began promoting global warming initiatives and the phrase “being green” simply meant that you were inexperienced, Hollywood had already tapped into the notion that the human race, for all of its arrogance, is still at the whim of nature. As pollution and environmental issues became more of a concern, some clever horror writers decided to ask a very poignant question: what would happen if nature decided to fight back? What would our chances be if the seemingly innocent creatures we take for granted during our everyday lives suddenly struck at us via an organized unit (e.g. THE BIRDS)? Thus the sub genre of “eco-horror” was born and although these films were never as much fun as the giant atomic beasts abundant in the 1950’s, normal sized animals still made for effective antagonists.
Man vs nature films were not always fueled by politics nor social agendas. Lucky for Hollywood, there are plenty of creatures on this planet whose very existence will illicit fear, whether rational or not. By tapping into this innate phobia that we humans still carry from our cave dwelling days, Hollywood need only present the material in a credible manner for it to be effective. This was never more the case as in JAWS which I’m sure we can all agree is the ultimate man vs nature flick, though being a great deal more than simply “credible.” Though JAWS is certainly the exception, and not the rule, there are still some obscure entries worthy of an honorable mention. So, for those of us who can’t get enough of those wonderful National Geographic and Discovery Channel documentaries that depict the less “Disney” side of nature, let’s delve into some entertaining examples from the “man vs nature” genre.
KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS is one of the best representations of man vs. nature films. This movie takes a very real problem (the overuse of pesticides) and exploits it to the hilt. In this story, tarantulas go on the rampage because all of their normal food, common insects, have been wiped out by the use of pesticides. With no natural food sources left, the large spiders adapt and move onto bigger prey; livestock, dogs…. and people! Pesticides have always done more harm than good…not only does it kill beneficial insects and arachnids but also aids the actual pests in building up a resistance. The result of which is the need for newer and stronger pesticides. This film also highlights another motif of this sub genre; the ignorance of those with power. When confronted with the problem and even after it is explained that the issue is the result of the use of pesticides, what does they mayor do? Orders the use of stronger pesticides, of course! It was nice to see that real spiders were used in this film and not poorly constructed puppets or superimposed tarantulas, making them look larger (with respect to Bert I. Gordon). The only downfall is that, contrary to reports from the director, many tarantulas were harmed or killed in the production of this movie. They were run over by cars, visibly squashed under peoples’ feet, had boiling water poured on them and some were even dropped from great heights, breaking their legs. I don’t think the ASPCA would tolerate a film such as this today, and rightfully so. This movie also exploits the natural fear humans have of spiders (especially the largest of the species) and the audience will, no doubt, find this movie even creepier than average. Especially since everyone pretty much comes in contact with these beasties during the course of the film. If you can get past the obvious little care given to the tarantulas themselves, this is a very entertaining movie and highly recommended.
ANTS is another film where pesticides are the cause of the outbreak. Another movie made in the 70’s, at a time when pesticide concerns were running rampant, this movie features another one of nature’s little “monsters”…the ant. The title creatures are infected with pesticides and, as a result, are stronger and more aggressive. Interestingly enough, the aggressive characteristics of the ants in this movie are actually found in nature via the army ant. Ants are a communal species and, just as in army ants, the ants depicted in this film attack in large numbers. This voracious species is unleashed as result of man disrupting their underground lair due to construction. A lakeside resort in the area (appropriately named Lakeside Manor) though not open to the public, hosts a gathering of elite guests and this is where the story takes place. Once again real ants are used and it does make your skin crawl to see the actors and actresses covered with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ants at a time. This is another fun entry in the man vs. nature genre, though it does drag at times. The film also brags as being the film debut of Suzanne Somers, though it is sad that this remains its most prolific selling point.
DAY OF THE ANIMALS – Most of us remember the recently deceased Lesilie Neilson in his comedic roles (NAKED GUN, DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT, REPOSSESSED, etc). If, however, you’re looking to explore the darker side of his acting range, check out DAY OF THE ANIMALS. Here it is not just a matter of any single species wreaking havoc, it’s an all out war between man and beast.I give the film kudos for illustrating the importance of the Ozone years before it became an 1980’s catch phrase. Here the sun’s deadly rays don’t merely incite skin cancer, but a forest full of vengeful animals which include mountain lions, grizzly bears, raptor birds, and venomous snakes! Humans aren’t immune to the dilemma as Neilson’s character gets more and more vicious as the movie unfolds. He is part of the movies main victims, a group of hikers who are stuck in the forest before a quarantine of the area has been instituted. Not a bad film and certainly one that illustrates just how much trouble a person can find themselves treading away from civilization.
SLUGS deals with one another problem highlighted in the 80’s…toxic waste! This time the creatures-on-the-loose are over-sized and very slimy slugs! When toxic waste gets into the water system these slugs mutate into pack-hunting killers. Slugs that you find in your backyard are gross enough, but now they bite too! This movie features some great gore and in one of the most disturbing scenes, a fully nude woman, after having sex, gets out of bed only to slip on the marauding slugs that have completely covered the floor. As she rolls around on the floor in pain, the slugs adhere to her and slowly devour her. Sick stuff but you really have to love it!
SQUIRM is a 1970’s film that surprisingly doesn’t deal with pesticides or any chemical issue. Here it is electricity that is the culprit! This story takes place in Fly Creek, GA and during a really bad electrical storm, power lines are knocked down shooting electricity into the wet ground. This results in making the local earthworm population aggressive and downright deadly! Utilizing real and fake worms in huge numbers not spells disaster for the community, it also raises the “creep out” quotient considerably. In one memorable scene, special makeup effects artist Rick Baker shines as one unfortunate character, Roger, falls out of his boat, suddenly bursting out the water with worms burrowing into his face. The effect perfectly captures what it would look like when something burrows under the skin and how are friends in the garden should never be taken for granted. This is another one of those fun, late night horror films and I really enjoy it!
FROGS – Like DAY OF THE ANIMALS, FROGS utilizes all the animals in their respective ecosystem to extol its vengeance on mankind. This film also revolves around the Fourth of July holiday as JAWS would three years later. A group of brats descend upon their family’s southern estate to pay homage to their rich patriarch, Jason Crockett (played by Ray Milland). It isn’t love that drives them as Jason is an irascible old coot whom they all wish would kick the bucket thereby leaving them his considerable cash! Instead of admiring the local wildlife, Jason sends his minions to continuously pump pesticides around the area. While successfully killing many of the animals, there is a great deal more alive and out for blood. As amphibians, arachnids, and reptiles unite against the common threat, the Crockett clan may find their wishes come true, though at the cost of their own lives as well! This is a great afternoon thriller that effectively sends its message; don’t mess with Mother Nature!
There are many more great examples of the man vs nature genre and many might very well make it into future blogs (unless they were produced by the Scy Fy Channel in which case you can FORGET IT!). For now, however, the above films will not only give you a pretty good sampling of these, but will also prevent you from being accused of “species-ism” by allowing many different animals an equal shot at man. The next time you’re driving down the freeway, and a fresh white stream of bird feces lands on your window, be grateful that’s where the onslaught ends…
David Albaugh & Dave Fuentes~