by Heath Holland
Ah, monsters! It’s true that the month of October wouldn’t be the same without them, but it would be awfully hard to celebrate Junesploitation without all the creatures, the freaks, the things that crawl out of the sewers…and that’s just the producers! The fact is, monsters and exploitation cinema belong together. Nothing scares us out of our wits like the creepy crawlies under the bed, and no one is better and reminding us of this than exploitation filmmakers. And when it comes to choosing which monster movie(s) you want to watch during Junesploitation, there’s plenty of poison from which to pick. So this column is a tribute to all the monsters in filmland and the shivers they send down my spine.
You scared of bugs? There’s a monster movie for you. I’ve always been partial to the insect monsters of classic sci-fi and horror. Back in the 1950s there was an endless parade of giant ants, spiders, and anything else that scurries down the bathroom drain when the light comes on the middle of the night. That’s why we have movies like 1954’s Them!, or 1955’s Tarantula!. We get later variations on a theme with Arachnophobia, reminding us that icky never goes away. Then you’ve got your weird subterranean variety of monster; my favorite from this category has always been the tentacled worm monsters from Tremors, but I have an appreciation for the monsters in movies like The Cave and especially The Descent, which throws a human element into the mix.
One thing is for certain. We can’t talk about this subgenre of monster exploitation film without talking about the granddaddy of them all, Godzilla, and I don’t mean the two American films. A couple of years ago I actually set out to watch every movie starring Godzilla that has ever been made—roughly 30 movies in total. I chronicled the experience with summaries and my reactions to each film for this site in three separate columns, and I gotta tell you that it was awesome and exhausting, but that I don’t regret it at all. The Japanese Godzilla films are so wildly varied and off the wall that it never led to boredom; on the contrary, Godzilla himself actually becomes some sort of weird throughline for the films while the movies themselves are anchored by different human characters, each with their own unique challenges and circumstances. Sometimes Godzilla wouldn’t even show up until halfway through the movie and it was almost like the filmmakers felt like they had to work him in. There will probably never be another monster like Godzilla, so loaded with subtext from his devastating origins, but eventually embraced by a whole culture. If you watch any number of the films that feature the terrible lizard, you’re bound to eventually grow very protective of him. He’s more than a guy in a rubber suit. He’s a symbol. Like Batman, but with atomic breath.
Monster movies just kill it every time. There’s John Carpenter’s The Thing, arguably one of the greatest monster movies of all time. There’s Ridley Scott’s Alien and its sequels, or the Predator flicks, or if you’re desperate enough, the Alien vs. Predator movies. They might not be the best films, but no one could ever argue that both monsters are iconic, the stuff of nightmares, and still scary after all these years. What about Gremlins? both the cute Mogwai and the scaly Gremlins are monsters, and I’ve learned nothing from the movies because I want one of each. And if you’re really scared of monsters and horror movies, you could always watch something a little safer, like Monsters Inc.. It still counts, and it’s still good.
Movies just wouldn’t be the same without monsters on the screen. We’ve always had them and we always will. Their faces change from time to time, and they get updated as special effects technology advances, but they’re still just as primal as they’ve always been. Exploitation cinema owes the monster a debt of gratitude for all the spilled popcorn and sweaty hands held in the darkness of theaters, so this Junesploitation, enjoy the terrors that live at the corner of your imagination. Movies wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without them.