by Patrick Bromley and Heather Wixson
Patrick: Ever since I can remember, I've loved monsters. They were my gateway into horror -- not slashers, not ghosts, not killer animals or giant bugs. Monsters. Specifically, the classic Universal Monsters and their countless spin-offs. I think the first monster I was ever really, really drawn to was the Wolfman in almost any form: Jack Pierce's design for Lon Chaney Jr. in the original Universal classic, Henry Hull's makeup in Werewolf of London -- even the one in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. These were the pictures I would pore over again and again as I obsessively looked through the pages of the monster books I checked out in a constant rotation from our local library.
Silver Bullet. They really skimped on that thing.
How about you? What's one of your favorite monsters in the "classic" category?
Heather: I think because one of my very first movies was An American Werewolf in London, that's a big reason why I was always so drawn to monster-centric horror movies. They fascinated me endlessly, and I never could get enough. I grew up watching more of the modern classic monster movies before I really started to watch the Universal Monster Movies, and there's no doubt that they're a big reason why I have such an appreciation for special effects. I can remember the very first time I watched the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and it was truly a turning point for me as a fan -- it was like mainstream pop culture embracing something I loved, and that didn't happen very often. I can still remember when my best friend's dad brought home the "Thriller" VHS tape, and after the music video, they had this really in-depth making-of featurette afterwards that I must have watched it 50 times over the next month. I was obsessed. It's when I realized just what exactly "special effects" were, and that's when it also clicked that the director of AAWIL was also directing this music video, and I think that's when I realized you could almost start "following" these directors' careers (all before the internet was a thing), and I remember making a list of like 10 horror directors, and started seeking out everything they did in the genre. Of course, that's when I realized that John Landis did way more comedy work than horror, but I still counted him amongst my favorite "horror" directors (and still do).
To me, monsters always represented the best and worst of humanity. Sometimes they are "us," where we live vicariously through them and watch as they begin to enjoy their unyielding powers and abilities, and sometimes they are the embodiment of our very worst fears, which I think is why monster movies in particular are so fascinating. They've always been so multi-faceted, and there's so much you can do with them beyond just trying to scare viewers.
Mummy podcast, is that over the last 30 years or so, cinematic monsters have become these really cool anti-heroes in a way, shifting away from these figures we feared, and transforming into these characters we celebrate, which maybe ties into how audiences' sensibilities have changed over the years. And because I never do anything the right way, my first Universal Monster Movie was actually Son of Frankenstein, which is probably why it's always been my favorite, and I think after seeing it, that set me on my course to see as many of the Universal films as I could. To this day though, I've still yet to see Creature From the Black Lagoon the entire way through, which I will hopefully rectify some day. I guess I've always just been more of a vampire/werewolf gal (although one of my very favorite stories about a human monster is The Phantom of the Opera and I will watch endless cinematic adaptations of it until the end of time) so those were always the types of movies I gravitated towards at the video store as a kid.
And yeah, that Silver Bullet werewolf is a bummer. I wish Daniel Attias had stood his ground more about wanting more of a "wolf-like" lycanthrope, because it's truly the only weak spot in that entire film. Although I do still think the reverse transformation scene at the end is totally rad, and you can never go wrong with Everett McGill.
But monster movies were always a kind of comfort food for me as a kid, and I think that's why I still enjoy them as much as I do now. Did they offer you the same kind of escape, or was your connection to them something altogether different?
Patrick: Weirdly enough, I consider slasher movies to be my comfort food of the horror genre. Monster movies are something else. Like you and I have talked about a bunch of times, one of the great things about horror is how malleable it is; within the genre, there are so many sub-genres and ways of approaching the material that it's rarer than most people think to get the same thing twice. That's even true of monster movies, which take so many forms and so many incarnations that even the term "monster movies" is almost too limiting. I think I've been drawn to them because a) my love of creature makeup and practical special effects is a big, big part of why I've always loved the horror genre, and monster movies tend to do this stuff better than most other kinds of horror movies and b) I tend to gravitate towards the more imaginative side of the horror genre, and that's where monster movies live. I can enjoy and appreciate the more "realistic" horror films -- often about the absolute darkest shit, serial killers and human monsters -- but my favorites are often the ones that take place in a world that's larger than life. Monsters are all about the impossible, and there's escapism in that.
What are some more of your favorite monsters? And what is it that makes a great movie monster to you?
Heather: I think my favorite thing about monsters is something you sort of touched on in what you just mentioned. Sometimes, monsters are things we fear, like Xenomorphs, or Predators, or whatever "The Thing" decides to morph into next, but then there's a class of creatures that you can't help but empathize with, like Toxie, Brundlefly, Frankenstein's Monster, or King Kong (and I could go on and on). And I think that's what makes monsters so fascinating, because for the most part, we aren't asked as viewers to sympathize with the serial killers in slasher movies, because they're breaking a moral code. Sometimes monsters can't help that they're monsters, which brings me to probably my favorite modern classic monster movie: Nightbreed.
I guess the Cenobites in Hellraiser could technically be considered monsters, but for me, Clive Barker's definitive exploration of monster mythos has and always will be Nightbreed. Yes, I know it was unfortunately something Morgan Creek couldn't understand at the time, so they "slashered" it all up with Cronenberg's character, Doctor Decker. And don't get me wrong, I'm always be up for Cronenberg in his button-meets-burlap mask - and I was terrified of him growing up - but the biggest appeal to me was always the world of Midian. And Clive found a way to make those "monstrosities" far more human than the human characters in the film, and I guess that's why I've always been so fascinated with Nightbreed. Plus, with all of the distinctive beasties he filled that world with, it makes me all the happier that the director's cut now exists, because we get so much more of those characters (plus some weird sex scenes too). Oh and Monster Aaron is way hotter than Normal Aaron (all hail Craig Sheffer).
I'm not sure if he counts, but the aforementioned Brundlefly from Cronenberg's The Fly is also a personal favorite. And not just because Jeff Goldblum is absolutely amazing in the film, and he truly deserved all the awards for his performance either. But the way the transformation of the creature progresses is haunting, and heartbreaking, making Chris Walas' work a perfectly blended design that mixes sci-fi and realism.
The Monster gets pretty close (although I wish you could see the titular creature in that more, because what you can see is pretty damned impressive).
Do you prefer the monsters you sympathize with, or want to root for, or do you prefer your cinematic beasts with some distance to them? Through this dialogue, I realize I prefer the former to the latter, but I'm curious if you've ever made the distinction between the two types for yourself.
Patrick: That's a really good question! My immediate reaction is to say that I like monsters as villains, because part of the cathartic joy of horror for me is watching regular people (with whom I can presumably identify) vanquishing cool ass creatures and saving the day. If I were to write out a list of all my favorite horror movies, I suspect most of them would fall into this camp. At the same time, though, I'm with you in having a great deal of affection for movies in which the monster is sympathetic. I wanted to make the case that the "sympathetic monster" genre only exists and works in relation to the more traditional "evil monster" genre -- that Nightbreed works because it's a response to years of movies in which the monsters are the villains -- but that argument falls apart as soon as I remember that Frankenstein is one of the first horror movies ever made (yes, I know, "but the book") and pretty much establishes that template.
On the one hand, I do think these sympathetic monster movies work best because we're so used to seeing creatures that look like them play evil in most movies -- they subvert our expectations and suggest there's more to some of these monsters than what we're normally used to. But I also think that, as lifelong horror fans, there's something especially appealing about these kinds of monster movies. Of COURSE we identify with the freak. Of COURSE we side with the monster. As kids who were always made to feel a little weird or deviant because of the thing we love, it only makes sense to watch something like Nightbreed and think "DAMN RIGHT the monsters are the heroes who just want to be left alone in their freak society." Also, is it wrong that I think that porcupine monster is super foxy? Does this say something about me?
Heather: I think as a kid, monsters were my way of challenging myself. That's why I would watch movies like The Howling, The Thing, Alien, Basket Case, Salem's Lot or even Gremlins (which kept me far away from any kind of machines in my house for several months after seeing it) because I wanted to push myself. To me, that's what horror was when I was younger: a chance to show I was "brave" and could handle anything that a horror movie would throw at me while I was watching it. As I got older, and realized that the things I was passionate about (like horror and wrestling) made me something of an outcast in relation to most of my friends and family, and I think that's when things shifted for me and I realized that on a personal level, I had a lot in common with the horror genre.
I also think the other big shift for me, when it came to how I viewed monsters, was The Monster Squad itself. I already was in love with Frankenstein's Monster, but Tom Noonan's performance in that film made me fall in love with the creature all over again (I will totally cop to crying the first time I saw it when he's sucked into the vortex). Dracula was fierce and terrifying (especially when he manhandles little Phoebe), The Wolf Man was so cool, and the Gill-Man and the Mummy both were amazing designs that made me really appreciate those characters too, as I really had never been a fan of either until then. Fred Dekker made those monsters feel like they were something to be revered and respected, but they were still scary (for kids), and I think that was when I realized monsters were pretty damned awesome.
Patrick: For me it would have to be a monster that's stupid and without much personality. So maybe a C.H.U.D.? Or the worms in Squirm. That's me.
To your point about The Monster Squad, that movie is proof positive that the films that make us love monsters are the ones that do them right -- that show them the proper respect, that give them dimension or that actually make them scary. I struggle a little bit these days when I don't like a modern horror movie simply because it has monsters in it, which sometimes seems like the general consensus online. Don't get me wrong; I would rather see a movie with monsters than a movie without, but I'd rather see a movie with monsters done well most of all. The movies we've name-checked here all do monsters well. They're the ones that keep us loving the genre.
Thanks for talking monsters with me, Heather! I sure hope everyone buys and reads your book Monster Squad: Celebrating the Artists Behind Cinema's Most Memorable Creatures when it's (hopefully) released later this year!
Happy #Junesploitation, everyone!