Ever since a giant ape ascended the Empire State building and swatted down a squadron’s worth of bi-planes, nature – specifically animals – running wild(er than usual) has been a staple trope for filmmakers with fantastic bents. Along with Kong, Hitchcock’s The Birds and Spielberg’s Jaws rep not only some of the bigger creative accomplishments in genre filmmaking but the whole of cinema itself – and all three revolve around Mother Nature’s creations kickin’ ass and takin’ names.
Beyond the big dogs referenced above, there are legions of smaller pics out there focused on animals running amuck – some good, some maybe even great – and others not so much. With this ScreenAnarchy-O-Meter, we’ll focus on the good. The following might not be tenets of the sub-genre, but each offers something special.
Long Weekend - Colin (one “L”) Eggleston’s hypnotic slow-burn shocker tracks a couple, on the downward slope of their relationship, vacationing at a seclude beach populated by creatures sick and tired of callous attitudes toward their well-being. Weekend works its creepy magic focusing more on the disintegrating bonds between its characters than anything overtly supernatural, dropping in strange one-off incidents which build upon one another between well-written, intelligently performed exchanges. Generally insensitive toward their surroundings but not out-and-out environmental villains, spiteful marrieds Peter and Marcia being targeted marks the film’s message as all the more chilling – in the end even if one is culpable for harming the earth only to a degree, punishments metered out won’t be in kind. A wonderful special edition DVD from Synapse is the best way to catch this minor lost classic.
Mimic - Del Toro’s first English-language film probably remains his least-heralded, for no real good reason; it’s a blast. Roaches bred to help eradicate a virus laying waste to Manhattan’s underage denizens outlive their programmed lifespan, growing to monstrous sizes and developing appetites to boot, able to take on the visages of men as they shuffle about dirty subway stops and darkened street corners. Infused with equal doses of humor and horror and bolstered by a clutch of game performances from a memorable roster of then-up-and-comers (Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Josh Brolin) and fine character actors (including Giancarlo Gianinni and Charles S. Dutton), the film bucks along at a high clip and draws to a wonderfully icky dénouement set in an abandoned sea of subway tunnels. A long-rumor special edition DVD has yet to surface, though with Del Toro’s clout rising sky-high in the last year here’s hoping it happens soon.
Razorback - another helping of Mother Nature coming home to roost courtesy of the Aussies. Once-upon-a-time wunderkind Russel Mulcahy bathes his tale of a killer warthog running roughshod through the Outback in discordant ambience, incorporating incredibly inventive violent setpieces and meticulous design elements that could make Argento jealous to give the proceedings a unique otherworldly vibe from start to finish. Following a spate of characters whose lives intersect in the wake of the disappearance of an American journalist and who must confront the killer monstrosity on the loose lest they wind up vanished themselves, the film’s atypical rhythms and fully-developed characters come courtesy of Long Weekend screenwriter Everett De Roche. Dueling special editions – one available in the U.K. (courtesy of Anchor Bay) and one in Australia – offer options in terms of special features.
Nightwing - David Warner and Nick Mancuso Jr. battle swarms of angry bats, summoned forth by an Indian rite in response to construction projects encroaching on sacred ground. What the hell else do you want out of life? Arthur Hiller’s suspenser is surprisingly sensitive in its portrayal of Native American customs and culture, offering crisp action throughout (to say nothing of dazzling location photography across the American southwest) and developing its characters enough to move a notch or two beyond the throngs of nature-gone-wild pics that populated ‘70s-era bijous (The Long Dark Night, Grizzly, Shriek of the Mutilated, etc.). A lost gem long-ago discontinued on VHS and laserdisc, definitely deserving of a digital re-visit.
Alligator - Still riding Jaws’ wake in 1980, one of the best-ever b-movies finds a pet alligator flushed away as a baby and feeding on drugged-up animal carcasses in the sewers, growing to an enormous size, and wrecking all manner of havoc throughout Chicago. I’d call it “proper,” but then I’m not very hip. Scripter John Sayles imbues his characters and situations with oddball energy, constantly spinning knowing laughs from an admittedly goofy, unbelievable premise. The great Robert Forster appears to have a ball as perpetually harried detective Dave Madison. Sayles previously mined nature’s mean streak with Piranha and would touch on similar themes later with The Howling. Only sporadically available since the digital shift, Alligator comes packaged with its lackluster-sequel in an otherwise spiffy two-disc set via Anchor Bay U.K.
There are a host of other pics out there to consider (including The Host!), and thanks at least to the Sci-Fi Channel there always will be. What are some of your favorites and least-likeds? And is there any love for Boa Vs. Python out there aside from mine – the great David Hewlett fights giant snakes and Angel Boris? Now that’s good times, DTV-style.