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HORROR TEN SPOT: My Favorite Man Vs. Animal Flicks

01.27.2012by: Jake Dee

The world's newfound geriatric action hero, Liam Nesson, continues his ass-kicking ways this weekend in Joe Carnahan's THE GREY. The film, falling firmly under the man-vs-animal survivalist subgenre, has been garnering far better reviews than you might expect from a late January release. I know The Arrow (read his review) and E.Dub loved it, as did our gal Marcey. But if their endorsements aren't enough to make you want to run out catch THE GREY in theaters, we thought it might help if we highlight the best of its contemporaries. Or, if more accurate, its predecessors. We all know the man-vs-animal motif is an ancient old one, done to great effect in some examples, laughably gauche in others. The following countdown fetes the former...from Hitchcock to Spielberg...from the words of Mamet to William Goldman...here now are the Top Ten cinematic man-vs-animal efforts. Enjoy!

#10. ALLIGATOR (1980)

Robert Forster squaring off with a 'roided-up super-gator? Or should I say sewer-gator? Good gravy this shite rocks! Scripted by the great John Sayles, Lewis Teague's 1980 film ALLIGATOR perhaps incorporates a tad more of the science-fiction than the bulk of our remaining list. You see, the film is about a baby alligator that, after subsuming a raft of discarded lab-rats that have been pumped full of growth hormone, exponentially morphs into a giant killing machine with a taste for human blood. The big bastard finds its way up to the city streets, and it becomes up to Forster and his squad to quash the urban rampage at once. Part of the appeal, genuinely and mockingly, comes from the hindrance of the animatronic alligator. Much like Bruce in JAWS, the gator rarely worked correctly, forcing Teague to film far less of it, around it, and from its own POV as a way to heighten the suspense. Teague's no Spielberg, that's for sure, but ALLIGATOR remains a fun little B-movie.

#9. PROPHECY (1979)

I blind bought John Frankenheimer's PROPHECY at Big Lots for $3 a couple years ago, watched it with my roommate one night, had a pretty damn good time with the 70s style eco-monster-movie. Considering this, paired with the fact the film has a title easily confused with the angelic Chris Walken horror movies, I felt like throwing this goofy fucker some love. I mean come on...a mutated bear-pig-creature on a dizzying death-spree? What's wrong with that? Elevating beyond a mere throwaway monster movie, PROPHECY's stance on environmental consciousness and eco-awareness was quite a prescient topic to mine back in the late 70s. Ahead of its time, you could say! The film points a finger at industrial waste and its ecological impacts...the exaggerated exhortation of which seems to posit that you will die a most gruesome and horrendous death if you comply with the polluting ways. A heavy-handed allegory, sure, but a damn fun lesson worth learning!

#8. CUJO (1983)

Although I do appreciate the abject absurdity of MAN'S BEST FRIEND a tad more, there's no denying how effective CUJO's when-animals-attack premise actually registers. So much of the terror derives from the ostensibly comfortable. We love dogs, feel safe around them, even protected. But when those feelings of security are subverted into something far more threatening, the horror of the situation is driven home like few others. It's an intimate terror, punctuated by the knowledge that an animal you once cared for so greatly, who seemingly returned the love, could pull such a heinous 180 of disloyalty and want to end your life. Props goes to the architect, Stephen King, who laid the rich character groundwork that allows us as readers/viewers to identify with the fucked up situation. Shout out to director Lewis Teague as well, our only repeat offender, for drawing fine performances from children, adults and animals alike.

#7. THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (1996)

Faults aside, I've always enjoyed Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas tracking down the deleterious duo of man-eating lions in THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS. Perhaps it's the true story on which the film is based, or the exotic African locations (filmed gorgeously by Vilmos Zsigmond), perhaps it's the script by all time great William Goldman. In conjunction with all three I'm sure, what I really like about the film is the way director Stephen Hopkins handled the material like a period-drama, as opposed to a cheap throwaway horror flick. The terror and suspense in the film feels organic and germane to the story...it never feels manipulative or over-calculated. Sure Michael Douglas goes over the top, but bouncing off of Kilmer's reserved performance actually lends a nice balance here. The lion attacks - done viscerally and authentically - were achieved with the use of real lions, save for a single animatronic shot. No bullshit, no artifice. Pretty damn impressive!

#6. ARACHNOPHOBIA (1990)

Needing nary extra incentive to watch anything starring John Goodman, I've always taken a shine to the skin-scrawling horror-comedy ARACHNOPHOBIA. The shite just works, largely because it plays to such a universal fear we can all empathize with...that of creepy crawly mothaf*ckin' spiders. Most impressive though, this shite was made before the days of rampant CGI and lazy digitizing, with real spiders used instead. Two varieties to be specific, one a harmless Aussie species known as Avondale (the smaller spiders seen), and the other (the giant spider in the finale) a rare bird-eating species of Tarantula that actually clamps quite a brutal bite. Perhaps more than the practical though, it's all about the tone of the film. So deftly blended is the humor, suspense and chills that you don't even mind the film is rated PG-13. It doesn't matter. Fine performances from Jeff Daniels and my man Goodman keep the shite fresh more than 20 years later!

#5. PIRANHA (1978/2010)

Take your pick...you can either opt for the semi-serious 70s version by Joe Dante, or the unabashedly trashy redo by Alexandre Aja...neither could really be omitted from the list. I hold a nostalgic soft spot for the former, produced by Roger Corman, scripted by John Sayles and starring the great Kevin McCarthy. The practical FX, however cheesy and low-rent, are definitely the type I prefer. Aja overplays the CG in the 2010 remake, and while I appreciated the heightened camp and kitsch (Kelly Brooke and Riley Steele specifically), the intentional "it's-so-bad-it's-good" approach is a novelty at best. I dug the film in theaters when it came out, as it encourages the type of laughable midnight movie experience, but at home alone, on the smaller screen, the movie is far less effective. It really doesn't hold up upon repeated viewings. Still, both versions are among the few films on our list that doesn't take itself (too) seriously, and for that change of pace, PIRANHA deserves rank.

#4. ORCA (1977)

Of the countless spate of JAWS imposters, one might consider ORCA the finest. Seriously, how many shameless B-movie rip-offs today would score talent on par with Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling? A director like Michael Anderson? Few, to be sure. A tale of vengeance set in the sea, it's essentially the storyline so often lambasted in JAWS 4, but again, with such sure-handed acting and directing, the film isn't perpetually on IMDB's bottom 100 list. Part of this is also attributed to the real stock footage used in the film...of two Marine World orcas from Redwood City, California (one of two towns I used to watch theatrical movies in growing up). The real footage was mixed with shots of an animatronic whale filmed in Malta and Newfoundland. The result has a gritty realism, as evidenced by the animal rights activists who blocked truck-paths to stop whales from being transported. Little did they know the whales were fake. With Will Sampson, Bo Derek and Robert Carradine on support, ORCA is killer indeed!

#3. THE EDGE (1997)

Perhaps a guilty pleasure, I make no bones about being an apologist for Lee Tamahori's THE EDGE. In fact, I believe the superb killer-bear film was among the first ten DVDs I bought back in the late 90s. I love this shite! Props must be shed to Mr. Pulitzer Prize himself, David Mamet, who crafted as much an intricate character study as he did a visceral, outdoorsy Darwinian tale of only the strongest surviving. The interplay between Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin is pretty damn special, particularly when you consider the characters' motivations. Remember, Baldwin was diddling Hopkins' wife in the film, and had every intention of offing the genius billionaire in the woods...with every opportunity to get away with it. Thing is, Baldwin needed the knowledge and expertise of Hopkins' character in order to make it out of the wild alive. The last line of the film, delivered with great pathos by Hopkins, is what makes the film so special. "My friends...they died saving my life." A touching moment from a genre that hardly needs one.

#2. THE BIRDS (1963)

After shocking the world by brutally offing his leading lady in PSYCHO, Hitchcock followed up with a technically far more ambitious film in THE BIRDS. 370 F/X shots were employed in total, with the final attack scene in the upstairs bedroom taking a full week to achieve (to which actress Tippi Hedren claimed was "the worst week of my life.") No easy feat. Also, it's worth noting that, after creating such an indelible musical score in PSYCHO, Hitch agreed to follow Bernard Herman's cue by using no score at all in THE BIRDS. Obviously, this not only creates a creepy quietness, it in turn adds to the authenticity of the piece...we never get musical stings or audio jump-scares that remind us we're watching a movie. A nice touch! As for trivia, the schoolhouse seen in the film was said to be haunted...Hitch loved this notion, Hedren was mortified. Also, one considered ending of the film would have shown the Golden Gate Bridge completely covered in birds. What a terrifying image that would have been.

#1. JAWS (1975)

It's been awhile since one of our Horror Spots ended with Spielberg's landmark exercise in aquatic-terror, but let's face it, the return of JAWS was a mere inevitability. Fuck, how many ways can you fete a single film? Not only was JAWS the progenitor of the modern-day blockbuster...one that still has more heart and soul and than any (or many) of its sad successors and limp imitators...it's exemplary in almost every facet you can think of. As an adaptation from a literary source, check! As a benchmark for acting in a giant spectacle driven film? Check! As an engaging underwater action-adventure? Double check! Move on down the line: from the photography of Bill Butler, to the searing score of John Williams, to the sublime editing of Verna Fields in her last film credit...all of these things collide and collude to form an untouchable synecdoche of film bliss. The only thing better than the film itself? The fact Spielberg and company have not tried to sequelize or remake the film since the 1987 abomination that is JAWS: THE REVENGE (full disclosure, I like part 4 better than 3-D).

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