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February 27, 2009

the humanity of monsters

by sven at 11:23 am

[Some email friends are currently discussing drama and monsters. I wrote this little essay in response. It seemed worth sharing with a larger audience.]

"How about creature movies based entirely on conflict of character?"

I think you're onto something.

When I think about the monster stories I like best, they're the ones where the monster is filled with humanity. John Gardner's Grendel: Beowulf told from the monster's point of view. H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness: the final realization is that the monsters are simply scientists clothed in non-human bodies -- and that they were themselves killed by something worse. Rachel Ingalls' Mrs. Caliban: a depressed housewife may or may not be having an affair with an 8-foot-tall frog man.

I think most of the successful monsters of the past 100 years have had humanity at their core. Werewolves, vampires, zombies, ghosts, Frankenstein's monster... A werewolf is a person with an explosive temper who transforms physically (much like the Incredible Hulk). A vampire is a person who seems charming, but drains you of your life. [Both vampires and werewolves seem to me to be cautionary tales for young women about men who are a bad husband material.] Zombies embody that feeling on Monday morning when you haven't had coffee yet: am I alive or am I dead? Ghosts are the frightening wish-fulfillment of having a dead loved one come back from beyond the grave. I haven't read it myself, but if I recall correctly, Frankenstein's monster ultimately confronts his creator and asks why he was created; man speaking to God.

Giant monster films tap into the same principles, but simply work on a larger scale. Rather than being the demons of interpersonal relationships or of one's own soul, they are metaphors for a society's demons. Godzilla being a metaphor for atomic energy is the classic example. King Kong, when you try to do a literary reading, is pretty obviously (in my opinion) an allegory about animalistic male libido being brought into conflict with civilization, and the needs of civilization (the city on the macro level, marriage on the micro level) having to win out.

Granted, most giant monster films are just about the rampage, and due to this failing fall short of the best of the monster films. Cloverfield was Godzilla + Sept 11 + Blair Witch Project cinematography... Pretty, but lacking originality or depth. Similarly, in human-scale monster films, there hasn't been a lot that's new and interesting lately: a bevy of psycho-killer films such as Saw... The defining human trait of the monsters in these films is "sadism" -- but because the filmmakers focus on the inhumanity of the crimes rather than the humanity, there's less for us to emotionally latch onto. Remember, with a character like the wolfman, we feel some pity for the man who wants to control his animal side but is unable to. Frankenstein's monster: pity. Kong: pity.

[There's also a hive-mind version of the sadistic psycho-killer... Monsters that act like a pack of wild dogs. Think of the zombies in I Am Legend. Sure, we had a slightly new origin story -- but all you can really say about the essence of the monsters is that they're mean and they don't stop when you protest. Sadism again. Just transposed onto pack animals.]

So, human-scale monsters and giant monsters are two important categories to consider, dramatically-speaking. One more to to look at is monsters as an expression of a hostile environment. Dinosaur films tend to be like this. In King Kong and Planet of the Dinosaurs and the like, the dinosaur-monsters don't tend to have a lot of individual personality -- because the point is just that the place where our explorers have landed is itself a monster. Films like this function much like disaster films do. Think about The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno. We put a large cast through a series of minor deadly incidents and see who comes out the other side. Same thing when we first arrive on Skull Island.

Kong in some ways is two movies. A disaster film when we're on Skull Island... Who among the explorers will get out alive? And then when we get to the city, a sort of magic realist expression of Libido vs. Civilization. ...Yet, that's if we focus on Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow as the film's protagonists. An argument could be made that while they are our POV characters, it's actually Kong himself who's the main character of the story...

Peter Jackson amped up this angle a bit by having Ann do cartwheels for Kong on Skull island, and then go sliding on the ice skating pond in New York... But it's there in the original version too... When Kong has Ann in his cave, just before a snake goes after her, Kong is picking a flower to give to her. See, Kong is like the traditional "caveman" male who is valuable when his job is to simply to protect (and possess) his mate -- but this form of brute manhood can no longer be permissible in modern society. Kong is a tragic figure because he can't keep up with the times.

So anyway... Yeah, I think monsters almost always work best when you can find their core of humanity and operate from that. And the enduring monsters always have some sort of metaphorical value, where they embody a demon of the human spirit.

* * *

It's probably also worth pointing out that most monsters have a sort of wish-fulfillment value, too. Wouldn't it be neat to be ten stories tall for a little while? Or if when you were angry, your entire body could transform to truly reflect how you're feeling? There's a commonality here with superheroes. I mentioned the Incredible Hulk earlier. How is he really different from a werewolf? Superman, Invisible Girl, the Human Torch... These sorts of powers are fairly primal in terms of wish-fulfillment... So I guess I'll end this little foray with a rhetorical question: What makes a monster different from a Super Villain?

A Super Villain, the antithesis of a Super Hero, has to have some sort of special power... And so does a creature from a monster film. Is the only difference that monsters are clothed in animal bodies rather than human bodies? Are the classic vampire, werewolf, zombie, creature-from-the-black-lagoon type monsters a sort of half-way point: villains that are half-human, half-animal? [Vampire=bat-man, werewolf=wolf-man, zombie=dead/alive man, creature=fish-man...]

When you get down to it, if you're willing to look at monsters as human souls that merely have (a) an unusual appearance, and (b) a super power of some sort, then what we've arrived at is the cast of the Uncanny X-Men. Whether we're dealing with a heroic mutant or a villainous monster is simply a matter of how the character chooses to act, based on what their personal needs and desires are...

Which brings us full circle back to your original idea: "How about creature movies based entirely on conflict of character?"

posted by sven | February 27, 2009 11:23 AM | categories: writing