Bug-Eyed Nostalgia

Anchor Bay Canada’s recent release of R.W. Goodwin’s Alien Trespass (2009) had me recalling a pair of similar efforts that capture the essence of monster B-movies, and celebrate somewhat differing genre elements.

This isn’t to negate the impact and continuing attraction of the classic Universal monsters triumvirate – the Wolf Man, Dracula, the Mummy - that debuted in the thirties, and were beaten to death in several sequels and crossover films over the next ten or so years, but there are several reasons why fifties and sixties monster and alien films are still cherished by ongoing generations.

From a technological angle, the fifties were partly about new toys that changed the lifestyles of ordinary families, and that sense of society being improved through science is something we still share, as are new forms of communications and entertainment. Even the portability of entertainment – portable radios and TVs, 16mm film projectors – could be regarded as antecedents of MP3 players, iPhones and other portable digital media players.

But more than in later decades, the new suburban lifestyle was repeatedly portrayed as the ideal. For storytellers, that strange perfection seemed to mandate some kind of threat, and it was natural that nuclear mutants and alien invaders became the key antagonists and threats to suburban society. These threats offered no benefits; it was total destruction and annihilation of the human species, as well as all the religious and cultural goodies that were tied to the Perfect Life.

Bugs eat people. Aliens kill people and destroy entire civilizations. Nuclear bombs create monsters from ordinary backyard bugs, slugs, and rodents. Unlucky humans exposed to radiation would glow in the dark, went mad, and created explosions that damaged or destroyed our beloved technological infrastructure.

The forties still had a kind of rural feel, but the surburbanized fifties and their nuclear family units were modern.

Kids were growing up in a schizophrenic world where life was supposed to be good, but monsters were everywhere. If you lived in a remote desert town, you were far more likely to be killed by an alien craft or giant slabs of monolithic crystals. Or mole creatures would burrow up from the depths. Maybe your cousin would start acting funny when a full moon was out, or perhaps a doctor, once a trusted member of society and guarantor of your passport – abducted youths and turned them into monsters through weird transplants.

The world was supposed to be better after WWII, but the Soviets were threatening the free world and competing with America’s own military goodies. With space penetrated by the Reds and Sputnik, the planet was doomed unless something could be done.

Were the monsters exciting distractions for kids wanting to escape dour news reports of spies and un-American behaviour?

If the nuclear family was the ideal, why were so many creatures trying to kill it?

If science could cure age-old plagues, why was a man condemned to shrink until he became one with the atom, and then disappear into oblivion?

The three films I chose to showcase present very different nostalgic views of monster films and their inhuman threats.

Alien Trespass (2009) is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the clichés and silly cinematic behaviour of humans when an alien ship crashes in the desert. Borrowing from several classic sci-fi films, the plot celebrates the style, flaming Technicolor brilliance, and character clichés of the fifties (including nerdy, egghead scientists), but with a tangible affection for them all. More interesting is the filmmakers’ decision to publicize Alien Trespass not as an homage, but as a lost artifact from 1957.

Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993) is set in 1962, but it’s told from the angle of teens already familiar with monster movies from their childhood during the late fifties, and their gradual sway towards darker material, like thrillers made by an auteur named Lawrence Woolsey.

Patterned after William Castle, the film’s writers made their fictional ‘Master of Suspense’ a brand name, much in the way Alfred Hitchcock sold his film and TV productions through voice, caricatures, and signature music, but Woolsey is quite different from Castle in one major way: he has yet to be influenced by Hitchcock and make the kind of mystery thrillers Castle derived during the early sixties - Castle’s cinematic heyday.

And yet the posters in the theatre where Woolsey’s latest film, “Mant,” is set for a sneak preview, are of more mature thrillers, like Panic in Year Zero (released in 1962), so there are a number of things converging in Dante’s film: there’s the tribute to fifties monster movies and classic carny showmanship, and a subtle lament as older teens catch the films more for laughs than thrills because the monsters feel dated, and aren’t as scary as the real effects of nuclear war being dramatized in dour films like Panic in Year Zero.

Monster movies were being superseded by tales tied to more newsworthy dangers, and the idyllic nuclear family was showing cracks from contemporary social ills – single parent families, alcoholism, spousal abuse, child abuse, and less trust for the neighbours who used to be regarded as extensions of an urbanized, street-long family. The fear wasn’t that the mom of your next-door friend may have married a Commie, and was now mutating into an alligator, but of a spy selling secrets to an evil empire set on burying your city with a grand nuclear salvo.

How could a giant bug or monkey compete with that?

It couldn’t, and as thrillers about homicidal ax-wielding mothers (Castle’s 1961 shocker Homicidal) and cross-dressing serial killers overtook monsters (Hitchcock’s Psycho), the only place aliens and big bugs could survive was the realm of Z-grade schlock, often made by hacks who possessed rudimentary filmmaking skills. The product was aimed solely at the drive-in, it was a bit riskier with sex and violence, or was made so cheap to ensure the most money possible was earned up front before fast word-of-mouth told other potential moviegoers the film stunk like rotting potatoes.

Larry Blamire’s Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001) celebrates cinematic ineptitude, incoherent plotting, bizarre characters, and el cheapo production values to such perfection that is can’t transcend the nature of schlock into something less awful. It’s a niche film for fans of vintage abysmal filmmaking. Like Alien Trespass, there are aliens and a mutant on the loose, but by adopting the same primitive style and technical sophistication of an Ed Wood, Jr., it tends to grate much like the interminable The Astounding She-Monster (1957).

Alien Trespass celebrates the genre’s highpoint, Matinee its gradual demise, and Cadavra satirizes the low points as the remaining practitioners were not film school newbies, but rejects who knew how to turn on the camera, but often forgot to load the film magazine.

The directors and writers of these nostalgia trips grew up on the original monster films during their runs in theatres and TV airings, whereas the sensibilities from younger filmmakers are noticeably different.

The 2001 remake of Earth vs. the Spider combined visual elements from several decades to upgrade the B-movie plot and character archetypes, whereas Eight Legged Freaks (2002) took the concept of a mutant bug infestation threatening mankind and transposed it to a modern (albeit desert) locale where the onslaught of spiders and humanity’s last stand was goofy – something completely absent in classic bug fodder like Them! (1954).

And then there’s Ron Underwood’s Tremors (1990), which felt like a vintage monster film, but was populated by a crop of oddball townspeople reminiscent of small-town TV sitcoms.

It’s also worth pondering how Matinee would’ve been different had Dante’s contemporary, Steven Spielberg, taken a poke at the story, but then one only need examine Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), which Spielberg supervised as a vehicle for a quartet of filmmakers with differing styles making their own nostalgic tribute to an early sixties TV series rooted in seen and unseen monsters.

Dante went for eerie chaos, dark and surreal characters, and a cartoon finale that wasn’t really resolved, whereas Spielberg’s tale dealt with a group of seniors’ seething desire to regress as children, and run wild and free in a preposterous fantasyland where a kid could play forever, and never worry about disintegrating dirty clothes, stealing food, or getting tetanus from rusty fences.

Nostalgia’s a tricky thing to pull off…



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